Madrid to Córdoba

On The Road Travel Essays

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Madrid to Córdoba

The road is motorway all the way on the NIV. This is a long journey (about 5 hours) and not especially attractive. There are some highlights — the Venta del Quixote at Puerto Lápice, the windmills at Consuegra, the Desfiladero de Despeñaperros — but in general this is a time to rest or to entertain the group with music, quizzes or some judicious commentary.

The first stretch is of no interest, passing random light industrial zones and faceless dormitory towns for Madrid. 13 km. south, a road goes off to the left to Cerro de los Angeles (1.5 km), a hermitage in the geometrical centre of the country. This is one of the most popular places for weddings in the Madrid area.

Aranjuez  You see nothing of the town or its famous palace and gardens but it is nevertheless worth a mention (you don't have time to make a detour). Aranjuez was once a stronghold for the great military order of knights called the Order of Santiago. When the kings of Spain became Grand Masters of this order, they made Aranjuez one of their major residences.

Philip II started work on a large palace, which was designed by the same team of architects who designed El Escorial. This palace remained a royal residence until 1890. The gardens are among its most famous features. Joaquin Rodrigo immortalized the palace in his "Concierto de Aranjuez." This is the time to play the tape if you have it.

Ocaña  In this town of 7,000 is the maximum security prison for the whole of Spain. Look for the guards patrolling up on the walls (the road runs right next to the walls). Inside are prisoners condemned to death. Members of the Guardia Civil are in evidence (this is their HQ), on the walls and watchtowers of the prison. Peasant town.

La Mancha  After Ocaña, you enter the part of Castile known as La Mancha. The word comes from the Arabic manxa, meaning flat,dry plain. It is thoroughly apt, because that is precisely what Castilla-La Mancha is. Cervantes made great play of the name, because in modern Spanish mancha is also the word for stain: the great stain at the heart of Spain. People from La Mancha are known as manchegos.

This, of course, is Don Quixote ("Man of La Mancha") country. It is not an association lost on the local tourist authority or on local entrepreneurs. A statue of Don Quixote guards the road as you enter the province. Manchegan windmills have been reinvented as bed and breakfasts, tourist shops or wine-tasting centres. You need to talk a little about Don Quixote as you drive south.

The Story of Don Quixote  Don Quixote is one of the great creations of world literature. He is the great dreamer, the fantasist, the man trapped in a dull modern world whose inner life is informed by visions of another world, more exciting, more romantic, more in touch with the sublime elements of the human spirit.

Puerto Lápice  This small village is distinguished by an inn mentioned in Don Quixote. known as the Venta del Quixote. There is plenty of space for the coach to park. There are loos here, an expensive souvenir shop, a bar with a few snacks and a place for you and the driver to get a free glass of wine and a delicious plate of migas. The inn is charming, well maintained and undeniably picturesque. There is a statue of Don Quixote to be photographed with, and a plaque on the entrance wall with the lines of the episode in which the inn features. This is the ideal place for a 30 minute break. There is a bank opposite the inn for those who need to change money.

Consuegra also lies a little off the road to the right. It is an old settlement founded by the Romans. It is famous for its fields of saffron. You can clearly see on a rise beyond the town a succession of five manchegan windmills and the ruins of the old castle forming a splendid ensemble. If you are doing very well for time you might be able to take the detour up to the hill to take a look inside one of these windmills. There is a nominal entrance fee.

Manzanares  Population: 18,000. A farming town, where produce raised in the surrounding fields is processed and shipped to other parts of Spain. As this is the old road to Andalucía, it was always guarded in medieval times. A fortress stood watch in the town to protect the route to Andalucía.

Valdepeñas  Population: 27,000. Here we enter an important wine making centre of Spain. The landscape has turned from wheat fields to vineyards. The wine is aged in huge barrels kept in bodegas, then bottled and shipped. These brands are labelled "Valdepeñas", which is the headquarters of several wineries. This is the biggest Denominación de Origen in Spain.

Santa Cruz de Mudela  Here the road begins to climb the Cerro de las Herrerias, which are the first foothills of the Sierra Morena, the mountain range that separates La Mancha from Andalucía. This was bandit country (as witnessed by Don Quixote himself). Nowadays it is best known for a song more commonly associated with Mexico. If you have the voice for it, now is your chance...

De la Sierra Morena, cielito lindo, vienen bajando
Un par de ojitos negros, cielito lindo, de contrabando. Ay, ay, ay, ay, canta y no llores.
Porque cantando se alegran, cielito lindo, los corazones. Ese lunar que tienes, cielito lindo, junto a tu boca,
No se lo des a nadie, cielito lindo, que a mi me toca. Ay, ay ,ay ,ay etc.

Desfiladero de Despeñaperros  For a brief moment here the scenery becomes spectacular. There are a number of laybys for a photo stop. The best one is opposite the rocky outcrops known as Los Órganos. This pass marks the boundary between Castile and Andalucía. The ruggedness of the mountains made it easier for the Moors to defend their kingdoms against the Christian Reconquest. "Despeñaperros" = "scattering of the dogs" (i.e., Moors).

Andalucía  Once you cross into Andalucía (the province of Jaén) you will see an olive tree or two. Then you will see a hundred or so, then thousands and then suddenly millions. Within a few miles, the horizon has become a sea of a billion olive trees. In all directions, as far as you can see.

Las Navas de Tolosa a small hamlet shortly after Santa Elena. This town, though insignificant today, has a famous name that you'll come across in every history of Spain. In this town, in 1212, the army of the Christian King Alfonso VIII defeated a Moorish army, and entered Andalucía for the first time.

The battle (July 6, 1212): The wars between Christians and Moors had long been at a standstill. Pope Innocent II called for a new crusade, to break the power of the Moors. A large Christian army was formed, with troops from Castile, Aragon, and Navarre, fighting alongside Germans, Frenchmen, and Italians. King Alfonso VIII led this alliance. The Moors were commanded by Emir Mohammed Abou Abd Allah, and they stood ready. The battle was furious, long, and at first indecisive. The opposing forces seesawed back and forth for several days. Finally, the Moors, their forces depleted, abandoned the field and the way was open for the Reconquest of Andalucía. This date marks the turning point in the wars between Christians and Moors. From this point on, the Moors were on the defensive, and could no longer hope to recover lands farther north, or even keep their kingdoms in the south. In 1236 the great Moorish city of Córdoba fell, and Andalucía itself, the Moorish heartland, was doomed.

La Carolina  Population: 15,000. There are several towns in this area which were founded in the C18 to develop mining in these mountains. La Carolina was the most important of them, and was named for King Charles III, who sponsored many of these mining projects. Mining was (and still is) mainly for lead.

Bailén  Unimportant in itself, this town is a major crossroads. The road due south goes to Jaén and Granada. The road turning west goes on to Córdoba and Seville.

Napoleon's comeuppance: A famous episode occurred in the town during Napoleon's occupation of Spain. Here, on July 16, 1808, a French army commanded by General Dupont was threatened by Spanish partisans. The French forces were ill-prepared, badly organized, and exhausted by the mid-summer heat. They were thoroughly routed by the patriotic Spanish. Four years later, Napoleon looked back on this episode as the decisive turning point in his own occupation of Spain.

In the vicinity of the bridge is an estate of 4500 acres given to the Duke of Wellington by the Spanish Parliament, after Wellington had defeated Napoleon's army at Salamanca.

The mountain peak looming ahead and to the left is Mt. Parapanda, elev. 5000 feet.

Alcalá la Real  Population: 25,000. A small but very old town. The Romans called it Fonda Aurora. It is dominated by the Moorish castle, La Mora. It was captured by Christian forces, after fierce fighting, in 1341; the Christians were trying to force a passage over the mountains to Granada. But this is as far as they got. Only 150 years later did Granada itself fall. (If the road goes past the Ayuntamiento, look for the curious clock on the wall.)

Alcaudete  Population: 20,000. Moorish Alcázar, built when this was on the outskirts of the Moorish Kingdom of Granada. Up against constant pressure from Christian forces, Granada had to pepper the countryside with such defenses.

Baena  Population: 23,000. Again, an old Moorish castle! It once belonged to Gonsalvo de Cordoba, a Spanish nobleman from Cordoba. The upper part of the town, still surrounded by its ancient wall, was the original city, known as Almedina. Well-to-do merchants built splendid villas during the Renaissance, to enjoy the view and fresh summer breezes.

Castro del Río  Pop: 14,000. An old Roman town, with ruins of the ancient walls and a later Moorish castle. Here, in 46 B.C., preparations were made for a great battle. Julius Caesar had defeated his arch-rival Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalia (in Greece); Pompey had fled to Egypt and been put to death by King Ptolemy (brother of Cleopatra). But Pompey's sympathizers didn't quit. His sons raised an army in Spain. Here, at Castro, this army made preparations to attack Caesar's army, encamped about 15 miles to the southwest. The following day, Pompey's sons were defeated. The battle took place at the town of Munda Baetica, now called Montilla (check map), southwest of Castro. The Battle of Munda put an end to the lingering pro-Pompey resistance to Caesar, so one might say that the great Roman dictator's rise to power was sealed 15 miles from here!

In the Ayuntamiento is a prison cell where Cervantes was once held prisoner. In fact, his son was born here. Why was Cervantes in prison? To begin with, Cervantes always had financial problems, and was accused several times of various types of fraud (charges were always dismissed when his accounts were actually examined — but the suspicion stuck). Anyway, he had financial skill, and obtained a position as collector of back-taxes for the Kingdom of Granada. He would go around from town to town collecting taxes from deadbeats, then deposit the money in a bank in Seville. Unfortunately, the bank in Seville went bankrupt, and Cervantes was thought to have stashed the money away himself. He was arrested, imprisoned first here in Castro, then in the Royal Prison in Seville. While in the latter prison, he conceived the idea for Don Quixote, which was originally to be a short story. One can perhaps understand Cervantes' dreams of chivalry in view of the sordid circumstances of the times, from which he would have been only too happy to escape.

Espejo  Population: 9,000. The castle is in the Mudéjar style. The term "Mudéjar" refers to the style of art practiced by Moors who lived in Spain after the Reconquest. Their skills were sought after by Christian kings and nobles. Several of them designed and built this castle for the Duke of Osuna, who was from Córdoba but wanted a country estate for the summer. The church is 14th century.


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