The vast area covered by this chapter is some of the most travelled, yet least visited, country in Spain. Once south of Toledo, most tourists thunder nonstop across the plains of Castilla-La Mancha to Valencia and Andalucía, or follow the great rivers through Extremadura into Portugal. At first sight this is understandable. Castilla-La Mancha, in particular, is Spain at its least welcoming: a huge, bare plain – the name La Mancha comes from the Arab manxa, meaning steppe – burning hot in summer, chillingly exposed in winter. But this impression is not an entirely fair one – away from the main highways the villages are as friendly as any in the country, and in the northeast, where the mountains start, are the extraordinary cliff-hanging city of Cuenca and the historic cathedral town of Sigüenza. Castilla-La Mancha is also the agricultural and wine-growing heartland of Spain and the country through which Don Quixote cut his despairing swathe.
It is in Extremadura, though, that there is most to be missed by just passing through. This harsh environment was the cradle of the conquistadores, men who opened up a new world for the Spanish empire. Remote before and forgotten since, Extremadura enjoyed a brief golden age when its heroes returned with their gold to live in splendour. Trujillo, the birthplace of Pizarro, and Cáceres were built with conquistador wealth, the streets crowded with an array of perfectly preserved and very ornate mansions of returning empire builders. Then there is Mérida, the most completely preserved Roman city in Spain, and the monasteries of Guadalupe and Yuste, the one fabulously wealthy, the other rich in imperial memories. Finally, for some wild scenery and superb fauna, northern Extremadura has the Parque Natural de Monfragüe, where even the most casual birdwatcher can look up to see eagles and vultures circling the cliffs.Read More
First weekend: La Endiablada ancient festival in Almonacid Marquesado (near Cuenca) All the boys dress up as devils and parade through the streets.
Week before Lent Carnaval everywhere.
Easter: Semana Santa (Holy Week) major fiestas in Cáceres and Trujillo Valverde de la Vera has the tradition of Los Empalaos, men who re-enact Jesus’ journey to the Cross by roping their outstretched arms to huge wooden bars as they walk the streets of town at night. Magnificent celebrations (floats, penitents) in Cuenca.
April 23: San Jorge Enthusiastic celebrations continue for several days in Cáceres.
First half of May: WOMAD At Cáceres. Renowned world music festival set against the wonderful backdrop of the historic core.
23–27: San Juan Manic in Coria A bull is let loose for a few hours a day, with people dancing and drinking in the streets and running for their lives when it appears.
Throughout July: Spanish Classical Drama Festival at Almagro Golden-age drama takes the stage at this prestigious festival.
Throughout July and August: Drama Festival in Mérida
Classical works performed in the atmospheric setting of the original Roman theatre.
First week: Vendimia celebrations at Valdepeñas
Week leading up to third Sunday Festivals in Jarandilla and Madrigal de la Vera with bulls running in front of cows – which are served up on the final day’s feast.
Castilla-La Mancha cuisine
Castilla-La Mancha cuisine
La Mancha is renowned for its simple, down-to-earth cuisine based on local ingredients and traditional recipes made famous in Cervantes’ classic Don Quixote. Dishes such as gazpacho manchego (a stew usually made from rabbit mixed with pieces of unleavened bread), atascaburras (puréed potato with salted cod and garlic) and pisto manchego (a selection of fried vegetables in a tomato sauce and often topped with a fried egg) are among the staples. The region is famed for its garlic and saffron, but perhaps the most celebrated of all foods from the region is Manchego cheese of which there is a bewildering array, though it can be divided into two main types: semi-curado (semi-cured) and curado (cured) – both must come from the local Manchegan breed of sheep, though the latter is stronger and more expensive. To accompany the cheese, there is nothing better than a glass of wine: the Valdepeñas vineyards which have traditionally been known more for the quantity than the quality of their product have improved significantly in recent years.
Not a novel in the modern sense, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de La Mancha (published in 1604) is a sequence of episodes following the adventures of a country gentleman in his fifties, whose mind has been addled by romantic tales of chivalry. In a noble gesture, he changes his name to Don Quixote de La Mancha, and sets out on horseback, in rusty armour, to right the wrongs of the world. At his side throughout is Sancho Panza, a shrewd, pot-bellied rustic given to quoting proverbs at every opportunity. During the course of the book, Quixote, an instantly sympathetic hero, charges at windmills and sheep (mistaking them for giants and armies), makes ill-judged attempts to help others and is mocked by all for his efforts. Broken-hearted but wiser, he returns home and, on his deathbed, pronounces: “Let everyone learn from my example … look at the world with common sense and learn to see what is really there.”
Cervantes’ life was almost as colourful as his hero’s. The son of a poor doctor, he fought as a soldier in the sea battle of Lepanto, where he permanently maimed his left hand and was captured by pirates and put to work as a slave in Algiers. Ransomed and sent back to Spain, he spent the rest of his days writing novels and plays in relative poverty, dying ten years after the publication of Don Quixote, “old, a soldier, a gentleman and poor”.
Spanish academics have spent as much time dissecting the work of Cervantes as their English counterparts have Shakespeare’s. Most see Don Quixote as a satire on the popular romances of the day, with the central characters representing two forces in Spain: Quixote the dreaming, impractical nobility, and Sancho the wise and down-to-earth peasantry. There are also those who read in it an ironic tale of a visionary or martyr frustrated in a materialistic world, while others see it as an attack on the Church and establishment. Debates aside, this highly entertaining adventure story is certainly one of the most influential works to have emerged from Spain.
National parks and reserves in La Mancha
National parks and reserves in La Mancha
A respite from the arid monotony of the Castilian landscape, and a treat for bird watchers, is provided by the oasis of La Mancha Húmeda (“Wet La Mancha”). This is an area of lagoons and marshes, both brackish and fresh, along the high-level basin of the Río Cigüela and Río Guadiana. Drainage for agriculture has severely reduced the amount of water in recent years, so that the lakes effectively dry up in the summer, but there is still a good variety of interesting plant and bird life. You’re best off visiting from April to July when the water birds are breeding, or from September to midwinter when migrating birds pass through.
Parque Nacional de las Tablas de Daimiel
Major parks between Ciudad Real and Albacete include the Parque Nacional de las Tablas de Daimiel, 11km north of Daimiel itself, which is renowned for its birdlife (over 200 species visit the park over the course of the year). There’s an information centre (daily: summer 8.30am–8pm; winter 8am–6.30pm; t926 693 118) alongside the marshes. The park is accessible only by car or taxi, and Daimiel has little accommodation on offer.
Parque Natural de las Lagunas de Ruidera
More traveller-friendly, but crowded in the summer months, is the Parque Natural de las Lagunas de Ruidera, northeast of Valdepeñas (frequent buses from Albacete). You’ll find an information centre (July & Aug daily 10am–9pm; Sept–June Wed–Sun 10am–2pm & 4–6pm; t926 528 116) on the roadside, as you enter Ruidera from Manzanares, and several nature trails inside the park, as well as swimming and boating opportunities.
Given that Extremadura remains a largely agricultural region, it is hardly surprising its cuisine is renowned for high-quality local ingredients, whether it be the trout from the streams in the Gredos mountains, the pimentón (paprika) from the Vera, the goats’ cheese from Cáceres or the succulent cherries from the Valle de Jerte. Signature dishes include the humble migas (bread crumbs, paprika, ham, garlic and olive oil) and patatas revolconas (delicious paprika-flavoured potatoes), but to most Spaniards ham is the gastronomic product they most associate with Extremadura.
Together with the Sierra Morena in Andalucía, the Extremaduran sierra is the only place in the country that supports the pure-bred Iberian pig, source of the best jamón. For its ham to be as flavoursome as possible, the pig, a subspecies of the European wild boar exclusive to the Iberian Peninsula, is allowed to roam wild and eat acorns for several months of the year. The undisputed kings of hams in this area, praised at length by Richard Ford in his Handbook for Travellers, are those that come from Montánchez, in the south of the region. The village is midway between Cáceres and Mérida, so if you’re in the area try some in a bar, washed down with local red wine – but be warned that the authentic product is extremely expensive, a few thinly cut slices often costing as much as an entire meal. The local wine, pitarra, is an ideal accompaniment.
Land of the conquistadores
Land of the conquistadores
Extremadura is a tough country that bred tough people, if we are to believe the names of places like Valle de Matamoros (Valley of the Moorslayers), and one can easily understand the attraction that the New World and the promise of the lush Indies must have held for its inhabitants.
Francisco Pizarro, the conqueror of Peru, and Francisco de Orellano, the explorer of the Amazon, both came from Trujillo, while the ruthless Hernán Cortés, who led the destruction of the Aztec empire, hailed from Medellín in Badajoz. Jerez de los Caballeros also produced its crop of conquistadores. The two most celebrated are Vasco Núñez de Balboa, discoverer of the Pacific, and Hernando de Soto (also known as the Conqueror of Florida), who in exploring the Mississippi became one of the first Europeans to set foot in North America.