Steps of Quixote


The great white giants with arms now down quietly by their side stood guard in a line up on the hill. His faithful companion Sancho Panza constantly told Don Quixote “Look you that what we see there are not giants but only windmills.”

The Don whose mind was in an imaginary world picked a fight with one of the giants, even though it was in reality just a windmill. Cervantes’s hero had a tenuous grip on reality and his adventures when travelling through the Castile-La-Mancha district of Spain were only partly in body and mostly in his deranged mind. Although it is only a short drive from the bustling capital Madrid, much of La Mancha seems trapped in the medieval time of Cervantes and getting off the major autopistas (motorways) you can savour a Spain that time seems to have left behind.

Toledo is the most visited of the cities in La Mancha and it is a lived in museum of Hispanic history. It was an important focus and capital for all of the major invaders into Spain. The Romans, the Visigoths and the Moors have all been here and left their considerable influence on the art and architecture in this historical treasure chest. It was the capital of Spain until the 1560s when Philip II moved the capital to Madrid.

Even then it remained the most important Iberian cultural and religious centre until the 1700s. A trading city dealing mainly in silk, wools and ceramics it was one of the richest cities in Europe at the time. For many years, inspite of the religious intolerance of the Spanish and their Inquisition, three ethnically distinct communities were to live together in the city. Christians, Jews and Moslems lived side by side and made the city one of the great seats of learning. The Toledo School of Translators translated great philosophical and scientific tracts from Arabic and Hebrew into Latin and Castilian Spanish.

The best way to see the city is on foot and to take a day or so to wander about. The huge gothic cathedral is the most famous and spectacular of Toledan edifices with an interior filled with baroque and Mudejar influenced designs. Toledo remains the most important city of Catholic Spain as the primate is located here in the cathedral and in a throwback to the medieval the Mozoarabic (Christian Arabic) mass is still celebrated. The religious festivals at Holy Week (Semana Santa) and Corpus Christi are celebrated in the streets of Toledo with great pomp and ceremony.

Walking through ancient streets that are too narrow for cars will take you over cobblestone that Domenikos Theotocopoulos (whom the Spaniard cleverly called El Greco) walked on three hundred years ago. Born in Crete, El Greco moved to Toledo in 1577 and he lived there for most of his life. Many of his paintings can be seen in the various churches and buildings around the city. The best views of the city and the Tagus river gorge are from the Parador. It is not recommended that you try and take one of the damascene swords that are made here through airport security.

The La Mancha windmills are probably the most poignant image of the Castile-La-Mancha region. The windmills on the hill that Don Quixote thought were giants are in Campo de Criptana in the heart of the Castile La Mancha district of Spain. Not many of them are in working order. The eleven windmills that straddle the hill at Consuegra are probably the most spectacularly located. From the hill you can look down on the castle and the La Mancha plains that stretch off as far as the eye can see.

Further east Cuenca is a delightful town on the top of a steep spur above the two gorges of the sister rivers Huecar and Jucar. Royalty used to frequent the famous 14th century hanging houses or colgadas in the summer.

The wooden balconies are suspended in mid air over the edge of the precipitous gorge. Crossing the bridge over the gorge is not to be recommended to the vertiginous but the view of the river below is spectacular. The central Plaza Mayor is dominated by the12th century cathedral’s gothic façade. Inside the cathedral, there are two El Grecos and some modern stained glass windows that look decidedly out of place.

In one of the hanging houses, you can visit the brilliant Spanish Abstract Art Museum, which is especially good if you are a fan of Antonio Tapies and his ilk. Opening hours are on strange Spanish time. It will invariably be shut for siesta time during most of the middle of the day just when it is the ideal time to duck into a cooled museum building and escape the midday heat.

Sitting at one of the restaurant tables in the plaza and tucking into a lunch of gazpacho (cold spicy tomato soup), calamares fritos (fried calamari) and washed down with a cerveza (beer) is as pleasant a way to spend some time. On Sundays, there is a small market of local art in the central plaza right in front of the cathedral. When I was there the artists were scrambling around trying to keep canvasses upright that were being crashed on the cobbles by a swirling and gusting wind.

La Mancha is not notorious for its culinary excellence by Spanish standards. Simple rabbit or game stews are typical fare. A Spanish ratatouille called pisto is a Veggie option.

The sheep’s milk hard Manchego cheese, saffron and Toledan marzipan are the most delicious products of the region. The vast vineyards of La Mancha produce an incredible variety of wines, but the Valdepenas region that straddles the Andalucian border produces the best stuff.

Staying in a Parador is the ultimate treat for those who visit Spain. Paradors are state-run luxury hotels that are situated in restored castle, palaces or monasteries. Two of the most magnificent Paradors in Spain are in La Mancha. In the northern part of the state, the Siguenza parador is a restored castle.

This Visigothic and Moorish fortress is on the top of a hill up a steep cobbled street that winds it way up from the centre of town. The parador at Cuenca, with great views of the hanging houses and the river Huecar gorge, is in a converted 16th century San Pablo convent.

Miguel de Cervantes was born in the La Mancha town of Alcalá de Henares in 1547. He was the son of a surgeon who presented himself as a nobleman, although his mother was actually a descendant of Jewish converts to Christianity and not a member of the upper classes at all.

Cervantes was the father of Spanish literature, but he could also have been the father of the modern day spin-doctors. His life history reads like the pages of an exaggerated adventure novel with only one hero – himself. Using propaganda and his obvious talent to spin a good fable, he cultured a caricature of himself that portrayed his own heroic deeds throughout his life, particularly when he fought at the Battle of Lepanto and how he extricated himself from prison in Algeria.

He spent much of his life in prison for embezzlement and not paying debts and he claims he wrote his most famous novel when locked up in Seville. He also claims to have been a tax collector for the Armada at one stage. It is impossible to know the truth, as historic accounts of his life are vague.

The publication of Cervantes novel is often heralded as marking the start of the new Modern Age. As Don Quixote set off on his travels to see the world, he left the darkness of the Middle Ages behind him to search for a bright new future. There is a Cervantes trail to places mentioned in the novel.

The Don was knighted in the inn at Puerta Lapice, which he thought was a castle. There is another adventure at the cave at Cueva de Montesinos. According to Quijote’s warped version of events, the nearby lakes of Lagunas de la Ruidera were created when a magician transformed a Mistress Ruidera and her nieces into lakes.

El Toboso is the home of the “beautiful” Dulcinea, with whom he was passionately obsessed, and you can visit her home, which has been restored in Renaissance style. Her beauty was not legendary and she was in fact rather unlucky in that department being a rather plain maid, although in the mind of the Don she was the most beautiful of princesses.

The real Dulcinea was not at all interested in the Don’s attentions and it seems he was again just tilting at windmills.



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