This is Don Quixote and Sancho Panza country, and the tourist board of Castilla-La Mancha is very reluctant to let you forget it. Driving through this arid-looking region, references to Cervantes’ two most famous creations can be spotted just about everywhere. As can Don Quixote’s greatest enemy, the windmills he so famously tilted at, erroneously believing them to be giants, their sails the giants’ hulking arms.
Coming from a country where windmills are somewhat grander than their Spanish counterparts might have dampened my enthusiasm for them. Thankfully schoolboy memories of reading Cervantes (in translation) were enough to make the sight of squat, white Spanish windmills on the horizon thrilling. The Dutch connection doesn’t end there; many interpret Don Quixote (in part, at least) as a critique of Spain’s foreign policy and military occupation of The Netherlands during the Eighty Years War.
Despite its literary associations, historic towns, dramatic castles, hilltop windmills and surreal landscapes of red soil dotted with rows of vines and olive trees, Castilla-La Mancha receives little of the tourist attention that Andalusia or the ‘costas’ to the south get. This ‘second rung’ status seems to be underlined by my two guidebooks, one of which dismisses this fascinating region with barely concealed contempt; the other reserves one of its thinnest sections for Castilla-La Mancha – a mere 29 pages, compared to 126 pages for Andalusia.
Driving through this vast region on quiet rural roads it often feels like you’ve wandered into an empty space on the map. You can go for hours without seeing much in the way of ‘life’. The roads are empty, often arrow straight, and the villages and small towns you pass through define the word siesta: sleepy, dusty and with an air of abandonment, but always with a disproportionately enormous church hinting at a more populous past. It’s like being in a Lorca play.
Leaving lovely but chilly Cuenca behind, we meandered around the countryside, visiting the windmills of Campo de Criptana before spending the night in Belmonte. Belmonte is a sleepy place, home to a couple of thousand people and shrinking – it has lost a third of its population in the last 30 years. Like so much of the world, Spain’s demographic present is from the countryside to the town. This is true everywhere, but in Castilla-La Mancha you get the sense that entire populations are missing.
Belmonte does, however, have a truly magnificent 15th Century castle standing imposingly on top of a hill overlooking the town. The castle features in Don Quixote, a place where the eponymous hero charges a windmill.
The castle is also strongly associated with Empress Eugenie of France, who came originally from Granada. Eugenie had the misfortune to be married to Emperor Napoleon III, who not only lost the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, but was humiliatingly captured by the Prussians at the Battle of Sedan and lost his throne as well. The Imperial family were officially exiled to England, but Eugenie regularly returned to her Spanish homeland and stayed at Belmonte Castle on a number of occasions. Her ghost is said to wander the corridors mournfully contemplating what might have been.
We’d arrived late to Belmonte and nothing much seemed open. Luckily the Palacio Buenavista Hospederia, a lovely hotel in a converted 16th Century building, had a good restaurant. It also gave us a room providing great views as a violent, short-lived storm blew across the town creating a dramatic view of the castle.