On March 19th 2009 we were on a week’s holiday in Castilla-La Mancha and on one blue sky day took a drive from the little town of Belmonte to the Provincial capital of Cuenca. Either side of the long straight road there were gently undulating fields with the most attractive colours. Many of the fields were being prepared for this years’ crops and others were lying fallow and this produced a stunning vista of subtle colours and variations of tone; champagne and parchment, cream, olive, grey lavender, gold and russet red that were almost autumnal and lying crushed under the burden of a vivid blue spring sky.
One of the most interesting crops grown in La Mancha is the autumn crocus which is the precious source of the world’s most expensive spice – Saffron, which is harvested from the dried stigma of the flower and is an essential ingredient of a Spanish paella and responsible for giving the dish its distinctive golden yellow appearance. As this was March we obviously didn’t see any autumn crocus on this visit.
After a few kilometres there was a dusty track that left the road and led to the medieval castle of De Haro that was situated in a good position on the top of a hill and we drove to it but up close its condition was not what it seemed from a distance and it was not open to visitors so we retraced our steps and carried on. Now we were on the ‘Ruta de Don Quixote’ which is the golden thread that binds the Castilian tourist industry together in a ribbon of castles and windmills stretching from Cuenca to Toledo.
Don Quixote is a novel written by the seventeenth century Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and is regarded as the most influential work of literature to emerge from the Spanish Golden Age. It is the story of a man who believes that he is a knight, and recounts his adventures as he rights wrongs, mistakes peasants for princesses, and “tilts at windmills,” mistakenly believing them to be evil giants. As one of the earliest works of modern western literature, it regularly appears high on lists of the greatest works of fiction ever published. In 2002 a panel of one hundred leading world authors declared Don Quixote to be the best work of fiction ever written, ahead even of works by Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Cervantes has also been credited with shaping modern literary style, and Don Quixote has been acclaimed as “the first great novel of world literature”. Since publication in 1605 it is reputed to be the most widely read and translated book on the planet after the Bible. I tried to read it once but found it a bit heavy going so gave up quite quickly but as we drove along I resolved to give it another go upon returning home.
From Belmonte to Cuenca was a distance of about ninety kilometres and after half way the landscape began to change and we left behind the patchwork of fields and farmland and as we started to climb through hills it became more dramatic with steep sided hills and pine forests and busy rivers dashing madly through narrow gorges. The previously straight road ran into concertina like bends and driving required greater attention to the road. Eventually it stopped climbing and the landscape flattened and we made our final approach into Cuenca.