“I saw the great gold plains, the arid and mystical distances, where the sun rose up like a butcher each morning and left curtains of blood each night.” Laurie Lee – ‘As I walked out one Sunny Morning
The temperature was dropping by a few degrees each day and the next morning was very chilly indeed when we returned once more to the Plaza Mayor for breakfast at the same little restaurant/bar. The food was simple but satisfying and after filling ourselves up with toast and a sort of tomato puree and/or marmalade topping we set off across the great plain of La Mancha in an easterly direction towards the city of Cuenca.
La Mancha is an arid but fertile, elevated plateau of central Spain, the largest in the Iberian Peninsula, stretching almost two hundred kilometres between the Montes de Toledo and the western spurs of the Cerros de Cuenca. People here say that it is far from the sea, far from the mountains but close to the sky! On average it is six hundred metres above sea level and the climate is continental, but with extreme weather fluctuations.
This is one of the most sparsely populated areas of Spain and agriculture is the primary economic activity, principally wheat, barley, oats and vines, but it is severely restricted by the harsh environmental conditions that exist on account of its lack of rainfall, the harsh exposure to wind and sun and by the almost complete absence of trees. In fact years of neglect and lack of investment have created a serious land erosion problem on these hot dry plains.
Most tourists dash through or avoid it completely and I am making it sound dull and unappealing but I must correct that immediately because this was absolutely not the case. On the first part of our journey we negotiated a narrow road with hairpin bends and expansive views and then we dropped down to the parched flat plain. On either side of the long straight road there were gently undulating fields with the most attractive colours. Many of the fields were recovering from producing this year’s crops and others were lying fallow and this produced a stunning vista of subtle autumnal colours and variations of tone; champagne and parchment, butter yellow, canvas cream, dusty olive, grey lavender, gold and russet red all lying crushed under the burden of a vivid blue autumn sky.
I digress here for a moment but one of the most interesting crops grown in La Mancha is the autumn crocus which is the precious source of the world’s most expensive spice – Saffron, which is harvested from the dried stigma of the flower and is an essential ingredient of a Spanish paella and responsible for giving the dish its distinctive golden yellow appearance.
Now we were on the ‘Ruta de Don Quixote’ which is the golden thread that binds the Castilian tourist industry together in a ribbon of castles and windmills stretching from Cuenca to Toledo.
Don Quixote is a novel written by the seventeenth century Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and is regarded as the most influential work of literature to emerge from the Spanish Golden Age. It is the story of a man who believes that he is a knight, and recounts his adventures as he rights wrongs, mistakes peasants for princesses, and “tilts at windmills,” mistakenly believing them to be evil giants. As one of the earliest works of modern western literature, it regularly appears high on lists of the greatest works of fiction ever published. In 2002 a panel of one hundred leading world authors declared Don Quixote to be the best work of fiction ever written, ahead even of works by Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Cervantes has also been credited with shaping modern literary style, and Don Quixote has been acclaimed as “the first great novel of world literature”. Since publication in 1605 it is reputed to be the most widely read and translated book in the world after the Bible.
From Chinchón to Cuenca was a distance of about one hundred and twenty kilometres and for most of it we followed the route of a new motorway still under construction. There was barely any traffic on the original road so it left us wondering just why it was being built. For long distances there was also the new high speed railway line linking Madrid and Valencia because since the 1990s Spain has engaged in a frenzy of high-speed rail building and is fast catching up with France and Japan, the world leaders, and when completed will have the most extensive high-speed rail network in the world as the Government stitches its disparate regions together with a €100 billion system of bullet trains designed to traverse the countryside at up three hundred kilometres an hour.
After roughly half way the landscape began to change and we left behind the patchwork of fields and farmland and as we started to climb through hills it became more dramatic with steep sided hills and pine forests and busy rivers dashing madly through narrow gorges. Eventually it stopped climbing and the landscape flattened and we made our final approach into Cuenca.