Visiting Spain: Windmills of La Mancha said to be inspiration for Don Quixote
Across the crest of the hill, they march like giants. Their long arms seem to stretch to the heavens.
No wonder the delusional Don Quixote pulled his sword to fight these windmills. I almost expected to see the Man of La Mancha astride his rickety horse with his poor old sidekick Sancho Panza watching in disbelief.
“This is the land of Don Quixote,” our tour guide said. “These windmills deeply inspired Cervantes to write his masterpiece.”
Just a short detour off the main highway and a 90-minute drive from Madrid, the 12 windmills and a 16th century castle dominate a ridge above the tiny town of Consuegra.
When we stopped to stare at the stark windmills against the deep blue sky, a fellow traveler began climbing the long hill to get closer. That isn’t necessary. A road winds up the hill and provides a panorama of great photo opportunities.
The sparsely populated town of Consuegra is nestled at the base of a windswept plateau. With no trees or large man-made structures for miles, the wind blows relentlessly in gusts that rush unimpeded across the land – a perfect spot for windmills.
This is the imaginary Don Quixote’s world. He believes that he has been called by voices to change the world and right all wrongs – “to fight for the right without question.”
Published in two volumes a decade apart, in 1605 and 1615, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes is considered the most influential work of literature from the Spanish Golden Age. On one list, it was said the book is the second most-read of all times, next to the Bible.
Originally, there were 13 whitewashed windmills lining this hilltop. Now only 12 remain of which four still retain their working mechanisms. Known as “molinos” in Spain, the windmills are each named.
The windmills are tall cylindrical towers capped with dark cones and four big “sails” that move with the wind. When we drove toward them, the windmills resembled plump nuns trotting off to church. The huge machines do seem to make an imagination run wild.
In days gone by, farmers would haul their grain to these windmills where the structures harnessed the power of the wind to grind grain. The windmills and the skill to operate them were passed down from fathers to sons. A spiral staircase was used to carry the grain to the top of the mill.
Windows placed around the tower of the windmill provide great views today. But that was not their original use. From these windows, the miller could keep watch on the shifting winds. When the winds changed, the miller would have to move the tiller beam or tailpole to turn the mill. If he didn’t, the whole building could be destroyed by a gusty wind.
If the vanes moved too quickly, the stones could produce friction sparks that could ignite the flour. If a miller didn’t keep vigil, a sudden strong wind could strip the sails, rip off the top and take lives and livelihoods along with it.
REMINDERS OF THE PAST
The windmills stopped being used in the 1980s when mechanization replaced them. The remaining ones in Consuegra are maintained for tourist stops and picture postcard perfect photos.
A 12th century castle near the windmills was once a stronghold when Consuegra was the seat and priory of the Knights of San Juan. The castle was destroyed in 1813 during the Peninsular War between France and Spain for control of the Iberian Peninsula.
On the last weekend in October, the town of Consuegra holds the Saffron Rose Festival to honor the distinctive flower that “is born at sunrise and dies at dusk” as sung in a Spanish operetta.
Saffron flowers appear overnight and the three threads must be handpicked from each one immediately. Known as “red gold,” the prized and very expensive saffron provides the canary-yellow hue of Spain’s famous paella.
Held to coincide with the dates when the saffron flowers are picked, the festival includes folklore displays, music, dancing, cooking contests, the crowning of a Queen of Saffron and the important saffron rose picking contests where competitors extract the most saffron in the shortest time without making a mess.
The old Sancho windmill comes alive during the festival, the only time it is used, to grind flour for “peace in the world.” Sounds like a worthy cause that would win the support of Spain’s old windmill-tilting knight, Don Quixote himself.
-Story and Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch
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