La Mancha: The Not so Empty Quarter

© Marshall Carter-Tripp

In October 1996 we took our first trip from Madrid, driving to Almagro.  We were drawn to the town by a photograph of the huge wine vats in the Parador bar, which were indeed extraordinary - but we had no idea how delightful the town would be, nor how fascinating the countryside.  We’ve returned many times; what follows is a distillation of the pleasures of southern Castilla-La Mancha..

From Madrid you can approach the great plain of La Mancha through the N-IV, via Tembleque and its beautiful plaza, or through the back door, by Toledo.  The latter route recommends itself by the absence of travel on an early Saturday morning, and moreover has several castles.  The main one is Orgaz, about 40 km south, (only open, according to recent information, on the second Wednesday of the month between April and November).  Before you reach Orgaz the ruins of Almonacid de Toledo, an abandoned Moorish castle, appear on the ridge to the east.  Both have connections, probably apocryphal, to El Cid.  Mascaraque follows, which has modest remains of a castle right in the town, ivy-covered and very photogenic.  Finally, Mora has a 15th century church and a 12th century castle overlooking it.  The low level of provision for drivers along this route suggests that you should stop for a coffee when you can, and mind that you have a full gas tank when you start out.

Either way, N-IV, or 401, you’ll reach Consuegra in about an hour and half.  This is one of the finest of all windmill views; once you have seen the 11 (formerly 13) windmills centered by a castle along the ride overlooking the town, you’ll be tempted to stop here every time you head south.  La Mancha is also the center of the saffron industry - more than half of the world’s saffron is grown in this area of Spain.  On the last weekend of October every year, Consuegra celebrates a saffron harvest festival (and the great mill Sancho, more than 300 years old, lurches back into action).  Local growers compete for titles, as whole families gather about to strip each tiny purple saffron flower (a variety of autumn crocus) of its three golden stamens, which are then roasted to (what the judges consider to be) perfection.  Each pound represents over 60,000 flowers...saffron seems more reasonably priced after you visit the festival!  There is also a cook-off for local specialties, such as migas (a bread-crumb/sausage/onion/etc dish), judged (at least this year) by ladies, but mostly competed in by elderly gentlemen, who have a lot of enthusiastic comment from the sidelines, and then everyone lines up to share the dishes.

From Consuegra there are back roads into Damiel, but the most efficient route is to return to the N-IV as far as Puerto Lapice, where you can stop for a snack or lunch if it is that time of day, and then on to Damiel and Las Tablas, by the N-420.  Las Tablas, a series of marshy areas fed by the Guadiana river, is one of the national parks.  The park is a crucial habitat area, of some 2000 sq. hectares, for survival of many aquatic birds.  Las Tablas has suffered from the recent drought years but is now recovering some of its water flow, partly as the result of agreements at national level about controlling use of the acquifer in the area.  There is a small visitor center, and then just the wetlands, with three main trails.   Timing a visit here for late afternoon, or early morning, in the spring or fall, would be best for comfort; the light is wonderful if you enjoy nature photography.  The visitor center is open 10 to 6 in winter and 9 to 9 in the summer. 

From Damiel to Almagro is just a skip; and the atmosphere changes dramatically.  Almagro is a Manchego town, but it is something else as well - it was first the seat of the powerful order of the Knights of Calatrava, as the Christians and Moors fought over this part of Iberia in the 13th century.  From that time came many fine mansions.  And then in the 16th and 17th century it was a lively cultural center when the Fuggers (or Fúcares) and other German bankers were running the mercury mines nearby, a concession by Charles V to help pay off his massive debts.  A strong German/Low Countries influence in the architecture followed...and the lace-makers are reminiscent of lace-makers in Belgium (although the lace itself is not the same).  The entire town seems to be waiting to be photographed.  And more, in July it hosts a theatre festival in the charming theatre on the green-arcaded town square...If you do not stay in the Parador, at least stop here to see those wine vats in the bar ... (we have a soft spot for this Parador, as it was the first one we visited, and we were cared for very well).  Outside the Parador you can dine excellently at El Corregidor, in the setting of a 17th inn.  Local specialties include marinated eggplants, which are also available for sale in the central plaza.  Here as well are a number of shops selling various styles of “country pottery” and lots of lace.  If you want real Almagro lace you will pay more than these shops could charge- but there are several reliable sources around the plaza and nearby (Galería de Arte Fúcares, Felipe Moreno-Torres).  And the price will still be less than you would expect for such beautiful work.

A happy alternative to Almagro as a stopping point lies further west, in the shadow of the Calatrava castle.  Ballesteros de Calatrava, near Ciudad Real, is the site of an inn belonging to the “Small Charming Hotels” group.  The Palacio de la Serna (926  84 22 08) offers an attractive, and quiet, stop - a swimming pool for the right weather, or horse-back riding, along with long walks in the country.  The owners have re-made an 18th century palace, with a fine mix of comfort and whimsy.  Dinner is served on weekends or by arrangement at other times (necessary, as the village itself has no other restaurant).

From either Almagro or Ballesteros you can explore the wonderful countryside of lower La Mancha.  Nearby is the fabulous Calatrava castle, home to the order of Calatrava, one of the military orders that formed to spearhead the Reconquista.  (Visits from 10-2 and 5-7 but not on national holidays, sad to say.)  The view from the castle is stunning enough to merit the trip up even if the gate is locked; if you manage to visit, check out the Gothic church inside the walls.  Then go on down to Viso del Marqués, another Calatrava town, where Alvaro de Bazán, Admiral of the Seas in the days of the Armada, had his family home - and, according to some, if he had only lived to see the Armada through the story would have turned out differently.  The palacio now houses the archives of the Spanish navy - and a fine cat lives in the garden.  Alvaro de Bazán (who served during the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) admired Neapolitan art, and so constructed his house in the Italian manner, using Italian architects.  One of the more interesting things we heard on the guided tour was that one of the towers was knocked down by the “Lisbon” earthquake of 1755 -  several hundred miles west.

From here west you can detour through wonderful mountain scenery of the Alcudia valley, enjoying a very relaxing traffic level of about one car per hour, and continue on west of Ciudad Real into the Campo de Calatrava, a volcanic landscape with many hot springs - to Valverde, a crater lake, or near Porzuna, a volcanic hill, for example.  (Or if you are ending a weekend, Viso del Marqués is a short hop to the N-IV and back to Madrid.)  We were heading back to the inn at Ballesteros, and, running very late for lunch, found a fine place in Almodóvar del Campo, west of Puertollano, El Comendador.  Excellent grilled meats and roast lamb, topped off with an bottle of the local Estola Reserva red, and lots of country atmosphere in an old bodega.

If time permits, Villanueva de los Infantes, east of Valdepeñas, would be a pleasant detour.  Its golden arcaded plaza is a Manchegan version of Salamanca...and the town is full of wonderful 16th and 17th century mansions with carved stone doorways and coats of arms.  Villanueva is just waiting to be discovered, or yuppified.  Go now! 

Practicalities:  the Parador is just south of the town center of Almagro, tel. 926-86 01 00.  El Corregidor: 926 86 06 48; closed Mondays.  For the Palacio de la Serna, 926 84 22 08 or call the central reservations at 902 10 38 92.  Viso del Marqués has a hotel-restaurant, La Almarzara del Marqués (926 3 71 55).  El Comendador in Almodóvar del Campo:  926 48 39 53; closed Mondays, last week of September.  Villanueva de los Infantes also has a hotel-restaurant, Hospedería Real El Buscón de Quevedo, 926 36 17 88.

A Castle Weekend in La Mancha: Alarcón

© Marshall Carter-Tripp

Alarcón makes a fine excuse for another excursion - this is one of the most stunning settings of any Parador we have visited.  From Madrid the N-III is the most direct route - you’ll pass castle ruins at Fuentedueña del Tajo, and at km 156, those of Castillo de Garcimuñoz, part of the fortifications erected by the lord of Alarcón.  A few km further “old” N-III leads to the Parador.  The name of the town comes from the Arabic for “The Fortress,” and the Parador is constructed within a small castle, originally Moorish, with many additions and improvements over the years, especially by the Marqués de Villena, after whom the Parador is named, an aristocrat who rebelled against the rule of Isabel la Católica.  It is set on an escarpment surrounded by a deep S-shaped gorge of the river Júcar.  Only 13 rooms are offered, with a splendid bar/lounge with huge fireplace and suits of armor, adjoining the high-ceilinged dining room.  Views are spectacular and the food is excellent.  The tiny town was founded by a son of 6th century Visigothic king Alaric (the source of its name according to some writers).  It has a handful of interesting churches, some in ruins, and old houses with carved coats of arms.  The whole is surround by the defensive walls, and off on the cliffs are watchtowers.  Most delightful!

On the way in, or out, San Clemente and Belmonte merit a stop.  San Clemente lies south and west from the N-III.  The town reached its zenith in the 15th and 16th centuries, and has a fine plaza, church, and Ayuntamiento, with lovely carved arches and a frieze running the length of the facade.  This area was also damaged by the “Lisbon” earthquake of 1755, and the belfry of the town hall was one of the structures that suffered.  Other fine old buildings are dotted about the historic center.

Completing the circle, head up the CM 3009 to Belmonte, which lies about 30 km from the N-III on the N420.  Belmonte’s main attraction is a 15th century castle thought to have been built by Juan Güas for the Marqués de Villena; Empress Eugénie lived here for a time after Napoleon III lost the throne in 1871.  A nice overnight or weekend could be spent here at the Palacio de Buenavista, a 22-room hotel housed in a 16th century mansion in the town center.  The ground floor has a fine interior patio and attractive bar.  A double during the week is only 7500 ptas (8500 on weekends).  The restoration of the building is continuing, but the comfort level now would be fine.  Just up the street is the Colegiata de San Bartolomé, also undergoing restoration outside - but accessible for visits.  You can also tour the castle - but its 19th century owners made some rather regrettable changes in its interior, ruining the interior patio, and adding novelties such as a moveable ceiling in the bedroom, and it’s not in good condition.  Admire it from a distance (out of your hotel window, for example).  Stroll about town instead and check out the historic buildings - 16th/17th convents, ermitas, plazas and palacios, many adorned with lovely carved escudos. 

You can dine in Belmonte at the hotel, or choose one of several local spots.  Or, if you are feeling luxe, not far away, on the N-301, is Las Pedroñeras, home to one of Spain’s one-star Michelin restaurants - Las Rejas.  The chef presents traditional dishes, often in “new clothing,” in a country setting.

Still more time?  Head east from San Clemente, or south from Alarcón, to Jorquera and Alcalá del Júcar, where the river that created the Alarcón gorge has really worked overtime, carving out wild canyons - and there’s a troglodyte village where many homes are built into the cliff.  These lands were dependencies of the Marqués de Villena at Alarcón.  On the way home on the N-III, don’t forget to detour at km 103, to take in the ruins of Roman Segóbriga.

Practicalities:  In Alarcón, the Parador:  969 33 03 15.  In Belmonte, the Buenavista, on José Antonio González, 967 18 75 80.  Las Rejas, on Avenida del Brasil in Las Pedroñeras: 967 16 10 89.  Closed Sunday and non-holiday Mondays. 

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, Richard W. Tripp, Jr.