Explorations of Life in Rural Spain
Revelations from the Heart Cave: Part 2
This post continues the story of our short Christmas trip into the countryside of rural Spain, where we stayed in a little eco-house on the edge of the Sierra de Gredos, around one hour and half from Madrid.
From ancient Roman roads and crumbling buildings of ‘empty Spain’, to the idiosyncrasies of modern life, here I share what we found as we explored the surrounding countryside and discovered more of the hidden beauty of rural Spain.
Leaving the Heart Cave
After the first few days of rain and inward reflection by the log burner, it was finally time to leave the the cosiness of our little house and go out into the outside world once more.
I had been abiding the the Heart Cave, the inner abode of our truest dreams, desires and soul urgings, and the prospect of going back out in to the real world of people, noise and Christmas festivities seemed unappealing.
Yet despite the deliciousness of that space of inner retreat, the sun and blue skies beckoned me from my lair. It was time to get back into the holiday spirit and start exploring our surroundings!
Now that I had been through this process of inner discovery, the next question in my heart was: if I am free to live my life as I want, then what is it exactly that I want?!
This is a question that raises so many other questions:
I know I want to live in nature, but where exactly? In a village or in the countryside? In Spain or else where? Just with my partner or with others? And most importantly, how are we going to make this happen?
These are just a few of the questions that were going through my mind as I drank my morning cup of tea in the morning sun. Maybe some explorations of rural Spain would provide me with some insight to help me figure things out.
I find that the best way to gain clarity is to walk. Many years of dogs walking in the countryside of Northern England taught me that. Luckily for me, there was an array of interesting hikes to do directly from our little house, which sounded like fun. So in accordance with my English roots, I pulled on my walking boots and braced myself for the muddiness that we were sure to encounter on our way.
We had been told that our little house was just an hours walk to the nearest Village, Valverde de la Vera, renowned for its artistic heritage and its beautiful yet crumbling buildings. As I have written about in other blog posts, I love visiting the small semi-abandoned villages of rural Spain so I was eager to see what was special about this one.
As we set off from out little holiday abode in the forest, I marvelled at how good it felt to be out in nature and amongst the trees. It had been so long since I been in a forest such a this one! In the Sierra of Madrid there are mostly pine trees so being in this wooded land full of wintery red and yellow leaves was a welcome change of scenery.
However, just as I was enjoying the tranquility, out from nowhere came the rabid bark of a pack of dogs. They came at us with teeth snarling and and violent barks; we were clearly not welcome anywhere near their territory. Luckily, the fence that penned them in prevented them from getting close, but they still proceeded to follow us as far as the fence let them, barking like mad as we passed.
“Bloody dogs!”, I found myself saying, my nervous system on red alert. This was not how I had envisioned the tranquility of the countryside! Now I had been well and truly thrown out of my inner sanctuary and I was back in the real world once again. Luckily, the dogs soon lost interest and calmness once again enveloped me as we walked down the pebbled path.
Next we came to a beautiful old Roman bridge which crossed a river. As I walked, I got lost in imaginary scenes of battles and travellers on horses. Travel through rural Spain often feels like a 3D history book; there is usually evidence of historic events or past cultures at every turn. Whether that is a Roman bridge, a civil war bunker or an abandoned village, a walk in the countryside here is never dull.
As we walked, the landscape began to change. Now there were olive groves and fruit trees which accompanied us as we climbed up the other side of the valley. It seemed as though we were leaving the solitude of the forest and getting close to civilisation once more.
Yet that wasn’t until I had been to explore a hidden house I had spotted close to the river. These old, lone houses in the Spanish countryside always intrigue me. I like looking at the way they are often built into the side of a hill and investigating any signs of life.
This particular house seemed to be somewhat used, at least just for growing vegetables and tending the land. Although, there was a lot of rotten fruit on the ground, a sign of a missed harvest. Maybe it was abandoned after all?
I wandered over to the door to see if I was going to be lucky enough to be able to peer inside. Unfortunately for me and my nosiness, the doors were locked. Alas, my hope of finding old furniture, pots, pans and others relics a forgotten age were scuppered! I returned defeated to the front garden to see what other curiosities I could find.
A Pagan Christmas
In the garden I spotted another sign of life: peculiar decorations hanging on one of the trees. Shiny blue material was mysteriously hung on the branches, catching the light as they swayed in the afternoon sun. The sunlight glistened as they danced in the wind, making a crackling sound that broke the silence of the valley.
It seemed mysterious to me, like the eery remains of an abandoned ceremony. I fantasied about people coming down to the forest to decorate trees in alternative Christmas celebrations. “Do people still do that here?”, I wondered.
I began to imagine groups of people keeping ancient traditions alive and connecting with the spirit of Christmas in a different way. I warmed to the idea, and began to wonder what kind of alternative people are living here in rural Spain. I wondered where I could find them and felt motivated to do so!
A Burst Bubble
However, when I returned to Sergio and just like a child coming home from school told him about my finds, he informed me that this mysterious and enchanting blue decoration was really just a way to prevent the birds from eating the fruit on the branches.
My alternative rural life bubble popped abruptly. Images of people playing instruments, sharing food and decorating trees faded away and was replaced with a grumpy farmer complaining about the birds eating their fruit. (Fruit that they didn’t even harvest!)
“Well, I prefer my Pagan Christmas tree explanation”, I said, feeling both annoyed that my little imaginary bubble had been popped and embarrassed about my child-like fantasy.
Maybe I had been dwelling in the Heart Cave a bit too long and was beginning to lose touch with reality!
Although, with the a landscape full of ancient history, one can’t be blamed for getting carried away with the mystery and romance of it all. Sometimes it is much more fun to look at the world through the child-like eyes of magic and mystery than the lens of the real-life practicality of adulthood. A little bit of imagination now and again is good for the soul!
Valverde de la Vera
Back on the path with my feet now planted firmly on the ground, we soon we popped out at a tarmac road, which led us up to the village. With its ancient tower and church perched on top of the hill, it looked impressive in the light of the afternoon.
We took a moment to have a sip of hot tea and admire the views of the emerging village. To rest a little, we sat on the wall of a cute hermitage next to an old water fountain. As we drank our tea and ate our fruit and nut mix, I marvelled at the stillness of the village. Smoke rose from the chimneys and the scent of burning wood fragranced the air.
I felt so happy to be out of the city and once again be exploring rural Spain. It really is a world away from urban life. Here are the last remnants of a different kind of Spain; a different kind of world even. As someone who grew up with the industrial red brick buildings of Northern England, the small villages of rural Spain allows me to connect with a different era that disappeared from my part of the world long ago.
As if reading my mind, a women appeared on the path walking down to the hermitage. She had in her hand a candle which she held protectively. She approached with a friendly ‘buenas tardes’ and proceeded to enter the hermitage, closing the door behind her.
We stayed there a while longer before making our way into the village. However, we stayed just long enough to hear the faint sound of orations coming from the inside. Not being from a Catholic country or a religious family, hearing those meditative lines was a novel experience. It evoked a deeper sense of rural Spain and its traditional Catholic heart.
As I sat watching the smoke rise as the clouds moved across the sky against the backdrop of the medieval village, I was struck by the specialness and beauty of the moment.
I admired the dedication of the women’s faith. To have made the effort to walk down to this little, understated hermitage with an offering of a candle and engage in an intimate spiritual practice seemed like an act of true devotion.
I may not be Catholic myself, but I deeply appreciated this small act that we had unwittingly bared witness to. It really touched my heart and nourished it with a sense of appreciation for this place, the village, our little temporary eco-house and this country that I call home.
I felt so grateful to have the opportunity to get out of the city, travel to a new place and explore more of rural Spain. Joy and gratitude rose within in a happy burst. This was turning out to be a great Christmas break! I felt ready to head out into the village and explore more of what rural Spain had to show us!
As we entered the village we soon came out at the main square, or plaza, which was very quaint with just a few bars dotted around the sides. Terraces lined the pavement and locals sat chatting with their afternoon café con leche. The buildings were painted traditional white with wooden beams giving a rustic appeal.
After a brief visit to the tourist office, we were advised to visit the church under the watchful eye of an older lady who had lived in the village all her life. She wore the traditional Catholic black clothing of that of a widow and wore her long grey hair on top of her head in a messy bun. She walked with a stick and an arched back but she soon got up that hill no problem!
When she arrived, she proudly opened the Church and its adjacent exhibition. There were ancient scriptures and hand written texts, religious objects and paintings depicting scenes from the bible. Disappointedly modern on the inside, the atmosphere was a strange mix of old and new.
I was disappointed to see they had bought into the modern trend of having electric light bulbs in the shape of candles, instead of the real candles that are traditionally used to make an offering.
For me, flicking the switch on a light bulb just doesn’t hold the same feeling of reverence that lighting a real flame holds. My soul felt insulted by this show of modernity that took the deeper connection away from what should be a moment of ritual and ceremony.
After five minutes walking around, I was eager to get back out into the afternoon sun. Personally, I preferred the understated simplicity of the small hermitage rather than the strange atmosphere of old and new in this church.
Needless to say, I didn’t stay much longer. I felt better as soon as I left and saw the sun setting over the villages and land below.
That is where I find my church, in the beauty of our natural world. I was happy to feel the cold air on my face once again and continue our explorations!
From there we continued to explore more of the village, with its winding streets and curious architecture. There was a mixture of houses that had been rebuilt and those that were crumbling into an almost certain death. The effect makes for an interesting treasure hunt, as every turn has a different curiosity to admire and no street or building is the same.
As we walked and talked we imagined what the streets must have been like back when they were full of people. We pulled fruit from the branches of kiwi trees that hung out over the street and admired the orange trees that could be found in every garden. We fantasied about which house we would buy and imagined how we would make it the most beautiful house in the whole village.
Yet as beautiful as the village was, it did have an eery feeing of a place that is uninhabited. There weren’t many shops other than the supermarket and bakery, nor were there any signs of cultural life or new initiatives. Other than the typical ‘casas rurales’, or rural tourist apartments, the village didn’t seem to have much going on.
Welcome to rural Spain some might say! Yes of course. This is the reality of rural Spain: empty of inhabitants except for tourists, the older generation and the urban families that return to their ‘pueblos’ in the summer.
It is a sad reality. These villages hold so much history and should be preserved, not left to crumble and rot as they are now. Knowing that in just one generation they will be empty of people is sobering. What will become of them in the next decade?
Unfortunately, I have visited enough old cities such as Toledo and Cuenca to have an idea. When I visited those places I was shocked to see the old towns were dedicated only to tourism: entire buildings that once housed families and neighbours now turned tourist apartments, bakeries turned souvenir shops, and market squares turned fancy restaurants.
It is typical to see flags hung over the balconies belonging to the last remaining neighbours that read “SOS VECINOS EN PELIGRO DE EXTINCIÓN ” (SOS neighbours in danger of extinction”). In my experience, these places are nice to visit and provide the city dweller with a romantic escape from modern living. Yet they have become nothing more than tourist circuses that are just a mere parody of how local life really is/was.
With no real local life, the heart and soul of a place is lost and a ghost town is created. And as pretty as the streets maybe, the lack of authentic life makes for a superficial experience tinged with sadness for what has been lost in the race to modernity.
By this time it was getting dark so we began to make our back to our little round house in the forest. We returned the same way we had come, passing the little hermitage once again. A candle was perched in front of the door, the only sign of life. Darkness was falling and the lights were coming on in the village.
Bats flew above our head as we entered the forest once again and took the Roman road back home. I felt happy and satisfied with our day and was eager to get back in front of that log burner to warm my soggy feet. Once again we passed the protective dogs with their unwelcoming message and soon we were back at home and stoking the fire.
Back in the Heart Cave
Nothing beats a day outside walking and exploring in the fresh air for a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction. I was excited to see where we were going to explore the next day. Another historical village, Villa Nueva, was not so far away and it was possible to go by foot.
That would be tomorrows plan, we agreed. But for now, we were content to just put our feet up, cook something tasty and relax in front of the fire.
Our life in Madrid seemed like a million miles away. Being in such a cosy place, with its wooden roof and earthen walls gave a completely different feeling of cosiness than what I was used to. It felt more human, more relaxing, more natural.
“I don’t want to go back to the city”, I found myself thinking. “This is the kind of life I what I want”. But I banished any thoughts of the city from my mind.
“Just enjoy the moment”, I told myself. I couldn’t believe that we still had another 3 nights to enjoy this little house away from the hustle and bustle.
What did our explorations have in store for us? What strange rural curiosities were we going to discover? Who were we going to meet? Would I find that alternative community I had been fantasying about?
I spent the rest of the evening in front of the fire, journalling my thoughts and reflections into my notebook.
“When would we be able to make this dream of leaving the city a reality?”, my eager and impatient mind demanded.
As much as I wanted to know the answer, I knew that the answer wasn’t going to appear right away. All I could do was enjoy where I was in that moment and see what the next day was going to bring.
Have you ever travelled around rural Spain? Or are my experiences similar to any that you have had in other countries? Would love to know what your take is. Let me know is the comments below!
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