Mention ‘Toledo, Spain’ to anyone you know and you might get a response. Mention ‘Castilla-La Mancha‘ and chances are, you’ll receive a blank look and a shrug of the shoulders. La Mancha comes from the Arabic word al Manshah, meaning dry land.
The vast area is some of the most travelled, yet least visited or appreciated, region in Spain. Once south of Toledo, most tourists thunder nonstop across the plains of Castilla-La Mancha to Valencia and Andalucía, or follow the great rivers through Extremadura into Portugal. At first sight this is understandable.
Castilla La Mancha, one of the most sparsely populated of Spain’s autonomous Communities, is divided into five separate provinces – Albacete, Ciudad Real, Cuenca, Guadalajara and Toledo, which is the capital city. South of Madrid and north of Andalucía and Murcia, this is the land of Don Quijote’s windmills and acres and acres of olive groves and sunflowers.
Geographically the region can be divided into two separate regions – the extensive, flat plateau, the meseta, and the mountains encircling it, which include parts of the Iberian Mountain range and the Sierra Morena. The rivers Tagus and Guadiana both flow eastwards through the region, whilst the Jucar river heads east.
Economically this is one of the areas which suffered most from the drift of young people into Madrid looking for work. The most important agricultural products remain wheat, grapes, olives, sunflowers and cotton, although this is also the center of Spain for saffron growing. Outside Toledo, tourism has not really developed at the rate it has in many other areas of Spain.
History of Castilla la Mancha
Before the Romans arrived in the area, this was a land of pasture only, inhabited by Carpetani and Vetoni. The Romans introduced farming on a much more organized level, and the farms created were then taken over by the more significant of the Visigoth families and then, later still, to the Moors. Toledo became an important strategic position for the Romans and the Visigoths recognized its importance by making it their chief city.
Until taken by the Christians in 1085 by Alfonso VI, it was the prominent city in the center of Moorish Spain. When Castile and Aragón were united under the Catholic monarchs in 1492, and Valladolid and Madrid received more royal patronage, the ´dry, waterless land’ that is La Mancha began to lose its elevated position. It ceased to exist completely in 1833, being absorbed into Madrid’s province, Castilla La Nueva. When the autonomous communities were drawn up in 1982, the new region was established.
Getting to Castilla la Mancha
You’re highly unlikely to head for Castilla la Mancha as your primary destination but will most likely access its main attractions on excursions from Madrid which is less than an hour’s drive from Toledo, the region’s capital. There had been plans for an international airport in Ciudad Real which would connect with the high-speed AVE rail network between Madrid and Andalucia.
There are currently AVE train stations in Ciudad Real and Puertollano and an excellent road system throughout the region which contains the main roads from Madrid to Zaragoza, Valencia, Andalucía and Badajoz as well as the road to Toledo itself.
What to see and do in Castilla la Mancha
Visit the Imperial City of Toledo
If ever a city had the atmosphere of a living museum, it has to be Toledo, a UNESCO World Heritage. Situated on a hill and more or less surrounded by the river Tajo and the old walls, the old town is totally untouched by modern development, making it crammed with monuments of every age in Spanish history. There are Moorish-Modejar-Jewish buildings – including an incredible Sinagoga del Tránsito which is as symbolically complex as the Mezquita in Córdoba. There is a fine Gothic cathedral and many Renaissance buildings of great merit. The city’s dominant building, though, is the Alcázar, a fortress since Roman times.
This was also the site of a terrible siege during the Civil War – you can still see bullet holes and shell damage – but has been rebuilt since. Most harrowing of all for many visitors is the room in which the besieged Francoist leader, Moscardó, refused to surrender even though he was told his son was to be killed if he did not do so. The words telling the boy to ‘prepare to die’ say much about the futility of the war but also about the courage of so many of the people involved in it.
Toledo was also the Spanish home town of El Greco and many of his paintings are here, including one of his acknowledged masterpieces, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz’ in the Church of Santo Tome. Visitors to Toledo can often be seen gasping in disbelief at the array of swords and knives on open sale in many of the old shops in the center – Toledo has long been famous for the quality of its swords; those used in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films were mostly made here.
Perhaps the best views of the city as a whole can be obtained by going over one of the bridges across the Tajo and driving or walking up the hills opposite, where there are many former estates of the Toledo aristocracy which have now been converted into hotels – the Parador is up here. The views of the city, especially at dawn and sunset, are totally breathtaking.
Many visitors to Toledo are day-trippers from Madrid and that’s a pity as you can easily spend a few days wandering the town’s maze of cobblestone alleys, enjoy its gastronomic delights (Toledo is Spain’s Capital of Gastronomy in 2016), learn more about its colorful history (where Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed for many centuries), discover its artistic traditions and marvel at its monuments.
Other Attractions in Castilla La Mancha
The 2nd most visited town in Castilla La Mancha has a well-preserved, picturesque center, with an imposing Gothic cathedral, but is most famous for its incredible ‘hanging houses’, clinging precariously to cliffs 200m above the junction of two river canyons. Cuenca, unlike much of the region, is close to lush, green forests and impressive mountain peaks.The Cathedral and the town’s Hanging Houses are the principle attractions
Don Quixote’s Spain, Consuegra
The Calderico ridge is a rocky outcrop which rises above the plain of La Mancha. This is the site of the La Muela or Consuegra castle, which is Muslim in origin but modified and extended during the 12th century by the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem. It has three defensive enclosures and has been restored in recent decades.
However this ridge is known above all because it is home to twelve of the thirteen windmills that originally stood here, all of which have been christened with names taken from the immortal work ‘Don Quixote’. Four of them still conserve their machinery in good working order. The windmill known as Molino Sancho is particularly interesting and dates from the 16th century. It is used as the venue for the Consuegra Saffron Festival.
Windmills such as those in Consuegra inspired Miguel de Cervantes to create the famous episode of the battle against the giants in his work ‘Don Quixote’. Don Quijote aficionados can photograph and visit the ‘giants’, windmills, at Conseguera and also visit Dulcinea’s house at Toboso. Cervantes’ own home is well-preserved in the village of Esquivias.
The ones mentioned in the novel are Campo de la Criptana, Mota del Cuervo and the 13th century castle of El Toboso where the knight discovered the lovely Dulcinea.
Drop by the La Antigua café at the town’s Plaza Mayor to mingle with the locals and a taste of delicious saffron-infused gin and tonic!
A historic city with fine Moorish walls and a surviving bridge across the river Henares, a Mudejar style church and a fifteenth century palace.
Dramatic ruined Arab castle Almonacid de Toledo
Some legends suggest El Cid lived here but the lonely ruins have been long abandoned. Castillo de Montalban stands majestically over Rio Torcon Valley. This evocative castle is believed to have been erected by the 12th century Knights Templar. Officially it is open from May to January.
When to Visit Castilla La Mancha
Climate: The region experiences a predominantly Mediterranean climate, but also has some Continental aspects. The further south you go in the Meseta, then the longer the summers and the warmer the winters become. The mountain areas often experience a high rainfall – with snow at the highest altitudes – whereas in the central areas there is generally only between 300mm and 400mm annually.
Festivals: Two annual festivals in the region of major national and international interest are the Corpus Christi celebrations in Toledo and Holy Week in Cuenca. Other festivals of interest include the Moors and Christians at Valverde del Júcar and Caudete; the Festival of Medieval theatre in Hita; the Saffron Rose Festival every October in Consuegra; the January Cow Festival of San Pablo de los Montes; the Festival of the Olive held in Mora each April; and the colourful devil-themed festival La Endiablada each February in Almonacid de Marquesado.
Food and Drink of Castilla La Mancha
Manchego cheese, generally considered to be the finest in Spain, is produced here from ewe’s milk. Popular regional dishes include Asadillo manchego, which is a salad of tomatoes, roasted peppers, garlic and olive oil and Pisto manchego con huevos, a mix of peppers, tomatoes, onions, courgettes, ham and a fried egg. Lamb is very popular, along with partridge but be aware that if you see Gazpacho Manchego on a menu it will not be a cold tomato soup. Instead expect to get a stew of chicken, rabbit and perhaps hare or pigeon served on a piece of flat bread.
Visit the cheese making factory in the nearby village of Tembleque and sample the sublime Manchego cheeses produced from the milk of locally reared sheep. Explore the area’s vineyards and visit Valdepenas, the city of wines, one of Spain’s main wine making centers. You can sample its wines in one of the many bodegas that offer wine tastings.
Toledo is famous for its marzipan – there’s even a shop that has a model of the town sculpted in marzipan in the window. Wine has always been a thriving industry here with the best-known Denominaciones de Origen being La Mancha and Valdepeñas. Whilst many a bottle of cheap and cheerful Valdepeñas has been enjoyed over a ‘menú del día’, recent times has seen a modernisation of the local industry and an attempt to highlight the region’s best crianzas and reservas.
Incredible value-for-money gastronomy
I had an exquisite 7-course meal at El Carmen de Montesión, a one-star Michelin restaurant just outside Toledo. They have menus starting from €27.50 (this includes local wines and mineral water)!
In Toledo’s old town, I had a fabulous dinner at Locum, a beautiful restaurant located in a historic building. The terrific 8-course tasting menu cost just over €40!
My favourite gastronomic experience was at El Bodegón in the town of Daimiel. This gorgeous restaurant features intimate tables for two in gigantic amphoras! The restaurant also boasts an incredible subterranean cave cellar (ask if you can visit the cellar as it’s quite amazing). And the food is truly top-notch!
La Mancha’s saffron harvest
An ancient Spanish tradition the timing of the saffron harvest in La Mancha is crucial.
It is late October morning, outside the town of Almagro in Castile, La Mancha, central Spain. As the first streaks of light appear on the horizon, time is running out for the workers bending to pick the purple crocus flowers that blanket the fields here for just two weeks each year. This is the annual saffron harvest, and each six petaled flower must be picked before it opens and before sunrise so that the heat does not dry out its precious contents. For inside each bloom of the crocus sativa lie three delicate blood red stigmas that when dried produce the sweetly pungent spice that is saffron, or azafran, the defining ingredients of Spain’s classic paella, amongst other dishes. Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice.
The ten day harvest can be seen in many nearby villages such as Barrax, San Pedro, and Consuegra. It also takes place in the northeastern province of Aragon. But it is the windmill dotted region of La Mancha the fabled land of Don Quixote, that is said to produce the very best saffron, with a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) classification to prove it. Then the stigmas are stripped from the petals and dried in the oven.
The start of the harvest, celebrated with the Festival de la Rosa del Azafrán (Rose of Saffron). Highlights include costumes and culture, music, cooking contests, a saffron-extracting contest and the crowning of the festival queen, La Dulcinea (month of October).
More than 60.000 flowers need to be harvested to produce 1lb (450grams) of dry saffron. It is one of the most expensive spices in the world.
Saffron powder is often adulterated with the addition of turmeric. Buy threads instead ..the redder the better
Stored in a cool place, in an airtight container, saffron threads will keep for a as long as two to three years.
To use saffron, steep a few threads in hot water for at least 20 minutes, then use the soaked threads and liquid in your recipe.
There’s no quick pick for these dainty blossoms. It’s back-bending work with each flower hand-picked and put into a basket. It takes about 1,00,000 flowers to produce 1 pound of saffron, which is valued at $1,600 to $5,000.