Toledo behind us, I had one stop left on the agenda before the last long leg to Malaga. “We’re going to fight the giants!” I exclaimed to Little Nicky once we were on the road again. “too bad you decided to mail the swords home.” “What giants?” “The giants who were really windmills!” Deciding that his older sister was once again on a loony flight of fancy, Little Nicky heaved a great sigh and said “Fine, lets go see the giants, but don’t forget that I have an ocean view room waiting for me in Malaga!”
And so about 60kms south east of Toledo,we approached the town of Consuegra, and could see, towering above the plain, Calderico Ridge. Along the ridge, silhouetted against the bright azure blue sky, stood 12 white giants with black faces and 4 long arms. Legend has it that these are the windmills that inspired Miguel de Cervantes to write that now famous episode in Don Quixote.
Now, I am convinced that the reason most people consider Don Quixote tilting at windmills the most iconic episode of the saga is that it is within the first 50 pages of the 736 page book. That’s the small print version I own, anyway, which after notes is actually 784 pages. I can proudly say that I am now on page 164, and Don Quixote an his faithful Sancho have had more interesting adventures since … I am not proud to say however, that the bookmark at page 164 has sat there for the past 4 months. The print is small, the language archaic, and while very entertaining, I only ever read it with the intention of getting through a few pages before settling down for a nice long Saturday afternoon nap. As it’s been a rather busy 4 months, I’ve not really had time for Saturday afternoon napping, and so Don Quixote sits neglected by the couch.
I would also like to note that, of the 736 pages of the saga, the episode with the windmills covers just 2/3rds of 1 page, and 1/2 of another. But thanks to it’s close proximity to the beginning of the book the episode has helped put Consuegra on the tourist map, and has for the past 4 centuries brought in much needed tourist mardavedis, then reales, then pesetas, and now finally euros to the town.
For those unfamiliar with the story, it was Don Quixote and Sancho Panza’s first adventure together. They had ridden out onto the plains of La Mancha, where they discovered 30 or 40 windmills. Don Quixote immediately claimed that fortune had smiled upon them, and that he was about to do battle with these giants, kill them dead and take all their money, because it was God’s work that they rid the world of such evil seed. When Sancho advised his boss that they weren’t giants but windmills, Don Quixote proclaimed that they were indeed giants, and if Sancho was afraid, to hide and pray for him while he fought them. Sancho, convinced of his own sanity, and starting to doubt that of his patron, kept shouting that they were windmills as Don Quixote mounted his nag Rocinante (which can at the same time be interpreted as “old nag” or “best steed,” or, I suppose as Cervantes intended, “best of the worst.”), and went to do battle.
“At this point the wind increased a bit and the large sails began to move, which Don Quixote observed and said: “Even though you wave more arms than Briaraeus, you’ll have to answer to me!”
When he said this – and commending himself with all his heart to his lady Dulcinea, asking her to aid him in that peril, well-covered by his shield, with his lance on the lance rest – he attacked at Rocinante’s full gallop and assailed the first windmill he came to. He gave a thrust into the sail with his lance just as a rush of air accelerated it with such fury that it broke the lance to bits, taking the horse and knight with it, and tossed him rolling onto the ground, very battered.”
When Sancho reached his defeated employer, he again berated him, saying “they were just windmills, and that only a person who had windmills in his head could fail to realize it?”
Don Quixote, refusing to let go of his delusion, proclaimed that the sage Freston, who held great enmity for our hero, and had earlier robbed him of his library, (actually it had been the village priest, his doctor and his niece who had burnt most of his chivalry books and then sealed the door, hoping it would end his insanity) had also robbed him of this victory, by changing the giants to windmills.
And so we wound our way through Consuegra, a sleeply little town where we saw not a soul, and up the hillside to the windmills. There is some controversy as to whether these really are THE windmills, as no one is exactly sure if they actually stood here at the time Cervantes wrote Don Quixote (part 1 was published in 1605 & part 2 in 1615), or whether Cervantes was inspired to write it by sighting some other windmills (there were lots of windmills all over Spain at the time, and Cervantes was well traveled), or just came up with it all on his own without looking at any windmills at all. It is quite likely that at least some windmills stood there at the time, though it’s no guarantee that it was these particular windmills. I have just used “windmills” 7 times in 1 paragraph, well, 8 now, wow.
La Mancha is largely an agricultural region (mostly grain and wood), however it’s also very dry. The rains is Spain, you see, may be mainly on the plains, however, not the plains of La Mancha. Ha ha, I make funny. Because of the arid climate, water mills were impractical, and windmills were utilized instead, and so perhaps it would have been quite normal to see 30 or 40 of them clustered together in 17th century La Mancha. Today, however, the ridge above Consuegra boasts only 12. These windmills have been handed down, father to son, for generations, and were only retired in the 1980s. They have since been lovingly restored, with one functioning as a gift shop, one as a cafe, one as a museum, and one actually functioning as a windmill, imagine that.
We parked at the first spot we found, next to the gift shop windmill, and proceeded to climb the steep slope and through an ancient ruined wall to get a good look at the windmill at the top of the hill. A fantastic view greeted us. The vast dry rolling plains of La Mancha spread out all around us. We turned around, and saw that we were at the very end of the ridge, and the other 10 windmills stood in a line behind us, interrupted about halfway by a castle in rather good condition.
Frank and I were rather pleased with ourselves, and proceeded to explore the closest structures, as Little Nicky shuffled behind us grumbling, possibly about sea views and hotel rooms. We then realized that the road follows just below the ridge to the other end where there was a parking lot, and quite happily ran and skidded down the dry dirt access road back to the asphalt. “Let’s go check out the other side!” And so we did, driving by the castle. Unfortunately, it being late afternoon, the castle was already closed to tourists, so sadly we had to skip that.
It really would have been an interesting stop. According to local legend the Romans built a fortress here around 100AD, but there is little evidence of that. 900 years later, the Moors also decided that it was a good spot, and built another fortress. The castle changed hands several times between Muslims and Christians, until finally it was granted to the Knights Hospitaller in 1183 by King Alfonso VIII.
Formed in 1023 and dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the Knights Hospitaller were originally formed in the Kingdom of Jerusalem to protect and take in the poor, sick and injured pilgrims coming to the Holy Land. Throughout their long and interesting history, they rose in prominence to rival the Knights Templar. Their long and interesting history is entirely too long and interesting to write about here, but one of the more fascinating factoids about them is that by some weird twist of fate their last Grand Master was Emperor Paul I of Russia. The Hospitaller flag, a white cross on a red field, still proudly flies over castle.
The castle was largely destroyed during the Peninsular Wars in 1813, but has since undergone massive reconstruction and preservation, and so lucky tourists (not us) get to explore a big chunk of it.
Before we leave Consuegra, I should say a little bit (or a lot) about the man who inspired our stop, Miguel de Cervantes. He was a fascinating fellow, and I think his life story would be an interesting book or movie all by itself. His most famous work, Don Quixote, is, after the Bible, the most translated book in the world.
Born to a barber-surgeon father and a woman of noble birth who was sold into matrimony by her impoverished father, he didn’t have a particularly happy home life. It didn’t help that his dad was known to rather like the ladies. Though his dad’s dad was an important lawyer, his own father wasn’t very good with money, and Miguel grew up rather poor. He was schooled by the Jesuits in Madrid, before he left for Rome. It is not certain why he left. He could have simply decided to seek his fortune, or according to some records, a “sword-wielding fugitive from justice”, or “fleeing from a royal warrant of arrest, for having wounded a certain Antonio de Sigura in a duel,” (thanks Wiki).
After getting sick of studying art and poetry in Rome, Cervantes traveled to Naples (then belonging to Spain) to enlist in the Spanish Navy Marines in 1570. He took part in the Battle of Lepanto, as a memeber of the Holy League under the command of Phillip II’s illegitimate half brother John of Austria, which saw the defeat of the Ottoman fleet in 1571. The Holy League was a Catholic alliance between Rome, Spain, Venice, Genoa, Savoy & the Knights Hospitaller (who at the time ran Malta, those guys really got around).
At the time of the battle he was severely sick with fever, but refused to stay in his sick bed. He took 2 gunshots to the chest and one to the left arm. Despite losing the use of that arm he rejoined his comrades six months later and continued his military life in Naples for several more years, seeing action in several campaigns. His navy career ended however in September of 1575, when the galley he was sailing on was set upon by Ottoman pirates somewhere between Naples and Barcelona. He was taken prisoner, along with his brother, and served as a slave for five years in Algiers. This capture was rather untimely, as he was carrying letters of commendation that would have helped promote him to the rank of captain. He tried to escape unsuccessfully 4 times before freedom came in the form of a ransom paid by his family (his brother was ransomed earlier. His family being poor it took time to raise money, and they had to free the brothers one at a time) and the Trinitarians, a Catholic order whose main purpose since 1198 was to ransom Christian prisoners from Muslims. These guys still exist today, which is pretty cool, though in a slightly different guise.
Because, just like authors of today, writers back then needed a day job, he worked as a purchasing agent for the Spanish Armada, tax collector and other various jobs while being rejected for others, such as an accountant in Cartagena and the governor of La Paz. He was imprisoned twice on misappropriation of funds, stemming from his shoody bookkeeping work for the Spanish crown. During his second stint in the klink he apparently spent a lot of time there thinking about his wife much younger wife Catalina’s crazy uncle, who is though to have been the inspiration for Don Quixote.
In 1605, Cervantes finally earned a little money for his writing, when Don Quixote was published to rather wide acclaim. There might not have been a second part, though, if not for the last line of the first part. “Forse altro cantera con miglior plectio,” or “Perhaps another will sing with a better pen.”
It was common in those days for writers to pick up where others left off, and with Cervantes issuing such a challenge and then not showing any real intention of writing a sequel, someone under the name Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda decided to take up the challenge. Cervantes did not like this, AT ALL. He was livid, and completed his sequel and published it as quickly as he could in 1615. Don Quixote, after all, could not end up, like Avellaneda had written, in a nuthouse in Toledo! No, he would kill him off in the end instead, so that no one would ever again try to write another sequel! (Sorry, spoiler).
Cervantes died in Madrid April 22, 1616, of type 2 diabetes, in relative poverty. His legacy, however, lives on.
And so, here we were, late afternoon, early evening even, hitting the road again for points south. Days in Spain are long in June, and the sky only started to deepen when we were already deep in the Sierra Nevada. Full dark came around 10PM. When the GPS indicated that we were within 15km of Malaga I was starting to worry. We are still high up in the mountains, when will we drop down to the sea? And then we came out of a tunnel and turned a corner, and there it was spread out below us, the glittering lights of Malaga.
Of course we had put in the wrong address, we needed the hotel in Benalmadena, not Malaga proper, and wouldn’t you know it, there was a hotel with the same name in both places. Quick recalculation. Half an hour later we dropped Little Nicky off at his hotel, (a thick fog had rolled in, btw, that wouldn’t lift until after his check out time the next day. Sorry, little bro!), and got to our own, much cheaper hotel (no ocean view either) just before midnight. I had ordered a room with a balcony, but there was no balcony. On a day such as this, could I expect anything else? At this point though, we didn’t care. It was nearly 1am. We were happy to shower and fall onto a bed that did not poke holes into us, and sleep like the dead until morning.
Morning, however, came earlier than we expected… at 7am, there was a knock on the door, and my mother’s voice: “Good Morning!!!”