Figs of Steel: 24 hours in La Mancha 16

The designated pool house was in the far corner of the pool area and had none of the characteristics of your typical pre-fab shed, with a couple of wobbly plastic chairs and a spare sack of peat moss stashed inexplicably inside. Instead, this one looked like it had been assaulted in a previous life by a lance belonging to Don Quixote. It was, in effect, a down-sized version of a windmill and it made total sense.

          The windmill is, along with the errant knight and his portly sidekick, Sancho Panza, the quintessential Manchego landmark. And rightly so. Miguel de Cervantes’ work, which is set mainly in La Mancha (hence its appearance in the title), is widely considered to be the greatest narrative contribution to universal literature…ever. That’s not just me or King Felipe VI of Spain saying that; the opinion was seconded by half of the world’s most highly regarded writers in a survey conducted several years ago. In other words, the people who knew a thing or two about these matters. This near unaminous acclaim also explains why any combination of the threesome can be seen and found and stumbled upon all over the region: in restaurants, hotels, stores, town signs, parks, gas stations, museums, government buildings, restrooms, logos and products, courtyards, living room tables and, now, even backyard shacks. They are omnipresent, there is no doubt. And Cebolla, though nowhere on the radar of the Quixote saga, had no plans on being left out. Near the main square stands a statue of the awkwardly iron-clad cavalier next to the familiar conic shape of a white windmill. Who else and what else would have been there?

          Besides Holland, I can think of no other country on Earth where the windmill is so inextricably linked to the natural setting. These structures were probably first built in Spain in the 14th or 15th centuries when returning crusaders, who had discovered them during their warring adventures in the Holy Land, brought the technology with them to their homeland. The newfangled mechanism caught on rather quickly and became an obligatory sight in many towns, not unlike the ubiquitous water tower in the U.S. Midwest. There aren’t many old examples around these days. Probably the most famous examples are the beautiful whitewashed ones located in the town of Molinos de Consuegra on the other side of the province of Toledo. There, twelve structures proudly sit perched up on a ridge overlooking the pretty village. It’s a visit worth the effort.

          Windmills are deceptively simple looking on the outside. A stout snowy tube with a thatched roof and propeller as a nose. That’s about all there is to it on the surface. But in their interior they display far more intricate machinery than you would think. Once the wind gets the wings turning, a network of wooden cogs and screws clap and creak away as the wheels go round in circles in order to get a huge millstone up and spinning furiously. It’s an impressive feat of engineering. All the same, an obvious question came to my mind when I first laid eyes on one from up close: what happens if the wind rushes in from another direction? Do they have to starve until the elements are more favorable? Or can the miller download an application on his iPhone and adjust it wirelessly? Though they look stocky and static and not of much use most of the time, the designers back then had an answer to that problem. On the outside, there is a pole that acts as a kind of rudder. It is attached to the movable cap at the top of the building, which, in turn, supports the sails. This can be rotated so that it makes the most of the wind no matter what direction it comes from. Ingenious.

          Every once in a while, you read about an individual serving people who nostalgically want their flour made and bagged the traditional way, but for the most part they are a rare breed. A dying species. The molinos’ role as flour producers has long since been replaced by powerful factories which pump out a thousand-fold more powdered grain in a fraction of time and for a hell of a lot cheaper. That’s the way it is. Modern times. So, their role these days is mainly touristic, but their allure rather limited. Basically, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

          Despite their utter obsoleteness in the baking industry, the principle behind how windmills work has taken them to a different sector today altogether and made them more valuable than ever. Spain has not forgotten the enormous benefits of wind power and has transitioned its usefulness enthusiastically into the wonderment of generating electricity; thanks to these efforts, the country is one of the foremost users of this breezy renewable source of energy. It currently ranks 5th in the world in capacity and 3rd in production. 20% of the country’s total output comes from tapping into the earth’s atmospheric currents, with Castilla-La Mancha contributing 17% of the overall production. 141 wind farms are spread out throughout the region. The massive turbines populate vast stretches of the land in La Mancha, both on the plains and atop some of the hills, but their presence isn’t always welcome by ecologists who question their impact on the environment. Tourist boards also gripe about their unsightliness, since they interrupt the harmony of this country’s natural settings. This is now known as visual pollution, and they do have a point. You’re cruising along a beautiful country road enjoying the humbling effects of being engulfed in that vast openness that so characterizes La Mancha when –Bam!— three hundred turbines obliterate your perfect view of the great expanse. I get it; I really do. Not the best, but I guess they beat the sight of a cozy nuclear plant on the banks of the town reservoir. Plus, that was the direction the whole world was going in. Was Spain going to sit back and watch the others save the planet?

          Not a chance. Since 2000, Spain has proven itself to be highly pro-active in renewable energy as a whole, not just wind. Take solar power, a logical choice since sunlight is a dominant climatic feature here. Madrid, for example, routinely outshines most European cities in this respect as its residents are exposed to approximately 2,800 hours of bursting sunniness every year. Anyone who has ever lived here year round can vouch for it.

But would it work? I had my doubts. Our solar system’s star doesn’t appear capable of heating something as manageable as a private swimming pool to my liking, how was it going to power an entire town? 20 years ago, solar energy was taking some heat, if you’ll excuse the pun, for not providing the efficiency needed to make it worth the investment. But experts claimed that if there was one country that could make it work, with more advanced technology, Spain was it. With the proper technology, its effectiveness could be increase.

With this advice in mind, the government invested €8.1 billion in subsidies, research and development. In 2005 Spain became the first nation in Europe to require installing solar panels on the roofs of all new buildings, and by the end of the decade, specialists in the field regarded it as a kind of leader in the crusade to make the planet a cleaner and fossil-fuel free place. It was a distinction this country could really be proud of.

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