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.
SIGÜENZA, 120km northeast of Madrid, is a sleepy little town with a beautiful cathedral. At first glance it seems quite untouched by contemporary life, though appearances are deceptive. Its origins date back to Celtiberian times and it was used by both the Romans and Visigoths as a military outpost. Following the Reconquest it became an important medieval settlement, though its influence gradually declined in successive centuries. Taken by Franco’s troops in 1936, the town was on the Nationalist front line for most of the Civil War, and its people and buildings paid a heavy toll. However, the postwar years saw the cathedral restored, the Plaza Mayor recobbled and the bishop’s castle rebuilt, so that the only evidence of its troubled history is in the facades of a few buildings, including the pencil-thin cathedral bell tower, pockmarked by bullets and shrapnel.
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.
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.
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.
Immediately north of La Vera, the main Plasencia–Ávila road follows the valley of the Río Jerte (from the Greek Xerte, meaning “joyful”) to the pass of Puerto de Tornavacas, the boundary with Ávila province. The villages here are more developed than those of La Vera but the valley itself is stunning and renowned for its orchards of cherry trees, which for a ten-day period in spring cover the slopes with white blossom. If you’re anywhere in the area at this time, it’s a beautiful spectacle.
If you have transport, you can follow a minor route across the sierra to the north of the valley from Cabezuela del Valle to Hervás, following the highest road in Extremadura, which rises to 1430m.
On the southern side of the valley, the main point of interest is the Puerto del Piornal pass, just behind the village of the same name. The best approach is via the villages of Casas del Castañar and Cabrero. Once at the pass you can continue over to Garganta La Olla in La Vera.
The small town of GUADALUPE, perched up in the sierra to the west of Trujillo, is dominated in every way by the great Monasterio de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, which for five centuries has brought fame and pilgrims to the area. It was established in 1340, on the spot where an ancient image of the Virgin, said to have been carved by St Luke, was discovered by a shepherd fifty or so years earlier. The delay was simply a question of waiting for the Reconquest to arrive in this remote sierra, with its lush countryside of forests and streams.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Guadalupe was among the most important pilgrimage centres in Spain: Columbus named the Caribbean island in honour of the Virgin here, and a local version was adopted as the patron saint of Mexico. Much of the monastic wealth, in fact, came from returning conquistadores, whose successive endowments led to a fascinating mix of styles. The monastery was abandoned in the nineteenth-century Dissolution, but was later reoccupied by Franciscans, who continue to maintain it.
The town itself is a fitting complement to the monastery and countryside: a net of narrow cobbled streets and overhanging houses constructed around the Plaza Mayor, the whole overshadowed by the monastery’s bluff ramparts. There’s a timeless feel, only slightly diminished by modern development on the outskirts, and a brisk trade in plastic copies of religious treasures.
There is nothing especially dramatic about the Monasterio de Yuste, the retreat created by Carlos V after renouncing his empire: just a simple beauty and the rather stark accoutrements of the emperor’s last years. The monastery, which is signposted from Cuacos de Yuste on the Jarandilla–Plasencia road, had existed here for over a century before Carlos’ retirement and he had earmarked the site for some years, planning his modest additions – which included a pleasure garden – while still ruling his empire from Flanders. He retired here with a retinue that included an Italian clockmaker, Juanuelo Turriano, whose inventions were his last passion.
The imperial apartments are draped throughout in black, and exhibits include the little sedan chair in which Carlos was brought here, and another designed to support the old man’s gouty legs. If you believe the guide, the bed and even the sheets are the very ones in which the emperor died, though since the place was sacked during the Peninsular Wars and deserted for years after the suppression of the monasteries, this seems unlikely. A door by the emperor’s bed opens out over the church and altar so that even in his final illness he never missed a service. Outside, there’s a snack bar and picnic spots, and you’ll find a track signposted through the woods to Garganta La Olla.
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.
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.
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.
South of Plasencia a pair of dams, built in the 1960s, has turned the ríos Tajo and Tiétar into a sequence of vast reservoirs. It’s an impressive sight and a tremendous area for wildlife: almost at random here, you can look up to see storks, vultures and even eagles circling the skies. The best area for concerted wildlife viewing – and some very enjoyable walks – is the PARQUE NATURAL DE MONFRAGÜE, Extremadura’s only protected area, which extends over 44,000 acres to either side of the Plasencia–Trujillo road. Transport of your own is an advantage unless you are prepared to do some walking.
If you’re walking in Monfragüe, it’s best to stick to the colour-coded paths leading from the park’s headquarters at Villarreal de San Carlos. Each of them is well paint-blobbed and leads to rewarding birdwatching locations. Elsewhere, it is not easy to tell where you are permitted to wander – it’s very easy to find yourself out of the park area in a private hunting reserve.
The Green Route, to the Cerro Gimio, is especially good – a two-and-a-half-hour stroll looping through woods and across streams, in a landscape unimaginable from Villarreal, to a dramatic cliff-top viewing station.
The longer Red Route heads south of Villarreal, over a bridge across the Río Tajo, and past a fountain known as the Fuente del Francés after a young Frenchman who died there trying to save an eagle. Two kilometres farther is a great crag known as the Peñafalcón, which houses a large colony of griffon vultures, and the Castillo de Monfragüe, a castle ruin high up on a rock, with a chapel next to it; there is an observation post nearby. All these places are accessible from the EX208 and if you’re coming in on the bus, you could ask to get off here. There are also two routes of 8km and 12km respectively that have been designed for cars and include a number of viewing points.
On the south side of the park, towards Trujillo, you pass through the Dehesas, strange Africa-like plains, among the oldest woodlands in Europe. The economy of the dehesas is based on grazing, and the casualties among the domestic animals provide the vultures of Monfragüe with their daily bread. The information centre in Villarreal also provides details of routes that can be done on horseback or bicycle.
There are over two hundred species of animals in Monfragüe, including reptiles, deer, wild boar and the ultra-rare Spanish lynx. Most important is the bird population, especially the black stork – this is the only breeding population in western Europe – and birds of prey such as the black vulture (not averse to eating tortoises), the griffon vulture (partial to carrion intestine), the Egyptian vulture (not above eating human excrement), the rare Spanish imperial eagle (identifiable by its very obvious white shoulder patches), the golden eagle and the eagle owl (the largest owl in Europe). Ornithologists should visit Monfragüe in May and June, botanists in March and April, and everybody should avoid July to September, when the heat is stifling.
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.
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.
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