The drive to Atienza followed the western section of a circular tour which is part of the Ruta de Don Quixote, in fact stage ten of the route which sprawls across all of Castilla-La Mancha and is the golden thread that binds the Castilian tourist industry together in a ribbon of castles and windmills.
After climbing a section of road of hairpin bends with dramatic rear view mirror views of the terracotta roofs of Sigüenza the road reached a scenic plateau with a long straight road, a long endless stretch of charcoal tarmac cutting without tiniest deviation through the fields, separating east from west and riding the contours of the land like a gently undulating roller-coaster.
Either side of the long straight road there were vast open fields with attractive colours that rolled rhythmically and desolately away in all directions with an artist’s palette vista of subtle hues and variations of tone; champagne and parchment, butter-milk cream, dusty olive, lavender grey, gleaming gold and russet red all lying crushed under the burden of what was now a vivid blue spring sky.
Eventually we arrived in tiny Atienza and drove through the stone town with its crumbling colonnades, weathered heraldry and rusting iron balconies and eased the car to the very top of the town where a castle in a commanding position overlooked the plateau in all directions.
The castle had played an important role in the Reconquista but had been destroyed by French troops during the War of Independence and now two hundred years later it is waiting its turn in the programme of castle restorations and while it remains vulnerable to the steady reclaiming creep of nature I got a sense that it might have to be patient.
It was a steep climb from the stony car park to the top of the castle but we were prepared to tackle it and set straight off. We had hoped to take a break half way to the top where there was a museum inside an old church but just as we arrived the attendant was locking the door and she pointed out the visiting times on a notice which indicated that it would not reopen now until late afternoon.
She was very apologetic and I felt sorry for her, I got the impression that she had been waiting there all morning for visitors and then we arrived slap bang on afternoon closing time. She wasn’t prepared to be flexible on the matter however.
And so we continued to the top along a looping shale track that collapsed under our feet with every step and which provided ever more dramatic views the higher that we climbed until we eventually arrived at the main gate and made our way inside the ruins of the castle. At the very top was a partially restored tower built on a slab of granite rock and we negotiated the stairs and made our way to what seemed at this point to be the very top of the World.
The views were stunning and it was easy to see how important this castle was, first for the Muslims and then for the Christians once it had been captured. We could see for miles and one thing for sure was that no one was going to sneak up on a defending army here! There is a story that even the great Rodrigo Díaz de Bivar (El Cid) didn’t feel up to tackling it, declared it impregnable and marching his army around it under cover of darkness to avoid a pointless and lengthy siege.
Actually, I have always wondered about that – why did medieval armies go to the trouble of besieging a castle when they could just go straight round it without a fight, blockade it and wait for the occupants to simply run out of food?
After climbing to the very top we made our way back town to the small town which was collectively snoozing in the afternoon sunshine and after we had walked the handful of streets Christine (who had declined most of the breakfast) declared herself so hungry she could eat her own arm so we found a tapas bar that was still open and I made my usual mistake of ordering way too much food and so we sat for an hour and enjoyed the food, the sun and a San Miguel and then left and made our ponderous way back to Sigüenza.
On the journey we made a couple of stops; first at some abandoned industrial buildings and man-made lagoons at the village of Imon which seemed curiously out of place. We challenged each other to guess what they were, Kim said a sewage works which was an absurd suggestion, Christine thought a salmon farm which was just as unlikely and Sue, grasping at straws suggested a lido.
They turned out to be old salt mines which had once been the most important in all of Spain.
They had been closed in 1996 and although an information board outside the locked gates declared them to be a ‘place of cultural interest’ it seemed as though someone had neglected to inform anyone of this decision and it looked very much to me as thought they were in need of some urgent attention to prevent them falling down altogether.
Next we left the main road and visited the village of Palazuelos where a stout castle stood large and overshadowed the main square. The whole place was closed for this afternoon and so was the castle surrounded by fences and warnings that it was dangerous to go inside. So we contented ourselves with a brief circuit of the main square and then returned directly to Sigüenza where we made directly for the Plaza Mayor and the pavement bar with tables in the sunshine.
As it approached evening meal time we left the Cuatro Canos and as we judged it too early to eat in a town where the restaurants didn’t appear to open until way past nine o’clock (being English we like to eat at about seven) we decided to walk the long way round to the town centre and we talk a third stroll to the castle under the waxy glow of the ornamental street lights and through the labyrinth of narrow streets, curious corners, dead-ends and intriguing alleyways and through the Plaza Mayor and eventually made our way to a restaurant that we had earlier selected for this evening.
This declared itself to be a two star Michelin restaurant and therefore not the sort of place that I would normally select because it seems to me that the first star means drastically reduce the portions to a size suitable for someone suffering from anorexia and the second means double (or triple) the prices but everyone else liked the look of it and I was outvoted.
It was nice enough but to be honest I would have preferred the earthy honesty of the wooden tables of Le Meson to the starched white tablecloths of the fancy restaurant and secretly I think the others probably agreed with me.