Spain: A Man in La Mancha
“Down in a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to recollect, there lived, not long ago, one of those gentlemen who usually keeps a lance upon a rack, an old buckler, a lean stallion, and a coursing greyhound.”
—Cervantes, Don Quixote
Miguel de Cervantes introduced Don Quixote to the world in 1605. In scribing the quoted words, Cervantes ushered in one of the most treasured and enduring fictional characters in literature. The resulting manuscript, Don Quixote de La Mancha, is regarded as the first modern novel and it changed the publishing landscape. It has since been translated into more languages and read by more people than any other book, save the Bible. Not a bad legacy for a story the penniless author began as a simple serial while serving time in a debtor’s prison. It’s also a book that has something to say to any motorcycle rider who has ever ventured beyond city limits.
My own personal relation with Quixote began when I was a kid. My father had become enamored with the book—its engaging theme of an aging, slightly mad idealist who sets off across La Mancha seeking adventure, mistaking peasants for kings and windmills for giants. Dad used it, to some degree, as a blueprint for how to live his own life. The result, for us children anyway, was a wonderfully entertaining roller coaster ride of chasing far-fetched dreams that, due to our innocence, left us pleasantly ignorant of his struggles and pitfalls. My father passed away, late in the pageant of life, without ever relinquishing the beautiful hope and blind optimism he had acquired from the story’s inadvertent hero. It was time for me to read the book.
The novel was cracked during a flight over the Atlantic. The first chapters unfolded at 35,000 feet and I was thoroughly engaged in the story upon touchdown in Madrid 11 hours later. I’d come to Spain in homage to my father, intent on retracing the route of Cervantes and reading the book in the realm where it was created. The mount of choice for this most personal of sojourns was that two-wheeled icon of adventure—a BMW R 1200 GS. Once the GS’ wheels were turning on Spanish soil, the miles clicking by, I devoured the pages of the book at every opportunity with increasing voraciousness.
The trek had me happily beholden to two mechanical mantras; the steady, reassuring thump of the GS’ boxer twin engine, and the chime of pumps at gas stations on the plains. For a motorcyclist in a foreign place, there are few rewards of wanderlust as precious—save a place to sleep and a good meal—as the sound of those gallons of gas being dispensed into the tank, with their promise of furthering the adventure.
Don Quixote, the novel, celebrated its 400th anniversary in 2005. It remains increasingly pertinent, seemingly more relevant today than when it was first written. Quixote, the character, is obsessed with adventure books and fanciful tales of knighthood, and grows somewhat disenchanted with what he perceives as diminishing values and fading decency in the world. So, he sets out to recapture the romanticism and chivalry of a bygone era. He dons a tarnished suit of armor and, astride his steed Rocinante, sets out on a noble quest as a self-proclaimed knight-errant, accompanied by his devoted squire, Sancho Panza, on his donkey. On the outskirts of Cuenca, gateway to the historical region of La Mancha, the book had worked its magic, seducing me with its whimsy. I’d also rechristened the GS Rocinante.
There are numerous locations throughout La Mancha (the region southeast of Madrid) that hold genuine significance in relation to the book. There is Alcalá de Henares, the birthplace of Cervantes, and the village of Puerto Lápice, where Quixote persuaded a local innkeeper to grant him knighthood. El Toboso is an essential Quixote stop, as it’s the village where Dulcinea—Quixote’s lady love (whom he never met) and the inspiration for his quests—lived. In fact, the Spanish Tourism Board has created The Route of Don Quixote, covering 600 miles, 100 villages, countless museums, and numerous points of interest from the book. I was here to see the most emblematic—the windmills.
Motorcycle & Gear
2006 BMW R 1200 GS
Helmet: AGV XR-2
Jacket: Alpinestars Missile v2 Touring
Pants: Alpinestars Missile v2 Touring
Boots: Alpinestars Super Tech R
Gloves: Alpinestars Tech Touring
Luggage: Standard BMW hard cases
Quixote’s infamous assault on what he perceived as multi-armed giants has become perhaps the most famous of his misadventures. The episode is so well known it has entered international vernaculars as the proverb “tilting at windmills,” describing an act of futility. The word “quixotic,” meaning to take a romanticized view of life, was also born from the book. Without a doubt, Quixote is the quintessential romantic. His tireless pursuit of unattainable ideals and lofty ambitions results in delusions and mishaps, rendering him a sad, somewhat tragic character with whom the common man seems to identify more readily than traditional, perfect heroes.
Tilting at Windmills
Meandering through the backroads and villages of La Mancha, I delved deeper into the novel. In the small bars and cafes of these lazy enclaves, deeply browned Spaniards—with plenty of silver in their smiles—would patiently listen to my abysmal attempts at their language, faces brightening when they discerned my quest was retracing the route of their beloved Don Quixote. Asking after their local hero was like being in possession of the key to their city. Locals would then eagerly point me to the nearest Quixote artifact or point of interest.