Somewhere in La Mancha…
by Kelsey Hibbitt, Spanish and English Literature:-
A year in Ciudad Real, Spain – the place whose name is not even remembered in Don Quixote…
En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme… (Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember…)
This is the famous first line of Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote. All Spanish children study Don Quixote at some point in their education and almost all Spaniards can recite the opening line when asked. However, something rather less well known is that place in La Mancha, where I am currently coming to the end of my year abroad.
Ciudad Real is a small town in Castille-La Mancha, a place seemingly only known for its hero Don Quixote and the windmills that he made famous. Despite its small size, there are some great advantages to Ciudad Real, and by extension, other similar places which aren’t so well known.
When I had to choose where I wanted to spend my year abroad, I was drawn to Ciudad Real precisely because it was small. I wanted to live and study somewhere where there weren’t many tourists and English wasn’t widely spoken to challenge myself to improve my Spanish. I was not fully aware of quite how small Ciudad Real was though, and was constantly greeted with questions from my family and friends such as ‘Where exactly is that?’ I always had to resort to the same answer, ‘A bit south of Madrid’, because I was not exactly sure myself.
It is easy to see the connection with the fictional hero Don Quixote all around the city, with hotel names such as Hotel El Molino (Windmill) and streets such as Calle Don Quijote and Calle Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s faithful sidekick. Despite being awarded the accolade of having the highest standard of living in Spain in one survey, whenever I speak to locals here and explain that I have chosen to come here to live and study, the response is always along the lines of “Pero ¿por qué? Ciudad Real es muy fea.” (‘But why? Ciudad Real is really ugly.’) However, I think that the people here are so accustomed to it that when they think of the larger, more touristy destinations that they cannot see how lovely Ciudad Real really is. They overlook the beautiful parks such as Parque de Gasset and the historic monument la Puerta de Toledo and take them for granted.
I admit that it is not the most beautiful city I have ever seen. When I began travelling round different parts of Spain, I also began to doubt whether or not Ciudad Real was really such a good choice as a place to live as I had previously thought. (Although it is worth pointing out that Ciudad Real’s central location made travelling very easy, another point in its favour!) I was confronted with the beautiful architecture and scenic views of larger cities such as Madrid, Barcelona and Granada. But when I was wandering round the paths of the gardens of the Alhambra I was struck by the realisation that I felt like I was on holiday; I could not imagine myself actually living in such a big city. This led me to wonder what it was about Ciudad Real that was so charming and comforting.
I soon realised that, for me, it was actually the people that made it so welcoming. Living in such a small place does mean that you stand out as a foreigner, for better or for worse. In my experience here, it has usually been for the better. Almost everybody here is friendly and completely willing to help you, but I have had three experiences which have particularly stood out in my memory.
On the very first day of my year abroad I met a man on the train from Madrid to Ciudad Real. I was terrified of the year ahead and was visibly nervous. The man was sat directly in front of me and could see that I was upset. Instead of thinking that I was just some strange girl getting emotional in public, he started to chat to me to help take my mind off things. He helped me off the train with my enormous suitcase and directed me towards the taxis. I saw the same man about a week later after I had found a flat and made some friends; to my surprise, he remembered me and said hello. I still occasionally see him, as it turns out that he works in the pharmacy at the end of my road. Although it doesn’t sound like an especially life-changing interaction, it was a good introduction to how the people of Ciudad Real were going to make me feel more at home during my year abroad.
The second experience involved ambitious cooking plans and a very lovely and motherly lady in the supermarket. I had just had the seemingly fantastic idea of cooking the regional dish of migas for myself and my housemates. However, I had no idea how to make them and I did not have a fantastic track record in the kitchen. The main ingredients in migas are breadcrumbs, chorizo, pimentón and eggs. Much like Ciudad Real, migas sound plain and not all that exciting, but they are actually really delicious and have become one of my favourite Spanish dishes. I looked up a recipe, decided that it couldn’t be that difficult and went to the supermarket to buy ingredients. The lady at the till took one look at me and the ingredients and could tell that I was out of my depth. She began chatting to me about traditional food and I confessed that it was my first time making migas. No sooner had I said that than she began to explain all tips and tricks I would need and wished me good luck. I tried to remember and follow all of her advice and ended up being pleasantly surprised with the result. Now, when I see the same lady in the supermarket she asks how I am and suggests other things I might want to try.
The third and final experience has to do with Don Quixote. He had to make an appearance, like I said; everything here is linked to him in one way or another. It was a bright day in spring and we decided to visit the Don Quixote museum (it would have been embarrassing to have spent a whole year here without having visited the museum of the city’s hero!) We forgot to take into account the Spanish timetable, which meant that there were only 10 minutes before closing. Despite this, the museum guide still took us round all the exhibits and explained the story behind them to us, even though by then the museum had already shut. He even opened up a closed part of the museum to show it to us and let us know when we could come back to see it properly. It was really interesting to be able to talk to someone in Spanish about something that they are obviously really passionate about and I certainly plan to take up his offer to come back to the museum and see the other exhibits.
These examples of the encounters I’ve had with people that I’ve met in Ciudad Real show that when it comes to living in a town or city, it’s also the people that make it memorable, not only whether there are monuments or historical landmarks. Looking back on my year abroad, I’m glad that I chose a small place to really challenge myself, and I feel like my Spanish has improved as a result. And although Ciudad Real might not be the biggest or most glamorous place, and even though Don Quixote didn’t care to remember its name, for me I have made many great friends and memories here that I’m sure will stay with me.
For another great read from the Spanish perspective, try Sarah Peyton Jones’ Tereré with Ña Ana