Travel 2013. Day 11. Almagro to Madrid.

April 27, Day 11. Almagro to Madrid.
See Travel Itinerary for a rationale of this trip, a who's who of those travelling, and our itinerary.

Today was another fairly long day, with stops at Consuegra and Toledo before ending in Madrid, where we had reservations at the Best Western Hotel Los Condes in the centre of the city.


We started our day with an excellent buffet breakfast at the Retiro de Maestre. It was served on the upper floor of the hotel and overseen by the owner, a very warm and attentive lady who assured us that all the food was home-made. Everything was certainly superbly prepared and beautifully presented.

It was a pleasantly sunny spring day with a nip in the air as we left Almagro. We took the CM 4124 through Bolanos de Calatrava to Manzanares, stopping only to take photos of poppy-filled fields. Soon we arrived at the major highway NIV E5 heading north. 

    Poppies east of Almagro, on CM 4124.
John: While driving out of Almagro, we passed fields of poppies and other wild flowers.  It was early May and I do not know how long they are out, but they were certainly gorgeous when we were there.

The road here is flat; we were well into La Mancha, the southern end of the Meseta, the dry, high plateau of central Spain dominated by vineyards, sheep (source of the famous Manchego cheese) and corn.

            The Meseta east of the NIV E5.
It gets extremely hot here in the summer and in winter temperatures drop below freezing, a drastic change which explains the popular description of La Mancha as “nine months of winter and three of hell.” (La Mancha comes from the Arabic "al-mansha" meaning “dry land”).

At Manzanares we were at the edge of two of Spain’s largest wine regions, La Mancha and Valdepeñas, which together are said to be one of the largest uninterrupted areas under vine in the world.   The wines of both areas were for a long time almost exclusively bulk products or distilled for brandy. 

                   Vineyard in La Mancha.
Valdepeñas has a better reputation, and is popular in the bars of Madrid.  Times have changed, however, and many bodegas (wineries) and cooperatives have introduced new varieties (e.g. cabernet sauvignon), adopted modern methods and are now producing better quality bottled wines (e.g. Bodegas Los Llanos, or Luis Megía or Felix Solís). (There's a good article on the wines of the area in http://winefolly.com/review/spain-meseta-central-wine-region/)

However, perhaps La Mancha’s biggest claim to fame is the fictional knight-errant Don Quixote, and a whole industry has been built up to take advantage of the knight’s fame. Shops sell figures of both the gaunt Don Quixote and his rotund squire Sanch Panza often on their respective mounts, and a “Route of Don Quixote” will take you along the trail the knight is supposed to have followed.  The village of El Toboso (about 50 kilometres/31 miles east of the highway/ motorway) has a large library devoted to Cervantes and Don Quixote, and villagers will even show you the house where the fictional Dulcinea, Don Quixote’s lady, lived!

On our road north, about 36 kilometres/22 miles from Manzanares, we stopped briefly at Puerto Lápice, mentioned in Don Quixote, Part I chapter 2, as the site where our knight possibly had his first adventure.

                   At Puerto Lápice
Another 17 kilometres/12 miles along, we turned on to the CM 400 towards Consuegra, a go-to place for those who remember Don Quixote’s most memorable adventure: tilting at windmills.  There is no evidence that he tilted at these ones, any more than the ones we saw at Campo de Criptana or Alcázar de San Juan (Day 4), but they are well worth a side trip.
John: Having read Don Quixote, I have an affinity for the old Spanish windmills and I have always loved castles (what boy doesn’t?), so Consuegra seemed like a perfect stop as it provided both. It was really windy there and that made it feel quite chilly in early May, but it was neat to wander the hilltop. As much as your eyes are drawn to the old structures, there is a stupendous view over the vast agricultural lands that surround the small town. It was a short stop, but I certainly enjoyed it.


  Consuegra: windmills and castle.

      Consuegra: view from windmills.
Located on the spine of a ridge overlooking the village, the twelve restored and whitewashed windmills backed by a 12th century castle (still being renovated) are a photographer’s dream. From the ridge, there is a superb view of the surrounding plain, which at one time produced corn which was then ground by the windmills. You can still find corn here, but there is another more important crop, for which Consuegra has long been famous: saffron**. If you happen to be in the area in October, you’ll find the surrounding plain covered with purple coloured crocuses, the reddish-orange stigmas of which must be very delicately removed by hand as soon as the flowers are picked.  The whole harvest season lasts only about 10 days, so it’s extremely labour intensive and whole communities are involved.
**Introduced into Spain by the Moors, saffron (from az-zafaran,
meaning “yellow”) is the most expensive of spices, at times
even valued more than gold and accepted as currency. About 200
crocus flowers are needed to produce just 1 gram of saffron.
You can read an interesting article on saffron at:
http://www.theolivepress.es/spain-news/2010/10/10/
it%E2%80%99s-the-season-for-saffron/

On the last Sunday of October, Consuegra celebrates the Fiesta de la Rosa del Azafrán during which a local beauty is crowned, appropriately, Dulcinea de La Mancha.  In La Mancha, you can’t get away from Don Quixote!

We spent a delightful hour on the ridge, although by now the sky had become overcast, and the air fairly chilly. Back in our van, we followed the CM 400 to Toledo, 74 kilometres/46 miles North West.

Toledo sits strategically on a rocky bluff over a gorge and is surrounded on three sides by the fast-flowing Tagus River. Historically one of the most famous and important cities of Spain, Toledo is deservedly on just about everyone’s visiting list.

We had decided to have lunch at the Parador Conde de Orgaz (state-run hotel) across the river, and enjoy the spectacular panorama of the city.

                            Toledo from the parador.
If you have time, you shouldn’t miss this view, even if it means taking a taxi or bus from the town. You don’t have to eat at the parador to enjoy the view, but I think you will be tempted to relax and at least have refreshments on the lawn overlooking the city.

The lunch was excellent (white asparagus, cod croquettes, duck, oxtails, followed by strawberries and ice cream).  Margaret and I found that our travelling had caught up with us, so we reluctantly decided not to accompany John, Leslie, Andrew and Alex into town. We had previously had many enjoyable visits to Toledo, so instead we relaxed on the lawn.   
John: We had not planned to spend time in Toledo this year, but a stop at the parador there was well worth it. The parador is located just outside the city on a hill that provides a wonderful view of Toledo.  Stopping just for the view would be worth it, but the lunch there is also really good. I had the oxtail stew which was delicious, but I also sampled some of everyone else’s meal and there were no disappointments.

After a few hours of exploration, John, Leslie, Andrew and Alex returned. Both Andrew and Alex had bought some mementos of Toledo steel, for which the city has long been famous. We all agreed that Toledo had been “short changed” by us and promised to return to do it justice.

Our road to Madrid, 70 kilometres/43 miles to the north, was uneventful and Olivia, our GPS, guided us unerringly through heavy traffic to our Hotel los Condes on the Calle de Libreros. The hotel does not have parking, so we unloaded our luggage at the door and found underground parking (Parking Tudescos) within easy walking distance.

By now it was windy and quite cold, but it was only about 7.00 p.m. and too early for bed. Windbreakers on, we walked about 100 metres/110 yards down the mostly pedestrianized Calle de Libreros to the Gran Vía, Madrid’s main boulevard. It was noisy with traffic and the sidewalks packed with people taking their traditional paseo (walk).  


                        Calle de Preciados
Side-stepping our way about 75 metres/82 yards up the Gran Vía, we crossed the road at the Plaza de Callao, and proceeded down the bustling pedestrianized Calle de Preciados, with its wide array of shops, including Spain’s largest department store, El Corte Inglés, with branches on both sides of the street. We emerged at the busy Puerta del Sol, Madrid’s best known square and Spain’s official “roadway centre,” marked by Kilometre Zero, a spot from which all the roads radiating from Madrid to the rest of the country are measured. On New Year’s Eve, thousands cram into this square for the countdown to midnight, at the same time eating a grape for each chime of the clock.


                             Plaza Mayor
We zigzagged our way across the square to the Calle Mayor which in turn led us to the large and elegantly arcaded Plaza Mayor, a perfect square built in 1619, reconstructed in 1672 and given its final form in the late 1700s. Once the scene of inquisitorial autos-da-fe and bullfights, its entertainment is now much more peaceful.  On Sunday mornings, coin and stamp enthusiasts trade under the arcades in one corner, cafes overflow onto the cobbles and students and tourists congregate around the 17th-century equestrian statue of Philip/ Felipe III.

On our way back to the hotel, we called in at El Corte Inglés, which has a supermarket one floor down from the entry level.  Since we’d had our main meal in Toledo, we bought some snacks to eat back at the hotel. There we ran into three Welshmen (speaking Welsh, my mother tongue) who had come to Madrid to run in the Madrid marathon on the following day, Sunday.  A chat in Welsh about our respective visits to Spain, best wishes all round and it was off to bed.