If a fear of heights restricts your movements during your holidays, the La Mancha region is the place for you. Nothing about it suggests altitude will be an issue for the victims of vertigo. No driving off cliffs. No avalanches. No treacherous gorges. No terrifying edges of any kind. Suiciders will die of frustration trying to find a lofty ledge to plunge to their death from; it is simply not an option. They’ll be better off going for the knife, a gun or grab or a handful of pills. My home state of Connecticut, which boasts a hardly elevated Bear Mountain and its height of 700 meters and a prominence of a fearsome 100 meters, could be considered alpine by comparison.
And yet despite this celebration of flatness, the land doesn’t always stretch out like a tightly fitted sheet over an army bunk bed. It kind of rolls here and there gently, allowing the traveler enough of a perspective to enjoy the orography without fear. You have the red clay earth providing miles of foundation for the vines and olive trees, the bales of straw firmly laid upon the golden fields, the deep green bushy heads of the miles of vineyards looking like a legion of Secondary Actor Bobs, shading the little creatures of the land, and the majestic Holmes oaks that emerge from the fields like solitary wise men. Or friendless losers. Those are the trees that produce the acorns that feed the pigs that get slaughtered, salted, aged, sold, sliced, and consumed by people like you and me. People often note the nutty flavor and many don’t know where it comes from. There you have it. A bit of mindless trivia.
Each of those trees is registered in a bureaucratic log somewhere, penned into a leather bound volume of oddities or typed in snug into the memory of a hard drive or two. They cannot be touched without the permission of the regional government. If you were a dog, you’d be wary of peeing on one. As a result, every time I walk by one, I poke it bark or snap off a twig as a sign of defiance. Rebellion against the establishment.
It was my six thousandth time at the finca, more or less, where Javier and his family had their 150 acres of vineyards. That may sound impressive, but when set against the some 400,000 acres of vines planted in all of La Mancha, it’s a mere patch for these parts.
Before, the only real structure was a shed with no electricity or running water, a warehouse for storing agricultural machinery and whatnot, as well as a dozen farm animals or so. We used to broil our chorizos, chicken and steaks over the fireplace, and even whip up a delicious rice with rabbit dish in a deep iron pot, seasoned with thyme and rosemary stripped from their respective bushes nearby. I know it sounds Wyoming wild and all, but considering the Comanche were known to drink the stale water from a bison’s stomach to keep hydrated, I feel it was still fairly tame from that standpoint.
This was my first time at the new finca, now a casa rural, a country house you can rent out, pay loads of money to enjoy rural life for just about long enough until you can’t stand it anymore. Country house tourism is so popular in Spain it has become big business, enormous business, and it has managed to endure even the worst of the economic crisis. Javi and his family actually built their own just the year before, with three bedrooms and a kitchen and living room. It’s called Montehigueras, Fig Tree Hill, which defies all logic because there are no hills in that part, and if there ever was a fig produced on that land it has been long since dispatched to some unknown stomach, or plucked from the soil by a bird with a sweet beak. Apparently that’s the name of the land, so who am I to question it?
As usual, I packed a little more than I really needed. For a person with a reputation for being a total disaster, I take certain pride in the fact I try to foresee any and every unforeseeable eventuality when it comes to short-term travel. You just never know when you might go for a swim or get caught in a blizzard. For an excursion of one day, I stuffed two pairs of shorts, a pair of jeans, two t-shirts, two pairs of underwear, docksiders, running shoes, flip-flops, three pairs of socks and a sweatshirt, in case it cooled off at night, which, in the 100º+ daily heat in the center of the Iberian peninsula was an unlikelihood, but you never knew. Ah, and I also added three bottles of wine, which Javi had asked me to bring along. Javi’s family owns two very large wineries in La Mancha, but the fact is, you can never drink enough of the stuff in this region. No one can. There is so much that much of it is burned and turned into industrial alcohol. I took along a chardonnay from Somontano, a rosé from Cigales and a red from Valdepeñas figuring that all three colors would collide by the end of the evening.
I have to admit I was a little bummed about going to the finca. Kind of miffed. Somewhat snubbed. After all, I had grown up (Spain-speaking) honoring the simplicity of the land, eating with basic utensils, napping under pine trees, regarding the vineyards and saying, “don’t you think it would be a good idea build a real house here? One with a big kitchen for the grastronómica.”
Yes, I like to say it was my idea. Then they took it, built it in record time, and not once did I get a call, nary a whatsapp, to get invited over to review the blueprints, survey the land, oversee the works. Not once. Then, before I knew it, it was up and running. “The place is great. Come and see it,” Javi ordered me.
“I know,” I muttered and wanted to add, I told you so.
“We put a big industrial kitchen in there. You’re gonna love it!”
“All right, all right. Let me be the judge of that.”