Uclés is a village in Castilla-La Mancha, already populated around the time of the Pax Romana, which today has about 290 residents. The surrounding plains are layered with a summer patchwork of red dirt plots, olive and almond tree orchards, rows of elms and conifers, and the small Bedija river is lined with poplars. Today, in mid-July, yellow seas of sunflower fields spill over the hills and around the valleys.
From my window there is an almost constant swarm of cliff swallows and martins, popping in and out of little cracks in the old monastery walls. There is a pair of Peregrine Falcons, seemingly devoted to each other, flying together, occasionally swooping high and holding themselves stationary in the warm updrafts, scanning the ground for rodents. Above them, dark brown Golden Eagles glide in patient circles. In the evening, as the swallows fill the cracks of the old wall for the night, bats dart around in random flight patterns, scooping up flying bugs.
The monastery in Uclés was built on a promontory jutting out of a village, as most churches and holy places often are in the Iberian Peninsula. Every summer bus loads of children fill the common area of the monastery, organize in groups, and generally run and play and make a lot of noise for the month of July. Apart from the irony of a Gothic church built in 1589 being the site for loudspeakers blaring something like Soulja Boy’s “Super Soak that Ho” for dancing 10-year-olds in, the place is actually an ideal location for a summer camp.
For generations, this was a seminary, a place filled with spaces of incredible silence, the right environment to nurture budding priests. The eastern facade of the monastery is designed in
an ornate Plateresque style. The other facades, in Herrerian. The village of Uclés was given to the Order of Santiago by King Alfonso VII, and they later built the monastery. There is much to be discovered in this very old place, and there are the ghost stories and myths that naturally arise from an old building like this, much less a religious one. At times it feels awkward to participate in children’s camp activities in a 423-year-old building, as if we are defiling it or disrespecting it somehow, but when the children leave and the posters and loudspeakers have been taken down, silence returns, broken by the chirping of the swallows and the occasional tourist walking through the halls.
Today, I look out over the very plains that Cervantes used as a setting for his Don Quixote, through the oxidized metal bars fastened to my window, and in the distance, the bells of wandering sheep clink in the oppressive heat of the summer day.