Monday, March 16, 2015

The Don Quixote windmills

You can't visit Spain, without visiting the famous Don Quixote windmills, we feel. So we went to the small town Consuegra in Castille La Mancha. The story behind Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is a bit of a sad one. Don Quixote is a fictional character created by the writer Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. The book, titled 'The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote', tells the story of a man so obsessed with chivalric novels that he loses his sanity and decides to revive chivalry. Don Quixote is a noble man and, in a way, perhaps the Robin Hood of Spain. Fighting against wrong and bringing justice. The two volumes in which the story of Don Quixote was published are considered the most influential works from the Spanish Golden Age. All this happened a long time ago. Even the second volume of the book is already 400 years old and yet it still regularly appears high on the list of best fiction novels ever made. 

Miguel de Cervantes isn’t clear on where Don Quixote exactly lives, other than somewhere in La Mancha. Just as he isn’t clear if the windmills at Consuegra, La Mancha are the ones he attacked. His reasoning behind attacking the windmills was that he thought they were giants. It seems logical that the windmills of Consuegra were the ones described in the book and that was enough for Consuegra, La Mancha to claim them both for tourism. As La Mancha Tourism has refrained from making it into a tacky tourism show, we don’t mind. Access to the windmills is free, there is room to park (for bikes anyway) and it’s a lovely quiet place. We spend quite a bit of time there.

Being born in Holland we know a thing or two about windmills. They are beautiful machines that utilise the freely available wind for a variety of uses. The famous Dutch windmills found on postcards are mostly of the water pumping variety. They keep Holland, which is partly below sea level, dry. Windmills were also used to mill grain and some did both milling and pumping. Anyone with some mechanical interest should have a look at a windmill in action one day. In the summer months quite a few are open and seeing the huge wooden gears and shafts in action is a sight not to be missed.

A windmill converts wind energy into rotational energy and does so via sails on a lattice framework. The miller attaches the sails to the framework when the mill needs to operate, the size of the sail used depends on the available wind and required use. In colder climates, sails can be hard to fit, especially so in frost conditions. That’s why most Frisian windmills have slats instead of sails, which are a lot easier to use. These slats can be rotated from within the mill depending on wind availability and also protect the mill against sudden gusts of wind as they automatically open when the wind becomes too strong. 

The windmills on the hills in La Mancha are invariably of the grain milling variety as La Mancha is an agricultural area. The top part of every windmill can be rotated depending on wind direction. Millers often live in the windmills, which usually has two levels. Windmills are handed over from generation to generation and are quite often centuries old. I haven’t been able to find verifiable data on when the windmills in La Mancha were built but they must be at least 400 years old as that’s when the book was written.

Originally there were 13 windmills, some of which were operational right up to the 1980s. Twelve of the famous windmills were restored and are now a tourist attraction. One functions as a small gift shop while others can be visited in the tourist season. The Castille itself is under renovation too. The restoration of the windmills is beautifully done, not over the top as is unfortunately so often the case, but sympathetic.

Access to the twelve Consuegra windmills is via an easy and well maintained road, but for some that is not the desired way to get there… Like this guy on a trails bike! Being in Spain it is, of course, a Spanish made Montesa. We hadn’t expected to find him there but it was a welcome addition to an already beautiful day. He entertained us for quite a while, doing things with a motorcycle that seemed to defy the laws of friction and gravity. Impressive stuff! As the bike was well silenced, no-one seemed to mind, quite the opposite in fact! He attracted quite a few interested viewers.

View of Consuegra, the town next to the windmills
Being on top of the hills near Consuegra and seeing the famous Don Quixote windmills against a beautiful blue sky was an amazing experience. The La Mancha area is one of the least densely populated areas in Europe and being on the top of the hill with the wind rushing between the mills reinforced that feeling even more. We were here out of season, with few tourists around, so we could enjoy views that go on for miles and miles in absolute silence. Visiting the Don Quixote windmills was a highlight of our visit to Spain. Seeing these ancient machines in restored condition perched on top of the hill was great. We took quite a lot of photos :-)