Castilla La Mancha is essentially “New Castile,” minus the autonomous community of Madrid, referred to as such to differentiate it from “Old Castile” to the north. Like Castilla and Leon, its sparse population means it consists of mile after mile of sweeping, empty, flat plains, broken by the odd mountain range. It is a couple of hundred meters lower in altitude than the northern “Old Castile,” and the nature of the climate can be surmised from the fact that the term La Mancha derives from the Arabic for “no water.”
In between the emptiness there are cities of exceptional beauty. Toledo is one, known as the ‘city of three cultures’ for its mixed heritage from the three main faiths. It is a maze of narrow, steep, cobbled alleys packed with churches, monasteries, synagogues, Mudejar constructions, museums, and ancient bridges and ruins. Another is Cuenca, the “unconquerable city,” as it was known to the Arabs, a mix of Moorish and Christian influences as well as the first Gothic cathedral in the country. As with the northern meseta, many visitors complain of monotony and tedium, and there is often a lack of variety, but the vineyards and fields of wheat and olive trees that dominate much of the landscape have their own majesty.
Castile La Mancha is also the land of Don Quixote, that brilliant seventeenth century satirical creation of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. The nature of the war-fueled expansion of Castilla led to a bloated nobility as warriors were awarded privileges for service. Chief among these a group known as the hidalgos, the name deriving from hijo de algo, for “son of something,” and was originally used to refer to the offspring of titled persons. Over time they became a dime-a-dozen as the title was handed out freely by the regency. This escalation is evidenced by censuses taken as late as in the middle of the eighteenth century listing 7.5 percent of the population of noble rank. The windmills which were made so famous by Cervantes’ parody of the noble class still exist in clusters across the landscape, and are included in tours of the region based around the novel which are often labelled as the Ruta de Don Quijote.