Madman of La Mancha

One author’s enduring prose celebrates a robust region of Spain
travel, history, culture, lifestyle, art
Written By Lesley Conn
Photography By Matthew Stephan

Quixote in sculpted metal at Campo de Criptana’s museum.

Miguel de Cervantes failed at almost everything he tried. He fled university after injuring a classmate in a duel. Within a year of becoming a soldier in 1570, he lost the use of his left hand at the Battle of Lepanto, and later, lost five years of his life as a prisoner of war.

He fared no better in business. As an accountant, he was accused of financial mismanagement, which led to another three-month imprisonment. Marriage, too, proved sour. He found no lasting love with two wives, and his only child was born to a woman married to someone else.

As decade after decade of hardship piled upon Cervantes, the masterpiece he eventually crafted after all those years of turmoil transformed him into a best-selling author at age 58.

Four hundred years after part two of Cervantes’ epic “The Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote de La Mancha” was published in 1615, Cervantes is still regarded as the father of the single greatest contribution to Spanish literature and author of one of the most important novels in the world. Don Quixote draws from Cervantes’s failures and turns the author’s life experiences into one of the first comic road trips in history, taking full advantage of a mismatched pair of buddies in the form of the crazed, emaciated knight-errant Don Quixote and his well-grounded and amply fed sidekick Sancho Panza.

Cervantes’ tome is about more than humor; its themes of love, hope, a yearning for adventure, and the indignity of aging are relatable across time and generations.

Don Quixote has been translated into more than 200 languages, studied in literature classes worldwide and celebrated onstage in “Man of La Mancha.”

To truly experience Quixote’s world, though, one must travel to La Mancha, the region of Spain that serves as a colorful backdrop for Quixote’s misadventures.


Toledo still bears the imprint of Roman architecture

Toledo, the capital of the La Mancha region, is ideally suited as a gateway to gallant adventure. Every valiant knight needs sword and armor, a glorious church to sustain his faith, and romance to feed the heart. Toledo provides all three, even today.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Toledo was at the height of its glory, drawing the greatest architects and artists who lent their talents to castles and cathedrals, stately homes and ornate public buildings and monuments.

Even from miles away, the city still exudes a charm that is only heightened as you begin to wind your way along hilly roads, past neat rows of Italian cypress and golden fields.

It’s easy to picture Quixote and Sancho approaching Toledo, the knight on his steed Rocinante and his companion on a donkey named Dapple. The closer they got, the more the towering protective wall would have loomed before them. The fortification, built in the sixth century during Visigoth rule, still stands today. From the highest hills, the Cathedral of Santa Iglesia and the Alcazar, once the royal palace, shine like golden beacons at night, the very image needed to propel a treasure-seeking knight into the heart of the city.

Within the walled city, narrow cobblestone streets wind up and down steep hills, past shops and restaurants that offer weary travelers welcome respite. For a few, the looming buildings confuse the sense of direction; for others, surely as it would have for Quixote, they create a sense of adventure for what new experience might be waiting around the next erratic turn.

Strong Blades and Fine Crafting

One of Toledo’s twisting paths leads to Mariano Zamorano. He is the last swordsman who still forges steel within the walled city. He is a fourth-generation armorer and a first-class showman. Step into his narrow shop, tucked in a corner on Calle Ciudad, and Zamorano will guide you through his workshop where blades are shaped and edged, outfitted with pommels, grips and guards, then polished until gleaming. He creates replicas of classic swords throughout history but also will craft swords, daggers and pocketknives by design.

Toledo steel throughout history has been recognized as the strongest blade because of its extraordinary hardness and the special slanting edge of the weapon. Hannibal fought with Toledo steel against the Romans, who soon adopted the broad, flat swords for themselves.

Ask him what type of sword Don Quixote might have carried, and Zamorano whips into action, pulling a thin rapier from the wall and slicing the air in figure eights. Earlier swords, he says, were much heavier and meant mostly for hacking. A rapier, though, could slice and stab, a point he proves by playfully poking a bystander’s stomach with the tip of the blade.

In Cervantes’ time and before, Zamorano says, swords were made of iron, and were very difficult to produce. Because of that, few civilians would have possessed them. Except of course, a nobleman such as Don Quixote.

Zamorano has plenty of company from fellow craftsmen. While they might not produce on site, dozens of shops line city streets, featuring Toledo steel and another local specialty, damascene. This, too, is an ancient art form; black steel in platters, jewelry and other ornaments is embellished with intricate patterns. The most coveted pieces are etched and inlaid with the thinnest strands of 24-karat gold.

On Holy Ground

Master craftsmanship and superb engineering are on full display within the city’s grandest house of worship, the Cathedral of Santa Iglesia. The city itself for almost 1,000 years has seen citizens of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths peacefully coexist, and because of the contributions of each, Toledo is known as “the city of three cultures.”

Santa Iglesia displays some of those shared influences within the massive walls of the 13th century high Gothic cathedral. The scale of the artistry inside is breathtaking. Double side aisles and a ceiling height of 108 feet further emphasize the grandeur. Down every aisle, from floor to ceiling, are walls resplendent with marble carvings, stained glass and murals and paintings, some by the artist El Greco. His first masterpiece, “The Spoliation,” is here.

A baroque-style marble creation, known as “El Transparente,” is considered the greatest artistic achievement in the cathedral. Gazing upon it, one would hardly imagine that this was a builder’s fix after construction. The cathedral’s high altar was persistently bathed in darkness, so sculptor and painter Narciso Tomé was hired to improve the lighting. He pierced the dome to allow sunlight in, and directed it through a window encircled by a magnificent sculpture of the four archangels, who form a three-dimensional eruption of curving marble amid ribbons of gold.

If there is one single object within the cathedral that demonstrates the faith, power and wealth of the Catholic Church during this era, it is the monstrance, a silver and gold statuary carried through the streets each year during the festival of Corpus Christi. The tower of precious metal and jewels was nearly a century in the making, and according to cathedral literature, at Queen Isabella’s insistence, contains the first gold that Christopher Columbus brought back from the New World.

Tilting at Windmills

As Don Quixote left the city, he would have been surrounded by natural abundant beauty. While the terrain of the La Mancha region is flat and vast, it is graced with fields of golden hay, acres of olive trees, rows of sunflowers and, to the south, brilliant purple saffron fields considered the rarest and most extraordinary in the world.

To the farmers raising crops of wheat and other cereals, windmills were vital for grinding grain into flour. For Quixote, they were hulking giants that once vanquished, he thought, would provide spoils of war sure to make him and Sancho rich beyond measure.

The only result, however, was one of the most comedic—and lasting—memories in literature when Quixote and his horse are snared and tossed airborne by one of the sails.

Two cities, both about two hours south of Toledo, are home to some of the original windmills. And because Cervantes never specified where the famous joust occurred, both Campo de Criptana and Consuegra promote their towns as “the site” of the famous encounter, but Criptana earned the endorsement as the most likely setting from the Royal Spanish Academy and the Council of Europe. At Criptana, the 10 white giants stand like sentries over the small town and are bathed in soft rose hues at sunrise and sunset. Many of the windmills still bear the names of the owners, and each Saturday, visitors can watch live demonstrations of a windmill at work. Another is open to tour.

Criptana has some surprises in store for those who look beyond the obvious, and both are welcome retreats from the day’s scorching heat.

Cervantes’ tome is about more than humor; its themes of love, hope, a yearning for adventure, and the indignity of aging are relatable across time and generations.

Step beyond the heavy wooden door at the restaurant Cueva La Martina and behold an outdoor patio overlooking the city and the surrounding countryside. But more awaits. The restaurant has converted some of the 16th century cave dwellings into intimate dining rooms. Despite its rural locale, Cueva is rated as one of the country’s better restaurants. Plan to dine on fare such as sautéed octopus and poached eggs with truffles and crunchy Iberian ham.

The adjacent tourism office serves as the gateway to an underground museum, which features works from Spanish artists Antonio Manjavacas and Eloy Teno, who bend wire and shape metal to create works, often with quixotic themes.

For those who want to deeply immerse themselves in the Quixote experience, dozens of other sites await exploration. Castle Belmonte, in nearby Cuenca, offers a glimpse of 15th century refinement. North of Toledo, the Quixote tour includes the town of Esquivias. Visit the “mansion” where Cervantes lived, and see several translated editions of the novel, the oldest a 17th century English edition, as well as municipal documents that reveal some of the characters in the book were people who lived in Esquivias. Also nearby is Illescas, where the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Charity houses five paintings by El Greco.

Spend even a few days in the land of La Mancha, and if fortune favors you as it did Cervantes and El Greco, perhaps you, too, will find inspiration to last a lifetime.

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