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Knight Shift

Following in Don Quixote's hoofprints in the Mini Cooper S convertible

Author Geoffrey Gray

MAP BY JEFF QUINN

SPAIN—I was headed south out of Almagro, en route from Madrid to Cádiz, when I passed the first sign reading “Ruta de Don Quijote.” I had a long journey ahead of me, but this was a detour I could not resist. After all, I was cruising through Castile-La Mancha, and here was the ruta taken by the original road-tripper himself, Cervantes’ satirical knight-errant, Don Quixote.

I pulled over to set a few coordinates. Inside, the Mini Cooper S convertible looked like the cockpit of a small aircraft. Embedded in the dash was a large circular high-def screen that revealed the sporty car’s superbrain—and it was a very smart-looking brain, with a mapping system so intense that when I charted my path south of Madrid it felt as if I were on an aerial bombing run.

“Prepare to make a sharp right turn,” the computer’s voice said, and as I followed the directions to El Toboso I thought of Don Quixote and his sidekick navigator, Sancho Panza. Now I had my own diminutive squire too—the Mini—and I named him Sancho.

“Prepare to exit,” Sancho said, and so I did.

“Please exit now,” he added, which I thought was pushy, but I overlooked it. Sancho had our best interests at heart.

I had selected the Mini for this journey assuming that, unlike conventionally sized cars, it would be able to navigate the cramped, cobblestoned centers of Spain’s oldest cities. My hunch was confirmed as I worried the Mini over a curb and into the labyrinth that is El Toboso.

I got out and followed the signs to the reputed original home of the woman who inspired Dulcinea, the sweet peasant whose beauty Quixote found “superhuman”—”her hairs are gold, her forehead Elysian fields, her eyebrows rainbows, her eyes suns, her cheeks roses, her lips coral, her teeth pearls, her neck alabaster ….” And so on.

The house itself was made from old stones. It had tall wooden doors, like a castle. There was a sign out front for tourists. I read it. “Closed for lunch,” it said. And that was that. So I got back into the Mini and, using the joystick that ran the navigation system, scrolled around to find the coordinates and let trusty Sancho know where we were going next.

“Prepare to make a sharp left turn,” he said, and we were off to see beautiful things. Spain is arguably the finest country in the world for road-tripping because roadside advertisements are forbidden by law; even the biggest highways here can feel as uncluttered as country roads. We drove through a land so flat the shepherds who raise sheep here to make Manchego cheese can watch their flocks run away all day long. In the fields I could see tractors and whitewashed haciendas and wildflowers: yellow daisies mixed with amapolas, the wild red poppies that look like cherry lollipops as they spread through rows of olive trees.

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