Hanging Out With The Locals in Rural Spain
Further explorations of rural Spain I
Months have passed from our trip into rural Spain over Christmas. Already the memories have faded into the distance. The feeling of inspiration I felt then has given way to the mundane; the city, with its concrete blocks and asphalt streets, makes it seem like this is the only reality possible. Our stay in the tiny round house, with the cosy log burner and the luscious greenery right on our doorstep feels like it was another world.
Could another way of life for me really be possible? Is it really possible to live in plena naturaleza? In moments of doubt, when I stick my head out and take in the ‘views’ of my street, or lack thereof, I wonder if I will be stuck in this concrete trap forever.
These moments of doubt can be painful and depressing. Life seems grey and meaningless. This dream seems nothing more than a fairytale and wishful thinking.
But something inside persists. Something inside doesn’t really believe these negative thoughts. It’s like a loving mother watching over the antics of her unruly children, observing their behaviour and in the right moment, gently but sternly intervening.
This presence of the loving mother asks me to go back to moments when I felt inspired and aligned with my dream. How did I feel in those moments? Who was I with? Where was I? What was I doing?
The answers to these questions take me back to various moments in my life: my trips to the Azores, our off-grid road trip in eastern of Spain, my experiences in the UK growing food in my community with the Incredible Edibles, growing food on my old roof top in Madrid, how I feel when I am in the community garden, and most recently, our trip to Gredos in the tiny round house over Christmas.
Some of these stories I have already told; others I am yet to tell. Others are part-told, like our Gredos trip. In this world of immediacy of connection and sharing online, it seems a little odd to still want to talk about a trip I made over Christmas. Life moves fast and I am eager to share other developments with you.
But yet, life keeps pulling me back to those final few days in Gredos. It feels as if there is a hidden treasure to discover there, something that would be lost if I were to rush on past it.
Sometimes a story needs some time to cook, to stew, to brew for a while longer before emerging to the surface. Perhaps the context that I find myself in now, months later, helps give it more meaning.
Further Explorations of Rural Spain
Either way, let us begin where we left off. In the previous installment of this story I spoke of the crumbling buildings of Valverde de La Vera, the nearest village to where we were staying, a beautiful area called Gredos, around 1 and half hours from Madrid. Our hikes around the area had revealed ancient olive groves and hidden houses in the valley. I had stumbled across decorated trees and hoped to discover an alternative community living in the area.
Who were we going to meet in the following days of exploration in other villages?
Were there any like-minded people in the area? And if so, how could I discover them?
What else was I going to learn about life in rural Spain?
I made it my mission over the next part of my trip to find out.
The next place we visited was Villanueva, another well preserved village that had its original architecture still intact. There was certainly more life here, and the village square was full of modern bars and restaurants. Families and friends sat enjoying the sun. Children ran around and played in the central fountain. The sound of conversation and laughter filled the air.
Here we found more signs of active village life, such as a trendy ceramic workshop and artisan shops selling handmade produce. I was eager to spot signs of rural regeneration projects, associations and social hubs that could lead us to meeting some like-minded people who had made the step of leaving the city that we are looking to make.
Meeting the Locals
However, in this village, we had no such luck. We did make friends with the locals though and struck up conversation with a man called Pedro that we had briefly spoken to the day before in Valverde de la Villa. It was funny that we had only been in the area for a few days and we were already recognising faces and making friends!
The previous day we had also made friends with a local lady who was more than happy to talk to us and share her experiences growing up in the villages. She spoke of how in the past, the streets used to be full of people and children playing, and how over time, the village had started to empty.
Now, after everything that has transpired in the last two years with the pandemic, she was happy to keep herself to herself and only went out into the village to go to the local shops. Even so, she was happy and told us that if we were ever in the area again and needed anything, we could count on her. It was a lovely chance encounter that demonstrated the charm of village life and the open-hearted nature of Spanish people.
Yet as beautiful as Villanueva was, I did get the feeling that it was filled more with tourists than with locals. Whilst many houses had been restored, they looked empty. Although, there were a few that were inhabited that at least gave some hope that there are some people who have seen the value in rural life and are helping to keep the villages alive. I wondered if we would have the chance to meet some of them! Where might they be hiding?
One of the things that I did really enjoy about this area of Spain was the abundance of fruit on the trees and in the vegetable gardens.There was fruit everywhere you looked; hanging over the pavements, draped over walls, peaking through the cracks of abandoned patios. As we made our way back to our little abode in the forest, we checked out the vegetable gardens that we passed and kept our eyes out for ‘for sale’ signs, just for fun.
Something that I did find a little bit off-putting was the fact that all the countryside leading up to the village along the walking trail was cordoned off with fences. The land was chopped up into individual squares, fences criss-crossing the land. They made sure that we only kept to the path and didn’t venture out amongst the trees, much to my disappointment.
“Why so much fencing? Is it really necessary?”, I wondered. Surely there are more aesthetic and less obstructive ways of marking land boundaries? Sergio also pointed out that this could be a problem for wildlife crossing too. My image of a quaint community of villagers began to wane a little.
However, my disillusions were soon buoyed again as we made some new village friends. A couple began to walk the same path out of the village and towards the vegetable plots with us, and we struck up conversation. No sooner had we exchanged a few greetings, had they invited us to visit their plot! Not ones to pass up on an opportunity to meet people and nosy around their vegetable gardens, we off course agreed!
Views from the Vegetable Garden
This was my favourite moment of the day so far. As we followed them along a path through some olive groves, we came to their plot. When they opened the gate, I couldn’t help but let out a gasp. The horizon opened up the fields below as the sun was beginning its descent. Their plot was full of olive and fruit trees, many of which had ripe fruit hanging abundantly from their branches.
They had built a mini outdoor-house that has a space for cooking and a sitting area. Their dog bounded around happily as the sun cast a beautiful glow upon the horizon. The couple were proud to show us around their vegetable patches, showing us the abundant red peppers that were still growing, the big pile of pumpkins that they were more than happy to share with us, and their luscious herb garden with mint, thyme and parsley. It was also full of flowers and other decorative plants.
The woman was generously giving us as much food to take as we could carry, whilst her husband spoke about their techniques for food-growing. They told us stories about all the different types of food they have grown and how they had developed the land over time.
For me it felt very familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Then I realised! It reminded me of my mum’s back garden, always full of flowers, quirky sitting areas and a bbq area (for summer and winter!). Whilst my mum’s old back garden was nowhere near as big as this, the familiar feeling of having green space attached to or close to your home sparked memories of life back in Northern England, and I liked it.
Fence Mystery Discovered
I took the opportunity of being with some locals to ask them about the fences that we could see all over the land. They also had their land fenced and gated. “Was it really necessary?”, I asked them.
They told me that in the beginning they also thought it was a little ugly to have their land separated off and chose to leave it as it was. But they soon found out that this wasn’t a good idea. Young people came down from the village to drink and hang out at night time in the huertos (vegetable plots).
“Ah, that makes sense”, I thought. The infamous botellón of Spain, which means hanging out in outdoor spaces, drinking and socialising. I was surprised that in a small village such as Villanueva, there were enough youngsters to cause havoc in the first place.
“They used to leave the place in a mess”, they told me. It was clear that the image I had of a sleepy village of traditional people was clearly a little bit off. This sounded more like good ol’ Bolton, where I am from! That kind of stuff is the norm over there. But here in this beautiful countryside? It seems like anti-social behaviour is something that can’t be escaped, where ever you go.
It reminded me of what Max and Nic said about their land when we did our off-grid road trip a few years ago. They had dogs to protect their land from thieves and had already had a few close encounters. Looks like rural life in Spain is no paradise after all. It’s good to know these small details to have realistic expectations, I concluded.
It also reminds of the stories that olive farmer Miguel told me when we were in his village of Calaceite during our volunteer experience with Paul and Hermine in Eastern Spain. He definitely brought down any ideas of idyllic rural communities. Maybe it would be wise to keep my eyes wide open and not let my romantic nature to skew my vision going forward.
Reflections on Modern Life
In the end, we spent a good hour chatting together about growing food and their life in the village. They were obviously very proud of their land and their work and keen to share it with others. The wife shared tips with me about how to use rosemary as part of your beauty regime, whilst her husband spoke shared his views about modern life in rural Spain.
“I don’t know why people spend so much time in bars”, he said. “They go from being in their house to being in a bar to being in their house again. I just don’t understand it”.
“Each to their own”, his wife said.
“No, he affirmed. “ I think they are stupid”
I couldn’t help but laugh at his no-nonsense commentary! He has a point thought, doesn’t he? In the modern world we tend so spend all of our time either in our house, in our car, inside at work, at a shopping centre or in a bar or restaurant. But that is a blog post for another time! (although I wrote the domestication of humans in the modern world here).
Finally, we got back on the road again, this time with our backpacks full of food, herbs and flowers. For me, this really felt like true wealth and demonstrated the beauty of growing food. It is so natural to share food with others and helps the abundance to be shared around, creating social bonds in the process.
As we made our way back to our little round house, I felt happy and content. Whilst we hadn’t met the alternative communities that I had hoped to, or met people who had made the transition from the city to the country, we’d had some lovely encounters and met some great people. If we ever return to those villages, I already feel that I have local friends there to go and say hello to. And that is enough in itself.
Two Roses Amongst Thorns
After this, we only had a few days left before we had to make our way back to Madrid. We had hoped to discover more quaint villages and do more hiking trails. But whilst we did discover some great walks, the other villages that we visited didn’t have anywhere near the same charm as Valverde de La Vera or Villanueva.
Disappointedly, one nearby village, in its rush for modernity, had rebuilt all of the old houses in the village into ugly blocks of concrete. Others houses had made an attempt to maintain some of the old architecture but without care and the result was nothing but a poor imitation. Another village that we passed through was nothing special at all, just the same modern buildings that you can find anywhere else in Spain (or the world).
This made me realise that not all rural villages in Spain are quaint and attractive. Many are down right ugly. My dream is certainly not to swap the ugliness of the city for ugliness in the countryside!
Except of course, land close to the beautiful villages comes with a price tag. The couple we met told us that they had bought a small patch of land to extend their main plot for 20,000 euros! For sure, that area ain’t cheap!
Whilst the last few days of exploring the villages of rural Spain hadn’t been as beautiful as the first few, the last day really made up for it.
Will I finally get to meet like-minded people? Were there any alternative communities out in the rural hinterlands for us to meet?
Stay tuned for the next blog post to find out 😉
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