Following in the footsteps of Don Quixote on the vast plains of Castile-La Mancha, central Spain

On a quest to restore chivalry to the nation, Spain’s greatest literary hero, Don Quixote, roamed the Spanish region of Castile-La Mancha. This landscape, with its dramatic plains and hidden caves, forms an inspiring backdrop to a new canon of stories.

By Stephen Phelan
photographs by Ben Roberts
Published 6 May 2021, 08:00 BST
A boardwalk over wetlands at the Tablas de Daimiel National Park, Castile-La Mancha.

A boardwalk over wetlands at the Tablas de Daimiel National Park, Castile-La Mancha.

Photograph by Ben Roberts

If there is an abiding symbol of Spain, it’s the tall, thin man in armour sat upon his skinny horse, and the short, stout man beside him on a little donkey. Driving southeast out of Madrid I start to see them everywhere: they appear as decal silhouettes on the walls of small-town bars, cartoon cut-outs in the shop windows, semi-abstract sculptures mounted on roundabouts. 

I go out of my way to look at Picasso’s ink drawing of these two figures at the 16th-century Church of Santa Cruz, in the walled city of Cuenca. Such a charismatic image, familiar even to those who have never read The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, by Miguel de Cervantes. Most Spaniards haven’t read the novel either, admits my guide, Pablo Moya. It’s too epic, too archaic. “But they still take pride in it,” says Pablo. “Especially people who live in La España Profunda.” 

“The Deep Spain”, as Pablo calls it, is a socio-literary term for the Cervantine landscape of Castile-La Mancha. Places like Cuenca look more or less the same as they did some 400 years ago, when the author and his wayward fictional adventurers roamed the area. The old town hangs, UNESCO-protected, above a limestone gorge, its Renaissance churches and monasteries largely intact. 

A bust of Cervantes at the Museo Cervantino in El Toboso.

Photograph by Ben Roberts

This is still an agricultural region, where mountain logging sites and sheep pastures drop down to a flat scroll of wheat fields and vineyards. In recent decades, a heritage industry has also bloomed along the trail known as the Ruta de Don Quijote. Key locations are linked to Cervantes, although some mostly by guesswork. The medieval university town of Alcalá de Henares, for example, has become Spain’s Stratford-upon-Avon — lovingly preserved as the ‘birthplace’ of this great national poet, even though evidence remains a bit sketchy.

We can’t know exactly which windmills Don Quixote mistook for hostile giants and charged with his lance in the book’s most iconic scene. So, various mills claim to be the ones Cervantes had in mind, including the clusters at Mota del Cuervo and Campo de Criptana: round, white towers with wooden vanes rising over the plains. Some have been repurposed as museums: sculptor Austion Tirado uses one as his studio, beating sheets of steel into shapes, as seen in the tortured-looking bust he titled The Revelation of Quixote. “It’s about the book, sure,” he says, “but more about the internal landscape of the character than what’s out there.” 

Molino el Cervantes, a windmill located above the town of Mota del Cuervo.

Photograph by Ben Roberts

Elsewhere, the Museo Cervantino, in the tiny farm town of El Toboso, displays vintage editions and translations signed by everyone from General Franco to Margaret Thatcher. I wonder which of them actually read the whole thing, and what they took from it. “We have a copy signed by Rafael Nadal, too,” says attendant Brigitte Moise, brightly. 

In a greener, wetter corner of the region, freshwater spills from lake to lake at the Lagunas de Rudiera, and flows underground through the Cueva de Montesinos. Guide Francisca Vitoria Gomez leads me down into the dark, where Don Quixote fell into an enchanted sleep and dreamed of his imaginary love, Dulcinea del Toboso. Bats flit across Francisca’s torch beam as she shows me rock formations and shadows now said to look like the recumbent man of La Mancha. 

Cervantes may have been here too, she tells me. “It depends what you want to believe.” For her own part, she’s more interested in the earlier myths and legends that sprung from this cave and inspired the author in the first place. “This land is much older than El Quijote,” says Francisca, her voice echoing through this chamber of the deepest, profoundest Spain.

Late afternoon at Laguna de Batanas, a lake in Lagunas de Ruidera Natural Park.

Photograph by Ben Roberts

How to do it

Wine Tourism Spain offers a private driving tour of Don Quixote landmarks in La Mancha, including lunch, and tasting stops at local vineyards, from €210 (£179) per person.

Published in the June issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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