The most spectacular day trips from Madrid are also, fortunately, some of the easiest. Toledo, Segovia, and El Escorial can all be reached in under an hour from the center, and Ávila isn’t much further away. But once these more convenient options are exhausted there is still much to see.
Granted, with Spain’s high-speed trains even faraway cities like Seville and Barcelona can be visited in a day (though they deserve far more time). And with a car you will have no trouble getting around. But if, like me, you are looking to travel cheaply, on public transportation, then some destinations are difficult.
One of these difficult day trips is Consuegra. This is a little town, of about 10,000 inhabitants, in the region of Castilla La-Mancha, further south from Toledo. Getting there from Madrid takes time. The only option for public transportation is a bus. It departs from Madrid’s Estación del Sur, near the Mendez Álvaro metro station. The journey lasts 2.5 hours each way, which means a day trips involves 5 hours on the bus.
I had planned to get some good reading in but, as often happens, the lack of sleep (I left Madrid early) and the shifting and rocking of the bus soon lulled me into a deep doze. My kindle rested in my lap, while my head rested against the window. The drive was thus passed in the uneasy limbo between unconsciousness, vivid dreams, and semi-wakefulness. Eventually I stirred, groggy yet refreshed, in Consuegra before lunch time.
Allow me to pause here for a linguistic lesson. The word consuegra itself means the mother-in-law of your son or daughter. In other words, she is the mother of whoever your child marries. In English we have no word for this, of course. We just lazily affix “in-law” to our names for blood-relations. But in Spanish there is a distinct name for parent-in-law (suegro/a), daughter-in-law (nuera), son-in-law (yerno), and brother/sister-in-law (cuñado/a), in addition to the parent-in-law of your child (consuegro/a). Curiously, these terms are nowadays applied to the family of boyfriends and girlfriends who are not yet married. Indeed the term for boyfriend/girlfriend (novio/a) was originally adapted from the Spanish word for groom/bride. It seems that, when dating became widely practiced and accepted, lacking the vocabulary for non-marital relationships, the words for married couples were simply transferred to this new situation.
The town of Consuegra itself, though charming, is not especially remarkable. It is a destination because of the hill that rises above the center. On this modest eminence, the Cerro Calderico, the visitor will see why Consuegra is a site of pilgrimage for Quixote followers. For this hill in La Mancha is crowned with twelve windmills, perhaps the very same that the Knight of the Sad Countenance thought were an army of giants.
Though the wind still blows, the mills no longer grind grain. (Indeed, the wind in this area stills blows so hard that, the first of March, they sustained heavy damage from hurricane-force gales, nearly destroying many of them. Repairs are underway.) Many of the windmills house specialized stores for local products, like wines and cheese—and Castilla-La Mancha makes the best cheese in all of Spain. But they are worth visiting just for the tremendous view of these slumbering giants.
A craggy stone wall, a dilapidated pile now, still crosses over the hill. Weeds and wildflowers spring up from the dry soil. Though the hill is not especially tall, it provides a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. Castilla-La Mancha is one of the only non-mountainous parts of Spain. Instead of peaks, empty fields spread out before the visitor, spotted with roads and farmland. Consuegra and its environs have maintained their agricultural character, you see. Not nearly enough tourists pause here to have transformed the economy.
The Cerro Calderico does not only provide a platform for windmills, but is also the site of one of Castilla-La Mancha’s greatest castles: El Castillo de la Muela (which literally means the “castle of the molar”). The hill is a logical place for a fortress, with its steep sides and commanding view; and indeed it has been used for this purpose since Roman times. More recently, the castle was the squabbled over during the confusion of the Middle Ages, when Spain was populated by various small kingdoms, Christian and Muslim.
From the outside the castle presents itself as little more than a vertical heap of stones. To enter one had to pay a small fee. I considered it, even though in my experience the insides of castles are fairly uninteresting. But then I heard screaming, shouting, and riotous laughing coming from within. I assumed that a gaggle of drunkards were wandering around inside, and decided to skip the experience. I later learned, however, that the castle gives guided tours with historical reenactments, which doubtless was the source of the shouting I heard.
After taking my fill of the terrific view I descended back into town for lunch. For this I went into the first attractive bar I found, ordering some beer and tapas. Here I had one of those experiences that make me love this country. Unlike in the United States, whole families are welcomed into bars. A young couple with a newborn in a cradle were standing at the bar, eating and chatting. Next to them a group of senior citizens did the same, and at a table another married couple sat with their two children. Everybody was huddled close and talking loud. The bartenders joked with the customers, all of whom (except me) seemed to be regulars. There was an incredible feeling of effortless bustle, as drinks and food were served with speed but no stress, as Spaniards spoke in loud tones and made sweeping gesticulations, and easy laughter sounded all around.
More and more people packed into the bar, which only improved the atmosphere. Spaniards are far less shy than Americans when it comes to close physical contact; and unlike in American bars, there was no loud music to drown out conversation. The result is a lively but easygoing mood of all-embracing social life. Though alone, I instantly felt as if I were part of the community.
I left the bar in high spirits, intending to go straight for the bus station. But soon my attention was caught by a large tent that had been set up in one of the central squares. Investigation revealed that a wine festival was taking place. I paid three euros to enter, which came with three tickets, each of which I could trade for a glass of wine. Local vintners had set up stalls all around tent. In the center was a giant table, already littered with paper plates and plastic cups. The place was packed. I had to elbow my way to each glass of wine.
I quickly became curious about the strange cardboard boxes, filled with small holes, that so many people were carrying around. In the back of the tent I discovered the reason for this. In an open cage, dozens of little chicks were waddling. For a small price the customer could scoop up one of these chicks to take home. This was a big hit with the children, you may imagine. Yet I doubt that any of these chicks will be allowed to grow up and become useful, for eggs or meat. And using baby chickens as for the amusement of children does not strike me as kosher.
The wine drunk, I tipsily made my way back to the bus to return to Madrid. It had been a truly excellent day. And, best of all, I had 2.5 hours to sleep off the wine on the way home.