Tag Archives: Don Quixote

Northern Spain – Pilgims and the Way of Saint James

Pilgrims' way Santiago de Compostella

Sir Walter Raleigh wrote:

Give me my scallop shell of quiet;
My staff of faith to walk upon;
My scrip of joy, immortal diet;
My bottle of salvation;
My gown of glory (hope’s true gage);
And then I’ll take my pilgrimage.

Burgos lies on one of the principal pilgrim routes of the Camino or the Way of Saint James and during our visit we had to share the streets and the restaurants and the hotel with dozens of foot weary walkers all sharing their hiking tales as they walked towards their ultimate objective – the city of Santiago de Compostela.

Santiago de Compostela is the capital of the autonomous region of Galicia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It is located in the most northwest region of Spain in the Province of A Coruña and it was the European City of Culture for the year 2000.  I didn’t know this but after Jerusalem and Rome it is the third most holy city in Christendom and the cathedral is the destination today, as it has been throughout history, of the important ninth century medieval pilgrimage route, the Way of St. James.

Santiago is such an important pilgrimage destination because it is considered the burial site of the apostle, James the Great.  Santiago was one of the twelve disciples and a devout follower of Christ but in 44 A.D. he became the first of Apostles to suffer martyrdom when Herod Agrippa arrested and (according to the story) personally beheaded him (this seems rather unlikely to me) in Jerusalem.   According to legend Santiago had preached for a while in Iberia prior to his execution and after his death his own disciples returned his body by boat back to the peninsula (this also seems rather unlikely).

On the way they were caught in a storm and almost certainly doomed when a ship miraculously appeared, led by an angel, to guide them to land and safety.  They buried the saint near Compostela, ‘field of stars,’ where Santiago lay forgotten for nearly eight hundred years.

The tomb was conveniently rediscovered in the ninth century in a time of great need when Christian political and military fortunes in Spain were at their lowest ebb after they had suffered defeat time and again at the hands of the Muslims, until that is God revealed the Saint’s remains, and inspired them with the confidence that he was on their side, fighting in the battlefield with them through the heroic figure of Santiago and the holy saint became a warrior.

Santiago Pilgrim

People continue to take the Pilgrim trail and there were many here in Burgos who could be instantly identified by the pilgrim staff and the symbol of the scallop shell.   The shell is the traditional symbol of the pilgrimage because the grooves in the shell, which come together at a single point, represent the various routes that pilgrims travelled, all eventually arriving at a single destination.  It is also symbolic of the pilgrim because just as the waves of the ocean wash scallop shells up on the shores of Galicia, God’s hand also guides the pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela.

I have been giving some thought to perhaps tackling the Camino myself one day and have been looking at the various different routes.  I have to say that I may have a preference for the one that starts in Plymouth in the UK because that would seem to include rather a nice cruise on a P&O ferry across the Bay of Biscay and an evening in the duty free bar followed by a just short stroll from A Coruña to Santiago de Compostela.

Way of St James

St James the Apostle is the Patron saint of Spain and if El Cid represents the secular aspects of heroism and military conquest during the Reconquista the spiritual hero representing the religious justification and the Christian ethos of the crusade against the Muslims was Santiago.  In ‘Don Quixote’ Cervantes wrote – ‘St. James the Moorslayer, one of the most valiant saints and knights the world ever had … has been given by God to Spain for its patron and protection.’  Since the reconquest ‘Santiago y cierra España’, which means St James and strike for Spain has been the traditional battle cry of Spanish armies.

The truth was that as the Northern Kingdoms began to assert themselves they needed spiritual assistance and justification and in this era of crusading reconquest there was a need for the living presence of a religious-national figure as an emblem of Christian strength and supremacy that was capable of rallying around themselves the Spanish Christian forces.   This was to be Santiago whose image fulfilled the desire of the Iberian Christians for heroes to emulate, and unite them in their struggle for political and religious independence from Muslim rule.

An important manifestation of the crusading mentality during this time was the creation of an iconic patriotic creation of Santiago and the mythical military contribution of St James to the Reconquista was the inspirational presence of the Saint on the battlefields of the peninsula.

The most famous of these was the legend surrounding the battle of Clavijo in 844, where the vastly outnumbered and demoralised Christian forces were inspired by the appearance of St James in a full suit of armour riding on a galloping white horse with a sword in the right hand and the banner of victory in the left.

Modern historians dispute that there ever was such a battle but the story goes that the night before the encounter, Santiago appeared in a dream to the leader of the Spanish forces, King Ramirez of Castile, and promised him a victory over the Muslims.  The following day, at the height of battle, the warrior-saint appeared on the battlefield, leaving behind him the defeated infidels that he has slaughtered and crushed to the ground and in front of him what remained of the terrified enemy promptly surrendered.  Thus was born the legend of Santiago Matamoros, the Moorslayer.

Burgos Pilgrims Weary

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Central Spain – The Ruta de Don Quixote

Consuegra Windmills

Don Quixote is the national glory of Spain.  No one who does not know that has the right to call himself a Spaniard.  There is a monument to him in Madrid…he was our first revolutionary.”  –  Gerald Brenan – South from Granada

My previous post described a short encounter with the Ruta de Don Quixote on a drive between the neighbouring towns of Sigüenza and Atienza but this was not the first time that we had followed other parts of the route…

In 2009 we were staying in Belmonte, further south than Sigüenza and it was going to be a long day so we rose early ready for a quick start and as usual my first job was to check the weather.  The air felt fresher and from the hotel window I could see cloud to the east, which was a bit of a worry, but the lady on Spanish breakfast television seemed confident that it was going to be fine and out to the west it was clear blue and that was the direction in which we were heading. 

After breakfast and check out we packed the car and started on the one hundred and fifty kilometre drive to Toledo.   I instinctively knew that it was going to be a good day.

In the hotel there had been pictures of a castle and a row of windmills at the next town of Consuegra so as it came into view we left the main road and headed towards the top of the hill where they stood like watching sentinels overlooking the town.  From below, the castle looked magnificent but on close inspection it was in a bit of a sorry state of disrepair but from here there were terrific views over the great plain of Castile and it was easy to see why this was once a very important military place as it guarded the direct route from the south to Toledo and Madrid.  The castle was once a stronghold of the Knights of San Juan, the Spanish branch of the Knight’s Hospitallers of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.

Consuegra Windmill Spain

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 sometimes restored and sometimes neglected castles and sometimes restored and sometimes neglected windmills stretching all the way from Cuenca to Toledo.

As well as the castle, Consuegra is famous for its windmills which remained in use until the beginning of the 1980s.  They were originally built by the Knights and were used to grind the grain that was grown on the plain and they were passed down through the generations of millers from fathers to sons.  

The eleven Consuegra windmills are some of the best examples of Spanish windmills in Castilla-La Mancha and although it was a little cool at the top of the hill it was a good time to see them because there were very few visitors this early in the morning.

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 on the planet after the Bible. I tried to read it once but found it rather heavy going so gave up quite quickly but as we drove along I resolved to have another attempt upon returning home.

Cervantes Alcalá de Henares

Spain, Consuegra, Tembleque and Aranjuez

Consuegra Windmills Spain

I realise that this isn’t the correct technical meteorological term but when we woke up the next morning, it was as though the sluice gates had been opened and it was absolutely chucking it down!  From outside there was the sound of (very) heavy rain and when the shutters were opened we were confronted with a blanket of thick grey cloud and horizontal precipitation thrashing against the window – it was all a bit dull and dismal and did not look at all promising.  But, I have great faith in the expression ‘rain before seven, clear by eleven’ that I was reasonably confident of improvement as we mopped up the wet tiles under the balcony door, dressed and went for breakfast.

After a second equally good three course breakfast we reluctantly packed our bags and checked out of the hotel.  It was still hammering down outside and when we emerged from the underground car park we were trying to find our way in driving rain and in some places through flooded streets.  For some reason we found it more difficult than it really should have been to find our way out of the labyrinth of one-way streets and with wind screen wipers on double speed I am certain that we did two or three circuits of the town before we found the main road and a filling station and then plotted a course north towards Madrid with a couple of stops planned along the way.

To begin with our route took us along some nerve jangling minor roads but eventually we found some proper highways and the pace picked up as we continued to travel north.  The rain was easing and with better weather to the west I was becoming increasingly confident of my eleven o’clock prediction.

After an hour or so we started to get close to Consuegra, famous for its castle and windmills and after getting confused at a motorway junction we eventually began to approach the outskirts of what can only really be described as a town of extreme contrasts.  From what we saw of Consuegra it is scruffy and uncared for, the streets are grimy and the roads full of precarious potholes but rising high above all of the disappointment is a line of whitewashed, blue domed windmills standing sentinel over the town and the adjacent plain.

Don Quixote’s windmills sit in a line along the top of a steep hill and they look down on the flat red dirt plains of La Mancha, their once free flowing sails now arthritically stiff, tied down and no longer spun by the wind. They are almost smug in what is now their supremely safe tourist protected environment.

The weather was wild and showing no signs of improvement as the wind moaned through the sail wires and as we walked between the black sails and admired the bulk of the castle nearby we drew strange glances from bus tourists who were wrapped up in coats and scarves and gloves that were much more appropriate than our linens and short sleeves.

Tembleque Plaza Mayor Spain

It was cold so we didn’t stay long and drove back through the untidy town and rejoined the Autovia heading north.  Our next stop was the town of Tembleque but when we pulled in and parked, although it had finally stopped raining, we were not terribly hopeful. It was dreary and overcast and the Plaza Mayor that we had stopped to see with its balconies, painted colonnades and stone pillars (not unlike Almagro but without the sunshine) looked disappointing and dreary and sadly won’t be going into our top five so after a quick visit to the tourist information museum we were soon back on the road.

We were on our way now to Aranjuez and the site of a Royal Palace of King Juan Carlos but the road passed by the town of Ocaña which is famous for two things, a Peninsular War battle that was the biggest defeat of the war for the defending Spanish army and for having the third largest Plaza Mayor in Spain after Madrid and Salamanca.  I am not sure about that because we never actually got there but it might well have the biggest prison in Spain right next door and on account of the dodgy looking men hanging around the gate and the dreary weather we gave it a miss and drove straight by.

And so in mid afternoon we arrived in Aranjuez, parked the car, stopped at a café where we sat near the window and lamented the woeful weather and then walked the short distance to the Royal Palace.  King Juan Carlos has eight Royal Palaces to choose from but I suspect he doesn’t stay at this one very often because it didn’t look very ‘lived in’, if you know what I mean; most are close to Madrid and one is on the island of Mallorca.  We walked through the gardens and then paid the entrance fee to go inside and take the tour through a succession or rooms (all the same, by the way) and then some exhibits about life at the Royal Spanish court through the ages.

To be honest the day was in danger of becoming a bit of a let-down compared with those that had gone before and I think we were both a bit disappointed when we returned to the car and set off for our final destination, Chinchon, which we knew well on account of visiting there a couple of times previously.  However, by some minor miracle as we drove the short distance the grey cloud began to shatter and disperse and by the time we approached one of our favourite places in Spain there was at last some welcome blue sky and although my eleven o’clock prediction was at least four hours overdue we were glad of that!

Royal Palace of Aranjuez Spain

Spain, Castilla-la Mancha

Cuenca sky

“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.

Road Trip – Portugal to Andalusia and Seville

Because there was quite a long way to go we planned for a very early start and it was still dark when we left just after five o’clock we surprised the car by piling in and starting it up at an obscenely early hour in the morning.

Tony had the rough guide to Europe map and had sorted the route and there was a very simple plan, we would take it in turns and drive non stop all the way, it would be tapas in Madrid at lunchtime, Bordeaux in France for evening meal, and a bottle or two of nice red wine, a night in Evreux in Normandy, and a visit to some friends who lived there, and then on to Dieppe in plenty of time for the ferry in just over forty-eight hours time.

So simple it hardly needed a plan at all!

Even though there was no motorway in 1986 the one hundred kilometre drive to the border was quite straight forward at this time in the morning but the lack of an offsite headlight did make things a little bit precarious at times.   We drove inland for about half the way and then joined the coast road for the final section of the drive towards the border with Spain, which we reached more or less on schedule.

That was the last time!

The border with Spain is the Guadiana River and these days a bridge takes the motorway straight across but for centuries before that the ferry link between Vila Real de Santo António in Portugal and Ayamonte in Spain was the only way to get across.  There was a slight delay waiting for the next available ferry but nothing too serious and as we took the twenty minute, two kilometre journey the sun started to come up ahead of us and we arrived in Spain in time for breakfast.

This is when we came across our first problem.  We needed fuel but none of the petrol stations that we passed accepted credit cards and it soon became obvious that this was quite normal in Spain.  It was a problem because as we only planned to be in Spain for a short time we didn’t have many Pesetas between us.  Eventually we had to resort to plan B and we pooled all of our Spanish currency for fuel purchases and that meant there was nothing left for food and we had to skip breakfast.

And then there was the second problem because although the map indicated that we were driving on a motorway it wasn’t a motorway in the US Freeway sense of the term and this single carriage road went straight through the middle of every busy little town and village on the way and with every kilometre we travelled we fell slowly further behind schedule.  Still, at least the weather was nice and we were in Andalusia, which is possibly the most typically Spanish of all of the regions of Spain and we drove through acres of orange groves and farms on the way to Seville a hundred and twenty kilometres from the border.

Andalucia Spain White Town

By the time we arrived it was getting hot and we were quite surprised to find that the fourth largest city in Spain didn’t have a  bypass and the road took us directly into the centre past the bull ring at the Plaza de Torres along some busy roads, past the railway station  and on the road out the other side.

Seville did look absolutely splendid and everything that I imagined about Spain; bulls, flamenco, guitars, palm trees and beggars.

At some traffic lights two scruffy boys without shirts and ribs like radiators started to wash the windscreen with a dirty rag and completely ignored our instruction to stop.  Having completed the unnecessary task one of them put his hand through the window and demanded payment, ‘Cien’ he shouted, ‘Cien’.  I was nervous because we had all sorts of things lying about on the dashboard within reach of thieving fingers and I quickly calculated that a hundred pesetas was actually quite reasonable so I gave him a coin.  This didn’t satisfy the ungrateful little urchin and he demanded more from the others in the passenger seats while his pal stood in front of the car with arms outstretched on the bonnet.

Cien, Cien’ he kept shouting and this I thought was unreasonable and as there was practically no chance whatsoever of Tony parting with a hundred pesetas (he would rather swim with sharks or wrestle alligators) I decided to make a getaway from the hold-up, hit the accelerator pedal and drove on.  The boy on the bonnet rolled theatrically to the side to feign injury and his pal chased us as far as he could until we were out of sight.

We were pleased to be out of Seville and on our way to Córdoba another hundred and twenty kilometres away and on a road that followed the course of the Guadalquivir River and we passed through the city at about one o’clock and it was then that I had to concede that we would probably not make Madrid for tapas.

Since leaving Alcantarilha we had been travelling relentlessly east and after Córdoba we had to continue for another hundred kilometres or so before the road finally started to turn north through the Desfiladero de Despeñaperros, which is a mountain pass that leads out of Andalucia and onto the plains of Castilla-La-Mancha, the Don Quixote country of windmills and castles and miles and miles of absolutely bugger all!

Consuegra, Windmills and Castles

Consuegra Castle and Windmill

It was going to be a long day so we rose early ready for a quick start and as usual my first job was to check the weather.

The air felt fresher and from the hotel window I could see cloud to the east, which was a bit of a worry, but the lady on Spanish breakfast television seemed confident that it was going to be fine and out to the west it was clear blue and that was the direction in which we were heading.  After breakfast and check out we packed the car and started on the one hundred and fifty kilometre drive to Toledo.

We drove first to the town of Alcázar de San Juan but this wasn’t because of any sort of research just an instinct that it would be interesting based on what seemed to be a promising name.  I should have carried out some research because it didn’t seem very appealing at all, there wasn’t a castle to be seen and the clouds had caught up and overtaken us and there was a bleached out sort of chalky whiteness to the sky so we rather rudely carried on without stopping.  Somewhere just west of the town we crossed the old A4 highway and that reminded me of the mad drive through Spain with my brother and two friends in 1984 when we drove from southern Portugal to the French border in thirty-six hours in a ten year old clapped out Ford Escort.

Back in the hotel there had been pictures of a castle and a row of windmills at the next town of Consuegra so as it came into view we left the main road and headed towards the top of the hill where they stood like regimental sentinels overlooking the town.   Across the crest of the hill, they march like giants.  No wonder the delusional Don Quixote pulled his sword  and charged in combat to fight these windmills.

Originally, there were thirteen whitewashed windmills lining this hilltop. Now only eleven remain of which four still retain their working mechanisms. Known as “molinos” in Spain, the windmills are each named — Sancho, Bolero, Espartero, Mambrino, Rucio, Cardeno, Alcancia, Chispas, Callabero del Verde Gaban, Clavileno and Vista Alegre.

The windmills are tall cylindrical towers capped with dark cones and four big “sails” that move with the wind.  In days gone by, farmers would haul their grain to these windmills where the structures harnessed the power of the wind to grind grain. The windmills and the skill to operate them were passed down from fathers to sons. Windows placed around the tower of the windmill provide great views today. But that was not their original use. From these windows, the miller could keep watch on the shifting winds. When the winds changed, the miller would have to move the tiller beam to turn the mill. If he didn’t a sudden strong wind could strip the sails, rip off the top and the whole building could be destroyed by a gusty wind.

From below, the castle looked magnificent but on close inspection it too was in a bit of a sorry state of disrepair but from here there were terrific views over the great plain of Castile and it was easy to see why this was once a very important military place as it guarded the direct route from the south to Toledo and Madrid.  The castle was once a stronghold of the Knights of San Juan, the Spanish branch of the Knight’s Hospitallers of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.

As well as the castle Consuegra is famous for its windmills which remained in use until the beginning of the 1980s.  They were originally built by the Knights and were used to grind the grain that was grown on the plain and they were passed down through the generations of millers from fathers to sons. The eleven Consuegra windmills are some of the best examples of Spanish windmills in Castilla-La Mancha and although it was a little cool at the top of the hill it was a good time to see them because there were very few visitors this early in the morning.

After leaving Consuegra we rejoined the road and headed north to Toledo and on the way the clouds evaporated and the sun poured through and we passed more castles at Mora and at Almonacid but we didn’t stop again.  The scenery began to change too as it became more untidy and scrubby as we left the chequerboard fields and their delightful colours behind.

Just before midday we reached the outskirts of Toledo and at the top of the city we could see the Alcázar and the Cathedral and we followed the signs to the historical centre and found a very large and convenient car park right on the edge of the city and in my league table of Spanish city car parks Toledo went straight to the top.

At the bottom by the way remains Seville!

It might have been right on the edge of the City but to get there involved a rather strenuous climb to reach it because Toledo is built on the top of a craggy outcrop of rock that in the middle ages made it impregnable to hostile forces.

The whole city is a sort of natural castle with a moat, the Tagus River, running in a looping gorge around three sides of it. The only way an enemy could take it was to attack the north side and that was difficult because not surprisingly that was the most strongly fortified part of the city walls.  The Tagus, by the way,  is the fourth longest river in Western Europe and the most important in Iberia and from Toledo it flows all the way to the Atlantic Ocean at Lisbon in Portugal.

La Mancha, Tilting at Windmills and The Ruta de Don Quixote

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“Don Quixote is the national glory of Spain.  No one who does not know that has the right to call himself a Spaniard.  There is a monument to him in Madrid…he was our first revolutionary.”                                                                   Gerald Brenan – South from Granada

According to the Spanish, that year (2009) Spain had had a longer and colder winter than usual, a fact that had been confirmed by the assessment of the man from the car hire firm and the weather over the previous two weeks had been changeable so it was with some nervousness that I opened the bedroom shutters to see what the day had in store.

I needn’t have worried because the sky was a perfect blue, the birds were singing a sweet tune and the honey coloured stone of the church opposite was radiating deliciously warm mellow tones into the courtyard below and from this elevated position in the town I could see that the blue extended seductively in all directions.  I instinctively knew that it was going to be a good day.

Breakfast in the hotel was simple but substantial and after substantial portions of  bread, ham and cheese 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.  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 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 dry plains.

I am making it sound dull and unappealing and I must correct that immediately because this was absolutely not the case.  Either side of the long straight road there were gently undulating fields with the most attractive colours that rolled rhythmically and desolately away in all directions.  Many of the fields were being prepared for this year’s crops and others were lying fallow and this produced a stunning vista of subtle hues and variations of tone; champagne and parchment, butter-milk cream, dusty olive, lavender grey, pheasant copper gold and russet copper red that were almost autumnal all lying crushed under the burden of a vivid blue spring sky.

Don Quixote Alcala de Henares

One of the most interesting crops grown in La Mancha is the autumn crocus, 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.  As this was March we obviously didn’t see any autumn crocus on this visit.

After a few kilometres there was a dusty track that left the road and led to the medieval castle of De Haro that was situated in a good position on the top of a hill and we drove to it but up close its condition was not what it seemed from a distance and it was not open to visitors so we retraced our steps and carried on.

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 all the way 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 on the planet after the Bible.

I tried to read it once but found it rather heavy going so gave up quite quickly but as we drove along I resolved to have another attempt upon returning home.