Cuenca to Toledo with a camera over my shoulder


—Timeless Roads of the Mideast and Mediterranean is written by Ed Kinney.

(Part 5 of 6 on Spain)

Continuing on our April ’04 photographers’ tour, entitled “Spanish Explorer,” the eight of us left the mountainous city of Cuenca and drove to Toledo through the La Mancha area of Spain.

These austere plains, with occasional windmills, were highlighted in a novel by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, perhaps Spain’s most renowned writer. In 1605, Cervantes published the first of his stories about Don Quixote, a lone knight who set forth to correct envisioned injustices. Don Quixote, accompanied by his squire, Sancho Panza, attacked these windmills believing them to be evil giants, hence it was his chivalrous duty as a knight to defeat them.

Windmills of La Mancha

La Mancha plains can be forbidding, especially during Spanish winters, as there is little protection against sweeping winds. Even in April, occasional gusts made it difficult to hand hold a camera. Yet this land isn’t pictorially hostile.

On a hillside near the small village of Belmonte, a hexagon-shaped castle built in A.D. 1436 by Juan Pacheco, the Marquis of Villene, stands today as if it is still protecting his domain. Nearby, beautiful sweeping fields of olive trees, grape vineyards and lavender bushes cover many of the gentle landscape rises. The rows of lavender, which were just beginning to show a blush of color, are prized in soaps, cosmetics and spices.

Soon five giant windmills on a hillside at Mota del Cueva were seen. We couldn’t help but wonder if these were the windmills that were attacked by storied Don Quixote while riding his trusty steed, Rosinante, or if the windmills standing above the village of Campo de Criptana were the ones. We photographed both.

The nine or so windmills at Campo de Criptana are more photogenic, especially when viewed from a nearby ridge. These windmills appear to be giants approaching along a well-worn footpath. Equally photogenic are the expansive La Mancha plains below. A single slowly curving farm road passes through large, individually planted fields of various muted, early spring colors, directing one’s eyes toward distant hills.

To complement our images of these La Mancha windmills, we stopped in the nearby village of Campo de Criptana to photograph a large wall mural of Don Quixote on the exterior of a shop. The artist and shop owner, Eloy Teno, invited us inside to view his exceptional metal figurines and larger pieces, mostly depicting Don Quixote. (The webpage www.eloyteno.com, in Spanish, describes his work.) In hindsight, I should have bought a piece — a memento of this beautiful area of Spain.

Historic city of Toledo

At dusk, under misty skies, we arrived at the very nice Hotel Alfonso VI in the old section of Toledo, fewer than 200 yards from the main square, Plaza de Zocodóver. This hotel’s location is perfect, enabling guests to easily walk throughout the old areas of the historic city of Toledo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As the weather the next morning remained overcast, we began our photography tour of Toledo by visiting the interior of Toledo’s Cathedral, on which construction began in the 13th century. It was built basically using French Gothic design before being modified into a more Spanish Gothic plan. The Cathedral, religious seat of Spain, was empty during our visit except for several priests seen hurrying in flowing cassocks to, I assume, a private Mass.

This world-famous structure has interesting architecture and wonderful works of art, yet, to me, it lacks the spiritual and pictorial warmth found in many houses of worship in Spain. Photography isn’t permitted within the Cathedral proper, and the Toledo buildings closely surrounding it make it difficult to properly capture its exterior on film.

Later, under brightening skies, we zigzagged the streets of old Toledo, walking first toward the Museum of El Greco (Casa y Museo Del Greco) before returning to the Plaza del Zocodóver. It was in the plaza that we found the vibrance of Toledo, though it was less than that we experienced in Barcelona.

A Mexican mariachi band was serenading locals seated in an outdoor restaurant; beautiful Spanish señoritas browsing local store windows for the latest in fashions were being ogled by young men, and the elderly, mostly men, sat in the, now, warming sun telling stories — possibly stories of how the Plaza del Zocodóver had been rebuilt following the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s or arguments over whether or not Don Quixote’s creator, Cervantes, had really stayed in the plaza’s Posada de la Sangre, an inn.

Toledo is an interesting city, and someday I may return. Likely due to the weather I experienced plus its adverse effect on photography, I’d rate Toledo a step below the other villages visited during our 16-day tour, especially Barcelona.

Minutiae

• Photo tip — In many museums and cathedrals, visitors are allowed to take pictures but not with a tripod or flash. As light is usually low, requiring a slow shutter speed, our chief guide, Close-Up Expeditions’ Don Lyon, recommended we use a “string monopod.”

This is simply a 6-foot-long heavy string tied onto a bolt screwed into the bottom of the camera where the tripod normally fits. While standing on the floor end of the string, the photographer raises the camera to eye level while exerting an upward tension on the string. This tension allows him to take handheld photographs at slower shutter speeds.

• At the disabled-adapted, 4-star Hotel Alfonso VI (Calle General Moscardo, 2 45001 Toledo; phone 34 925 22 26 000, fax 34 925 2144 58, e-mail info@hotelalfonsovi.com or visit www.hotelalfonsovi.com), prices during low season were €73.50 (near $94) single and €112.70 ($144) double. A great buffet breakfast cost €8.80 ($11).

• My favorite Spanish webpage is www.red2000.com/spain, and an individual one for Toledo is www.travelinginspain.com/tole2. html. Another source of information for Spain is www.okspain.org.

• Trivia — Cervantes died on the very same day as did William Shakespeare, April 23, 1616.

Coming up

In the last part of this series on Spain, we’ll travel south to the city of Gaudix and to mountain villages where the Mediterranean Sea can be seen in the distance.