Laura was telling the truth. At three o’clock and with an hour-and-a-half drive ahead of us, we had nowhere to be fast. We weren’t going to make it to lunch, which is why we stacked the cooler full of sandwiches and a couple of bottles of water to tide us over on the trip. The sunlight radiated heat, blasted heat, vented heat; and the AC was at full throttle to counteract the asphyxiating air. We put our faith in the internet and once again it held our mental hand and guided us out of the web and onto the road we were looking for.
The highway we took is known as the Carretera de Extremadura informally, officially the A-4, because it was the main route to the region of Extremadura in the west-southwest of Spain. On the way, the road exits the region of Madrid and for about 135 kilometers traverses the northwest corner of Castilla-La Mancha, where Cebolla is located. The hyphenated designation might require some explaining.
Clearcut territoriality has never been one of Spain’s strengths. The same is pretty much true for much of Europe, for that matter, where former kingdoms, duchies, principalities, counties, and other types of regions have ebbed and flowed, shifted back and forth constantly for centuries. The political boundaries were defined and redefined so many times that, from a historic and cultural standpoint, it is not always easy to know just where one region ends and another one starts, who they belong too and why. The discrepancies have led to disputes and struggles and, on more than one occasion, all out war. The sense is, not everyone is ever really satisfied.
Spain is especially prone to this dilemma. For much of its history it was a loosely-formed conglomeration of kingdoms which enjoyed bickering with each other almost as much as they enjoyed taking on the Muslims in the battlefield. After centuries of living together as more or less one entity, you’d think they’d have become a creamy melting pot, but aside from the language (and even that’s contested in some areas), it’s a nation with a split-personality: a homo-nation and a hetero-nation. And if the current Catalan independence movement is anything to go by, the situation is far from resolved. Not even in the relatively calm regions.
Consider Castilla-La Mancha, for instance. The name may sound timeless, but this new-fangled region actually started up after the return to Spanish democracy in 1976, and wasn’t even constituted until 1982, when I was still playing JV soccer and listening to A Flock of Seagulls. Up until then, the territory was officially and roughly known as New Castile (Castilla La Nueva), as opposed to Old Castile, which was north of the central mountain range which slices the country in half.
Castile was always sort of vague geographical entity itself. From its beginnings as a small county in the province of Burgos, it broke out in search of revenge against the Moorish invaders and then grew rapidly thanks to personal glory and ambition. This came by way of a policy of continuous expansion during the Reconquista period, the time when the Christian kingdoms retook the territory they had lost from the Muslims way back in the 8th Century. Needless to say, it excelled at conquering land. By the time of the discovery of the New World in 1492, it was, along with Aragon, the most powerful kingdom of the Iberian Peninsula and had stretched its dominions to most of present-day Spain. By then, the two kingdoms were united, but it was Castile who initially benefited the most from the treasures that came in from America. The newly found continent would soon serve to boost Castile’s status to near political and economic hegemony. It had, in essence, become the first worldwide empire in history.
Total dominance was short lived, though, as other powers like England, Holland and France steadily managed to challenge its control and rival its position. The decline was slow but unrecoverable. The country was either constantly at war or engaged in extra-official military activities, and income from the gold and silver mines fell as the lodes were depleted. What little that got through was squandered. Financial management was often nothing less than awful.
In 1833, a member of the Ministry of Development, Javier Burgos, was commissioned with the daunting task of redesigning the makeup of the country. Up to that year, most of Spain’s regions were still officially kingdoms, though they no longer acted as such in practice. Just in case, the Monarch of Spain, Maria Christina of the Two Sicilies, ordered the nominal kingdoms to be abolished for good measure and had Sr. Burgos draw up the divisions for a new territorial setup, based mainly on the traditional regions. It meant an additional step towards the centralization of the country. Burgos chose the historical designation “Old Castile” in reference to the provinces of Palencia, Segovia, Ávila, Burgos, and Cantabria, and “New Castile”, which included Toledo, Cuenca, Guadalajara, Ciudad Real and Madrid. Those boundaries would stay essentially the same for next 150 years.
You might notice that, up to this point, the name La Mancha does not appear anywhere, which is surprising because Miguel de Cervantes had made it famous worldwide in 1605 and you’d think it would have held a greater position of prestige. The fact is, the territory represented a geographical land more anything else, with roughly the same blobby dimensions as when it was under Muslim control and known as a taifa. The historic La Mancha comprises a large area to the south-southeast of Madrid. That’s what they call “Mancha, Mancha”. The reay McCoy. Yet everyone talks about the entire region of Castilla La Nueva as if it was La Mancha, which it isn’t really. It takes but a quick glance to see why that is. Take your car for a drive around the northern half of Cuenca, or Guadalajara, and you will encounter an entirely different landscape, filled with mountainous terrain, endless pine forests, rivers and gullies, small canyons and arid mesas. Nothing like the miles of open prairie that stretches out before you in the “Mancha, Mancha”.
The new constitution, passed in 1978, created a new political system entirely. The new territorial design relied heavily on the former demarcations of Spain, but with some noticeable differences. Instead of regions, they became known as comunidades autónomas, and they would be endowed with many more powers and rights than they had previously had. The shift was towards decentralization, and it was an attempt to appease some of the more upstart regions like the Basque Country and Catalonia. Now, Old Castile came into partnership with the former Kingdom/Region of Leon and created Castilla y Leon, and the previously called New Castile shed Madrid –it became a comunidad in its own right— and usurped Albacete, which used to belong to the former Kingdom/Region of Murcia. Are you following me? If you feel like someone is trying to explain how hedge funds work, I completely sympathize. Just keep going.
With the new arrangement made, they christened the land Castilla-La Mancha, which actually provided a pretty accurate description of the zone. Not everyone was delighted with the new name, mind you. If you coast around the curvy roads of northern Guadalajara, you will come across desecrated official road signs with the word “La Mancha” crossed out, usually with a crooked line of black spray paint poorly employed by an unsteady hand. That area is known as the Serranía, or the hills of Guadalajara. The people from there will tell you themselves, “We ain’t from La Mancha. This here is Castilla.” See what I mean?