Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain. And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, “Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. “
“Take care, sir,” cried Sancho. “Those over there are not giants but windmills. Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone.”
It was going to be a long day so we rose early ready for a quick start and as usual my first job was to check the weather.
The air felt fresher and from the hotel window I could see cloud to the east, which was a bit of a worry, but the lady on Spanish breakfast television seemed confident that it was going to be fine and out to the west it was clear blue and that was the direction in which we were heading. After breakfast and check out we packed the car and started on the one hundred and fifty kilometre drive to Toledo.
We drove first to the town of Alcázar de San Juan but this wasn’t because of any sort of research just an instinct that it would be interesting based on what seemed to be a promising name. I should have carried out some research because it didn’t seem very appealing at all, there wasn’t a castle to be seen and the clouds had caught up and overtaken us and there was a bleached out sort of chalky whiteness to the sky so we rather rudely carried on without stopping.
Somewhere just west of the town we crossed the old A4 highway and that reminded me of the mad drive through Spain with my brother and two friends in 1984 when we drove from southern Portugal to the French border in thirty-six hours in a ten year old clapped out Ford Escort.
Back in the hotel there had been pictures of a castle and a row of windmills at the next town of Consuegra so as it came into view on the left we left the main road and headed towards the whitewashed Castilian town squatting low down on the plain.
From what we saw of the town of Consuegra as we drove through it is rather untidy and uncared for, the streets are grimy and the roads full of precarious potholes but rising high above all of the disappointment is a line of whitewashed, blue domed windmills standing sentinel over the town and the adjacent plain like regimental guards overlooking the town.
Across the crest of the hill, they march like giants. No wonder the delusional Don Quixote pulled his sword and charged in combat to fight these windmills.
Originally, there were thirteen whitewashed mills lining this hilltop. Now only eleven remain of which four still retain their working mechanisms. Known as “molinos” in Spain, the windmills are each named — Sancho, Bolero, Espartero, Mambrino, Rucio, Cardeno, Alcancia, Chispas, Callabero del Verde Gaban, Clavileno and Vista Alegre.
The buildings are tall cylindrical towers capped with dark cones and four big sails that move with the wind. In days gone by, farmers would haul their grain here where the structures harnessed the power of the wind to grind the corn. The windmills and the skills to operate them were passed down from fathers to sons.
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 he would have to move the tiller beam to turn the mill. If he didn’t a sudden strong wind could strip the sails, rip off the top and the whole building could be destroyed by an aggressive wind.
From below, the castle looked magnificent but on close inspection it too was in a rather sorry state of disrepair but from here there were terrific views over the great plain of Castile and it was easy to see why this was once a very important military place as it guarded the direct route from the south to Toledo and Madrid.
The castle was once a stronghold of the Knights of San Juan, the Spanish branch of the Knight’s Hospitallers of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.
Although the sun was shining there was a sharp chill at the top of this exposed ridge and the wind moaned through the sail wires and as we walked between the black sails and admired the bulk of the castle nearby we drew strange glances from bus tourists who were wrapped up in coats and scarves and gloves that were much more appropriate than our linens and short sleeves.
Shortly after that we left the windmills of Consuegra and continued our journey towards Toledo.