The Windmills of Campo Criptana

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Windmills play a prominent part in Spanish cultural traditions.  They were essentially made famous by Miguel Cervantes’ book about Don Quixote, a rather eccentric individual who wandered across La Mancha searching for and attempting to revive the age of chivalry. His lady love is Dulcinea del Toboso. Unfortunately she is not aware of Quixote’s affection for her. This seems to me to make any courtship somewhat problematic but then Don Quixote engages in many adventures where the basic feature is his ineptitude, clumsiness or misconception of reality. He is somewhat eccentric, if not delusional, and at one point in this literary epic he famously tilts at windmills believing them to be monsters.

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Cervantes book is part farce, part philosophy and part satire. Ideal really as a metaphor for photography as it seems to me that to be an effective photographer one has to accept an element of farce, a rich dose of philosophy and most certainly be prepared to poke fun at the world in general and oneself in particular.

So it was that we set off from Madrid to discover Quixote’s monsters – the moulins or windmills of La Mancha. I must observe that I was not as much influenced by the tale of Don Quixote as I was by the work in this region of one of my favourite photographers –Michael Kenna.

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What better place to start then the village called el Toboso where legend has it that Quixote met his lady love, Dulcinea. This village is some two-hour drive south of Madrid and is situated on an open plain. In March, 2013  it was experiencing a late winter. There was snow, rain and strong winds. A most bleak an unpromising beginning to Spain and made even more so by a flat tyre!  I was already beginning to believe that my worldview was that of Don Quixote as his common depiction is that of a skinny old man with a shock of grey hair and a paunch riding a donkey. Looking at the flat tyre I suddenly felt very much like a Don Quixote. After all, I too was skinny, with paunch, the beginnings of a grey beard and if I had any hair it would be grey. I was also delusional. The evidence was overwhelming. Who, but a mad photographer would venture out in the bitter winds, snow, sleet of la Mancha when a fireplace beckoned in the lovely 17th century cottage we were renting. Venture out we did.

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Our village was about a twenty-minute drive from Campo Criptana across flat land that was a mixture of vineyard, olive and sundry cropping. Large estate buildings were to be found on most ridges with small churches, cemeteries and workers’ cottages nearby. Campo Criptana is an unprepossessing town. It is located along a main road that heads west-east and part of the corridor known as the Don Quixote trail. However, on its northern flank there is a cluster of windmills set against the sky.

You can drive right up to these windmills and because of the time of the year there were few tourists or locals anywhere to be seen. It might have had something to do with the snow, sleet, drizzle, wind and chill. But, hey what would I know.

We spent the best part of a week exploring this region and in doing so managed to get back to Campo Criptana morning noon and night on a number of occasions.

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On most occasions the light was soft and pearly with a lovely diffuse glow. It was also photographed with a clear blue sky and in the afterglow of twilight. Within an hour’s drive of Campo Criptana and el Toboso there are three or four clusters of Moulin. Some were operational, others were focussed on the tourist and souvenir, some were in advanced stages of repair and in one instance two, adjacent to a small chapel and community centre, had been converted to toilet blocks.  I visited them often! Don Quixote might have been proud of these toilet facilities built in to a windmill.  Clearly the age of chivalry he spent his life seeking was not dead after all.

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