“We are in the Spanish south. The castanets click from coast to coast, the cicada hum through the night, the air is heavy with jasmine and orange blossom… the girls have black eyes and undulating carriages.” – Jan Morris, ‘Spain’
More or less, still following the Ruta de Don Quixote we drove directly now from Belmonte to the town of Almagro, so far south in Castilla-La Mancha that it almost in Andalucía. We arrived around about mid-morning, parked the car and made straight for the Centro Historico.
Almagro is an old town that was once much more important than it is today, two hundred and fifty years ago it was for a short time the provincial capital of La Mancha (1750-61) but religious decline set in during the reign of Charles III and it fared badly and suffered damage in the Napoleonic and the Carlist wars.
Eventually it was eclipsed by its neighbour Ciudad Real and it settled down to become the quiet provincial town that it is today on, not being unkind, a secondary, less important, tourist trail.
The centre of Almagro is conveniently located inside a circle of modern roads so we circumnavigated it all as we walked through surprisingly wide and airy streets with the ubiquitous boxy white houses with little balconies and ornamental black iron grills over the windows where much of the town has been redeveloped to accommodate modern living demands.
Along the route there were churches, a wide open park and a convent, now converted to a Parador hotel. We went inside as we usually do to take a look but Parador room and menu prices are not really for us so we weren’t tempted to stay and instead made our way back to the Plaza Mayor passing by the equestrian statue of the Conquistador Diego de Almagro and then entered the rectangular Plaza.
At a hundred metres long and forty metres wide it is flanked on both sides by a Praetorian Guard of weathered Tuscan columns supporting overhead galleries all painted a uniform shade of green and fully glazed in a central European style this place is truly unique in Spain. These galleries were originally open and used as grandstands for public events, religious festivals and even bullfights that were held here until 1785, when they were finally banned by King Carlos III.
We choose a table on the sunny side of the Plaza, ordered beer and wine and just sat and watched the activity while we nibbled the inevitable olives. The bar owner shooed away some small boys playing football, telling them to play elsewhere and families began to arrive and the bar quickly filled up with chattering customers.
We were staying at the Hotel Retiro del Maestre, a renovated old Spanish nobleman’s house on a street leading to the main square. It was a friendly family run hotel with spacious and comfortable public rooms, a large outside terrace basking in the pleasant sun and was a nice room for us with a view over the garden where we let the afternoon gently slip away with a bottle of local wine, a game or two of cards and a couple of chapters of our books before out thoughts turned to evening meal.
The next morning breakfast at the Retiro del Maestre was simply wonderful and easily the best so far, in fact, if we were compiling a list of the top five hotel breakfasts ever then this would certainly be in there. It was the usual thing in terms of content but it had clearly been lovingly prepared by the ladies of the house and the cook fussed around the breakfast room, making recommendations, making sure everyone was happy and brazenly fishing for well deserved compliments.
We planned to spend another morning in Almagro and we started with a visit to the Corral de Comedias, a sixteenth century theatre, similar to those that Shakespeare would have been familiar with in Elizabethan England, built in what was the courtyard of an Inn and which today is the only fully preserved example of a theatre of this type in the World. It is amazing what gems you come across when you stray off the well beaten tourist track.
It is a working theatre still today and inside it is an immaculate example of a theatre of the golden age, built on three levels with galleries and private boxes running around all three sides of the still open courtyard. It was an unexpected bonus for us but it didn’t take long to walk around and listen to the audio commentary so after we had finished we stopped for a coffee and compiled a shopping list of souvenirs that we could confidently carry back in our hand luggage and agreed on some local pottery and some water-colour postcards of the main sights of the town.
Now it was time to leave and start the next stage of our journey towards the City of Toledo. We had enjoyed Almagro and glad that we had included it in the itinerary, a lovely town and with a Plaza Mayor that went straight into my personal Top Ten.