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There are stretches of Spain’s meseta central, or inner tableland, where anything that stands taller than a man on a horse can seem to loom gigantically over the plain. This helps to explain how the windmills of La Mancha were mistaken for giants by the fictional, delusional “knight” Don Quixote, his imagination enflamed by reading too many folk tales about fantastical creatures of the region.
His creator Miguel de Cervantes, meanwhile—the great writer-adventurer of the Spanish Golden Age—cast the landscape into prose that continues to give a mythic, yet somewhat misleading, impression of his country’s interior as a dusty, flat, and mostly empty space between the big cities and beach-lined coasts. Today, questing fans of that 400-year-old novel can still find parts of Castilla-La Mancha that fit the description, though, on road trips that follow the map-marked Ruta del Quixote to Cervantean landmarks and artworks.
Most evocative remain the windmills of Campo de Criptana, their wooden arms outstretched like gigantic X’s on the horizon, and their white-painted towers now housing museums of sculpture, poetry, and wine. This is, in fact, a major wine-growing region. Ripe grapes bring bursts of colour to the surrounding countryside, where many vintages hold DOP (protected designation of origin) status.
It’s easy to see why Cervantes’ character Don Quixote mistook the windmills of Campo de Criptana for giants: Blades engulf Juan, the miller who operates them, like outstretched arms.
Manchegan saffron is the only of this spice that bears the same stamp, and fields of it cover much of the terroir in painterly vistas of purple flowers at harvest time, yielding fiery crimson filaments known as “red gold”. It was first planted in this soil by the conquering Umayyad caliphate in the Middle Ages.
“This area is yellow and brown in winter, but green and blue in summer,” explains Yuuria Moerano, a nature guide in Tablas de Daimiel National Park. “It’s not the La Mancha that people expect.” Here is a kind of oasis through the warmest months, supporting resident and seasonal populations of water birds, including flamingos, cranes, cormorants, and turtles. Long before Cervantes’ time, herbalists who made medicines from abundant native plants were commonly assumed to be witches. The Isla del Pan—a wooded islet that seems to float over the floodplain―was named after the faun of pagan legend. “This is basically a magic forest,” says Moerano.
Other lonely reaches of the province are similarly fertile and ethereal. Rare birds like the Eurasian black vulture and Spanish imperial eagle skim the treetops of Cabañeros National Park, and the even rarer Iberian lynx is sometimes sighted between the Mediterranean pines. (Efforts to revive this endangered apex predator—a “giant” of this wilderness in its own right—are ongoing.)
There can also be a dreamlike effect to approaching the cities of the hinterland. Cuenca, for example, was built by the Moors as an impregnable fortress on a limestone precipice high above a river gorge, and its casas colgadas, or “hanging houses,” have leaned out over the void for close to a millennium (albeit subject to many renovations, including one that now accommodates a museum of abstract art).
The provincial capital, Toledo, turns on a vertical axis against a horizontal scroll of farmlands, rising like a layer cake of different architectural styles and periods. Roman foundations lie beneath Visigoth temples, Islamic minarets and battlements blend into the Judeo-Mudejar designs of the Jewish Quarter, and an upper tier of spires is dominated by the soaring bell tower of Toledo Cathedral.
The bell tower of Toledo Cathedral pierces the sky—a colossus standing among a cityscape of varied architectural styles.
Across the meseta, in the former kingdom of Aragon, the skyline of Zaragoza appears reflected on the River Ebro as another otherworldly cross-section of Spanish history. Romans, Muslims, Jews, and Christians have all played their part here in alternating waves of conflict and coexistence. The dazzlingly tiled and domed Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar marks the spot where some believe the Virgin Mary appeared atop a pillar of wood to the apostle James in AD 40, while the Aljaferia Palace stands as a medieval Islamic wonder-structure constructed for the city’s ruling Hudid dynasty. In streets and squares between the two, especially during the autumn festivities of Pilar, you’ll often see performances of the jota, a costumed fertility dance of jaunty leaps accompanied by lute music, said to have been introduced by the exiled Moorish poet Aben Jot.
Out beyond city limits, a dry wind known as the cierzo sweeps over plains that look like backdrops to phantasmic paintings by Francisco de Goya—the locally born master whose art drew heavily on folk traditions and superstitions. Ancient pagans of the Aragonese Pyrenees saw behemoths called Omes Hail manifested in those high peaks, and heard their voices as hailstorms in the valleys.
Giant rock formations sit like the hunched, muscular bodies of giants in Ciudad Encantada, a geological site formed by the erosive power of wind and water near the city of Cuenca.
On the other side of the tableland in Extremadura, that sheer richness of myth has left the mountain hamlets of Las Hurdes with as many imaginary beings as living people. Hairy giant Pelujancanu, he-goat Machu Lanú, and Entihnaol the rain-bringer all join the annual parade of atavistic weirdness that is the Hurdano Carnival. The agricultural cycles they venerate have in turn grown ingredients for the recipes of multiple resident cultures to give this region its reputation for gastronomy.
“It’s a humble, subsistence cuisine,” says practicing chef and cookery professor Francisco Refolio from Cáceres, the eclectic and archaic walled town sometimes called “the pantry of Spain.” At the same time, he explains, certain complex broths and stews are said to have inspired French haute cuisine—one popular fable tells of a Napoleonic general who stole the recipe book from a local monastery and changed the course of epicurean history. Refolio then reels off some select foodstuffs made to DOP standards and “ancestral methods” across Extremadura: Jerte Valley cherries, creamy cheeses from Casar de Cáceres and Acehúche, suckling kid from Cáceres itself, and the world-renowned, dry-cured, acorn-fed Iberian ham from the “unique ecosystem” of the nearby dehesa forest.
“Its sensory characteristics of sight, smell, and taste are not inconsiderable,” he says, and for perfect presentation, he recommends “a fine cut of two fingers in length.” Today’s adventurer can even explore the grassy, hilly domain of the black Iberian pig on horseback gastro-tours, meeting and eating with Jamón producers on their farms, questing like a hungry Don Quixote.
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