Route of don Quixote – a bike tour in La Mancha, Spain

May 31, 2024

I’d always wanted to do a bike tour somewhere in Spain.

And recently, I got a message from a guy named Raúl. He said he enjoys my “unique way of narrating” and wondered if I’d be interested in taking a tour with his new company.

Indeed I would, I told him.

The company is biketourinspain.com – and Raúl suggested I do the Route of Don Quixote.

At around 50 kilometers a day over the mostly-flat terrain in La Mancha, he said it’s accessible to almost anyone who’s reasonably fit.

A week of cycling between towns on a touring bike, hotels and hostels all organized for me, plus a literary tie-in for the blog and podcast. It sounded great… and it was!

I scheduled it for early May, because I was already looking at going to Madrid for other reasons, and because it wouldn’t be too hot yet out on the highways. At least I hoped not.

The back roads of rural Spain.

Now I’m back, and 204 kilometers later, I’ve lived to tell the tale. So let’s talk about La Ruta, about Don Quixote, about Cervantes, and about La Mancha.

Let’s talk about the backroads of Spain.

Starting the Route of Don Quixote

My first stay is in a hotel in Toledo. I talked about the city of Toledo in my previous article, which you should definitely read.

It rains hard during the night, and I worry a bit about the route the next day.

However, after coffee and a hotel breakfast, the sun comes out (mostly) and it seems like a nice day for a ride.

Raul picks me up at 9AM, and we drive to the town of Consuegra. There he opens up the back of his van and gives me the bike I’ll be riding. I’ve never been on a touring bike before, but this one seems nice. The ride is smooth, and it’s got saddlebags for my stuff hanging off the back.

Just like that, I’m off, through Consuegra and up the hill outside of town to see the windmills.

Seems like a good time to start with my literary tie-in.

A bit about Don Quixote de La Mancha

Alonso Quijano’s brain has been rotted by reading too many books.

So, grabbing his lance and putting on an old suit of armor, he gets on his horse and rides off, seeking adventure.

To most of the inhabitants of La Mancha, he’s clearly out of his mind. He sees things a lot differently than they do. Coming to an inn, he imagines a castle. The prostitutes outside he sees as lovely maidens. When he demands that the innkeeper (lord of the castle, in Quijano’s mind) make him a knight, the man decides to humor him so he’ll leave. Just like that, Don Quixote is born.

And so, accompanied by his gullible sidekick Sancho Panza, he begins a life of adventure.

Don Quixote is a lot of book to get through. It was originally published in two volumes – the first in 1605, and the second in 1615 – so the Spanish isn’t exactly up to date.

When I moved to Spain, though, the Spanish were in the middle of the big 400th anniversary celebration for el Quijote, and it seemed like a national obsession. I got a copy of the new English translation and read it beginning to end. It’s not bad, but (like James Joyce’s Ulysses, for example) it’s not something I’m going to be able to read again.

Before we go on, just a little linguistic note: the original title of the novel in Spanish was El Ingenioso Hidalgo don Quixote de La Mancha – Quixote and a lot of other words were spelled with an X instead of a J back then. The Spanish Academy has since updated some spelling rules, and the current spelling is Quijote.

These days, the Spanish tend to just say “el Quijote” about the book, because the full title is a bit of a mouthful. In English we call the novel Don Quixote, the same as the character, and spell it with X. It’s a mess.

If I accidentally switch spellings at some point in here, please forgive me.

Back to the windmills of Consuegra

Don Quixote’s most famous adventure involves the sort of windmills I have in front of me. Raul’s instructions for the bike tour suggest that at this point I stop to read the following excerpt from the novel:

“Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we could have ever hoped. Look over there, Sancho Panza, my friend, where there are thirty or more monstrous giants with whom I plan to do battle and take all their lives, and with their spoils we’ll start to get rich. This is righteous warfare, and it’s a great service to God to rid the earth of such a wicked seed.”

“What giants?” said Sancho Panza.

“Those that you see over there,” responded his master, “with the long arms—some of them almost two leagues long.”

“Look, your grace,” responded Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants—they’re windmills; and what seems to be arms are the sails that rotate the millstone when they’re turned by the wind.”

“It seems to me,” responded don Quixote, “that you aren’t well-versed in adventures—they are giants; and if you’re afraid, get away from here and start praying while I go into fierce and unequal battle with them.”

DQdLM, Chapter VIII.

I pedal up the hill, past a few tour buses and people who have driven in to see the famous sight – there are old windmills like this in several towns in La Mancha.

Don Quixote, in the book, gets knocked down and almost killed at this point. Pinned under his horse, he tells Sancho that he believes his wizard nemesis has turned the giants (at the last moment) into windmills, thus robbing him of the glory of defeating them in battle.

windmills don quixote route
Feeling quixotic at the windmills of Consuegra, Spain.

If you’ve ever heard the expression “tilting at windmills” it comes from this scene in El Quixote. In English we also use “quixotic” to mean “foolishly impractical”, especially when someone’s actions are motivated by idealism, romanticism, or chivalry.

Because chivalry is Don Quixote’s thing – he’s not just a knight, but a knight-errant, wandering the earth (or at least La Mancha) in search of wrongs to right, and injuries to redress.

Here’s a quote…

I, though a sinner, have made profession [of knight-errantry] … and so I go through these solitudes and wilds seeking adventures, resolved in soul to oppose my arm and person to the most perilous that fortune may offer me in aid of the weak and needy.”

DQdLM, Chapter XIII.

It sounds better in Spanish. Cervantes always does.

Lunch in historic Puerto Lápice

From the windmills of Consuegra I head down through some farmland – grapevines, olive trees, and wheat – towards my first stop in Puerto Lápice.

The day is beautiful – sun coming through the clouds, spring flowers on both sides of the trail. After a couple of hours following the GPS route (provided by Raúl) I’m rolling into town.

Puerto Lápice is mentioned in Cervantes’ novel as the town where Alonso Quijano is knighted. In other words, where he becomes don Quixote. Today it’s a small town with 900 people, and old square, and a few Quixote-themed tourist attractions.

Raúl shows up when I’m part-way through a lunch of huevos rotos con jamón (potatoes with fried eggs and ham) to take me off to start the second part of today’s route.

The first day of the Route of Don Quixote has two transfers – after this I’ll be on my own for the rest of the trip. For now, we’re back in the van for a while. Eventually, Raúl stops at a trailhead by the side of the highway to let me off.

I’ve got another 13 kilometers to Argamasilla de Alba, through perfectly flat land studded with grapevines and igloo-shaped bombos (sheds made of stone where farmers store tools). There’s not much happening out here. An occasional tractor and a lot of sky.

Poppies, clouds and a “bombo” out in La Mancha.

Argamasilla de Alba is a pretty basic large town, where apparently not much has happened – except for a guy named Cervantes who was (or may have been) imprisoned here – and who, while in prison, had (or may have had) the idea to write about a petty nobleman who loses his mind, and convinces himself he’s a knight-errant.

And this is as good a time as any for some biographical info about Cervantes.

A bit about Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote

Miguel de Cervantes was born in 1547 in Alcalá de Henares, just 30 kilometers from Madrid.

He was one of several children, the son of a surgeon – although “surgeon” in those days appears to have been something more like a barber who also did amputations.

From an early age, Miguel was interested in the theater, and in writing poetry, but not much is known about his education. The family moved a lot, and his father at one point was put in a debtors’ prison.

In 1569, King Felipe II signed an arrest order for someone named Miguel de Cervantes, who was accused of wounding another man in a duel. It’s not clear if this is the same Cervantes – in any case, the future author of el Quijote soon ends up in Italy, where he drinks wine, reads poetry about love and knighthood, and admires the art and architecture in Genoa, Florence and Rome.

Soon afterwards, he joins the military, and ends up fighting in the battle of Lepanto – the greatest naval battle of the age, which pits a coalition of Christian nations against the expanding Ottoman empire.

On the day of the battle, he’s sick with a fever, and when the captain of his galley tells him to stay belowdecks, he refuses, saying he “would prefer to die fighting for God and for his king”. He fights bravely, and is shot twice: once in the chest and once in the left hand. His hand is paralyzed as a result of his wounds, giving him the nickname “el manco de Lepanto”.

After a few months in the hospital, he continues his military career and spends a couple more years sailing around the Mediterranean. He’s on his way back to Spain in 1575 when his ship is captured and he’s enslaved, along with his brother Rodrigo.

ruta de don quixote campos
Wheat fields alongside the route of Don Quixote.

Cervantes’ mother gets together some money, but can’t afford to ransom both her sons. Miguel insists that Rodrigo be ransomed before him. Despite several attempts to escape, he’s a slave for five years – the time it takes to get together a further 500 gold pieces for his ransom.

Afterwards, he becomes a spy, he has an illegitimate daughter with the wife of a tavernkeeper, he marries, he travels around Andalucía, he becomes a tax collector, and finally he’s arrested for possible “embezzlement of public funds” – there are some irregularities in the books he keeps as a tax collector is all I know.

In prison he (allegedly) has the idea to write about Alonso Quijano, who goes mad under the influence of literature, and becomes a knight-errant… and thus is born Don Quixote, the most famous character in all of Spanish literature.

Cervantes, the myth, the icon

I’m hedging a bit in my biography because it would appear that a lot of what we know about Cervantes is what Cervantes wrote about himself, and it’s not clear how true all the details are. But the battle of Lepanto and the slavery part are well-documented, and they deeply affected how Cervantes saw the world.

Afterwards, of course, there was plenty of myth-making around one of Spain’s greatest literary figures.

Cervantes is a big deal. He’s such a big deal, in fact, that Spanish literary types will use “la lengua de Cervantes” as a synonym for the Spanish language as a whole. (They’ve also been known to call English “la lengua de Shakespeare”.)

Of course, Cervantes didn’t invent Spanish any more than Shakespeare invented English. But he did a lot for the language. Don Quixote is considered by many to be the first modern novel, and it gets suitably weird by the end, with a plot that’s not quite what you expect from something written in the early 17th century.

Shakespeare and Cervantes are said to have died on the same day, which may be a bit of an exaggeration – in any case they appear to have died within a few days of each other in April 1616. The official date given is 23 April, which is now celebrated as World Book Day, and coincides with Saint George’s Day – an important holiday in Catalonia, England and many other places.

But back to the open roads of La Mancha

The next day I have a double espresso at a bar across from the bus depot.

At this early hour, the place is full of farm laborers having coffee and shots of orujo before heading out into the fields. The whole thing is a world away from the gleaming palaces and museums of Madrid.

Finishing my coffee, I get back on the bike, a bit sore from yesterday’s ride.

The road out of town heads along the canal, and it’s cool in the morning breeze.

An occasional rabbit darts across the road ahead of me, and at one point a single duck flies up out of the water of the canal, beating its wings loudly. Finally, an empty local highway where I have some hills to climb on my way to the town of Ruidera. I stop at a small castle overlooking a reservoir. The fields are full of giant red poppies, and the downhill bits are pure euphoria.

castle la mancha spain
Castillo de Peñarroya, La Mancha, Spain.

It’s about one o’clock when I get to the town. On the square I have a Heineken 0,0% – the bartender brings me a tapa of potato chips with pickled anchovies. It sounds a bit gross if you’re not from an anchovy culture, but “boquerones en vinagre” are one of my favorite things in summer.

I’m staying at a casa rural tonight, and it’s in the middle of nowhere, so Raúl has told me to buy food for dinner here in Ruidera. The supermarkets are pretty dismal, though. I get some bread and paté, some canned sardines, and some gummy worms. Should be enough to keep me going.

After that, it’s another 12km along the lakes to my lunch stop. The water sparkles in the hot air and the trees are resplendent. Restaurante La Vega has a view of one of the lakes, and a decent menú del día. The dessert is called Dulcinea, after don Quixote’s love interest. (Dulce means sweet – the name has layers, like a cake.)

From La Vega on there’s no phone signal, so I’ve been told to call the caretaker for the casa rural before leaving. She says she’ll be down in 20 minutes, so I get back on the bike and find the country house. Like a lot of houses in La Mancha, it’s painted white with a thick blue stripe along the bottom edge of the wall, about a meter high. There’s a name for this shade of blue – azul añil manchego.

The caretaker’s name is Mari. She looks like she could have walked right out of the pages of Don Quixote – or at least a Soviet-era Eastern European Quijote. She hands me a bag of bread, butter and jam for tomorrow’s breakfast and shows me the keys: one for the house, one for the gate, and one for my room. Then she leaves, and I’m in a huge casa rural all by myself. Seven bedrooms and a very weak wifi signal.

I walk around the lake before sunset, then eat my sardines for dinner. After riding 50km yesterday and 55km today, I’m more than a bit hungry.

Off to Ossa de Montiel

The next day I get up and eat 2500 calories worth of bread, butter and jam.

Washing that down with a pot of black coffee, I’m feeling pretty optimistic about the day.

There’s only one problem: last night I locked the gate outside the casa rural, and now (as instructed) I’ve left the keys on the table inside. It’s nobody’s fault but my own – nobody told me to lock the gate – but I suddenly find myself both locked out and locked in. I wander around the yard for a few minutes, looking for a way over the wall that would accommodate an unathletic 41-year old holding a large touring bike over his head.

No luck.

Some gate, somewhere in La Mancha.

I decide to call Mari, only to remember I’ve got no phone signal out here. This is starting to look like a problem. Thankfully, I find I’m able to stand next to one of the windows and get a bit of wifi from inside. I text Raúl, who calls Mari for me. She drives down to open the gate a few minutes later, and I’m off.

It’s still cold when I find myself on a dirt road around the lakes, headed towards a town called Ossa de Montiel – population 2262. The way is a bit difficult because of the dirt, but I get there around 11 in any case. There’s a statue of Don Quixote on the plaza outside the town hall. Four old guys stand there chatting.

A van drives by, with a loudspeaker blasting “¡Tengo patatas, tengo sandías! ¡Melones, melones!”

Small town vibes in La Mancha

Looking for an open bar, I end up at a typical small town place on Avenida de la Libertad, across from the bus stop. I order coffee and water, sit down outside, and look at some signs.

Mesón el Quijote (se vende hielo). Texas Saloon. El Frenazo.

A woman with a towel wrapped around her head stands in a doorway nearby, talking to a couple of friends. She’s got a sack of potatoes between her feet – 5 or 10 kilos. Apparently, they’re talking about the guy in the van. ¡Melones, melones!

This is truly the unbeaten path – there’s not a tourist or an attraction in sight.

A big orange bus stops across the street and a very large driver gets out to open the luggage compartment. Looks like the 12 o’clock service to Tomelloso. A dozen elderly people carrying shopping bags shuffle up the steps and sit inside the dark bus, waiting for the driver to get back on.

A woman in a bright orange robe – probably from Western Sahara, if I had to guess – walks slowly by, one way, then the other.

Marcela the shepherdess

Back in the saddle outside town, I see an old goatherd sitting by the roadside in a flat cap. Several dozen goats graze in the field behind him. Shepherds and goatherds are a big part of el Quijote – sheep were a huge industry in Spain back then, and a lot of shepherds could be found walking around in the wild places.

Notably, Don Quixote’s love interest Dulcinea doesn’t speak in the novel at all – she remains a distant, idealized damsel for Quixote to admire from afar. But a shepherdess named Marcela gets a whole speech in chapter XIIII. She’s chosen the life of a shepherdess, we learn, because her great beauty makes her irresistible to men: only in the solitude of the countryside can she be free of the male gaze and society’s expectations.

Honor and virtue are ornaments of the soul, and without them the body, even if it is beautiful, shouldn’t seem beautiful.  Well then, if chastity is one of the virtues that most embellish the soul and the body, why should the woman who’s loved for her beauty lose her chastity by responding to the advances of the man who, merely for his own pleasure, employs all his strength and cunning to make her lose it?

I was born free, and to live free I chose the solitude of the countryside… I am the distant fire and the far-off sword…

DQdLM, chapter XIIII.

It is, like I said, pretty modern stuff for the year 1605. Also, it sounds better in Spanish.

La libertad, Sancho…

Don Quixote has some other quotes I like.

They all sound better in Spanish, but I won’t torture you with Cervantes’ old-school grammar.

If I’d been paying any attention 20 years ago, for example, I would have taken this one to heart:

The road of virtue is very narrow, and the road of vice is broad and spacious.

DQdLM, Part II, Chapter VI.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think twice about it at the time, and it took me years after to get a good handle on the relationship between virtue and vice.

Then there’s this one, which I think about a lot:

Freedom, Sancho, is one of the most precious gifts that heaven has bestowed upon men; no treasures that the earth holds buried or the sea conceals can compare with it; for freedom, as for honour, life may and should be ventured; and on the other hand, captivity is the greatest evil that can fall to the lot of man.

DQdLM, Part II, Chapter LVIII

Interestingly, when I memorized the quote in Spanish, many years ago, I left out the last part – “on the other hand, captivity, etc…” I don’t know why. That part is obviously Cervantes, speaking about his experience as a slave.

Bodegas of Tomelloso on the Route of Don Quixote

Another deserted highway, lots of farmland, flowers and sky.

A sign on the right says Ruta de Don Quixote, but Raúl’s GPS route takes me along the paved road. I climb a bit to the provincial border between Albacete and Ciudad Real.

The last 15 kilometers are all downhill, and I do them in less than an hour, pedalling my way to Tomelloso. Here I’ve got a room in a hotel just off Plaza España, and I arrive in time to have a good steak lunch.

route of don quixote bike tour in spain
Thistles as high as a man’s eye. Oh, and grape vines.

Tomelloso didn’t exist at all during Cervantes’ time. Raúl has a tour guide lined up to show me some local history, and he explains the whole thing, later that evening. In the 1600s, this was a dusty crossroads in the middle of nowhere. But when a plague ravaged grape vines across Europe starting in the 1860s, it was found that the area had good soil for grapes – and a new city was born.

The guide takes me to a couple of underground wine cellars. In the past, wine was made in large clay urns called tinajas, right under people’s houses. First, a cellar would be dug out of the rock, then tinajas would be lowered in through a hole in the ground. Afterwards, it was important to avoid the carbon dioxide produced by the fermentation: cages with crickets in them would be hung on the sides of the tinajas – when the crickets died, it was time to ventilate.

These days, La Mancha wine is made in large factories or co-ops.

In fact, I once spent a day down here picking grapes with an old flatmate of mine. At the end of the day, we drove the pickup truck to the co-op, where they bought the grapes and turned them into wine for export to Germany. All this was done in large cement and steel tanks.

It’s not quite as romantic as you might be imagining – an old French guy in a cave full of oak barrels (although presumably that sort of thing does happen elsewhere, with high-end wines).

El Toboso, home of Dulcinea

The next day is my last on the bike. I’m off to El Toboso, home of Dulcinea.

Dulcinea is like the character on some sitcoms who everybody talks about, but who never appears on camera.

She’s based on a woman who Don Quixote has seen, a couple of towns over – afterwards, he idealizes her beauty and virtue, because a knight-errant (he thinks) should be able to dedicate his victories on the battlefield to his damsel.

While Cervantes describes her as poor and a bit immodest, with a good hand for curing pork, to Don Quixote she is the Empress of La Mancha…

Her name is Dulcinea, her country El Toboso, a village of La Mancha, her rank must be at least that of a princess, since she is my queen and lady, and her beauty superhuman, since all the impossible and fanciful attributes of beauty which the poets apply to their ladies are verified in her; for her hairs are gold, her forehead Elysian fields, her eyebrows rainbows, her eyes suns, her cheeks roses, her lips coral, her teeth pearls, her neck alabaster, her bosom marble, her hands ivory, her fairness snow, [etc].

DQdLM, Chapter XIII.

I don’t know about all that. Sounds like he’s got her on a bit of a metaphorical pedestal.

But El Toboso is exactly what you want a village in La Mancha to be: the old stone church, the whitewashed houses, the dusty streets and the hot sun. There’s even a free museum (Museo-Casa de Dulcinea del Toboso) that gives you an idea of what a house from Cervantes’ period would be like.

And with that, I’m done.

El Toboso is the end of the Route of Don Quixote.

I’m eating huevos rotos con jamón (again) when Raúl shows up with his van to take me to Alcázar de San Juan. Tomorrow I’m heading off – bright and early – to Valencia.

Final thoughts about the Route of Don Quixote

I know you’re probably going to go out and buy a copy of Don Quixote as soon as you’ve finished this article, so I won’t ruin the ending. Suffice it to say, it gets weirder. Volume II was considered a sequel at the time – now the two volumes are thought of as one work – and was published 10 years after the original adventures of old DQ, in 1615.

In the meantime, our hero has become famous – in Volume II he starts running into people who have read about his adventures in the first book, and finds that he’s actually a famous knight-errant, all of a sudden.

It is, as the kids are saying these days, quite meta.

Anyway, I’m happy I did the ride – and you don’t need to read the book to enjoy it.

There’s an official Route of Don Quixote, which is longer, but Raúl says he’s picked only the best spots for a several-day tour of La Mancha on a touring bike.

And although I got it for free, I’d say the price on his website is very reasonable. If you’re interested, check it out here. I highly recommend the whole experience.

(He’s got other bike tours, too, depending on your available time and level of fitness. There’s one in Extremadura, for example, and one from Madrid to Valencia. Go to biketourinspain.com for all the details.)

My big conclusion is that there’s a lot of Spain out there that’s worth seeing, even if it’s not very touristic. And experiences like this are great, because they put me in contact with life outside Madrid and Barcelona.

It’s a different side of things, in a country with many facets.

That’s about all I’ve got for today.

Yours,

Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.

P.S. I’m also working on some videos of the Route of Don Quixote. The first one is up at the top of this article, or just click here. I’ve got plenty of footage, so I should be able to release a couple more videos soon. Enjoy!

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. Although I do not submit comments very often to web sites, I thought that this was a very well written blog or perhaps better described as a travel journal. I said to myself at some moments in my reading that I wish I could take this trip to explore the non-touristy part of Spain. Not likely that I can do it since my arthritis is getting worse…but it was a great, vicarious trip for me. Thanks.

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