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 we left the main road and headed towards the top of the hill where they stood like regimental sentinels 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 windmills 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 windmills 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 to these windmills where the structures harnessed the power of the wind to grind grain. The windmills and the skill 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, the miller 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 a gusty wind.
From below, the castle looked magnificent but on close inspection it too was in a bit of a 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.
As well as the castle Consuegra is famous for its windmills which remained in use until the beginning of the 1980s. They were originally built by the Knights and were used to grind the grain that was grown on the plain and they were passed down through the generations of millers from fathers to sons. The eleven Consuegra windmills are some of the best examples of Spanish windmills in Castilla-La Mancha and although it was a little cool at the top of the hill it was a good time to see them because there were very few visitors this early in the morning.
After leaving Consuegra we rejoined the road and headed north to Toledo and on the way the clouds evaporated and the sun poured through and we passed more castles at Mora and at Almonacid but we didn’t stop again. The scenery began to change too as it became more untidy and scrubby as we left the chequerboard fields and their delightful colours behind.
Just before midday we reached the outskirts of Toledo and at the top of the city we could see the Alcázar and the Cathedral and we followed the signs to the historical centre and found a very large and convenient car park right on the edge of the city and in my league table of Spanish city car parks Toledo went straight to the top.
At the bottom by the way remains Seville!
It might have been right on the edge of the City but to get there involved a rather strenuous climb to reach it because Toledo is built on the top of a craggy outcrop of rock that in the middle ages made it impregnable to hostile forces.
The whole city is a sort of natural castle with a moat, the Tagus River, running in a looping gorge around three sides of it. The only way an enemy could take it was to attack the north side and that was difficult because not surprisingly that was the most strongly fortified part of the city walls. The Tagus, by the way, is the fourth longest river in Western Europe and the most important in Iberia and from Toledo it flows all the way to the Atlantic Ocean at Lisbon in Portugal.