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
In scribing those words in 1605, Miguel de Cervantes ushered in one of the most treasured and enduring fictional characters in literature. The resulting manuscript, Don Quixote de La Mancha, is about an aging, slightly mad idealist who sets off across La Mancha seeking adventure, mistaking peasants for kings and windmills as giants.
The book is regarded as the first modern novel and changed the landscape of publishing. It is claimed that Don Quixote has 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 debtor’s prison.
We traveled to La Mancha to retrace Cervantes’ journey in creating this beautifully imagined quest of a slightly unhinged knight-errant. The sojourn had me happily beholden to two mechanical mantras; the steady, reassuring thump of a GS Boxer Twin engine and the chime of pumps at petrol 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 chiming of those liters of petrol being dispensed into the tank.
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 Spanish, faces brightening when they discerned my quest; retracing the route of their beloved Don Quixote. Asking after their local hero was like being in possession of the key to their city. The locals would then eagerly point me to the nearest Quixote artifact or point of interest.
There are numerous locations throughout La Mancha (the region south and east of Madrid) that hold genuine significance with relation to the book. There is Alcala de Henares, birthplace of Cervantes, and the village of Puerto Lapice, where Quixote persuaded a local innkeeper to grant him knighthood.
El Toboso, the village where Dulcinea lived, Quixote’s ladylove–inspiration for his quests and source of his heartache (despite the two never meeting)–is an essential Quixote stop. And of course, there are the iconic windmills.
In Capo de Criptana a group of whitewashed windmills from the 15th century have stood sentinel against the passing of time. It’s easy to see how a man, removed from reality and reason, could take them as monsters.
This is, after all, a realm that ignites the imagination. 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.
And without a doubt, Quixote is the quintessential romantic. His tireless pursuit of unattainable ideals and lofty ambitions result 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.
If ever there was a literary personage that possesses the wanderlust so prevalent in the consciousness of motorcyclists, it is Quixote. The self-proclaimed knight-errant, accompanied by a devoted squire, Sancho Panza, on his donkey, just two misfits searching for purpose and adventure in an indifferent world. The fact that they never achieve their goals isn’t exactly important. The magic is in the going.