Some time ago now we set ourselves the ambitious task of visiting all of the seventeen Autonomous Communities of Spain and to begin our quest we chose Castilla-La Mancha, the land of Don Quixote, windmills and wide open plains.
It was an early morning .flight and in razor sharp skies the plane crossed the Atlantic Spanish coast somewhere close to the city of Santander and below us we recognised the two thousand five hundred metre high peaks of the Picos de Europa and then crossed the massive northern mountainous regions of northern Spain. It was brown and rocky with huge mysterious pine forests and blue shimmering lakes, long roads negotiating the mountains and valleys and snaking between towns and villages and from above it was possible to begin to appreciate the immense size of the country and of the task that we had set ourselves.
Closer to Madrid the predominant browns gave way to vibrant greens and then into a mosaic of contrasting colour as the aircraft made its final descent and landed at the airport. It was rather disorganised but the customs were brilliant and the United Kingdom immigrations control could learn a thing or two about getting passengers through an airport quickly from these guys.
Then collecting the car was gloriously simple as well and within forty minutes we were heading out of the city on the A3 motorway and on our way towards our first destination, the town of Chinchón, about thirty miles south of Madrid.
Not far out of the city the scenery suddenly became more attractive with acres of olive trees and stumpy black vines slumbering in the fields each with the contorted face of a medieval gargoyle concealed within its gnarled and knotted trunk. In the trees and on top of pylons there were stork nests and in the sky buzzards hung above us on the thermals looking for easy lunch in the fields below.
We arrived in Chinchón at about half past one and ignoring the edge of town tourist car parks steered the car towards the Plaza Mayor at the very centre of the town. Parking has rarely been easier and there was a perfect spot right in the Plaza and I was sure there must surely be a catch. There was a glorious blue sky and big sun and it was warm enough to change into summer holiday linens although this did take some of the locals by surprise as they were wrapped up in woollies and coats and still obviously uncertain about and distrustful of the early Spring weather.
The Plaza is in a marvellous location with a big irregular shaped square that is used for town festivals and the occasional bullfight; it is surrounded by a hierarchical arrangement of buildings of two and three storeys with two hundred and thirty-four wooden running balconies, called ‘claros’ and shops, bars and restaurants on the ground floor all spilling out onto the pavement.
It was the location for one of the opening scenes, a bullfight as it happens, in the 1966 film, ‘Return of the Magnificent Seven’ and was also used as a location for the film ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’.
After a few minutes spent soaking up the atmosphere we compared menu prices in the bars and selected the cheapest tables on the sunny side of the square and settled down for lunch where we enjoyed salad, calamari and tortilla and after a couple of glasses of Spanish beer set off to explore some of the tiny streets running like a spiders web off of the square.
First through narrow lanes of whitewashed houses to the very top of the town and to a castle with excellent views over the houses and the surrounding villages and countryside but the castle was in a state of serious disrepair and closed to the public so we left and after calling in at the Parador hotel to see how wealthy people spend their holidays we walked to the other side of town and climbed again, this time to the church which had equally good views over the tiled roofs of the houses which in some way reminded me, in an ochre sort of way, of Tuscany.
Beyond the houses there were the surrounding villages and the predominantly buff and grey coloured countryside stretching as far as the horizon. From this elevated position it was possible to appreciate that despite its close proximity to Madrid that Chinchón is essentially a small Spanish village and despite the Plaza, which grabs all the attention this is a living and working community.
From the castle we took the road back into town which took us through lazy whitewashed streets where elderly ladies in black dresses sat gossiping in the doorways and men folk sat on benches discussing important matters of the day. In the centre of town along streets leading off the Plaza there were a few shops, a mini market, butcher, grocer and a fishmonger, an electrical shop that didn’t look as if it had sold anything for a very long time, a florist and a photographer.
And we were back at the car park; we liked this place and wished that we were stopping longer but it was time to leave now and make our way to our accommodation in the provincial town of Belmonte.