It’s often said that ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’, and having missed out on visiting the Spanish mainland since before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic I was eager to embark on a trip.
Already well acquainted with the coastal regions, islands and many of the cities of Spain, I was keen to explore some of the lesser visited inland areas.
Knowing relatively little about the expansive Castilla-La Mancha region of central Spain, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it possesses a wealth of attractions and has a very distinct identity.
One of the highlights of this region (and perhaps all of Spain) is the stunning city of Toledo. Take a short trip on the high-speed train from Madrid to this remarkable city which is steeped in history and culture and is a hugely popular tourism location among Spaniards.
Perched over the mighty Tagus River, it’s easy to see why Toledo was viewed as being so strategically important for so many years. The city served as the Spanish capital until 1561 and was renowned for its multicultural atmosphere even before the phrase was commonly used. It justifiably earned the tag ‘city of three cultures’ as inhabitants of the city’s Christian, Moorish and Jewish quarters existed in harmony.
We stayed at Hotel Boutique Adolofo (https://hotelboutiqueadolfo.com/) and enjoyed the mouth-watering culinary creations of celebrity chef Adolfo Muñoz. This centrally located hotel is an ideal base for exploring the city’s historic quarter which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Remarkably, the city still preserves its original medieval layout.
Among the must-see attractions are the city’s imposing Cathedral and the magnificent Alcázar fortress. Amble through Toledo’s Jewish quarter and immerse yourself in history and culture or, if you’re feeling more adventurous, try zip-lining across the Tagus. Not for the faint hearted!
History brought to life
The windmills of Campo de Criptana. ©David Blázquez. Turismo de Castilla-La Mancha.
History is everywhere you turn in Toledo and there are many stories from times past to enthral visitors of all ages. Younger visitors in particular will love the historical theme park which recently opened outside Toledo.
Puy du Fou España (www.puydufou.com/espana/en) is located a short bus ride away and aims to bring aspects of Spanish history to life in a spectacular and accessible way. Judging by the delighted reactions of school children in attendance during our visit, this new attraction will go from strength to strength.
You can’t venture far in Castilla-La Mancha without seeing or hearing references to Don Quixote, the world famous fictional hero created by the renowned Miguel de Cervantes. The windmills of Castilla-La Mancha, and in particular Campo de Criptana, are believed to have been an inspiration for Miguel de Cervantes when writing his most famous work. The windmills have become iconic regional and national symbols.
Following a tour of Campo de Criptana’s charming windmills, we were thrilled to witness Don Quixote make an appearance as part of a re-enactment in which Don and his sidekick Sancho were searching for the beautiful Dulcinea.
This region is often branded as offering ‘windmills, vineyards and castles’. Having ticked the first item off the list, I was eager to get onto the second and sip some Spanish wine.
We visited Bodega Mont Reaga (https://www.montreaga.com/en-gb), a family winery located in a traditional wine growing area of Castilla-La Mancha. After an enjoyable tour of this impressive facility in which we learned about the intricate manufacturing processes, we gathered outdoors for some wine tasting and nibbles. Savouring some delicious wine underneath the stunning Castilla-La Mancha sunset, I pondered if there was any better way to round off such an immensely pleasurable day in central Spain.
Wine tasting and nibbles at Bodega Mont Reaga.
In nearby Belmonte we checked into Hotel Palacio del Infante don Juan Manuel (https://www.hotelspainfantedonjuanmanuel.es/EN/hotel.html) and relaxed in the pleasant surroundings. Belmonte is famous for its medieval castle located on the hill of San Cristobal just outside the village which we explored the next day.
Although I had already experienced windmills, vineyards, and castles, I wasn’t expecting to add ‘hanging houses’ to the list of attractions! Don’t worry, this doesn’t refer to a form of Spanish punishment but relates to the famous features of the charming city of Cuenca.
The hanging houses are dramatically perched overlooking a gorge – and quite literally appear to be hanging in the air. The Historic Walled Town of Cuenca is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and visitors can delight in exploring its cobbled streets and ancient buildings. The city also has a modern side and is a centre of abstract art.
After stopping off for a sumptuous lunch at Raff San Pedro restaurant (https://www.raffsanpedro.es) we relaxed by the Plaza Mayor to soak up the atmosphere and watch the world go by. We then entered Cuenca’s ornate Cathedral to light some candles and enjoy a moment of contemplation.
Our accommodation at Parador de Cuenca (https://www.parador.es/en/paradores/parador-de-cuenca) was also perched in a dramatic and awe-inspiring location opposite the hanging houses.
My expectations for staying in a Parador were exceptionally high, having previously enjoyed a wonderful stay in a Parador on Gran Canaria some years ago. Parador Cuenca certainly did not disappoint! Guests can relax in the luxuriant surroundings of this converted monastery which still retains an old-world charm.
Cuenca Cathedral. ©David Blázquez. Turismo de Castilla-La Mancha.
Further footsteps in the past
During our final day in the Castilla-La Mancha region, we departed Cuenca and headed west towards Madrid. We stopped off at Segóbriga Archaeological Park, a former Roman city which includes an amphitheatre, theatre, city walls and gates, baths and the Forum. The educational tour allowed us to travel in the footsteps of gladiators and inspired me to channel my inner Russel Crowe!
At Finca la Estacada (https://fincalaestacada.com/en/home-english/) we savoured some wine with a wonderful lunch before travelling back to Madrid airport for our return flight to Dublin.
Castilla-La Mancha proved to be a revelation. This is a Spanish region I had previously known little about, but it’s obvious that the area possesses so much cultural and heritage and is home to people who are immensely proud of their native land. This could clearly be seen in the enthusiasm of all the people we encountered, especially our very friendly and knowledgeable guide Carmen.
For more information on visiting Castilla-La Mancha visit http://en.www.turismocastillalamancha.es/
Both Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) and Iberia Express (www.iberiaexpress.com) operate regular direct flights between Dublin and Madrid-Barajas Adolfo Suárez Airport. There are regular train and bus services between Madrid and Toledo. Excursions can also be arranged from Madrid to many of the aforementioned attractions throughout the Castilla-La Mancha region.