Time Travelling with Don Quixote

Inspired by the chivalric tales of Don Quixote, two travellers – a brave knight (Justin Fox) and his squire (Luke Stevens) – set off from Madrid through a magical land of castles in search of adventures and damsels in distress, to win fame and right wrongs … or just have a jolly good time.

Our two heroes landed in Madrid one summer evening. They didn’t have many doubloons in their money pouches and things did not start on an auspicious note. Don Quixote’s bags failed to emerge on the conveyor belt at Barajas Airport and Sancho Panza knew he’d be in for a beating if something wasn’t done. The don stormed up and down the terminal, brandishing his lance at all and sundry. “My new doublet, my velvet breeches and oh, my armour – all lost!” he raged.

Eventually, after much tilting at airport officials, the weary adventurers had to give up, accept defeat and head into town. Panza assured his lord he could borrow any clothes he needed. They took the metro to the centre and found the inn Don Quixote had booked. He had not realised, from the advertisement on the Internet, that it was a gay establishment in the heart of the Chueca pink district. Typical Quixote.

This became immediately apparent as they were shown to a room with scarlet walls and heart-and-cherub decorations. “Don’t get any funny ideas, squire,” said the don, nonplussed at his own mistake.

“Never you fear, my lord. Let’s push the beds far apart.”

That night they discovered that not only were they in the gay district, but in the very centre of Madrid’s clubland. Venturing out into a pulsing street, our brave heroes found themselves surrounded by transvestites, muscle Marys and lesbian Goths. They hastily made their way to supper at a little tapas bar just off the great, arcaded Plaza Mayor. This square had seen coronations, public executions and bullfights, while underground torture chambers had borne witness to the horrors of the Inquisition.

In a side street, the two were accosted by an aging prostitute who hiked up her blouse. She did not have all her teeth and her moustache was almost as full as Quixote’s, but she nonetheless made a powerful impression on him.

Before setting out on a journey, every knight errant must have a lady to whom he can dedicate his valorous deeds. The don viewed this fortuitous apparition in chivalric terms: “Oh peerless lady, day of my night, fairest of the fair! It is you I choose to serve on my valorous odyssey.” He dropped to one knee and swore allegiance. “Henceforth you will be known as Dutchess Dulcinia of Madrid and I shall be your shining knight.”

Madrid’s dreaded museum triangle

Next morning, they emerged into the sweltering summer streets to try to knock off the sights of Madrid in a day, which is not unlike taking on the Knight of the Wood and his entire entourage, while blindfolded and without a weapon.

Madrid has three of the finest art galleries in the world and this is where they chose to do battle. First came the Prado, with its collection of Spanish masterpieces from the 12th to the 19th centuries and boasting works by Velázquez and Goya. Then there was the Reina Sofía, displaying Spanish art of the 20th century, including Picasso’s famous Civil War protest-painting, Guernica. Last came the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, an enormous collection of European art spanning eight centuries and including a fine collection of Impressionists.

By this time our heroes were at their wits end, hardly able to trudge from one masterpiece to the next. “I beg of you, no more paintings,” wailed Panza as they staggered out into the 37°C heat.

“Indeed, squire, I feel battered and bruised by all this wretched art,” said Quixote.

That evening the don phoned the airport to see whether his saddle bags had arrived. Alas, no luck. There was nothing to hold them in Madrid: Castilla y León beckoned. Early the following morning, Quixote dashed through the district, buying a few essential items for the journey. Unfortunately, given the type of shops and time constraints, the outfit he ended up with was perhaps more camp than his knightly station deserved: flaring shorts that were way too short, yellow slipslops, a tight pink T-shirt and large, white, Jackie Onassis sunglasses. The slipslops hurt his toes, so he resorted to old veldskoens without socks. There were moments in the coming days when this garb would effectively stop traffic.

Riding into the Castilian sunset

The men then hired a wagon. It was a two-horse Citroen which they promptly named Rocinante-Dapple (after their respective steed and donkey, which had been retired to pasture). They disentangled themselves from Madrid traffic, driving northwest over the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains via the imposing monastery of El Escorial and the fortified town of Ávila with its spectacular medieval walls.

By mid-afternoon they’d reached Salamanca, home to a famous university since 1218. It rises out of the plain like a battleship of golden sandstone. Our heroes wandered the university precinct, marvelling at the churches, cloisters and libraries.

Centrepiece of the old town is the Plaza Mayor, arguably the most perfect square in Spain, perhaps in all Europe. The shutters are painted the same colour as the stone and the whole place simply glows. The men sat at a café, ordered beers and watched the light grow soft, the pretty girls come out on parade … the slow unwinding of the Salamanca day.

Muy bueno (very nice),” said Panza.

Muy bueno indeed,” sighed the knight errant.

They found an inn and asked for a twin room but, given the don’s outfit, their request was misinterpreted.

“Ah, I see, senhor,” said the maître d. “You are ‘twins’. I understand perfectly. We have lovely double bed for the hombres.”

Non, non! Two beds. Separate. Very separate,” shouted the don, growing irate with the peasant.

Northwest into castle country

From Salamanca their route wound through Castilla y León, Spain’s land of castles. Indeed, it seemed as though every don, Dick and Harry had fortified his hill at some stage in the region’s history. Our knight and squire found particularly fine examples at Ampudia, Peñafiel and Medina del Campo.  The latter was originally a Moorish castle and became the property of Queen Isabel in the late 15th century. Panza was enchanted; the don impatient. His main objective was to seek an audience with each castle’s lord, to find out if there were any brave deeds that needed doing or a pesky dragon that needed slaying. Alas, the lords were strangely never in residence, so our heroes spurred Rocinante-Dapple northward, Panza reading the map book carefully lest he receive a clout for missing a turnoff.

The drive took them through dry, flat grain land, much of it scarred by electricity pylons, sprawling housing developments and freeways. The best option was leaving the E80 and exploring country roads to find hamlets of ochre walls, tiled roofs, vine-covered pergolas, wooden colonnades and small plazas where old men sat in the shade of plane trees whiling away the day watching the world clip-clop by.

En route they passed the occasional cavalcade of German bikers. “Huns! Invaders! We’ll run them off the road!” shouted the don.

“Please don’t, master!” cried Panza, “or they’ll run us through at the next village.”

Then, coming over a rise, the horizon was filled with the twirling blades of wind-power turbines. “At last! Fortune is guiding our affairs. Those evil giants must die. See how they swing their arms threateningly. Come squire, let’s charge!” shouted the don, depressing the accelerator.

“But my lord!…”

Quixote ignored Panza’s cowardly howls as he hurtled towards the nearest creature, crying, “Though you wield more arms than the giant Briareus, you shall pay dearly!”

Unfortunately for our knight, the road suddenly veered right and into a cutting. When they emerged on the other side, the giants were nowhere to be seen. “Cowards!” he yelled.

It was somewhere along the road to Valladolid that Panza suggested they seek the blessing of a priest for the journey. This was uncannily good timing, as they were just entering a part of Spain with some very fine cathedrals and Panza was – as it happened – keen to see them.

While Quixote went (unsuccessfully) in search of a priest, Panza explored the interiors of the simple Romanesque church of Frómista (completed in 1066) and the enormous Gothic cathedrals of Palencia and Burgos.

Outside bustling Burgos they did, however, find an ice-cream seller who was prepared to give his blessing. (Who needs a priest when you can have a man of such honour sanction your expedition?) In exchange for the purchase of two iced lollies, the deed was quickly handled and the don called for a headlong rush over the Cordillera Cantábrica to the coast. There, he assured Panza, would be dragons!

The dragon of Bilbao

They were now entering Basque country, land of ETA freedom fighters, obscure sports played to packed houses and a European culture so ancient it’s origins are lost in the fog of time. Here a challenge equal to any they had faced awaited them. After an exhausting day in the saddle, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao loomed.

“No sire, please, es muy grande (it’s so big),” moaned Sancho.

“Nonsense! I have my lance and my designer sunglasses. We shall overcome in the name of Dulcinea of Madrid.”

With that, he dragged poor Panza out of the wagon by the scruff and frog-marched him into the waiting claws of the armour-plated culture dragon.

The building itself is a work of art – a vast, organic tour de force coated in titanium – and Panza was soon transfixed. Frank Gehry’s design doffs its cap to the Guggenheim in New York, his a floral structure as opposed to Frank Lloyd Wright’s seashell. Although the building is entrancing, it dwarfs many of the art works and only the most monumental pieces stand up to the outrageous scale. Exhibitions of the Abstract Expressionists and Russian art were just right (some of the kitsch pro-Stalin canvasses stood many metres tall). Most impressive and appropriate of all was Richard Serra’s 33-metre, 180-ton Snake – perfect for the cavernous room that housed it.

Basking on the coast

Over the ensuing days, our heroes rode east along the Basque coast from Bilbao to Hondarribia. After the dry interior, the hilly terrain was green, forested and plunged down to tiny coves. Many of the villages were modern and ugly, but the harbour of Bermeo was encircled by pretty apartments and was home to colourful fishing boats and a replica square rigger (the vessels for Columbus’s second voyage were built and largely crewed from here).

They trotted through Mundaka (the best surf spot in Spain) and Guernica (site of the notorious bombing of civilians by fascist planes during the Spanish Civil War) to San Sebastián. This fashionable seaside town is the Cannes of the north, with its own film festival, grand holiday apartment blocks and a pleasant beach. ETA graffiti was daubed on the walls, the streets were packed with tourists, but no dragons or damsels noticeably in distress. So on they pushed.

Don Quixote wanted to cross into France to see if there were any knights brave enough to challenge him, but when they reached the delightful border town of Hondarribia, they dismounted.

In the walled medieval citadel, they found a pension with views over a narrow estuary to France. Then they strolled the cobbled streets of the old town. It was the annual fiesta (8 September), when Hondarribia celebrates withstanding a particularly long siege in the 17th century. Parties spilled into the street from every tavern, a funfair was set up on the waterfront, the lanes were closed to traffic and civic flags hung from balconies.

Rounding a corner they came upon a dumb show in which goblin-like creatures where running about beating people with pig bladders while five-metre giants on stilts paraded behind them. “Praise be, an enemy that is prepared to stand and fight!” yelled Quixote. “Bring me my lance.”

“No, my lord, if you please, this is but an entertainment for the townsfolk.”

The don would have none of it, so Panza was forced to secure his master in a headlock. A scuffle ensued which drew a small crowd of tourists who assumed this was part to the commemoration programme.

Eventually, exhausted, Quixote conceded that he would wait until the morrow before dealing with the giants. The two then fell to drinking a decent leather bottle of rioja (red wine), nicely chilled, in a tavern.

The evening meandered pleasantly by. The locals grew more boisterous, dancing erupted and by midnight the castle plaza was packed. A band played rousing marching tunes and everyone began to sing. Young debutants in white dresses arrived, were ushered onto the stage and given a bouquet and a kiss by each of the town elders. “A marvellous Basque tradition, we should institute it back home,” said the don.

“Indeed, maybe even more than one kiss for the loveliest maidens!” cried Sancho enthusiastically.

The band struck up again and the voices of the crowd echoed off encircling medieval walls. Eventually our heroes wandered off to their inn, propping each other up from the extreme fatigue of a day on the road. The sound of trumpets followed them to bed.

Tippling home through Rioja land

It was time to return to Madrid. Both their heads were a bit sore as they raced south across the plains, chasing a thunderstorm all the way to Segovia. “The rain in Espagna is supposed to fall mainly on the plane, maybe the one that lost your luggage, non?” said Sancho.

Estúpido!” cried Quixote, cuffing Panza over the head.  “It falls mainly on the plain, the Castilian Plain.”

Segovia is a beautiful citadel with plenty to see, such as the Roman aqueduct, a Gothic cathedral and the ornate, moated Alcázar (which inspired Disney’s Cinderella Castle). But the don had had enough of castles and cathedrals … anything in stone, really. So while Panza ran around looking at the sights, he sat on the Plaza Mayor enjoying plates of tapas, pig’s loin and trotters washed down with a bladder of rioja.

Then he found a blacksmith to sharpen his sword on a whetstone, for the next day he and faithful Panza would return to Madrid to fight the greatest duel of their lives … with the woman at ‘lost baggage’ in Barajas International Airport.

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