FALL THE HEROES OF the Spanish-speaking world -from footballers to bullfighters, painters to kings – one man in particular stands out. His face grins at you on bank notes; his silhouette appears on postcards; his story has been told in ballet, opera, film, a Broadway musical, a Picasso painting and even a Coldplay song. And rather uniquely among national heroes, he is revered for being useless. This man is the great writer Miguelde Cervantes’ 17th-century comic creation Don Quixote, and his homeland is Castile-La Mancha.
It is a landscape in widescreen mode -big skies and arrow-straight roads, a patchwork of scrubby fields extending to the horizon. Every so often crumbling castles appear, indistinct on hazy hill tops. It is a place where temperatures are high, mirages are many, and inhabitants are few. ‘La Mancha has a long history of locals who are considered a little bit crazy’, says Santiago Moraleda – a man who, dressed in a long black cloak in the midday heat and with a large tawny owl pecking at his ear, would seem to affirm his own theory. ‘But we are also people who are known for being very courageous, too.’
Santi isn’t as peculiar as he might first appear, for he is taking part in the annual medieval festival in the market town of Consuegra. For much of the year itis a sleepy place, where old couples perch on windowsills watching farmyard traffic rumble past. Every August, however, its citizens engage in weekend-long binge of mead glugging and pork roasting in the main square, plus some energetic battle re-enacting in a medieval castle, which rises regally over the town. Minibuses full of archers shuttle about the streets, Moorish encampments are pegged beside the football pitch and processions of monks walk solemnly beneath the tourist information office. Though his day job is as a guide for birding trips, Santi has dressed up as a knight for the occasion and has brought his own collection of birds of prey to the party.
Consuegra’s most famous chivalric hero was, of course, Don Quixote -for it was here, some say, that he charged on horseback, lance in hand, at his most fearsome enemy. Santi happens to be standing in the shade beneath this particular foe, which was in fact not a many-armed monster at all, but a win windmill. It is on e of a great many whitewashed towers that still stand sentinel on rocky bluffs overlooking the plains of La Mancha – some preserved as museums, but most abandoned, their sails and cogs jammed solid and their roof spaces home only to nesting birds.
They were spinning long before Cervantes published his novel in the early 1600s, and have forever been an icon of the region. Fighting a windmill, and losing, is a defining moment in European literature and encapsulates the story of Don Quixote: a day dreamer who chose to live in a make-believe world of heroic adventures rather than humdrum real life. To some readers of Don Quixote, the hero is a blundering lunatic – but to others it is he who is sane. and the rest of the world that is crazy.
Santi has decided to name his various eagles, owls and kestrels after characters in the novel. And, just like the Don, he and other the inhabitants of Consuegra have decided for one weekend only to play at being lords, ladies, archers and knights – to briefly inhabit their own world of make-believe. The festival draws to an end; siege ramps are packed away, arrows pulled out of targets and Santi gathers together his feathered friends to head home. ‘The most important ingredient in the story is craziness’ he says. ‘For only with a little craziness can you truly have a life of dreams.’