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Guide to Castilla la Mancha

Castilla-La Mancha encompasses the vast plains of central Spain – a land of fairytale castles, wine and the famous windmills immortalised in Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote (the best selling book of all time after the bible).

It's the producer of Spain's best cheese, Manchego, and it's a region which boasts the world's biggest vineyard. To date Castilla La Mancha has remained virtually untouched by tourism, attracting only a sprinkling of Don Quixote devotees and 'cultural tourists' keen for a glimpse of the real Spain away from the crowded costas.

This autonomous region of Spain offers a number of rather less glitzy attractions for the first time visitor to explore. There's the magnificent city of Toledo, the regional capital, which is like a giant monument and has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation). Castilla-La Mancha is a spell-binding concoction of grandiose medieval buildings, Moorish mosques, winding cobbled streets and ancient city walls. The city was the spiritual home of the famous Greek-born painter El Greco and the modest 16th century house where he lived has now been turned into a museum of his work.

Don Quixote fans will want to see the huge windmills of Consuegra (the 'giants' against which Cervantes' hero went into battle) and Dulcinea's House in the village of Toboso (Dulcinea was the object or Quixote's platonic love). In the villager of Esquivias you can visit the well-preserved 16th century house where Cervantes is believed to have written part of his masterpiece.

The region is littered with ancient castles, many of them dating back to the days of Moorish domination.

One of the most fascinating villages in Castilla-La Mancha is Cuenca, in the province of the same name to the East of Madrid.

The village's famous 15th century 'casas colgadas' (hanging houses) cling impossibly to the sides of sheer cliffs 200 metres above the junction of two river canyons.

Unlike the arid plains of La Mancha, Cuenca province is a hikers' haven of lush forests, mountains, scenic gorges and waterfalls.

Big changes ahead in Castilla La Mancha

But all that's about to change with the announcement that this sleepy section of central Spain is to be the new home of a Las Vegas style gambling and leisure complex. It's one of the most ambitious projects of its kind that Europe has ever seen and it has put the world spotlight firmly on a previously overlooked region which, until now, had only a 400-year-old novel as its major claim to fame.

Construction work on the project, announced at the end of November 2005, is due to start towards the end of 2006 in the province of Ciudad Real, 190 kilometres South of Madrid. It will include a 50,000 square foot casino, a luxury hotel with 850 rooms, a 30,000 square foot spa centre, a shopping mall and a 3,000 seat theatre.

Due for completion in 2008, the scheme is the brainchild of American entertainment giants Harrah's who operate several luxurious gambling centres in Las Vegas including Caesar's Palace which is probably the most prestigious casino resort in the world.

UPDATE: According to recent press information the targeted opening date for this complex is now 2011.

So if you want a taste of that magical 'Man from La Mancha' country where most foreign tourists fear to tread, you'd better get there fairly quickly!

Two new motorways and a planned international airport are included in the project which looks set to propel Castilla-La Mancha into the ranks of Europe's top entertainment centres.

Cities of Castilla La Mancha

Toledo

The former capital of Spain is certainly one of the country's architectonical treasures, with magnificent monuments specially from Moorish, Mudejar, Gothic and Renaissance periods. Toledo was also the hometown of the great painter El Greco.

Cuenca

This enchanting medieval city, declared Patrimony of Humanity by UNESCO, is surrounded by landscapes of incredible beauty. Among the town's most remarkable sights are the famous 'Hanging Houses', the Gothic cathedral and the Museum of Abstract Art. In its surroundings there are several fantastic natural preserves, among them Ciudad Encantada, the 'enchanted city' where erosion has created some most bizarre forms.

Guadalajara

Major attractions are the Mudejar style church Santa Maria la Mayor, the 15th century palace Duque del Infantado, the Moorish town-walls and bridge over the Henares river, from the 10th century.

In the province of Guadalajara the medieval town Siguenza, with its great fortress and cathedral, is definitely worth a visit.

Ciudad Real

This city is marked by the history of Don Quijote who is said to have fought against the windmills at the nearby Campo de Criptana. The nearby Lagunas de Ruidera, consisting of 17 lagoons, offer splendid landscapes.

Albacete

A modern and functional city, located on the typical plains of La Mancha, well known for its knife-making industry.