When he wrote "Don Quixote", Miguel de Cervantes did not give away the name of the birthplace of the eponymous middle-aged gentleman obsessed with heroically righting the world's wrongs and bringing back lost chivalry. But many identify Argamasilla de Alba, a weather-beaten village of almost 7,000 people, as his hometown. It is found in the arid central Spanish region of La Mancha, a patchwork of buff and green fields.
"The two most well-known things about La Mancha are Don Quixote and our (manchego) cheese," says Angel Gutierrez, a 55-year-old shepherd and rancher, tending to his flock of sheep not far from the quiet town.
Four hundred years after Cervantes' death, references to Don Quixote, his loyal squire Sancho Panza and his beautiful lady Dulcinea abound in the surrounding villages of La Mancha from sweet treats to theatre productions involving livestock.
Every year, for example, Gutierrez lends his animals to a theatre group to re-enact on the streets the part of the novel when Don Quixote charges at two herds of sheep after taking them for armies.
The region is dotted with historic, white-washed windmills, central to the best-known episode of the book when Don Quixote fights windmills he imagines are giants.
The scene gave rise to the expression 'tilting at windmills' or fighting imaginary enemies, just as 'quixotic' now means idealistic and impractical. At dusk in Campo de Criptana, the windmills do indeed seem to float like giants in the distance, as can be seen in a Reuters photo essay at http://reut.rs/23GJmIW.
Other locations in La Mancha fight for the distinction as Don Quixote's birthplace, but Argamasilla de Alba showcases a rebuilt house with a cave underneath where, according to local legend, Cervantes was imprisoned. In the prologue to his masterpiece, Cervantes wrote that his work had been "engendered in a jail" and these days visitors can see Medrano's Cave and imagine Cervantes writing there.
Don Quixote's great, unrequited love Dulcinea, a common farm hand he imagines as a refined and beautiful damsel, supposedly lived in the village of El Toboso, a small town surrounded by vineyards. Sister Isabel, a cloistered nun of the Order of Saint Clare, makes sweets named after Dulcinea at her convent's bakery.
Sister Isabel, 39, and other nuns have been making the 'Caprichos de Dulcinea' (Dulcinea's Fancies) since 2005, the fourth centenary of the publication of the first part of "Don Quixote". They have become one of their most popular sweets.
Meanwhile, grey powder lies on the ground in Montesinos's Cave near the Ruidera lagoons, where Cervantes is believed to have based the part of the book where Don Quixote falls asleep in a cave to be beset by fantastic dreams. They are the ashes of Bob, 'The English Don Quixote', who came to the region to live with his Spanish wife and started impersonating Don Quixote outside the cave and along the lagoons.
After dying in a car accident in January, his family decided to scatter his ashes in the places he was so passionate about. Almost quixotic, some might say.