Once nicknamed "The Mirrors of La Mancha", the 16 interconnected lakes which make up the Parque Natural de las Lagunas de Ruidera stretch for 20 km through a valley. They allegedly take their time from a story in Don Quixote. Cervantes, in Don Quixote, says that there are seven of these small lakes; actually there are sixteen. You sense their presence even before you finally see them, after driving through some of the driest countryside in Spain. This, indeed, is Don Quixote country — La Mancha, the sunbaked Arabic ‘wilderness’ whose heatwaves had a notoriously hallucinogenic effect on the wits. The road from Argamasilla de Alba to Ruidera is lined with poplars and there are gentle undulations in the flat Manchegan landscape, announcing an imminent change of scenery.
At the Embalse de Peñarroya the plain turns into hills and you find yourself in another, friendlier, habitat. The first natural lake along the route is Cenagosa, accompanied by an incessant clamour of birds, for whom this zona húmeda manchega is an oasis in the desert (the more so since the Tablas de Daimiel are drying up). The reeds and bullrushes along its shore provide perfect cover for many kinds of duck. A little further on, already accustomed to the cooling air that rises from these unexpected bodies of water, you come across another laguna, La Colgadilla, which receives much of its water via subterranean filtration from the great cave-cum-storage deposit known as the Cueva de la Morenilla.
Not far from the sleepy village of Ruidera are the two largest lakes, the Laguna del Rey and La Gran Colgada. The fell hand of tourism has lately made itself felt hereabouts in the form of small hotels, camp-sites and private villas. Even so, the birds have not been driven away and ducks, herons and egrets especially flock to these remarkably clear lakes in significant numbers.
The road from Ruidera winds along their banks and gradually ascends from one lake to the next, for each is just a step higher than its neighbour. Just after several small lagunas — Batana, Santo Morcillo and Salvadora — is La Lengua, which is sausage-shaped and full of fish, hence much frequented by anglers. It receives most of its water via a row of small falls and rivulets that pour into it from the next link up in the chain, Redondilla. This, in turn, receives water from San Pedro, whose shore is partly lined with houses and plant nurseries. At last you reach the highest and least visited, the Laguna Conceja, with its marshy shore-line and wooded surrounding hills. The laguna Conceja has a higher degree of natural protection in respect of the rest of the lagoons.
I have spent some extremely pleasant nights on the shores of Laguna Redondilla, and woken up at dawn to hear a philharmonic chorus of birds such as I have rarely encountered anywhere else, even in the remotest of bird sanctuaries. Their vocal enthusiasm is perfectly understandable, for these crystalline lakes are in such stark contrast with the parched maquis of the encircling hills.
The name Ruidera is said to derive from the noise (ruido) made by the water running from lake to lake, which stretches along a total of 25 kilometres (16 miles), with a difference of 128 metres (420 feet) in height between the southernmost pool, La Blanca, and Cenagosa at the northern end. Geologists have demonstrated that while some of the water runs from one lake to the other along surface streams and cascades, it also flows underground, through layers of clay and gypsum or sandstone.
The protected area of the Parque Natural de Ruidera includes not only the lakes but also the tributary valley of San Pedro, with the ruins of Rochafrida castle and the cave of Montesinos, which plays such an important role in the second part of Don Quixote. The ruins of the castle are perched close by the cave atop a limestone redoubt that overlooks a cultivated field, which must also have been a shallow pool before it was subdued by mules and a plough.
These are literary landmarks. Rochafrida is mentioned in Spanish medieval romances, although it was already in ruins when Cervantes roamed this district as a tithe proctor for the Knights of St John at Argamasilla. Hence Don Quixote must go underground to meet the heroes of his ever-romantic imagination: Montesinos, Belerma, Durandarte. Here he learns that the inhabitants of the cave, Guadiana and Ruidera, together with their seven daughters and two nieces, have been transformed into a river and several lakes by Merlin the magician.
Indeed the traditional explanation is that the lake at the bottom of Montesinos’s cave, which is said to communicate with the Laguna de San Pedro via an underground stream, constitutes the real source of the Río Guadiana. The Lagunas de Ruidera, as a group, were reputed to be the head-waters of an eccentric and recalcitrant stream that went underground again after the Cenagosa, only to reappear 40 kilometres (25 miles) to the west, at the Tablas de Daimiel. Some geologists have recently questioned the hypothesis that this really is the subterranean Guadiana, and the argument continues to exercise some of the best scientific minds of Spain.
The great subterranean reservoir, through which the river supposedly flowed westward, has been tapped by the pumps of the wine-growers of Tomelloso, and the wetlands of the Tablas de Daimiel have ceased to be the great national park they once were. But the Lagunas de Ruidera are upstream from the pumps, and thus more precious than ever.