Or The Windmills of Don Quixote
The Lonely Planet guide about the La Mancha town of Campo de Criptana reads:
One of the most popular stops on the Don Quijote route, Campo de Criptana is crowned by 10 windmills visible from kilometres around. Revered contemporary film-maker Pedro Almodóvar¹ was born here, but left for Madrid in his teens. The town is pleasant, if unexceptional.
Actually, unexceptional doesn’t even begin to describe the town if you arrive by train (Campo de Criptana is on the mainline from Madrid to Albacete, the capital of Castile-La Mancha). Downright ugly might be a better description: as in many Spanish towns, the railway station is on the outskirts, in this case surrounded by industrial buildings of little appeal. Luckily, Campo de Criptana is a small place and fifteen minutes walk will bring you to the centre of town.
Which is unexceptional.
But you don’t really want the centre of town. You’re a reader, a reader of Don Quixote at that, and what you want is the famous windmills, the giants that Don Quixote fought. Head uphill from the unexceptional Plaza Mayor with its obligatory Cervantes statue, through the Albaícin – the old Moorish quarter -, through the narrow cobblestoned alleys, between whitewashed houses edged in indigo blue… it sounds better already, doesn’t it? There. As you turn the corner, you spot your first windmill. And there are other nine to come.
A Miller and a Thief
Being a miller and a thief is one and the same.
In 1752, the land survey of the Marquis of Ensenada counted thirty-four windmills here; an earlier survey ordered by Philip II in 1575, the Relaciones Topográficas, simply mentions – rather more vaguely – “many windmills”.
People came here from all over the neighbourhood to have their wheat ground. For the millers, for the town, this was a source of riches. As lingering evidence of the proverbial dishonesty of millers, one of the 16th century windmills goes by the name of El Burleta, corrupted over the centuries from Burlapobres (ie. Tricking the Poor).
The Sierra de los Molinos, Windmill Hill, still boasts three original 16th century mills; the ones Cervantes saw, the ones Don Quixote took for giants. For paltry two euros you can enter one of them and a guide will explain about the machinery inside. Working machinery: on the first Sunday of every month, the mills are still armed with sails and grind wheat. The other seven windmills are more modern constructions, albeit rebuilt from the original stones. The oficina de turismo is located in one of them.
The Land of Giants
The hill of windmills is tiny. Hardly merits the name of hill, really. But when you reach the top and look around, you feel as if you’re on top of the world. This is the famous Spanish meseta, the Castilian meseta, with the red soil Federico García Lorca sang about and its utter emptiness under a stupendous sky.
These fields are an immense symphony of congealed blood without trees, cool respite or shelter for the brain, full of superstitious prayer, broken lances, enigmatic villages…
(Federico García Lorca: Sketches of Spain)
There’s nowhere to hide here. You’re exposed to the elements, to the wandering eyes of your fellow humans and to your God, should you have one.
The landscape of La Mancha dotted with windmills is no more rigorously divided into heaven and earth than the Dutch polder. It is an extreme division, unmitigated by temptations, valleys, romantic corners. Most of the meseta is as hard for a man to hide in as the flatlands of the Netherland. A man is always visible between heaven and earth, silhouetted against the sky…
(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)
The weather rolls in. You can see it coming from a long way off. Two cyclists stand out as stark silhouettes against the empty sky. There are the four windmills on a distant hill, near Alcazár de San Juan. As you wander, you can find the ruins of old grain stores. You can see the odd olive grove. El Toboso, the home of Dulcinea, is about 20 km northeast. Two low flying fighter planes scream through the sky.
There is nothing really here, apart from the windmills, the sky and the red soil of the windswept, half-barren meseta. But if you walk out on the meseta far enough and look back, the windmills do look like giants. With the tiniest bit of imagination.
You are in Don Quixote country.
At this point they came in sight of thirty forty windmills that there are on plain, and as soon as Don Quixote saw them he said to his squire, “Fortune is arranging matters for us better than we could have shaped our desires ourselves, for look there, friend Sancho Panza, where thirty or more monstrous giants present themselves, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay, and with whose spoils we shall begin to make our fortunes; for this is righteous warfare, and it is God’s good service to sweep so evil a breed from off the face of the earth.”
“What giants?” said Sancho Panza.
“Those thou seest there,” answered his master, “with the long arms, and some have them nearly two leagues long.”
“Look, your worship,” said Sancho; “what we see there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the sails that turned by the wind make the millstone go.”
“It is easy to see,” replied Don Quixote, “that thou art not used to this business of adventures; those are giants; and if thou art afraid, away with thee out of this and betake thyself to prayer while I engage them in fierce and unequal combat.”
So saying, he gave the spur to his steed Rocinante, heedless of the cries his squire Sancho sent after him, warning him that most certainly they were windmills and not giants he was going to attack. He, however, was so positive they were giants that he neither heard the cries of Sancho, nor perceived, near as he was, what they were, but made at them shouting, “Fly not, cowards and vile beings, for a single knight attacks you.”
A slight breeze at this moment sprang up, and the great sails began to move, seeing which Don Quixote exclaimed, “Though ye flourish more arms than the giant Briareus, ye have to reckon with me.”
So saying, and commending himself with all his heart to his lady Dulcinea, imploring her to support him in such a peril, with lance in rest and covered by his buckler, he charged at Rocinante’s fullest gallop and fell upon the first mill that stood in front of him; but as he drove his lance-point into the sail the wind whirled it round with such force that it shivered the lance to pieces, sweeping with it horse and rider, who went rolling over on the plain, in a sorry condition.
Sancho hastened to his assistance as fast as his ass could go, and when he came up found him unable to move, with such a shock had Rocinante fallen with him.
“God bless me!” said Sancho, “did I not tell your worship to mind what you were about, for they were only windmills? and no one could have made any mistake about it but one who had something of the same kind in his head.”
(Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: Don Quixote de La Mancha)
Notes: ¹If one can believe Wikipedia (and why not?), Almodóvar was born in Calzada de Calatrava - only about a 100 km difference! You might also like: ⇒ Don Quixote (available for download or online reading on Project Gutenberg) ⇒ Campo de Criptana (Lonely Planet) ⇒ Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago ⇒ Federico García Lorca: Sketches of Spain