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Toledo - quintessentially Spanish
In past centuries, the area now known as Castile La Mancha
was part of new Castile, or Castilla la Nueva. This was the great heart
of the Spanish peninsula, that stretched from north of Madrid to the
northern borders of Andalucia; the area is now divided into the
communities of Castile la Mancha and the Madrid region.
This Castile was "new" in reference to Old
Castile, further north (now known as Castilla
); the two Castiles
were, one after the other, the bastions from which the Catholic Kings
of Spain - los Reyes Catolicos - gradually reconquered the Spanish
peninsula from the the Moors, a process that lasted almost eight
centuries from the battle of Covadonga - probably in AD 722 - to the
final expulsion of the Moors from their last bastion in Granada, in
New Castile was brought back under Christian rule
in the year 1085 when King Alfonso VI assumed power over the
former Kingdom of Toledo, following a deal with the Moorish
Since then, the area that is now
Castile la Mancha has come to represent the heart of Spain. This is in
part due to the region's most famous - but fictitious - son, the world
renowned Don Quixote. In the novel, often regarded as the founding
novel of modern European literature, Miguel Cervantes tells the story
of Don Quixote de la Mancha, a rather senile country gentleman who sets
off on a picaresque mission to recreate the age of chivalry. Among the
best known episodes in the novel is the section where Don Quixote picks
a fight with windmills, imaging them to be dastardly giants.
While Cervantes did not specify exactly
where don Quixote tilted at windmills, Castile la Mancha's windmills
have become icons of the region. There is a Don Quixote trail starting
from the small town of Orgaz
south of Toledo, which takes in several
sites with hilltop windmills, including the most famous of these at
where there are still eleven historic windmills for visitors
to tilt at. The mills are monuments to the region's traditional
economy; this part of the southern Meseta of central Spain has for
centuries been a major wheat growing area, and wheat is still the
principal agricultural activity in the region today.
The area is also home to large and
small flocks of sheep, and has achieved one of Spain's modern
agribusiness success stories, by making the local sheep's cheese, just
known as Manchego, into a major export product.
Interestingly, Castile la Mancha is
also Spain's largest wine producing region, producing over half of the
country's wine. The La Mancha DO ( Denominación
or Geographical appellation) wine region,
located mostly in the south of the region, is the largest wine
appellation area in the world; but it is not very well known, being
well away from most tourist routes. The largest concentration of
vineyards is in the province of Ciudad
. The hot dry conditions
prevalent in this part of Spain are ideal for the large-scale
production of table wines; but in the last thirty years, more and more
of La Mancha's wine producers have been putting quality before
quantity, and good wines from la Mancha can now hold their own against
many better known names from elsewhere in Spain, and other countries.
Among old Spanish cities, Toledo is one of the many jewels in the
crown. The old city stands on a hill in a loop of the river Tagus. The
river is crossed by two historic bridges, including the Roman Alcantara
bridge, and the old city is partly surrounded by defensive walls. The
walls are pierced by ancient gates, notably the 14th century Mudejar
style Puerta del Sol, and the Roman gate at the end of the Alcantara
The former mosque of Christo de la Luz, built in 999 AD
Old Toledo is like a living museum;a
UNESCO world heritage site, it is the city that brings together, like
no other, the three historic strands of Spanish art and culture
– the Christian heritage, the Moorish heritage, and the
Jewish heritage. After the Alcantara bridge, the oldest monument in
Toledo is the tiny church of Christo de la Luz is the only survivor of
the ten mosques that stood in Toledo before the Reconquest. Built in
the year 999 AD, it is a beautiful intimate tribute to the
architectural and decoratives skills of mediaeval Islam. The
tenth-century interior survives, as part of a slightly larger mediaeval
building in the Mudejar style - the classically Moorish style that was
adopted by many Spanish Christian architects and builders in the
centuries following the Reconquest.
Toledo has several Mudejar monuments, the finest
of which is the 14th century church of San Tomé: but the
finely decorated Mudejar tower is not San Tomé's chief claim
to fame. The church is best known for housing what is generally
regarded as the finest work of art by El Greco, Toledo's most famous
artist. The vast Burial
of the Count of Orgaz
- which is a remarkable group
portrait of the important citizens of Toledo in the late 16th century -
stands in the church for which it was originally commissioned in the
There are other works by El Greco in several locations in
Toledo, notably in the El Greco house and museum, a few hundred metres
down from San Tomé. A bit further on is the Synagogue of
Santa Maria la Blanca, another great mediaeval Mudejar monument, and a
museum of the history of the Jewish community in Toledo.
The most visited historic monument in Toledo is
the great Gothic cathedral on the crest of the hill, dating from the
15th century: it is reputedly the most interesting cathedral in Spain.
Essentially Gothic in style, it is built on the site of an earlier
Visigothic cathedral and then Moorish mosque. Inside, like most similar
buildings in Spain, the cathedral contains a large decorated retable or
altarpiece. Overall, there are in the cathedral and its chapels far too
many points of interest to list here: however it is worth noting that
Toledo cathedral's Sacristy is one of the great art galleries of Spain
with works by Titian, El Greco, Velasquez, Goya, Van Dyck and others,
as well as a remarkable collection of artefacts.
Old Cuenca, and the cathedral, under falling snow.
While Toledo - less than an hour from Madrid - is
firmly on the tourist trail, the same can not be said of Castile la
Mancha's other gem, the small city of Cuenca. Foreign tourists are
relatively scarce in this delightful old city that is like no other in
Spain, or indeed in Europe. Until recently Cuenca was well off the
beaten track; but today it is connected to Madrid by a new motorway and
is on the Madrid-Valencia high-speed rail line.
While Toledo stands on the hot dry plains, Cuenca
is a mountain city, located at 1000 metres on the edge of the Sierra de
Cuenca, at the eastern edge of Castile la Mancha.
the city is most remarkable for its location, as
it is built on a narrow neck of rock with virtually vertical cliffs on
either side. In past centuries, lack of space in the city led to
citizens looking for original ways to get more out of less, and to
build houses cantilevered out over the abyss. The famous "hanging
houses of Cuenca" are not unique, but are a unique architectural
feature among Spanish cities.
Cuenca also boasts a remarkable footbridge,
spanning the chasm on the south side of the old city. The
Puente de San Pablo was originally built in the 16th century to connect
the old city to the San Pablo monastery on the other side of the gorge.
The present bridge was built in 1902.
Cuenca's cathedral is one of the oldest in Spain.
Behind the unusual facade, rebuilt in 1902, can be found what is
essentially an Anglo-Norman gothic cathedral. The style was inspired by
the wife of King Alfonso VIII of Castile, who was Eleanor of England,
daughter of Henry II.
The hills - or mountains - around Cuenca are
largely forested, and are excellent hiking country. They contain a
number of interesting monuments and locations, the best known of which
is the Ciudad Encantada, a remarkable area or karstic rock formations
of the strangest and most unlikely shapes. Another less
spectacular and less visited, but very interesting karstic area is
the Palancares y Tierra Muerta natural monument, a geological
and wildlife area open in summer and at weekends.
In the southwest of Cuenca province, a place worth
visiting is the Castle at Belmonte
Familiar to movie buffs as the
castle used in the 1961 blockbuster El Cid, Belmonte is today
remarkably intact and, from the outside, appears fairly much as it
would have done at the start of the sixteenth century, shortly after it
was built. The castle was extensively renovated in the nineteenth
In the far north of Castilla la Mancha, the small
town of Siguenza
an delightful place to visit. Though its population is
just about 5000, it boasts an impressive mediaeval fortress (now a ****
), and a fine gothic cathedral, with beautiful
From the 15th to the 19th centuries, Siguenza was the seat of a
well-known university. Three kilometres north of Siguenza, one
remarkable spot off the beaten track is the tiny village of Palazuelos
in the complete protection of its mediaeval walls.
Part of the open-air mining museum at Almadén.
Right in the south of Castila la Mancha, a unique site that
is really worth visiting is the museum and the mine at Almadén
a UNESCO world heritage site. Mercury was mined at Almaden from Roman
times until 2003. Today the mine is no longer exploited, but former
miners guide visitors on a 2½ hour underground trip. There
generally two visits per day, one in the morning, one in the afternoon;
but given the limited capacity, it is highly recommended to book in advance
directly with the
mine. The museum, above ground, can be visited during normal visiting
hours, and reservation is not needed.