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Fresh air for Majorca’s windmills


Old grain mills and wind-powered water pumps are the island’s landmarks


When twenty years ago the Swiss teacher Christian Fischer strolled through Costitx, he fell hopelessly in love with a windmill standing just outside this tiny village in the very center of Majorca. He bought it as a holiday home and set out to recover what was left of the milling equipment and to adapt the building to its new purpose. He even managed to use the tower in its original sense by installing a small wind generator just on top of the century old walls. During the many hours of fixing the home, talking to the old people of the village und studying literature as well as current news on the subject, he made some intriguing discoveries. The most important one: His home is part of a protected cultural legacy, which is experiencing a dramatic renaissance.

While the Swiss was lucky to come across a fairly intact tower and an owner willing to sell, windmills are by no means a rare sight. Many have been recovered as homes, and they are especially popular with foreigners who are romantic about the old structures, but also because the situation of the mills on elevated ground usually provides for splendid views and much sunshine.

Not only foreigners appreciate the historic and asthetic value of the mills. In 1975 a regional association called “Friends of Majorca’s Windmills” took up its fight for the preservation of this legacy, threatened by the building boom and technological progress. In fact, only one single windmill has been fully restored for milling grain. It stands just outside Montuïri and despite the huge effort to make the old thing work again, its owner still buys his flour in the village shop. Evidently, the windmill just serves demonstration purposes.

According to the association’s count, of the more than 900 Majorcan windmills for milling grain, 200 have disappeared completely. On the other hand side, ecological awareness and the eagerness to restore a landscape dotted with those pitoresque structures are showing first results in some groundbreaking projects which, however, affect mainly the second type of windmill used for pumping water.

It may come as a surprise that the biggest of the Balearic islands and one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations used to live partly of it’s grain. When criscrossing Majorca, till today you can see the remnants of windmills in virtually each village on the way. But much more numerous than the grain mills with their circular towers, conic roof structures and characteristic six wooden sails were and still are those windpowered waterpumps, easily recognised for their mostly rectangular base and usually blue-white vanes. Those water pumps were used to dry the wetlands of Majorca and to irrigate the soil. Between 2.300 and 4.000 of them still exist (the numbers vary according to the source), about half of them in the plain of St. Jordi. You see large numbers when your flight approaches Palma airport from inland.

It is those water pump windmills which have been earmarked for a project sponsored by Spain’s minister for the environment, who happens to be a Majorcan and former president of the autonomous region’s government. The restauration of the first ten structures is on its way, and if all goes well, between a hundred and five-hundred will follow. The aim is twofold: preserve an architectural legacy and generate clean electric energy. Again, the information on the efficiency of these rather rustic windpower plants is contradictory. Each mill should provide electricity for between two and ten households. Fact is: other than in Menorca the winds do not blow very strongly on Majorca due to the windshield effect of the Tramuntana mountain range.

While the economic reasoning for windpower is being discussed, there is no discussion as for the cultural value of the mills. Christian Fischer is one of many new mill owners who are fascinated by what they discover. When clearing the structure of rotten and broken parts of the old milling mechanism, in use maybe until eighty years ago, he found to his astonishment that the two millstones, which together weigh about one and a half tons, were not located at the base, but right under the rooftop at a height of about ten meters. The sacks of grain had to be dragged all the way up, and while removing the broken parts of the millstones with much sweat and difficulties, Fischer could only just imagine what a backbreaking task their installation must have been. The walls at the entrance door to the terrace just above the storage space he found covered with graffiti, probably records of the daily output. And just above the same entrance the year of construction is engraved: 1718. Windmills, this much is clear, are history.

Still in its infancy is the project of a mill museum, to be set up in one of the windmills once located far outside the city walls, today an area gobbled up by the enormous expansion experienced by Palma de Mallorca during the past hundred years. In the seventies a row of mills lining a city street named “Industria” was already destined for destruction, when the then recently founded “Friends of the Majorcan Windmills” raised a fuss and prevented the worst. One of the mills is a pizzeria today, another serves as a cultural center.

Curiously, the only Majorcan windmill in the context of a museum stands in Germany. Since two years the mill museum of Grifhorn boasts the precise and original-sized replica of a “Molí de Tramuntana” (Tramuntana mill), complete with milling mechanism and an exhibition of historical Majorcan artefacts.

Meanwhile, the “Friends of the Majorcan Windmills”, who actually championed the project in Germany, focus on their preservation tasks. Among the many mills rebuilt and renovated thanks to their efforts are the ones you see in the area of Palma airport. The association has been condecorated with various awards, is supported by about 6.000 members and counts with Prince Felipe, the heir of the Spanish throne, as their honorary president. So if you love the sight of those historic structures, you need not worry. With friends like these and enthusiasts like the Swiss teacher, the future of the Majorcan windmills looks bright indeed.


© Thomas Fitzner, 2002