The epic region of Spain with vineyards, castles and mountains – but no tourists

William Cook
Something about the place pulls you in. Its villages are rugged and authentic, virtually untouched by tourism. This is the real Spain - getty

Finally, Britons will soon be free to visit Spain again without the need for quarantine – but when you get there, where should you go? Big cities and crowded beaches have never seemed less appealing. Now is the time to get off the beaten track and explore the undiscovered Spain. I’ve travelled all over that vast country these last 30 years, and there’s one region I enjoy visiting more than any other. If you’re looking for adventure, La Mancha is the place to go.

On the face of it, La Mancha seems an unlikely holiday destination. The terrain is mainly flat and featureless. Landmarks are few and far between. It’s a long way from the sea, and the weather is extreme – baking hot in summer, bitterly cold in winter. Yet there’s something about the place that pulls you in. Its villages are rugged and authentic, virtually untouched by tourism. In La Mancha, you feel you’re really travelling. This is the real Spain.

I first came here 15 years ago, on the trail of Don Quixote. It was the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ pioneering novel, and the Spanish tourist board had devised a Ruta de Don Quixote, to lure more visitors to La Mancha. Of course, the whole concept was absurd. Nobody knows why Cervantes set his saga here, but he was probably taking the mickey. Then as now, La Mancha was the back of beyond, the middle of nowhere. Don Quixote is a mad old man who kids himself he’s a knight in shining armour. Calling him Don Quixote de la Mancha is like calling him the Lord of No Man’s Land.

I first came here 15 years ago, on the trail of Don Quixote - getty

As I traipsed around this obscure backwater, getting lost and tired and lonely, I began to feel a lot like Don Quixote, a deluded madman chasing shadows. Don Quixote is a pathetic fantasist. His odyssey is a wild goose chase. Would my trek along this road to nowhere turn out to be fool’s errand, too?

There are few specific locations in the novel and so the Ruta de Don Quixote, like the book, is pretty fanciful. But once you give up trying to follow in Don Quixote’s footsteps (a quixotic quest, if ever there was one) and just enjoy the journey and the scenery, La Mancha comes alive. This harsh landscape has a barren, forbidding beauty, and strewn around this arid hinterland are some stunning historic towns. It’s thrilling to find somewhere so close to home where you feel like a traveller rather than a sightseer – a place where British visitors are rare. I’ve been back several times since then and I like it more each time I go there. A road trip is the best way to see La Mancha. Ten days should cover it. Here’s how to go about it, and what to do along the way.

Finding good hotels in La Mancha can be a bit hit and miss. Before you set off, I’d recommend you book rooms at the Paradors in Toledo, Almagro, Alarcón and Cuenca – in that order. I’d suggest you stay two nights in each. Paradors are smart, state-run hotels, often located in antique buildings. They’re popular with Spanish travellers, and these four are particularly atmospheric.

The Parador of Cuenca - getty

Getting there is easy. Fly to Madrid and pick up a hire car at the airport. From there it’s 60 miles to Toledo, the medieval capital of Spain and the gateway to La Mancha. Squeezed onto a steep hill that towers over the sunburnt plain, it’s a wonderful place to wander. The biggest treat is seeing the mesmeric paintings of El Greco, who made many of his greatest artworks here. His pictures are in numerous mansions, churches and museums around Toledo. A walking tour of these locations is a great way to get to know the city.

After two nights in Toledo, you’ll be ready to hit the road again. After a late, leisurely breakfast, drive to Consuegra, 40 miles due south. Its row of 11 white windmills, looming high above the town, is one of the most iconic sights in Spain, the defining image of La Mancha. The sleepy town below is pleasant and unpretentious. The Plaza Mayor is a decent spot for lunch.

The defining image of La Mancha - getty

After lunch, drive on, another 55 miles south, to Almagro. During the 16th century, Almagro was a wealthy and important place, but not a lot has happened here since then, and so much of its Renaissance architecture has survived. Almagro’s crowning glory is the Coral de las Comedias, a perfectly preserved 16th-century theatre, an ornate relic of Spain’s Golden Age.

Inside the Coral de las Comedias - getty

Almagro is a handy base for a day trip to Valdepeñas, about 25 miles away. This handsome town is the centre of La Mancha’s booming wine trade. There are plenty of bodegas around town where you can do tastings, and buy a few bottles to take away. If you’re here in September, don’t miss the town’s annual wine festival (the Museo del Vino is also worth a visit, at any time of year). The local Tempranillo used to be regarded as a cheap and cheerful table wine, but the quality has increased considerably in recent years.

After two nights in Almagro, it’s time to head east, 120 miles, all the way to Alarcón – a little citadel perched on a narrow promontory, protected by the deep gorge of the Rio Júcar. It’s wild, remote and windswept, like a scene from El Cid. It’s a peaceful place today, but it has a long and violent history. It was inhabited by the Celts, and then the Romans, and then the Moors, who built the ancient castle at its core, way back in the 8th century. The castle was taken by the Christians in 1085, retaken by the Moors, then retaken by the Christians, for good this time, in 1184. Today, it’s a cosy Parador. The fortified town is tiny, but there are plenty of nice places to eat and drink.

Alarcón - getty

The final destination is Cuenca, 50 miles north of Alarcón. It’s a spectacular city, huddled on a clifftop, surrounded by vertiginous ravines. The Parador, housed in a converted convent, boasts some of the best views. An even more dramatic viewpoint is the Museo de Arte Abstracto, located in one of the ‘hanging houses’ that cling to the cliff edge. Under Franco’s fascist tyranny figurative painting was a risky business, and so abstraction became a refuge for dissident artists. This museum displays a fine selection of their work.

From Cuenca it’s 100 miles due west to Madrid airport. It was my last night in La Mancha and I was in no hurry to go home. I strolled around town without a plan, with no idea where I was going, and then the rain came down, the first rain here for weeks. It felt divine. Drenched and contented, I ducked into a cervecería. There was a bullfight on the television. Standing room only. The place was packed. I squeezed through to the bar and ordered a beer and tried to pay for it, but the barman smiled and shook his head. He could see I’d come a long way. I was welcome here. This one was on the house.

Well, that’s La Mancha – at least, what I’ve seen of it. If you go, you’ll make your own discoveries. You’ll probably have a few mishaps too – it’s that sort of place. There are lots of dead ends, one horse towns you’d never want to revisit, but the special stuff is really special, stuff you’ll remember for a lifetime. I’ve had more comfortable holidays in other parts of Spain, but La Mancha is where I’ve had the best adventures. I can’t wait to go again.