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The Spain nobody knows: journeys through the landscapes of Castilla-La Mancha

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We suggest venturing into one of the least-known regions of Spain to discover some of the country’s loveliest villages. These Spanish villages and small towns are rarely discovered by international travellers, but they are the quintessence of the traditions and culture of Castilla-La Mancha, the backdrop to the adventures of Don Quixote. Here are some ideas for exploring the five provinces making up the region, Albacete, Ciudad Real, Cuenca, Guadalajara, and Toledo, through some of their villages.

Albacete and its riverside villages

Let’s explore one of the most characteristic rural landscapes of the area, made up of large river gorges. For example, two beautiful villages overlooking the river Júcar, in the north of Albacete: Alcalá del Júcar and Jorquera. Many people are surprised they could be built at all in this challenging location. They are about 55 kilometres from the city of Albacete (which has high-speed train connections to Madrid and Valencia).The Roman bridge of Alcalá del Júcar leads to a historic town centre which seems to cling to the cliff (there are even cave dwellings in the rock itself). Meanwhile, Jorquera spreads over a meander of the river like part of the landscape, and its watchtower almost seems to blend with the rock. The view from above or from the other side of the river is striking.We find similar landscapes in the south of Albacete, on the gorges of the river Mundo, with Liétor (about 60 kilometres from Albacete). From a distance, the village looks like a natural outcrop on the mountaintop.

Alcalá del Júcar (Castilla-La Mancha)

Ciudad Real, the plain of La Mancha

We propose crossing another of the landscapes defining the region: the vast plains which stretch to the horizon. This trip combines two things Ciudad Real has always excelled at (literature and wine) and a visit to some of its less-known villages.One route could be:- Campo de Criptana: its windmills are the universal image of the novel “Don Quixote”.- Tomelloso: it has some of the most prestigious local wineries.- Argamasilla de Alba: “Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember…” begins the story of Don Quixote, and many scholars agree this is the place. You can visit the Medrano Cave House, where Cervantes was imprisoned and started writing his famous novel.

Peñarrova castle in Argamasilla (Castilla-La Mancha)

- Villanueva de los Infantes: a heritage town which reveals its treasures around its early 17th-century Plaza Mayor.- San Carlos del Valle: a pilgrimage destination thanks to the church of Santísimo Cristo del Valle. Its Plaza Mayor is striking.- Valdepeñas: for many, Castilla-La Mancha’s wine capital.- Almagro: it boasts the only 17th-century corral de comedias to maintain its original structure, and also remain active.This route is just over 200 kilometres. We recommend taking at least a weekend to enjoy it at your own pace.

Cyclist among windmills in Castilla-La Mancha

Cuenca, land of castles

There are many castles in this province, some of them wonderfully well preserved. Starting from the city of Cuenca (reachable via high-speed train from Madrid in just an hour), you can take different one-day tours to visit some of them.Towards the west, the route goes through places like Huete, Uclés, Belmonte, and Alarcón. In Huete we recommend visiting Luna castle and the church of Nuestra Señora de Atienza. Uclés conserves the traces of the different cultures that have occupied Spain, and its silhouette highlights its two main attractions: a large Christian monastery and an Islamic fortress. In Belmonte we find one of the region’s best-conserved castles. Less than an hour away to the east, you can see the castle of Alarcón. The route totals just over 200 kilometres. 

View of Atienza (Castilla-La Mancha)

Another option is to head east to visit places like Cañete and Moya. Cañete still has its Islamic defensive structure, with the remains of its castle standing high above a pretty village of whitewashed houses and red clay roofs. In Moya, you can explore the ruins of what was once an important medieval town, where we can still recognise the fortress, city walls, churches and convents. If you decide to take a circular route back to Cuenca, other good places to stop include Huélamo and Fuentes, charming villages in the Cuenca hills. The total route by road is less than 250 kilometres.

The black villages of Guadalajara

Little villages of stone houses and slate roofs, where time seems to stand still. These are the so-called black villages of Guadalajara, another landscape unique to Castilla-La Mancha, and a fantastic option for a holiday in a Spanish village.Make a note: La Vereda, Matallana, Majaelrayo, Campillejo, El Espinar, Campillo de las Ranas, Robleluengo, Valverde de los Arroyos… A cluster of small villages you can explore on a route with a total of two hours’ driving time. The area is about an hour from the city of Guadalajara (easy to reach by train or road from Madrid in less than an hour)Another attractive route through villages in Guadalajara province takes you through places like Atienza, Sigüenza, Brihuega, and Pastrana. These are larger towns rich in built heritage, where you can see some of the region’s most interesting castles, mansions and historic town centres. The route is around 225 kilometres.

Valverde de los Arroyos, a black village of Guadalajara (Castilla-La Mancha)

Toledo, town squares and windmills

Here are two ways to discover some of the most beautiful villages in the province.The city of Toledo is a must-see on any trip to the area. So we’ll take it as the starting point for quick excursions to nearby towns. Guadamur is less than 30 kilometres away and has a lovely 15th-century castle. Puebla de Montalbán is about 35 kilometres away, and many of its most interesting buildings are on its balcony-lined Plaza Mayor. Maqueda, with its castle of La Vela, is around 40 kilometres away. The same distance as Orgaz, a town rich in built heritage. Its Plaza Mayor and Los Condes castle reflect its size and importance in the 18th century. Although possibly the most iconic Plaza Mayor is the one in Ocaña (about 50 kilometres from Toledo), notable for its great size.

Guadamur Castle (Castilla-La Mancha)

Meanwhile, the story of Don Quixote de la Mancha might inspire you to take Toledo’s famous windmills route. A good place to see the windmills is Cerro Calderico, a hill in Consuegra (about 60 kilometres from Toledo). Another village on the route which is well worth seeing is Tembleque. This is one of the finest examples of the villages of La Mancha, with its whitewashed façades and a street plan centred on its picturesque Plaza Mayor.