Friday, March 18, 2011

Lost in La Mancha

I was looking for files while prepping today's Quijote class and came across this, which I wrote while traveling through La Mancha with my wife in 2000.

Alcazar de San Juan, Aug 22, 2000

"La Mancha" literally means "the stain." And there are segments of the landscape that most definitely live up to the name. As we descended from the mountains south of Avila into the plains of Castilla-La Mancha, we passed from a dry but reasonably verdant landscape into a parched and arid no man's land.

Seeing the landscape makes it easier to understand the humor of Don Quixote, I think. The books Cervantes was lampooning take place in extraordinary locales - mystical islands and forests filled with monsters and fair virgins. And the heroes, of course, are virile young knights overflowing with virtue, and overwhelming with good looks. To poke fun at those books, Cervantes filled his with the opposite: hoary, horny prostitutes, a withered, old, crazy, self-invented knight, and, of course, the most mundane and unromantic landscape imaginable.

The visual humor of Don Quixote lies at least partly here in the remarkable plainness of the land, the last place you would expect to find a knight errant.

You have to wonder, then, if La Mancha gets the joke. Highway signs proudly declare "traveler, you are now crossing La Mancha," while official markers periodically remind us that we are traveling a "Ruta Turística." A tourist route not of actual historical events, but marking the landscape of a fictional personage. To me it is richly ironic that this place has so completely embraced a fame born of parody, of being deemed the worst, most unlikely place to nurture the worst, most unlikely knight errant.

I don't mean to suggest that La Mancha is entirely unappealing. It has its moments of charm. Castles stud the hillsides like desert buttes, some of them quite imposing. The hillsides without castles have windmills lining each ridge like propellers on a giant airplane wing. The sky is blue and the air is warm. La Mancha is also the home a wondrous cheese. And everywhere roams the specter of Don Quijote.

Don Quijote and Sancho Panza ride in bronze in the main square of Alcázar de San Juan. Little Don Quijotes and Sanchos adorn houses throughout town. And tonight Erika and I are staying at the Hotel Don Quijote, which boasts a Restaurante Sancho on the ground floor. Tomorrow we will go El Toboso, famous for being the home of the doubly fictitious Dulcinea - a figment in the imagination of the fictional Don Quijote.

In another Quijote connection worth exploring, Alcazar de San Juan claims to be the true birthplace of Cervantes. Apparently one of the local churches has his baptismal record.


No comments: