I was snacking on the bones of saints.
This wasn’t my usual diet, so I’d better explain. It was Nov. 1 — All Saints Day — in Spain, and the “bones” were made of marzipan. This candy treat is famous here in La Mancha, the provincial home of Miguel de Cervantes — the Shakespeare of Spain — and his hero, Don Quixote, who favored creativity over reality. He’d surely approve.
And those windmills Cervantes’ dreamer jousted with are still standing here, too — 12 of them silhouetted on the hilltop of Consuegra (population 10,000), whose formidable medieval castle also anchors the horizon.
Both the windmills and the castles are open to visitors, and there were visitors aplenty when I visited during the height of the town’s annual saffron festival.
Saffron — one of the world’s most costly spices — flourishes in this region two hours south of Madrid, where we tramped through fields of the fall-blooming, purple-petaled crocuses that each produce just three tiny stamens of the richest red.
These sprigs flavor Spain’s beloved paella, as well as stews, puddings and ice cream. They’re plucked from the blossom each autumn, a laborious task that turns into a competition during the festival.
We watched fingers fly amid lady champs from around the region; we cheered for the cute kids who competed, too. Then we strolled Consuegra’s riverbanks, where the festival’s tailgaters offered us tastes from their wood-fired cauldrons. Later, troupes of dancers dazzled us with nimble footwork practiced by ladies with glossy chignons, lacy mantillas and clacking castanets, while their partners pranced in espadrilles.
Saffron flavors the flan with which we ended our meal at restaurant El Alfar — a feast that began with slices of the region’s nutty manchego cheese, a ratatouille-like pisto stew and an equally tasty asadillo of roasted sweet peppers, garlic and partridge, and then cod in saffron-tempura batter. That evening, at La Vida de Antes — a historic mansion turned intimate hotel — we swooned over a dessert soup of local almonds topped with saffron-flavored meringue.
We’d begun the meal with salmorejo, a thick gazpacho soup, then local partridge, then salt cod, then lamb with crispy cauliflower, and then medallions of deer. (Gastronomes delight in these multi-course dinners, but be warned: They don’t get underway until 9 p.m.)
We also carved out time to visit the town’s museum, detailing its history, including Bronze Age findings, an era of Roman rule and artifacts — such as a comb for lice removal and chess-like gaming pieces — and those 16th-century windmills.
An hour’s drive northwest back toward Madrid, Toledo (population 85,000) rises from its mountain perch like a medieval wonderland of spires and pinnacles.
They’re crowded into a tangled web of streets that entice you to explore as you make your way to the site that’s lured visitors for centuries: the magnificent cathedral, called the finest in all of Spain, as well it should, for the city served as the country’s capital when it was completed atop the site of an earlier mosque.
A gold-plated altar gleams below the Virgin making her way to heaven with a boost from six muscular angels. Her Son stands 9 feet tall above her. Choir-stall seats break the tedium of hours of services with carvings of monkeys and mermaids.
But the biggest wow of all is a gold monstrance, built with 20 pounds of bling. Don’t miss the sacristy’s wealth of paintings by all the bold names of Europe: Goya, Titian, Velazquez, Caravaggio and El Greco, the city’s favorite son, who contributes 19 works.
You’ll find his most beloved painting, however, in the tiny chapel of Santa Tome, where the artist painted his self-portrait amid a crowd of worshipers. You can visit his house as well (though it’s likely to be a “maybe,” rather than proven fact) to view more of his eccentric, spiritual masterpieces.
Then stop by the Santa Tome Marzipan Shop for saints’ bones of your own. Or choose the sweet candies shaped into fruits, filled with chocolate, or even a giant statue of Cervantes.
This city’s Roman ruins peek out everywhere. After them came the Jews, the Moors and the Christians, and many holy buildings contain traces of all three over centuries of repurposing. The prettiest mosque still standing is the tiny Christo de la Luz, brocaded with arabesques of stucco and renamed as a church.
Same goes for the pair of synagogues in the Jewish Quarter: Synagoga de Santa Maria in Blanca, rechristened when Jews were forced from Spain in 1492 and today still moving in its serene simplicity. Nearby, the similarly simple Synagoga del Transito of 1391 serves as a museum of precious religious artifacts.
Zocodover, the main plaza, serves as Toledo’s living room. Our hotel, the brand-new Adolfo, overlooked this buzzy square and its pair of dining rivals: Burger King and McDonald’s. We found far better eating, rest assured, simply by meandering along the cobblestones.
Best of all was a special dining experience arranged by Espadas Toledanas, which led us to a 15th-century mansion adorned with the owners’ treasures and turned into a highly historic B&B, with balconies overlooking that magical cathedral.
Seated in the patio, we nibbled Spain’s classic appetizers, from Iberian ham thin as tissue paper to squares of manchego cheese, potato omelets addictively salty olives, figs and more.
But the main attraction was the giant paella, which we watched neighbor ladies stir patiently, adding tiny clams to enrich the seasoned rice.
Day-tripping tourists blanket this open-air museum of a city — 2 million a year — but at night it’s returned to the locals, and you, if you’re wise enough
Cuenca (population 55,000) lies two hours southeast of Madrid, set upon a mountain peak to repel invaders. We bedded atop a cliff in Parador Nacional de Cuenca, which began life as a medieval convent — as is typical of Spain’s system of paradors, which have rescued medieval convents and castles to serve as modern hotels.
It’s connected to the Old Town across a chasm by a bridge just made for a photo op — and for graffiti, such as “Mama, I’ll love you forever,” and “I Heart God.”
Cuenca’s Plaza Mayor — main square — is unassuming by Spanish standards and, like most, is anchored by its cathedral. This one was endowed with the first Gothic arches in Spain, through which light illumines the interior via stunning, modern stained-glass windows.
Near it stands a trinity of museums, one depicting the town’s history since Roman times. A second houses the cathedral’s treasury of art: a trove of modest Virgins and intricate tapestries from medieval times. The third, the Arte Abstracto Espanol — within the town’s famous hanging houses that project like balconies over the chasm itself — draws visitors for its stunning collection of abstract paintings.
But my favorite was found by following the main street to the top of the town where, in yet-another former convent, the Fundacion Antonio Perez shimmers with a contemporary collection that’s often playful: a coiled rope topped with mini-skulls, portraits bearing crushed Coke-can eyes.
The newest museum in this arty town is the 5-year-old Paleontological Museum of Castilla-La Mancha, with its view across the chasm to the medieval Old Town. Outside, concrete dinosaurs roam, while inside, Cuenca’s rich trove of local fossils transports visitors from earliest times — tiny sea critters, an ancient frog the size of a pig and a furry rhinoceros.
Its mascot dinosaur, nicknamed Pepito, resembles a horse with a camel-like hump, which wandered here 125 million years ago. Don’t miss the museum’s café, Natura, offering a glorious set menu, including starters like croquettes with shaved Iberian ham; creamy duck foie gras; and salmorejo, a gazpacho-like soup. Main-course choices range from lamb ribs to cod to, yes, hamburgers.
En route to our flight home, we broke for a final treat — the Segobriga Roman Archaeological Park — one of the most important set of Roman remains in Spain, discovered in the 1950s.
We trod along a Roman road bordered with graves to the former trading center’s theater (“small but perfect,” intoned our guide); a larger amphitheater where gladiators fought off boars and bears; public baths (choose hot, tepid or cold); and the forum where business was transacted. Only 20% of the site has been excavated, so temples are yet to come to light.
We’ll soon head home, rich with treasures lodged in our memories.
Learn more at spain.info.
Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown.