According to the Spanish, this year 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 and the honey coloured stone of the church opposite was radiating deliciously warm and mellow tones and from the elevated position in the town I could see that the blue extended seductively in all directions. I knew instinctively that it was going to be a good day.
Breakfast in the hotel was simple but substantial and after filling ourselves up with bread, ham and cheese set off across the great plain of La Mancha in an easterly direction towards the city of Cuenca.
La Mancha is an arid, 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. Many of the fields were being prepared for these years’ crops and others were lying fallow and this produced a stunning vista of subtle colours and variations of tone; champagne and parchment, cream, olive, grey lavender, gold and russet red that were almost autumnal and lying crushed under the burden of a vivid blue spring sky.
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. 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 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 a bit heavy going so gave up quite quickly but as we drove along I resolved to give it another go upon returning home.
From Belmonte to Cuenca was a distance of about ninety kilometres and after 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. The previously straight road ran into concertina like bends and driving required greater attention to the road. Eventually it stopped climbing and the landscape flattened and we made our final approach into Cuenca. At first this wasn’t especially promising, Cuenca is a big city and capital of the fifth largest province in Spain and to reach the old town it was necessary to drive through the modern city, which wasn’t especially notable or exciting but something special was waiting on the other side...