Sites of Cervantes, La Mancha, Spain
In the opening line of the eponymous masterpiece by Miguel de Cervantes, we meet the character of Don Quixote. He lives, as Cervantes puts it, “in a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind”.
It’s a lovely literary trick that sets up the style of the whole novel. Somewhat whimsical and mythical but with enough grounding in truth and enough relatable facts that you can imagine the detail.
It’s a bit like a trip through the Spanish region of La Mancha today.
For me – and you, as you follow along with me as narrator today – we don’t have the luxury of having no desire to call to mind the names of the villages in La Mancha. They will form the chapters of this journey through the land of Don Quixote, to see the landscapes that our delusional knight rode through, the landmarks where he stopped, and the genesis of the idea in the mind of Cervantes.
Let’s start in the small town of Esquivias, less than an hour’s drive south of Madrid. The town itself is pleasant but unremarkable for travellers except for the house where Cervantes spent much of his life. However, this alone is worth the visit.
Miguel de Cervantes is often called ‘the Shakespeare of Spain’ and it’s an apt comparison. Contemporaries in time (they died one day apart) and impact, Cervantes wrote his masterpiece ‘Don Quixote’ in two parts in 1605 and 1615. It is considered to be the first modern novel, probably the greatest ever written in the Spanish language, and influential in Western literature all over the world.
Casa Cervantes, Esquivias
The home of Cervantes is now a museum and, venturing inside, we see not just an insight into his life but an insight into the lives of his characters.
For it would have been a house much like this that the character of Don Quixote – a wealthy nobleman with the luxury of time to have imaginings – would have lived. In fact, it is speculated that the character was based on the uncle of the wife of Cervantes, so perhaps this house is not far from the novel at all.
Having said that, Cervantes himself could not be described as wealthy – at least, not in any stable sense. His writings did not make him much money and he had to work the land around him to survive. (You see the tools in the house.) Even then, he would often find himself in trouble for not being able to pay his taxes.
Yet, despite this, his house seems comfortably impressive for a home of the late 16th century. When I think about the world of La Mancha depicted in the book, it seems to be luxurious in pleasures and pace, if not material possessions.
Windmills at Consuegra
As we continue through La Mancha, let’s now head, narratively, to the small town of Consuegra. It has less than 10,000 residents but up on the hills at one of its borders stand 12 giants – the most important residents of all.
Of course, any reader of Don Quixote knows that these giants are actually just windmills. It is the delusions of Don Quixote that makes him see enormous men to be battled when he rides along and comes across windmills. He sees the sails as arms, trying to attack. In the novel, he charges at them with his lance and is lifted up from his horse when the weapon gets stuck.
You can go up to the windmills yourself these days – either drive or walk up from the town beneath. Leave the horses for Don. Some of the windmills are open and you’re able to go inside and climb up to the top. This is an iconic scene of La Mancha, not to be missed.
The next stop shall be Almagro, an old medieval town that stands, in some ways, as a symbol of the crossroads that allowed Don Quixote to cross paths with so many travellers on his adventures.
Almagro was once the capital of this area and the wealth and influence of passing cultures can be seen throughout the town. The most interesting spot is in the centre at the Plaza Mayor, or main square. It’s much more of a rectangle than a square, but pedantic and trivial details are not the custom of our main character so I’ll not worry either.
Off one side of the square (rectangle) is the famous Corral de Comedias, an open air theatre from the 1600s that is straight out of the world of Don Quixote. This is where the men (and some women) of his time would gather for a night of entertainment and general revelry. These days it is still used and, fittingly, the most famous tale of Cervantes is often told from the stage.
It is also worth noting that the route of the old medieval wall of Almgaro can still be traced by a ring road and there are a large number of beautiful old buildings within it that are worth seeing when you visit.
The towns of Argamasilla de Alba, Campo de Criptana, Alcazar de San Juan, and many more feature in the lives of Cervantes and Don Quixote. They inspired the writer or are referred to directly in his most famous work. He used the lands around him as the parchment on which to create his world.
Tablas de Daimiel National Park
To see a sense of the landscape of La Mancha, one stop that is worth the time is the Tablas de Daimiel National Park. It’s a protected area and is known for the special ecosystem in the wetlands. Birds float on the water, fly above, jump between trees. It’s peaceful and, while similar to much of the region, also has some unique characteristics.
I walk through, slowly watching for movement, hoping to see wildlife. But I also imagine Don Quixote making his way though here too, on horseback. In my mind’s eye, I see him atop of his somewhat trusty steed, Rocinante. By his side, I see his much more trusty sidekick, Sancho Panza. Are they going to a new adventure or coming from one? Perhaps if I counted their injuries (for they acquired new ones regularly) I would be able to work it out.
I wonder. I wonder. Does imagining the character from a book in the landscape that is in front of me make me any different from Don Quixote himself? After all, he imagined that he was coming across characters from the books of chivalry that he had read. He used La Mancha as the base and just extrapolated from there. True, he would turn an inn into a castle and a serving girl into a princess, but am I not turning shadows into the silhouette of a man, and rustling leaves into the movement of a horses leg?
That’s the thing about visiting La Mancha and seeing this region of Spain for yourself. The literal blends with the literary. It’s an adventure through the history that was and the history that was imagined. It’s the gift of Cervantes and it is kind of him to still be giving it today, in the year when we commemorate the 400th anniversary of his passing.
For accommodation, I highly recommend the Parador de Almagro.