The South of Castilla-La Mancha
This is the terrain that typifies La Mancha for many people: flat plains stretching to the horizon, punctuated by the occasional farmhouse or emblematic windmill. The southeast, however, is surprisingly verdant and lush with rivers, natural parks and some of the prettiest villages in the province.
Despite being the one-time royal counterpart of Toledo, these days Ciudad Real is an unspectacular Spanish working town. The centre has a certain charm, however, with its pedestrianised shopping streets and distinctive Plaza Mayor, complete with carillon clock (topped by Cupid), flamboyant neo-Gothic town-hall facade and modern tiered fountain.
Sleepy, historic and filled with the ghosts of a turbulent past, Sigüenza is well worth a detour. The town is built on a low hill cradled by Río Henares and boasts a castle, a cathedral and several excellent restaurants set among twisting lanes of honey-coloured medieval buildings. Start your ambling at the beautiful 16th-century Plaza Mayor.
Famous in Spain for two things – its knives, and the saying Albacete – caga y vete (defecate and leave), this provincial capital is a transport hub and redeems its lack of attractions with a lively free tapas scene. In the centre of town, the Pasaje Lodares is a lovely shopping arcade built in 1925 in modernista style: it's well worth a look.
Pastrana should not be missed. It's an unspoilt place with twisting cobbled streets flanked by honey-coloured stone buildings. Forty-two kilometres south of Guadalajara along the CM200, the heart and soul of the place is the Plaza de la Hora, a large square dotted with acacias and fronted by the sturdy Palacio Ducal, a work of Alonso de Covarrubias.
Alcalá del Júcar
Northeast of Albacete, the deep, tree-filled gorge of Río Júcar makes for a stunning detour. About halfway along the CM3201, the breathtaking town of Alcalá del Júcar comes into view as you descend via hairpin turns. Its landmark castle, dating mostly from the 15th century, towers over the houses that spill down the steep bank of the river gorge.