The pavement bar with the seriously restricted menu options was close to the centre of Alcalá de Henares so after our short stop we walked through the red brick city to the expansive tree lined Plaza Mayor, here called the Plaza de Cervantes, so named because the Spanish novelist and author of Don Quixote who was born here in this city in 1547.
Cervantes wrote a dozen or so major works and his most famous is Don Quixote, a sprawling epic novel regarded as the most influential work of literature to emerge from the Spanish Golden Age. It is the story of a man who believes that he is a knight, and recounts his adventures as he rights wrongs, mistakes peasants for princesses, and “tilts at windmills,” mistakenly believing them to be evil giants.
As one of the earliest works of modern western literature, it regularly appears high on lists of the greatest works of fiction ever published.
In 2002 a panel of one hundred leading world authors declared Don Quixote to be the best work of fiction ever written, ahead even of works by Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Hemingway. Cervantes has also been credited with shaping modern literary style, and Don Quixote has been acclaimed as “the first great novel of world literature”.
Since publication in 1605 it is reputed to be the most widely read and translated book on the planet after the Bible. I tried to read it once but found it rather heavy going so gave up quite quickly but as we walked around I resolved to have another attempt upon returning home. So that is the two most translated books in the history of the World that I haven’t read! The third is ‘Listen to God and Live Forever’ by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and not surprisingly I haven’t read that either.
The Plaza is a supremely handsome square surrounded by tall University buildings decorated with untidy Stork nests. There was a lot of activity in the nests today because the population of these birds in Spain is rising, from six thousand seven hundred pairs thirty years ago to an estimated thirty-five thousand pairs today. In fact there are so many White Storks in Spain that it is now second only to Poland who with fifty thousand birds has always traditionally been the country with the most pairs of the birds in Europe.
On three sides there are medieval colonnaded arcades and in the centre on a tall column stands a statue of Cervantes with quill held delicately in his right hand as though poised to begin writing a masterpiece. We walked through and around it and then explored the University district before returning to the main shopping street the Calle Mayor.
All along the Calle Mayor there were shopping distractions for my travelling companions so while they looked at shoes and cakes and sparkly things I made my way to the end of the street to the birthplace museum of Cervantes and waited in the company of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza for them to catch me up.
I had a mind to visit the museum especially as the web site said that admission was free but at the entrance I was greeted by an attendant who explained that there was a charge of €10 which I judged to be rather expensive for just a handful of rooms so I purchased a couple of postcards and left. Maybe I made the right decision because I read subsequently that there is some suggestion that this is not his birthplace at all and the house was built some time after Cervantes birth, an accusation that is strenuously denied by the museum of course.
And so we left Alcalá de Henares and resumed our journey along the Autovia towards Sigüenza. We drove for several kilometres as far as Guadalajara along a perfect motorway surface through a ribbon of industrial units, shopping outlets and roadside diners to the left hand side and to the right nothing but the breath-taking vastness of La Mancha. We were driving through La Alcarria, a natural region in central Spain extending from Guadalajara to the south of Madrid and east to Cuenca.
La Alcarria is a desolate, barren landscape noted for its honey, allegedly the finest in Spain, due to the abundance of aromatic plants such as rosemary, thyme and lavender. Once past the high-rise domestic suburbs of the Provincial capital we left the urban landscape behind and drove into open countryside with high hills, jagged rocky outcrops, holm oak forests and green meadows all liberally decorated with dainty Spring flowers until we reached the small town of Torija, basking in the sun and spread out under the protective walls of a splendid medieval castle.
Finding a castle to visit is not difficult in Spain because (according to the Spanish Tourist Board) there are over two thousand five hundred of them (for comparison there are eight hundred in the United Kingdom)* and in the Province of Guadalajara alone there are one hundred and twenty in a region fiercely contested during the period of the Reconquista.
Sadly, Torija castle was closed this afternoon so we had to be content with a walk around its towering walls topped with towers and turrets and in my opinion looking exactly like a castle should look. It turned out that most of Torija was also closed this afternoon so having established that there was nothing here worth stopping longer for we left and completed the final few kilometres to our destination.
Eventually we left the A2 Autovia and took a minor road for the final twenty-five kilometres to Sigüenza and as we did we began to climb because we were entering the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama, part of the Sistema Central which is one of those east-west mountain ranges that extend through Spain that before high-speed rail and modern motorways kept the Spanish people historically separated.
We climbed gently to over one thousand metres to an elevation that even in mid-April had suppressed the first signs of Spring and then without warning we turned a corner and there sitting handsomely in the natural folds of the landscape was a towering castle (a Parador hotel of course), medieval walls and a honey coloured cathedral surrounded by a mantle of terracotta roofs and ribbons of tiny streets.
Having been here before navigation proved no difficulty through the maze of tiny streets and shortly after arrival we were booking in to the Casa Rural Posada los Cuatro Canos and making ourselves at home.
* France however claims over four thousand seven hundred.