Exploring the In-Between Spain
We left Madrid in the morning and drove south into the flat, parched tablelands and ancient pine forests of the autonomous region of Castilla-La Mancha, the southern meseta of central Spain. The area is an uplifted plain that rings Iberia as the Colorado Plateau encloses the center of the American desert in the southwestern United States. From the road, there appeared to be little here but agriculture and empty plains: vineyards and rows and rows of olive trees and the saffron crocuses, which have been harvested here since the age of the Moors.
We passed through Ocan, Guardia, and finally El Romeral across unparalleled flatness to the west and strange steepled mesas to the east, fringed by scrublands where hunters shoot red partridge. There are few people in the southern meseta and even fewer animals. Most of the people have left the country for the city since the end of Franco's dictatorship. And many of the animals have been hunted to the brink.
In Madridejo, a small town off the main route through the southern meseta, that absence of life became very apparent as we sped through the narrow, empty, whitewashed alleys.
"Where is everyone?" I asked.
"Don't forget it's siesta," Laeleya said.
From Madridejo, we went west to the town of Consuegra, which, like most other Manchegan towns, hosts a giant cathedral at its center. I walked around a bit in the back alleys before we headed up a hill, past a castle used in the Moorish-Christian wars, to the top, where eleven five-hundred-year-old windmills stood in a line overlooking Consuegra.
We parked the car in Consuegra and walked along the alleyways and alongside a winding road that led its way to the windmills. We came here to see the mills because they were something that I had seen in storybooks since I was a kid. The perfection of their composition always intrigued me. We passed a castle on the way upa fortress from the days of Moors and Christians. At the top of the hill, we walked underneath the mills, looking out over miles of cork oaks and olive groves. Although the technology to build these mills came from the Dutch, their whitewashed simplicity was true meseta architecture.
Cervantes traveled through Consuegra around the time the capital of Spain was in transition from Toledo to Madrid and wrote about the area in the adventures of Don Quixote. His adventures not only defined the first modern novel, but established a kind of archetype for the obliviously romantic and confused traveler. It is said that Cervantes chose La Mancha for the backdrop of his novel because its "backwoods hickishness" would be endearing to the literate elite of Madrid.
But I never intended to stop with Quixote in La Mancha. The meseta, after all, is where the New World began, where the fleets were ordered west into "The End of the World." I went out and buttoned my jacket and walked across a red-dirt field. The sun was setting and the sky was orange and lavender. There were several small buildings, and since I didn't know if this was a private residence, I kept low while examining the whitewashed walls, the small and thick windows and the five hundred year old red-tiled roofs. I learned that this was a farm when I passed the chicken coupe and understood the importance of this architecture: In La Mancha the summers are devilish and the winters freezing. Nothing can stabilize the temperature like these walls and tiny windows.
At the end of the farm, I found a pair of ceramic colanders half-buried in mud. Standing they would be ten feet tall. I dinged them with my knuckles and peered insideempty. Ralph later explained that these were the storage units for olive oil. "So how do you extract the oil?" I asked.
"The (wind) mills," he said. "They have these flat presses with an indent for the oil. The press flattens the olives and the oil leaks into the indents and runs into the barrels."
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication