Tilting at windmills in the land of the high plains drifter

The 400th anniversary of 'Don Quixote' is cause for celebration. Jeremy Atiyah tours La Mancha to see if the setting for Cervantes's classic is the best venue

No wonder the tourist board of La Mancha sniffs an opportunity: this year is the 400th anniversary of the publication, by Miguel de Cervantes, of the first part of The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha.

No wonder the tourist board of La Mancha sniffs an opportunity: this year is the 400th anniversary of the publication, by Miguel de Cervantes, of the first part of The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha.

Few books have been so successful in raising the profile of an otherwise unknown land. The spindly figure of Don Quixote on his ageing hack, Rocinante, accompanied by the portly Sancho Panza on the back of a donkey, is an image that has penetrated the consciousness of the whole world. And the indelible backdrop to that image is the flat, dusty plain of La Mancha, distinguished only by its windmills.

Many of us, over the centuries, have laughed (or cried) at the absurdities engendered by Cervantes's plot-line. Others have gone further. Don Quixote, with his delusions of grandeur, has been seen as the embodiment of all human folly; his story has been described as an allegory, setting forth the eternal struggle between the ideal and the real; between the spirit of poetry and the spirit of prose. The Romantics went so far as to see Don Quixote as a tragic, heroic figure, a man of virtue who yet suffered the greatest defeat of all, public ridicule.

But all agree: Don Quixote's spirit is a triumph of fantasy over fact. And the latest campaign to lure tourists to dreary La Mancha is commendably in keeping with that spirit. Why, after all, did Cervantes choose it, over all the regions of Spain, to be Don Quixote's homeland?

One of the keynotes to the book is struck when the stolid, humourless Sancho informs his "knight" that he has only a donkey on which to ride. "About the donkey," we read, "Don Quixote hesitated a little, trying to call to mind any knight-errant taking with him an esquire mounted on donkey-back; but no instance occurred to his memory."

As it is with his squire's donkey, so it is with the chosen location for Don Quixote's planned heroics. To anyone who knows Spain well, the mere style and title of "Don Quixote of La Mancha" gives the key to the author's meaning. Quite simply, La Mancha is the last place in Spain that would evoke ideas of chivalry, adventure, glamour or romance. It is, in short, outstanding only for its dullness.

Consider the alternative locations where Cervantes might have placed his hero. The author himself had been born in the opulent and sophisticated city of Alcala de Henares, northeast of Madrid. He had spent his youth abroad, around the Mediterranean, fighting the Turks (this included a four-year spell as a prisoner in Algiers). During his later life in Spain, he lived in grand cities, including Seville and Valladolid.

Spain offered desolation in all directions. But it was never dreary. To the north sparkled Leon, Burgos and all the great cities of Castille's Golden Age. Around Madrid, the cities of Salamanca, Toledo, Aranjuez, Segovia were splendid in culture and relics of the past. To the west and south lay the melancholy but impressive solitudes of Estremadura and Andalucia. Any of these lands might have been ideal locations for a genuine romance.

But a satirical romance? Only La Mancha would do. It offered no redeeming feature whatsoever. It lacked any hint of nobility or dignity; it was an in-between land; a land that had once been - as it should have remained - a border region between the Christian heartland of Castilla, and the Moorish land of Andalucia (the Arabs had called it al-Manshah, "dry land" or "wilderness").

In Cervantes's day, the few towns and villages that broke its monotony were uncultured and populated by bumpkins. In short, La Mancha, as the knight's country and scene of his chivalries, was wholly consistent with the pasteboard helmet, the tired old hack, the squire on a donkey, and all the other incongruities between Don Quixote's imaginary world, and the world in which he actually lived.

The unfortunate - or fortunate - fact in the 21st century is that La Mancha remains almost exactly as Cervantes described it 400 years ago. It is a severe land, freezing cold in winter, broiling hot in summer. It is devoted to agriculture, inasmuch as unfavourable environmental conditions allow. Villages such as El Toboso (home of the knight's fair-maiden-cum-country-wench, Dulcinea) and Argamasilla de Alba (claimed as Don Quixote's own village), are prim, adequate little places, distinguished only through their supposed connection with Quixotic episodes.

Only a fortuitous drawing of Spain's political boundaries has succeeded in lending any glamour to La Mancha. In 1979, the Autonomous Community of Castilla-La Mancha was created, fusing the flat plains of La Mancha with the more exciting region to the north, centred on the stunning Unesco world-heritage cities of Toledo and Cuenca.

But if truth be told, neither of these is remotely characteristic of La Mancha. Far more characteristic are Albacete and Ciudad Real, the region's biggest cities, legendary throughout Spain for their tedium (though the latter at least boasts a Museum of Don Quixote, inaugurated in 2002, designed for children and scholars). As for rustic Valdepeñas, down the road, it offers bodegas and wine-tasting. Its wines are best known for being regrettable.

None of this is to say that La Mancha has given up hope. Don Quixote is galloping to the rescue, lance at the ready! Over these plains, for the benefit of tourists, the regional authorities have been busy developing the so-called Don Quixote Route, an ambitious tangle of criss-crossing routes and paths, 2,500 kilometres in length, connecting sundry towns from Toledo to Albacete.

They claim that their land has its own poetry. Its grass grows green for a month in spring (they boast), before scorching to a golden stubble. Tourist brochures describe its monotonous roads as lined with trees; they speak of a village, here and there, tanned by the sun, casting the silhouette of its belfry upon an azure sky; they speak of the occasional hermitage on some isolated crag, exalting in the meagre shade of a cypress; they mention a tower crumbling in the blood-red light of evening; or parched torrent beds like lizard tracks.

To appreciate all this, we are told, the Don Quixote Route is best journeyed on foot or by bicycle; or even on the back of an old, enfeebled horse. It all sounds so marvellously romantic.

It is a grand illusion, one suspects, of which Don Quixote himself would have been proud.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow and Gatwick to Madrid from £69, from Manchester to Madrid from £96 and from Birmingham to Madrid from £99. Renfe, the Spanish National Railways, (00 34 902 24 02 02; www.renfe.es) offers regular train departures from Madrid to Toledo, Cuenca, Albacete and Ciudad Real taking one to two hours.

Where to stay

Hotel Abad, Real del Arrabal 1, Toledo (00 34 925 283500; www.hotelabad.com) is in a former blacksmith's shop dating from 1815. Many of the original features have been retained including the wooden ceilings, wall beams and brickwork. Doubles without breakfast start at €101 (£72).

Further information

The Spanish National Tourist Office (020-7486 8077; www.spain.info).

Special events are taking place throughout the year to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Don Quixote, including exhibitions, opera, readings and food festivals. For more details, go to www.donquijotedelamancha2005.com.

FROM A TO ZAFON: SPAIN'S LITERARY LANDMARKS

Cervantes's Madrid

The 400th anniversary of Don Quixote has put La Mancha on the map, and Cervantes's Madrid connections are also there to be explored. The Plaza Mayor is the meeting point for one of the city's tourist office's regular guided walks "Cervantes and his era". Tours cost €3.10 (£2.20) for adults and €2.50 for children. Alternatively, Carpetaniamadrid, a group of professional historians, offers fascinating literary-themed walks (€7 for adults and €5 for students).

Further information: Madrid Tourism (00 34 914 294951; www.descubremadrid.com); Carpetaniamadrid (00 34 915 314018; www.carpetania-madrid.com).

The Barcelona of 'Shadow of the Wind'

Carlos Ruiz Zafon's bestseller drips with period atmosphere, evoking the Barcelona's post-civil war streets The Ramblas puts in frequent appearances, as do various hidden-away calles that are little changed to this day. Els Quatre Gats, a neo-Gothic restaurant that plays a key role in the story, still exists. The book reaches its climax in the sea air at Barceloneta. Meanwhile, the city has organised a programme of events to celebrate Barcelona 2005 Books and Reading Year.

Further information: Barcelona Tourism (00 34 932 853834; www.barcelona-turisme.com); Els Quatre Gats (00 34 933024 140; www.4gats.com); Barcelona Books and Reading Year (00 34 933161 000; www.anyllibre 2005.bcn.es)

From top to bottom with Laurie Lee

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning is Laurie Lee's account of the journey he made as a young man through pre-civil war Spain. "I had a knapsack, blanket, a spare shirt and a fiddle, and enough words to ask for a glass of water," he writes. His journey started in Vigo in Galicia and ending in Almuñecar on the Mediterranean coast, via Valladolid, Segovia, Madrid, Toledo, Cordoba, Seville, Cadiz and Malaga.

Further information: Galicia Tourism (00 34 981 542500; www.turgalicia.org), Andalucia Tourism (00 34 901 200020; www.andalucia.org)

Papa's Parador

No foreign writer had Spain in his blood quite like Ernest Hemingway, with his hymn to bull-fighting that is Death in the Afternoon. If such a spectacle is not to your taste, head for the Parador de Ronda in southern Andalucia. It overlooks El Tajo, the dramatic 120-metre gorge said to have inspired the cliff scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Further information: Parador de Ronda, Plaza de Espana (00 34 952 877500) has doubles without breakfast from €144; Ronda Tourism (00 34 952 187 119; www.turismoderonda.es)

Robert Graves's Mallorca

The village of Deia, which was home for most of the poet's adult life, is a delightful cluster of honey-coloured buildings perched on a northern hillside above the sea. It's been a favourite haunt of artists and painters for centuries. The elegant La Residencia hotel offers wonderful views, while nearby Valldemossa is famous for its deserted Carthusian Monastery, La Cartuja. It is where Frederic Chopin and George Sand spent the winter of 1838-1839, chronicled in Sand's 1855 Un Hiver Majorque (A winter in Mallorca).

Further information: Hotel La Residencia, Son Canals, Deia (00 34 971 639011; www.orient-express.com) has doubles with breakfast from €252; Mallorca Tourist Office (00 34 971 712216; www.visitbalears.com)

Thrill of Seville

Seville's atmospheric Moorish streets and the stunning Giralda form the backdrop for Arturo Perez-Reverte's 1999 thriller The Seville Communion. The story, involving the papal emissary and investigator Father Lorenzo Quart, is played out in the bars, grand residences and churches that dot the city.

Further information: Seville Tourism (00 34 954 221404; www.sevilla.org)

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