CLICK HERE for our
FREE Weekly News Bulletin
Castilla La Mancha
The land of Don Quijote, vast plains, mountains, wine and mediaeval cities
Castilla-La Mancha is the third largest of Spain’s seventeen Autonomous Communities, covering an area of 79,463 square kilometres. That’s marginally bigger then Scotland, and considerably bigger than the Netherlands and Belgium combined, yet the area is little visited by traditional British holidaymakers.
Castilla-La Mancha occupies the southern central inland area of Spain, extending from the region of Madrid towards the Mediterranean, with Valencia, Murcia and Andalucia to the south, then Castilla y León, Madrid, Aragon and Extremadura as its remaining neighbours
Perhaps the region’s most famous son is a man who didn’t exist: Don Quijote de La Mancha, the best known literary creation of Miguel de Cervantes. The name of the area of La Mancha comes from the Arab word “al-mansha”, meaning “wilderness” or “dry land”, and this reflects the geography of most of the southern part of the modern Autonomous Commmunity: it consists of a high plateau more than 600 metres above sea level, stretching from Toledo in the east to Cuenca in the west. This flat and uniform landscape gives rise to a stereotype of its locals being ordinary, long-suffering, unglamorous, hard-working folk, and it has been speculated that Cervantes chose to make his hero a native of the area since it was viewed an unlikely place for a gallant, chivalrous knight to come from.
Nowadays the region consists of five provinces: Guadalajara, Albacete, Ciudad Real, Cuenca and Toledo, where the region has its administrative capital, and despite its geographical size only 4.5% of Spain’s population (2.1 million) live here. The largest city in terms of population is Albacete. There are still large swathes of uninhabited landscape on the plain between the towns and cities dotted on the map, which give the region a total of 919 municipalities.
There are five principle water ways in the region, the Tagus, Guadiana, and Guadalquivir draining into the Atlantic Ocean and the Júcar and Segura into the Mediterranean. Around the waterways are areas of lush greenery, and the region also has significant mountainous ranges, with the Sistema Central in the north, the Sistema Ibérico in the northeast, and the Sierra Morena and Montes de Toledo in the south.
The region is generally dry, receiving very little in the way of natural precipitation, with an average of 600mm per year. Mountainous areas receive significantly more, creating substantial forested areas, while the central plains can expect considerably less, hence the dry, dusty plains in the heart of the region. The fact that the region is inland means that temperatures in the summer often exceed 30 °C and drop below freezing in the winter.
Like the rest of southern Spain, the history of the region can be broadly divided into the periods when it was ruled by different cultures. After the initial Iberian culture was superseded by the Romans, the Visigoths made Toledo their regional centre before the Moors arrived in 711. It was over three hundred years before the monarchs of Castile began the process of the Reconquista in this part of the Iberian Peninsula, with Alfonso VI taking Guadalajara in 1072. Toledo, which is now the capital of the region, followed soon after, but not until 1255 did Ciudad Real become the last of today’s provincial capitals to fall under Christian rule. Throughout the Middle Ages most of the area continued under the crown of Castile.
Nowadays most visitors choose to base themselves in one of the provincial capitals, although the historical legacy is also close to the surface in many of the smaller towns.
Toledo is the largest single tourist attraction, the old city being one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. The skyline is dominated by the Alcázar, which began life as a Roman fortress and was still an important fortification in the Civil War, and the 13th century Gothic Cathedral, a juxtaposition of the religious and the military and a combination of varied cultural references which nicely reflects the varied history of the region. The city is also famous as the home of painter El Greco (the subject of one of the many museums in Toledo), and for its one-time supremacy in the production of steel-bladed swords and other weapons.
The city of Cuenca, in the north-east of the region, is equally attractive although not so well known. It is located on a spur of land where the River Huécar joins the Júcar, and the old city perches high above the water below. The cathedral is the first such Gothic structure in Spain, and includes many Anglo-Norman elements due to influence of Alfonso VIII’s wife, Eleanor, who was the daughter of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. But perhaps the most famous buildings in Cuenca are the spectacular “Casas Colgadas” (hanging houses,), which sit precariously on the cliff-top above the river gorge. They now house a restaurant, a hotel and the fascinating abstract art museum which provides a perfect counterpoint to the historic atmosphere which pervades the rest of the old city.
The countryside in Cuenca is simply beautiful. All visitors are recommended to take a trip from the city to the Ciudad Encantada (enchanted city) about 30km away - this is a series of spectacular natural rock sculptures where erosion has created surreal mushroom-like shapes in the karst limestone, and the visit is made even more memorable by the distance between villages in this part of the country. The landscape here is practically untouched by human activity!
The city of Albacete boasts a 16th-century cathedral, but the biggest attraction is probably the Fair which is held every year between 7th and 17th September. For these ten days the population of the city (normally 172,000) is said to triple as revellers carry on a tradition which dates back 800 years. Many also choose to visit the picturesque landscape of the Sierra de Alcaraz and the Rio Mundo in the south of the province: perfect for a getaway break in rural accommodation.
Ciudad Real is another historic city, as its name (“Royal City”) suggests. It was founded in 1255 by King Alfonso X “El Sabio”, who ordered a heavily fortified walled city to be constructed, featuring 130 towers and six gates, of which nowadays only the Puerta de Toledo remains. Originally it was named Villa Real, the name being changed in 1420, and today much of the original medieval city can still be seen.
The province of Ciudad Real is true Quijote country, and special tours can be taken by those wishing to explore the landscape through Cervantes’ eyes.
The ancient city of Guadalajara, founded by the Moors in the 8th century on the site of an old Roman settlement, is another historic location, featuring the Palacio del Infantado, the Cathedral and the church of San Ginés in the central Plaza de Santo Domingo. In the surrounding province the mountains and hills make this an ideal destination for rural tourism.
No description of any part of Spain is complete without a mention of the regional gastronomy, and in this respect Castilla-La Mancha is famed above all for its Manchego sheep’s cheeses, lamb, mushrooms, olive oil, saffron, aubergines, pisto stew, gazpacho, and of course wine. 52% of the soil in Castilla La Mancha is considered “dry”, which means that the main crops produced are wheat, grapes, olives and barley with nearly 1.7 million acres of land dedicated to wine production, and livestock farming focuses on sheep, pigs, coats and cattle. Bee keeping is also an important industry, all of these principal crops contributing to the gastronomic traditions of the region.
Equally important, as in all regions of Spain, are the fiestas. Apart from the typical Easter processions which are common to all of the south, Castilla-La Mancha has a wide variety of local events which attract visitors in large numbers, such as the historic Caballada de Atienza in the province of Guadalajara, which has taken place every May since 1162 to celebrate the escape of young Alfonso VIII from the town in that year. At the end of October the saffron harvest in Consuegra (Toledo) is a colourful and aromatic festival, and this colour is matched by the Moros and Cristianos celebration in Almansa (Albacete) in the first week of May. In Cuenca the Fiestas de San Mateo, which are celebrated on 21st September, commemorate the Reconquista of the city in 1177, and offer a great opportunity to try the local drink known as “zurra”, which is based on white wine, lemon and sugar.
Finally, though, we return to Cervantes. The parallels between the great writer and William Shakespeare are many – they even died within 24 hours of each other in 1616 – and whereas in London visitors can enjoy a reconstruction of the Globe theatre, in the small town of Almagro, in the province of Ciudad Real, it is possible to visit an original early 17th century theatre, the Corral de Comedias. This is home to a theatre museum and an annual classical theatre festival in July, and for those wishing to take a journey to the roots of Spain’s modern cultural identity a trip to the town, which is 35km south-east of Ciudad Real itself, is an absolute must.
Throughout the vast region of Castilla-La Mancha, whether in the historic cities, the picturesque mountains or the seemingly never-ending plains, visitors are left in no doubt at all that they are in the very heart of Spain: not the flamenco vivacity of Andalucía, not the green rolling hills of the north, and not the tourist hotspots of the Mediterranean coast, but the unforgiving landscape where the deluded Don Quijote tilted at windmills, accompanied by the simple, practical, earthy, ironic realist Sancho Panza, the true “Man of La Mancha”.
Principal locations to visit:
Cathedrals in Castilla–La Mancha
Cathedral of Toledo, Cathedral of Sigüenza, Cathedral of Cuenca, Cathedral of Albacete, Cathedral of Ciudad Real
Principle castles worth visiting in Castilla–La Mancha:
Alcázar of Toledo, Alcázar of Molina de Aragón, Alcazaba de Zorita, Castle of Alarcón, Castle of Almansa, Castle of Argamasilla de Alba, Castle of Atienza, Castle of Barcience, Calatrava la Vieja, Calatrava la Nueva, Castle of Chinchilla, Castle of Consuegra, Castillo de Garcimuñoz, Castle of Guadamur, Castle of Jadraque, Castle of Maqueda, Castle of Montiel, Castle of Orgaz, Castle of Pioz, Castle of Sigüenza, Castle of Socovos, Castle of Torija, Castle of Uclés, Castle of Zafra
Cádiz Province, Andalucia
Granada Province: Andalucia
Huelva Province, Andalucía
Jaén Province, Andalucia
Málaga Province, Andalucía
Region of Andalucia
Seville Province, Andalucía
Córdoba Province, Andalucia
Autonomous Community of Galicia
Castilla La Mancha
Castilla y León
Airlines and Travel SpainCaso BárcenasCaso NóosEbola SpainGibraltarProperty in SpainRodrigo Rato BankiaSareb, Bad Bank, Banco MaloSpanish separatism/ETATourism SpainWeekly Bulletin Spanish NewsWeekly Bulletin Spanish Property