THE ISLAND WATCHMAN
In the Autonomous Community of Castilla-La Mancha, halfway between Madrid and the Mediterranean Sea, a small village totally different from any other place we have seen so far, is waiting for us. We are talking about Alarcon, a peculiar town that is almost entirely sur-rounded by water. In fact, it is nearly an island...Furthermore, this small place in the province of Cuenca has almost more treasures than inhabitants, as it has around 150 people!Alarcon village has some orographic elements that make it a place specially protected by Mother Nature, as it is almost completely embraced by one of the numerous meanders of the winding river Jucar and it is also located on a large rocky crag called Pico de los Hidalgos.
This superb strategic location was the reason why the area was chosen as a place of settlement by various populations over the centuries, such as the Iberians, the Romans, the Visigoths and the Muslims, the latter giving the town the name of Alarkum, which means "The Fortress" in Arabic.
During the period of Muslim settlement, Alarcon became a defensive bastion and a direct witness to the various internal conflicts that arose after the break-up of the Caliphate of Córdoba into different taifas. During the Reconquest, after a long siege of nine months, in the year 1184, Alarcon was ruled by the Christian King Alfonso VIII of Castilla, who ordered the demolition of the old Muslim fortress and the erection of the imposing castle that we can see today on the same site. From then on, Alarcon became a powerful Christian lordship that included up to 63 neighboring towns. After initially belonging to the Order of Santiago, its ownership passed successively from kings to nobles, but over the centuries, it fell into disuse and even abandonment. Finally, it was expropriated by the government, and after a major refurbishment, the Castle of Alarcon reopened its doors in 1966 as the brand-new Parador Nacional Marqués de Villena. This elegant and charming hotel only allows guests staying in it to visit the castle´s crenellated area, but we encourage you to go up to the castle´s entrance to get a close-up view of its solid masonry walls, its Tower Keep and its several defensive structures. And of course, also to enjoy the breathtaking views from the outside, as the castle is located at the top of the rocky promontory, that is, at the highest point of Alarcon! In addition, the castle has several areas that can be visited by everyone, such as the common areas of the hotel, from where you can also enjoy a good panoramic view.Alarcon Castle (Parador Nacional Marqués de Villena)Amigos de los Castillos
Avenue, 316214 - Alarcón, Cuenca
In some place in La Mancha... a delicious plate of Manchego cheeses awaits us! And that place is Alarcon, where cheese lovers are lucky because this region is a great producer of excellent quality. But beware, not all the ones produced in here are Manchego...
For a cheese to be Manchego, it must be endorsed by the ´Manchego Cheese´ Designation of Origin, which includes a series of rules that regulate the production and distribution of this type of dairy product. A cheese is not considered to be Manchego simply because it is made in the region of La Mancha, but because it meets the production requirements laid down in the rules of the ´Manchego Cheese´ Designation of Origin. Once these conditions are met, it will be awarded with a certification that will be displayed on its label by means of a coveted seal. Let´s see what these requirements are!
In order to obtain the Manchego Cheese´ certificate, the product must be made exclusively from Manchego breed sheep´s milk, and this milk must also meet a series of very specific analytical conditions, such as specific amounts of fat or protein or a certain level of acidity. Finally, the cheese must be produced in four of the five provinces of Castilla-La Mancha, and one of those is the province of Cuenca.
Provided that the above requirements are met, Manchego cheese manufacturers are free to present their final products after different maturing times, and they can also choose the treat-ment of the milk used, which may be raw or pasteurized.
So, although the strict rules set by the Denomination of Origin "Manchego Cheese" must always be complied with, it is possible to make different cheeses thanks to these two optional variables for the producer.
This is why we can find semi-cured, cured or aged Manchego cheeses on the market, all of which are either made with pasteurized milk or raw milk, also known as artisan cheeses. All of them are delicious!
To taste all these different cheeses in one go, there is no better plan in Alarcon than to order a cheese platter of Manchego cheeses, either in a bar or in a shop that sells regional products. You will get a tray with a selection of wedges of different kinds. A great way to try each and every cheese of La Mancha!
And to make the plan even more appetizing, you can always accompany the cheese board with some fruit, nuts, bread and, of course, a glass of wine.
For sure you´ve heard the saying "grapes and cheese taste like kiss". Well, it is very true!
DON QUIXOTE WINE!
During your visit to Alarcon, take the opportunity to enjoy the Manchego cheese and taste some regional wine, as there is nothing better than a good Manchego red wine to accompany a cheese platter. Manchego wine, like cheese, is famous all over the world thanks to its excel-lent quality. Let´s find out more about it!
Manchego wines are all those that come from the great region of La Mancha, the largest winemaking area in the world. Indeed, in the world!
Its vineyards extend over 192 municipalities in La Mancha, occupying a large part of the Au-tonomous Community of Castilla-La Mancha.
La Mancha is a region that is perfect for growing vines thanks to the large number of hours of sunshine per year that they get, which has a very positive effect on their vegetative cycle. Moreover, La Mancha region occupies a vast plain with very little variation in altitude, a fac-tor that favours regular and uniform ripening of the grapes. In addition, the characteristics of its continental climate, with cold winters and very hot summers and low rainfall, are factors which have a positive influence on the health of the vines because they help to prevent cryptogamic diseases. Moreover, the great La Mancha plain is located on limestone soil, so the grapes absorb all its properties, which are reflected in the quality and flavour of its wines.
The large region of La Mancha makes up 47% of the entire Spanish winegrowing area, mak-ing it the area with the highest annual wine production in the country. And this is possible, not only because of the vast extension of the land, but also because of the great variety of grapes that grow throughout it, which is one of the most representative features of the region. In La Mancha, not only are native grapes grown, but many foreign varieties find here the perfect factors to grow to their full potential. This diversity can be found in both white and red grapes, which makes it possible to produce numerous kinds of red, white, rosé and spar-kling wines, always within the Denomination of Origin of La Mancha.
As with so much versatility can be hard to make a decision, here is a simple tip to ensure that your choice of wine is the right one. To accompany the cheese, you should definitely choose a red Manchego wine. If the cheese is semi-cured, the red wine should be young, but if the cheese is cured or old, it is best to pair it with an aged wine. In this way, these two gifts that the land of La Mancha gives us will bring out the best in each other...
Buying a Manchego wine is a safe bet, whether as a gift or for yourself, because no one can resist owning a wine so often praised by Don Quixote!
A GREAT STONE ALTARPIECE
Despite the small size of the municipality of Alarcon and its reduced number of inhabitants, the town has four churches which is something that surprises the visitor and is a tremendous indicator of the great importance that this town had in the past...
Today, only one of the four churches is still used for worship, the other three have cultural purposes.
The church that continues with its sacred functions is the Church of Santa María del Campo.
You will find this parish church very easily as it is located halfway between the castle and the main square of the village, and has the impressive doorway that decorates its main entrance. This portico is a wonderful monument to be photographed, not only for its magnificence and beauty, but also for its originality. If you look closely, you will realize that this is no ordinary portico. In fact, as well as being a doorway, it is practically a stone altarpiece!
Built in the middle of the XVI century, the Church of Santa María del Campo is one of the most beautiful constructions, not only in Alarcon, but in the whole province of Cuenca, and furthermore, due to its relevance and its great artistic value, it was declared a National Mon-ument in 1981 and an Asset of Cultural Interest in 1992. Not bad for a parish of a village of 150 inhabitants, is it?
The interior of the church is quite beautiful, but it may not be easy to see it inside, as visitors can only visit the interior during mass hours or by booking a private tour in advance. So, we are going to focus on its spectacular exterior, which we will be able to observe freely and photograph without limits.
The exterior of this temple has a portico on its south façade that is spectacular. It is a large triumphal arch in the Plateresque style, so deep that it almost resembles a small tunnel... In-side, it houses the main door of the church, surrounded by a large portico that looks like a majestic altarpiece sculpted in stone: a triumphal arch enveloping a stone altarpiece!
This magnificent monument is also full of beautiful and elegant details carved in stone, such as its elaborate columns and niches. The depth of its triumphal arch gives the whole a myste-rious air, as if crossing it could take you to another dimension...
Be sure to take a picture of this great monument located in this little spot in La Mancha, an unforgettable jewel of Plateresque architecture!
Church of Santa María del Campo
Dr. Tortosa St, 27
16214 - Alarcón, Cuenca
A MEGACONSTRUCTION IN ALARCÓN!
About six kilometres before reaching Alarcon on the road from Madrid, we cross a bridge over the river Jucar, which is not just any bridge... it is the upper part of a powerful water dam! When you cross this bridge, you will be going along the road built over the retaining wall of the Alarcon Dam. We must be very aware on this stretch of the road so as not to miss the vertiginous sensation of being over a dam and also to be able to admire this powerful work of engineering at close quarters.
As we cross towards Alarcon, we will see that on our left there is the dammed water that forms the Alarcon Reservoir and, on our right, we will see the waters that the dam allows to flow again in the form of a torrent. This is the river Jucar, which flows again behind the dam after its waters have been contained in the reservoir.
The Alarcon Reservoir is an extensive artificial reservoir built on the upper course of the river Jucar. Although from the bridge we can only see the tail of the reservoir, we can get an idea of its enormous dimensions. It covers an area of 6,840 hectares in the province of Cuenca and has a maximum capacity of 1,112 million cubic metres. A huge amount of fresh water is dammed up thanks to a retaining wall that releases it little by little into the Alarcon Reservoir.
Works on the Alarcon Dam and reservoir began in 1942 and was completed in 1970. The purpose of this engineering work was to be able to regulate the course of the river Jucar to improve irrigation and, incidentally, to generate a large amount of hydroelectric power in the dam´s energy production plant.
At that time, these works involved the removal of a village called Gascas, as the land on which it stood was to be submerged under the waters of the reservoir. The buildings that made up Gascas are still underwater, and nowadays, when the water level drops, it is possible to discover the remains of this underwater village, such as some of the stone walls that marked its streets.
Apart from the improvements in irrigation and the large amount of electricity generated by its dam, the Alarcon reservoir is also a great leisure plan for Manchego the people, as along its perimeter there are numerous inland beaches, ideal for running away the high temperatures of La Mancha´s summer and where you can spend refreshing days full of fun and water sports.
The Alarcon Dam is a different kind of monument. It is not a work of art, but a magnificent work of engineering that arouses great admiration for its portentous structure, for its grandi-osity and for all the benefits it has brought to the region.
Presa del Pantano de Alarcón
N-III Road, km 185
16214 Alarcón, Cuenca
A JOURNEY THROUGH A NOVEL!
In this last point we are going to propose a small challenge that will serve as an excuse to walk through the streets of Alarcon... We invite you to walk through the town visiting differ-ent points that are the main scenes of a novel! In addition to the Infant Don Juan Manuel, Count Lucanor and the beautiful literary quotes that surprise us scattered throughout the streets of the city, there is another connection that links Alarcon with the world of literature. It is a contemporary novel written by the author Eloy Moreno and entitled “El regalo”. The plot of this novel takes place in Alarcon, and we are going to follow an itinerary that was created by linking real places with the ones that appear in this story. This will be our chal-lenge!
To help us in this urban route of novel scenarios, we can first visit the Tourist Office of Alar-con, located in one of the corners of the Plaza del Infante Don Juan Manuel, and ask for the map with the points, which is also accompanied by an explanatory leaflet. This map of Alar-con shows the different locations to be visited, but in addition, all the places have information plaques to identify them and thus facilitate the tour.
The itinerary begins at the city hall building, and the rest of the locations are marked by a numbering that follows the same order in which the important events in the novel take place. Following the marked itinerary, you will feel like the protagonist of the book, and you will walk through the streets of Alarcon. There are 15 locations in total, but some of them are on the outskirts of the town, and can be perfectly avoided...
Some spots along the route are the same in real life and in the novel, such as "the bar" or "the bakery". On the other hand, other places in the book, although they also exist, appear on the route with the fictitious name that the author has given them. For example, the Church of San Juan Bautista in the book is "The Museum of Moments”. And other places are part of the author´s imagination and only exist in the novel and on the route...
But a very curious thing happens with one of these totally fictitious places... And that is that, despite being a point on the itinerary that is simply part of the novel and the circuit, it also appears on Google Maps! You can try it out, it´s called "Habitación de quejas" and it´s point 7 on the route... This fictional place has come to life thanks to the novel!
This challenge is a different way of exploring Alarcon, a town that was once powerful in Castilla with more than 3,000 inhabitants and which today is a very sparsely populated peace-ful retreat, but also very proud to be the setting for a novel!
Tourism office of Alarcon
Posadas St., 6
16214 - Alarcón, Cuenca
“Habitación de Quejas” (non real place)
Conde Álvaro de Lara St., 21
16214 - Alarcón, Cuenca
Since its construction, Alarcon Castle has had different owners who have lived within its sturdy walls. Throughout history, knights of military orders, kings and nobles have inhabited this fortress under whose protection the waters of the river have gradually excavated the deep Hoz de Alarcon.
Even today, the Castillo de Alarcon continues to welcome guests, as many visitors decide to spend the night in a place so steeped in history by staying at the Parador de Turismo that houses the fortress today.
Alarcon Castle has an original triangular floor plan, and its solid masonry walls have served as protection for thousands of people since its construction. Reviewing the numerous guests that the castle has had over the centuries, we will see how some of them have gone down in history for different reasons, and how some of them still remain within its walls...
After its construction at the end of the XII century by order of the monarch Alfonso VIII, Alarcon Castle has been operated by the Order of Santiago, whose knights inhabited the for-tress. Subsequently, it passed back to royalty and at the beginning of the XIV century, King Ferdinand IV of Castilla, granted the Lordship of Alarcon and its castle to the Infante Don Juan Manuel who, as we have already seen in a previous point, wrote many of his works within its walls.
After the death of the prince, the castle passed successively from nobles to kings, ending up, at the end of the XV century, in hands of Don Juan Pacheco, Marquess of Villena. This pow-erful nobleman was a clear opponent of the reign of Isabella the Catholic, even supporting Juana la Beltraneja in their war for the throne of Castilla. Those of you who have seen the series "Isabel" will remember this character, the main protagonist of so many plots against the Catholic Monarchs...
Alarcon Castle contains a lot of history within its walls, but its stones also hide a great secret that has survived to the present day as a medieval legend called "Gotas de sangre" which begin like this…
Once upon a time there was a powerful nobleman who had a beautiful sister, sought after by many men. This nobleman was the Lord of Alarcon Castle. On one occasion, a man who had a very bad reputation wanted to try to get this beautiful lady, but he was expelled from the castle by the Lord, the lady´s brother. The rejected man felt very hurt and planned revenge... He would return to the castle incognito in order to assassinate the Lord, but in the attempt, he was discovered by some servants who killed him. To disappear his body, they mixed the corpse with mortar that was being prepared for the castle´s renovations... Since then, there have been reddish stains on a wall of the castle, caused by the blood of this murdered avenger...
What a history and stories this castle has!
TOWARDS THE HOZ DE ALARCÓN
Throughout these lines we have already learnt that Alarcon is located on a rocky promontory surrounded by a meander of the river Jucar that borders almost its entire perimeter. This spe-cial orography can be enjoyed from the different viewpoints that exist in Alarcon, but also by going down to the bed of the winding river that embraces this small Manchego peninsula.
In the surroundings of Alarcon there is a route called "Sendero Hoz de Alarcon" which is a real pleasure for hikers and nature lovers. This path follows a circular trail around Alarcon for a total distance of 9 kilometres, which makes it a perfect plan for walkers. And we, fellow travelers, can also enjoy the wonders of this route, at least on a smaller scale...
The "Sendero Hoz de Alarcon" starts right at the bus parking, which helps us to follow a small part of this trail without the risk of getting lost. What we are going to propose you is to make a small initiation in the route, going down to the height of the river and then going up again. In total, we will walk about 1,000 metres, always bearing in mind that the first 500 metres are downhill, but then, on the way back, they will be uphill... In total, this route will take us about 20 minutes, so we will have time for the "compulsory" cheese platter.
We start our walk from the corner of the parking where the information sign indicates the beginning of the "Sendero Hoz de Alarcon" and follow the path towards the cemetery of Alarcon. A few metres after starting the descent, there is a fork in the road, where we must take the option on the left, as the other takes us directly to the graveyard... Once on the way, continuing under the shelter of some tall pine trees, we will soon reach the Arab wall that surrounds Alarcon in an excellent state of conservation. We cross the wall through one of the six gates that still remain: the Puerta de Chinchilla which was once the southern entrance to the town.
When we have crossed the wall, we continue descending until we reach the river Jucar, where we cross the medieval Picazo bridge which has a dizzying height of about 15 metres above the riverbed, from where we can enjoy an excellent view of the famous Hoz de Alarcon, carved out of the earth over thousands of years by the flow of the Jucar.
After enjoying this view of the Hoz de Alarcon at the level of the river, it is time to return along the same path to go up to the parking. Of course, this walk has been full of surprises.... A trail under the pine trees, an Arab wall, a dizzying medieval bridge... And all this in just one kilometre!
Bus Parking of Alarcon
Santiago St., 2
16214 - Alarcón, Cuenca
AN INGENIOUS NOBLE
In the same way that all roads lead to Rome, in Alarcon all the streets that emerge from the castle converge in its main square... This square is the main centre of the town, where the most important buildings are and where we can sit for a while under the shelter of a tree or on a small terrace to regain our strength. This is the Plaza del Infante Don Juan Manuel, also known as Plaza Mayor, an extensive square-shaped esplanade that follows the construction canons of the typical Castilian squares and which houses important buildings of the town of Alarcon.
One of the sides of the square is entirely occupied by the Church of Saint John the Baptist, now deconsecrated because of its cultural and artistic function. The interior of this non-sacred church today houses an exhibition of very interesting contemporary mural paintings.
The other important building in this square is the Council Palace from XVI century, which currently is Alarcon Town Hall. It is a two-storey Renaissance palace, whose ground floor with arcades supports an upper floor decorated with the coats of arms of the all-powerful Marquess of Villena, the main promoter of the palace.
And near the town hall, in one of the corners of the square, is the Alarcon Tourism Office, a place we must remember because we will know more about it at the end of this text...
This square, which used to be the place where the market and the most important events of Alarcon were held, is still today the central of the town, as we have been able to see. But its name also hides a lot of relevance, as the Infante Don Juan Manuel was an outstanding char-acter full of history and stories, as we will see below...
The Infant Don Juan Manuel was an important nobleman who was born in La Mancha at the end of the XIII century, and who turned out to be an excellent writer, as was his uncle, the monarch Alfonso X the Wise. This infant was the grandson and nephew of kings of Castilla, for which he received great privileges during his lifetime, such as the title of Prince of Villena or the Lordship of Alarcon, in whose castle he wrote his most outstanding literary works.
This Manchego nobleman was recognized for his great wit when it comes to writing, a talent that is well reflected in his most important work, Tales of Count Lucanor, a moralizing book full of wisdom and humour, which is still being published today.
Nowadays, the Infant Don Juan Manuel is still very present in Alarcon, and not only because he lends his name to the main square of the town, but also because of the wise phrases from his works that you will find written on walls adorning different streets of Alarcon. A very illustrated idea!
Infante Don Juan Manuel St. o Plaza Mayor
16214 - Alarcon, Cuenca
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