Spain is the second most mountainous country in Europe, but it isn’t only its mountains that impress. About 40% of Spain’s land mass is made up of a high central plateau (Meseta) ranging from 400 to 1000 metres in height. Covering Castilla-León, Castilla-La Mancha, Extremadura, and chunks of Aragón and La Rioja, the Meseta is bordered on the north by the Cordillera Cantábrica, split near the middle into northern and southern halves by the Sierra de Guadarrama and the Sierra de Gredos, and rimmed to the south by the Sierra Morena.
Largely treeless and windblown, the Meseta is blistering hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. During the growing season, the northern Meseta shimmers golden with cereal crops and then retreats to a dusty dryness, while in the southern half vineyards, rows of olive trees and the saffron-producing crocus carpet the otherwise barren plateau. Flocks of sheep roam large stretches of the Meseta, moving south along ancient rights of way (“las cañadas”) in the fall and returning north in the late spring. (In October 2000, a shepherd caused traffic chaos in Madrid when he asserted his right to take his flock through the centre following a long-forgotten right of way!)
The stark and arid landscape of the Meseta is often evoked when talking of the Reconquista, the gradual reconquest by Christians of Muslim controlled land. Its luminous sky magnifies the distance at the same time that it gives sharp-edged clarity to distant objects. This is the heart of Castile which for so long dominated Spain’s history. “Castile made Spain,” the philosopher Ortega y Gasset once said, before adding “and Castile unmade Spain.” It is the language of Castile, Castilian, that we know as Spanish; it is also the language that passed to the Americas.
The people of the Meseta have been defined as sober, and ascetic with perhaps a touch of visionary madness, in contrast to the exuberant Andalusians, the nostalgic Galicians or the practical Catalans. It is in the Meseta that Don Quixote, that wonderful and exasperating madman, was born. Here also the mystical St John of the Cross or the visionary and stubborn St Teresa of Avila find their place. But whether mad or mystical, these figures are, in their own way, adventurers, fighters, people of action, characteristics they share with the national hero of Castile, the Cid, or with so many of the “conquistadores” of America.
Apart from some major cities (Madrid, Salamanca, Avila, Segovia, Burgos, Toledo), the Meseta is sparsely populated. The scattered, earth-coloured villages are often camouflaged in the open plain, and only a church tower –or nowadays a grain silo–identifies their location. With mechanization of the land, many of the villages are now abandoned or inhabited only by older people, the younger set having either emigrated or moved to the large towns in the 1960s and 70s in search of work.
Map of Spain from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Atlas_of_Spain