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Map of Castilla - La Mancha
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Castilla - La Mancha

- by Don Harris

What an amazing variety of cities and products, castles and crocuses in this fascinating part of Spain! We have traveled here and there over the region, but from the moment we first began exploring Spain, we were attracted to Toledo, just about an hour south of Madrid. There you can see a fascinating mosaic of all that has occurred in Spain over the past 2000 years.

We particularly like to walk the cobble stone streets in the evening as the shops are beginning to close and the restaurants are grilling their meats. It is a very romantic stroll which summons up mental images of the medieval days. For me, however, the greatest thrill is to be in the city full of the works of the mystical painter El Greco. One of the most amazing displays of his paintings is the 12 apostles, which line the walls of the cathedral's sacristy like so many sacred travel posters! The cathedral itself is astonishing with its intricately carved raridos and a pair of magnificent pipe organs (which have some triumphant horizontal pipes that are dramatic to hear). In a chapel near the west door the liturgy is still celebrated following the Visigothic rite (also known as the Mozarabic Rite), used over 1000 years ago.

Down the street from the main square and down a few steps is the monastery Museum of Santa Cruz, where we saw the amazing 40-foot long banner from the flagship of Don Juan, which celebrates the triumph of the Christians over the Ottomans at the crucial battle of Lepanto. There is so much there -- mazapán, Toledo swords, Damascene carvings, beautiful ceramics -- but I must stop because there's a lot more to Castilla La Mancha than one city.

One favorite of ours is Cuenca, with its hanging houses and winding streets. Centuries ago this was the headquarters of the Moors as they fought the conquering Christians, but now this ancient town is particularly famous for its Semana Santa processions, which are executed with great solemnity. If you drive south heading toward Andalucía, you will see the beautiful white windmills that attracted Don Quixote. In late October you might be lucky enough to see the saffron harvest. We went to Minaya - a small village where our friends grow and prepare superb saffron. If you want to visit the little villages of rural La Mancha, just turn west at Ciudad Real and it is likely that you will meet shepherds and dairies which produce true Manchego cheese.

Another fascinating town is Almagro, which at one time was the headquarters of the Knights of Calatrava. The whole area was a battlefield between the Moors and the Christians so you can see fabulous castles such as Siguenza and Belmonte. The options in this are of La Mancha are so rich and numerous one could spend several weeks and just touch the surface.

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