hidden europe 16

Tilting at windmills: from La Mancha to Andalucí­a

by Nicky Gardner


God never intended travellers to reach the land of tapas, sherry, flamenco and Carmen without a struggle. Join us as we head south through Spain for Andalucía, first crossing Don Quixote country (La Mancha) and then taking Despenaperros Pass through the Sierra Morena.

La Mancha in summer is the sort of area where even the most sober of us might be tempted to mistake windmills for giants. It is sun-baked country, a vast melancholic meseta that lies between the Tajo river and the Sierra Morena. Nowadays, fast trains from Madrid reach the northern border of Andalucía in just ninety minutes. Can you imagine that? Passengers are cosseted in air conditioned comfort and they must scarcely notice the Sierra Morena, that great range of hills which divides La Mancha from Andalucía. This was once one of Europe's great cultural boundaries: to the south the Moorish province of Al-Andalus, to the north Christian Europe.

Of course, it is not compulsory to take the fast train. There are better ways to travel south to Andalucía. Slower routes. Engagingly quixotic perhaps, but infinitely more rewarding. For the traveller headed for Andalucía cannot appreciate the exuberant lushness of southern Spain if he or she simply jets into Málaga from some overcast northern city or rushes from Madrid to Sevilla on a sleek train that defies the cut and fold of the landscape. When an early Scottish traveller, Henry David Inglis, made the journey between the two cities in 1830, he bemoaned the fact that the regular stage carriage reached Sevilla in merely a week, a haste which he averred was incompatible with doing justice to this little known part of Spain.

Cervantes and his errant knight are everywhere in La Mancha, and the roads that head southeast from Toledo across the arid plains are full of Don Quixote associations. Travellers have ample opportunity to tilt at windmills in Consuegra, where eleven of the mills cluster on the small hill that rises from the plain beside the township. Each of the squat white mills has a name: Alcancia, Cardeño, Sancho and so on.

The old roads to Andalucía all converge on a single natural defile that strikes a huge gash through the mountains. The Sierra Morena may not tower to great heights, but the rugged demeanour of these mountains creates a formidable barrier to travellers bound for the south. God never intended anyone to reach the land of tapas, sherry, flamenco and Carmen without a struggle.

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