Wild and empty, the open horizons and endless landscapes of the great plains of La Mancha are famously dusty and sunlit, but as we drove across them the red sandy soil was rain-soaked and sodden.
La Mancha is named from Al-Ansha, meaning dry land or land without water.
Although that was not our experience in our short stay, geographically the region is without many waterways to provide a source of both energy and irrigation.
Historically the only viable form of farming and producing food was to grow cereal crops which in turn, needed milling. The energy of the near-constant winds was harnessed by a multitude of windmills.
At Consuegra, 12 out of an original 13 windmills line a ridge overlooking the plains.
We climbed up to them and were surprised by their low height and squat shape. With frequently strong winds rushing at the ridge, there was no need for the mills to be any taller and their work was to mill wheat into flour through gigantic grinding stones, all year round. Every windmill is named and Sancho, Bolero, Espartero and Rucio retain their original machinery.
It was moving to think of them braced against the winds in all weathers and turning their wooden arms and canvas sails to generate energy and provide a staple food stuff for the sparse local population. Dating from the 16th century they were in action until the 1980s.
At the end of the ridge, the partly restored castle was originally built during the caliphate of Cordoba. In 1183 it was given by the Christian King Alfonso VIII to the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.
Our route took us through the romantically named Tierra de Caballeros, named for the Knights of the Orders of Santiago and Calatrava which were based here in the 12th century. At the time of the reconquest, the Castilian Kings relied on the orders to defend their positions along the borders with the Muslim kingdom of Andalusia.
From the 12th century on, knighthoods became more than military orders and instead represented a code of conduct. Knights were considered as important in peacetime as in war since they demonstrated values of justice, equity, loyalty, integrity, prudence, generosity and kindness.
The most famous of all Spanish knights, was not in fact in a knighthood. Don Quixote of La Mancha, the literary creation of author Cervantes, thought himself a to be a knight in an imaginary world where he could perform chivalrous tasks for the benefit of all.
The book’s many settings include the ridge of windmills at Consuegra where Don Quixote ‘tilted at windmills’ believing them to be giants, and a small bar in the village of Puerto Lapice which claims to be the place where Don Quixote was ‘dubbed’ a knight by the landlord.
Its pretty setting in a red-painted wooden arcaded courtyard is medieval, and atmospheric. It was not difficult to imagine the boisterous hilarity of wine-fuelled celebrations that the bar must have witnessed throughout the centuries.
Surprisingly, La Mancha is the largest wine-producing region in the world. The hot, dry days are ideal for the Tempranillo grape, which is used for a mellow, fruity and very quaffable wine aged in oak barrels.
We visited Valdepenas for a tasting in a local bodega, passing one of Spain’s gigantic roadside bulls. Originally an advertising campaign for Osborne Sherry in the 1960s the hundreds of wooden bulls are now part of the landscape despite their improbable size of 14 meters high (46 feet).
For three hundred years La Mancha was a battleground between Moors and Christians and the skyline is still dominated in places by huge fortresses and walled castles.
At the hilltop town of Banos de la Encina, we walked the perfectly preserved crenellated walls of the Castle of Burgalimar, originally a 10th century Moorish fortress and important Muslim complex of the Caliphate of Cordoba.
After the fall of Andalusia to the Catholic Monarchs, the castle passed in and out of the hands of warring Moors and Christian Knights, until it was claimed by King Fernando III of Castille in 1225 and given to the Archbishop of Toledo who entrusted his and its safety to the Knights of the Order of Santiago.
Spotting the vibrant pinks and magenta petals of bougainvillea in full bloom along the castle’s walls, we had a sense of warmer weather and sunshine on its way, despite the blackening skies and ever-present threat of rain.
Three weeks into our trip, our sunshine total is an afternoon in Salamanca, a full day in Segovia and a few cold but bright spells in the north. Now, in touching distance of Andalusia, we braced ourselves for 48 hours of heavy rain on a campsite.