This dramatic lifestyle change came about partly because of nine-eleven. I didn’t exactly flee the States but one-way flights to Europe were irresistibly cheap and the untroubled Spanish mountains were beckoning. I had lived on the Costa del Sol long ago and had many friends and acquaintances in Estepona so it felt like going home. America had been fun, but a tad too competitive for me. It was dispiriting awakening every morning to the realisation that I would never make a good corporate cog. And I never learned to go shopping. After twelve years in the New World it was time to return to the Old. Apart from the bargain flights, I had a dream to follow that had been gestating for a couple of years.
A vision of a place in Andalucia, Spain’s southerlymost province – I am still searching for the word to describe a 6-bedroom family-run hotel that offers elegant comfort and delicious dinner-party style meals, personal tours of historical sites and insights into traditional Andalucian culture and much more. A place where people will come to vacation and see how pleasantly less stressful the simpler life is. If a suitably descriptive word occurs to you, please contact me! (firstname.lastname@example.org) It would not be a regular hotel with the beige monotony. Nor yet a traditional bed and breakfast. But a bit like a Moroccan riad or a French chambre d´hôte but there again not quite. The Spanish would be a pequeño hotel con encanto or a charming small hotel.
The perfect location awaited us; we (my daughter, her 5-year old son, and I) simply had to look for it. Our first criterion was it must be affordable; much of the southern Spain, particularly near the coasts, is as expensive as San Francisco and we don’t have that sort of money as mentioned above. The second was that the property should be near one of the pueblos blancos, the ancient white villages of Andalucia that reflect Moorish architecture and lifestyle with their high-density living and narrow alleyways. Thirdly, a largish town should be within easy reach. Lastly, and most importantly, the village had to be Spanish and not foreign-dominated. Our anticipated guests expected real Spain, not a watered-down parody.
Hours spent Googling in my San Francisco office had revealed my future home I thought. Genalguacil seemed at first glance highly desirable as it was a village behind Estepona, close to the coast and the airport. We visited it at lunchtime one weekday but found no sign of life – nobody in the streets, no children playing, just the odd mongrel asleep in the sun. The local venta (country restaurants located on the edge of towns) was empty. This was a bad sign. You can walk into any venta in Spain at 2 pm and find the place teeming with workmen enjoying their standard 3-course lunch with wine. This is one of the really civilised aspects of this wild, anarchistic land. We returned to the village a second time, at the hour of the evening paseo or stroll when most Spanish towns are bustling with their residents dressed in their best, but found it still abandoned. The narrow white streets were silent and, when we shushed Eli for raising his voice slightly, we realised we were in the wrong place. This is not what Spain is about – children are accepted as part of life and are never shushed. Quite the opposite!
There was a lot of art in this village though which was intriguing. On every corner a statue or sculpture, on every wall a mural. We learned that the art was a scheme dreamed up by the village authorities in an effort to promote the town which, like the other white villages, was in danger of becoming a ghost town. Life has never been easy in this part of Andalucia and people have usually had to seek work elsewhere, usually in France or Morocco. The source of lucrative employment is closer now, on the coast, so young people leave and only the older people remain in the villages. The government is providing some incentives but the only sustainable solution is a responsible tourist industry. In this particular village somebody had the bright idea of an art festival every other year. Artists come from all over the world (once from Mexico, they proudly told us), work on a piece for four days, and then donate it to the town. It was innovative and lent a certain charm but sadly we left the town realising that it was not the paradise we sought. We heard afterwards that foreigners were not particularly welcome so it was as well we turned our attentions elsewhere.
We wandered Andalucia getting ever further away from the coast and the inflation. But the prices followed us. Simple country people knew enough about the real estate market to add a few million pesetas to their price. It was discouraging and yet we could not blame them. On one excursion to a town far north of the coast we were offered a piece of land covered with olive trees for a considerable sum which was reduced to nothing if I would simply marry the owner. The whole mountainside would be mine, he insisted, gripping my arm. A slightly embarrassing situation turned into a joke when, later in the day, we saw the same gentleman with his wife.
Our first few excursions into distant areas were fruitless. It is hard to know what is for sale in an area where real estate agents and their For Sale signs don’t exist. The occasional hand-written “Se Vende” was the most one could hope for. Instead of real estate agents, most largish Spanish towns have a self-appointed “corredor” literally a runner, who acts as a broker but the villages we discovered were too remote or too small to warrant one. In time we learned that it was not rude to knock on a door and ask the residents if their house was for sale. If it was not, which was usually the case, the man of the house invariably escorted us on a wild-property chase around the countryside. One time after walking for an hour away from the settlement we found ourselves alone on a deserted hillside with two men with shotguns. My daughter was quite rightly nervous. But all they wanted was to sell their barren land at an inflated price to ignorant foreigners.
In a town further south we thought we had found our goal. The white walls nestled seductively in a wooded valley, through which the railway from Algeciras to Ronda ran, stopping at a series of quaint little stations. There was a delightful restaurant at the station where we inquired of the lady owner about available property. The information that the town had a mayoress rather than a mayor was exciting. A little wary after encountering anti-foreigner sentiments elsewhere, we decided to call on the honourable lady and present our idea. Nervously we rang the ayuntamiento (town hall) to make an appointment, researched the correct way to address her, “Señora Doña Ana”, and prepared a written description of our planned cultural retreat which included the benefits to the village. Having just come from the corporate American world, we attired ourselves formally in suits and heels. Our relief was unbounded when the lady mayoress entered her chambers dressed in jeans, a baggy sweater, and a warm smile. After reading our proposal she commented that what interested her most was Eli, the “niño de cinco años” who we had suggested could play football for the town. A young mother, she had a personal as well as a civic interest in repopulating the town.
But this paradise turned into a nightmare when we dug a little deeper and found that a rather undesirable and non-Spanish element was trying to monopolize the real estate market. They were creating a lucrative business for themselves by selling only to foreignors and at ludicrous prices. Some of the villagers whom we asked about the situation confessed that they did not care for the people involved but, they shrugged, what could they do when offered such high prices. Real estate within reach of the coast has become a hot item as people from northern Europe flock to find their place in the sun and the business has attracted many unscrupulous rogues. I later met an English family from London’s East End who moved to Spain with the intention of opening a furniture shop. When they saw the state of the property market, however, they eagerly switched to real estate. Even though they had no experience and didn’t speak Spanish, they were making a fortune only a few months after opening their doors.
We were on the point of turning our sights reluctantly further west to the Costa de la Luz. Reluctantly, as our network of friends and contacts was on the Costa del Sol. One evening as we poring over the now rather tattered map of Andalucia planning our next foray, we noticed an area that we had hitherto overlooked. It was a cluster of tiny villages off the tourist trail but within reach of the coast. The Arabic sounding names were vaguely familiar. They were the seven villages of the Alto Genal.
On a miserable February day we drove yet again to the mountains, up the winding road north from San Pedro de Alcantara. Turning off some ten kilometers before Ronda, the scenically spectacular Roman and Phoenician town, we ventured the even narrower and more tortuous road to the first two of the seven villages: Igualeja and Pujerra. Old hands now and our property-seeking strategy well honed, we stopped a woman in the street and asked if there was much for sale. She shrugged. Over there, she said, is where you must look. Following her finger pointing across the valley, we looked over to a village in the distance reclining like a sleeping cat along a mountain ridge. White houses were glittering in sunlight that had not yet reached the north-facing slope where we stood. We retraced our steps back to the main road and across to the south-facing slopes and the remaining five villages that adorn the mountain like a string of wide-set pearls.
On a miserable February day we drove yet again to the mountains, Eli complaining virulently, up the winding road north from San Pedro de Alcantara. Turning off some ten kilometers before Ronda, the scenically spectacular Roman and Phoenician town, we ventured the even narrower and more tortuous road to the first two of the seven villages: Igualeja and Pujerra. Old hands now and our property-seeking strategy well honed, we stopped a woman in the street and asked if there was much for sale. She shrugged. Over there, she said, is where you must look. Following her finger pointing across the valley, we looked over to a village in the distance reclining like a sleeping cat along a mountain ridge. White houses were glittering in sunlight that had not yet reached the north-facing slope where we stood. We retraced our steps back to the main road and across to the south-facing slopes and the remaining five villages that adorn the mountain like a string of wide-set pearls.
The little village of Cartajima was six kilometers along a mountain road in the middle of the Serranía de Ronda, a remote area long famous as a hideout for banditos. To one side rugged rocks rose to heights of 1500 meters, to the other the mountain was covered with chestnut and olive trees. It has always been inaccessible which accounts no doubt for the fact that it is still charming and unspoiled, everything we had been seeking. In the plaza we met Catalina, a black-garbed elderly lady who greeted us openly and hospitably. Her son delivers the mail every day and a more erudite man one could not wish to meet. This was an excellent start.
As we walked around chatting to people and looking at property, we knew that the village met all our requirements. Property was still eminently affordable although I am sure the prices we ended up paying were extortionate by village standards. Not only was the property we bought within walking distance of a pueblo blanco but it was in the very heart of one. I had never dared hope for this. Our house is located in the square by the ayuntamiento (town hall) and the church, the estanco where they sell candy and tobacco and the facsimile post office, virtually a man and a rusty mailbox attached to a wall. The fleshpots of Ronda are only ten kilometers away: ruined Arab baths, Islamic minaret, restaurants, and convents selling dulces, sweets. These convents are closed Carmelite orders of Descalzas (barefoot) nuns to which wealthy noblewomen were sent during the years after the Reconquist in 1492. Their money enriched the convent and they made cakes to send home to their families. As Spain declined, so did the convents and the nuns were reduced to poverty. During the nineteen-fifties they were given a dispensation to sell their dulces to the public as long as they remained hidden. The solution to this problem is a revolving shelf, torno, in the small room set aside for these transactions. One chooses one’s dulces from a posted pricelist and rings the bell to summon a nun. Tell her what you want, put the money in the revolving door, and the cakes appear.
Most importantly, Cartajima is a Spanish village full of 200 Spanish people all of whom are to a greater or lesser degree related to each other. We had a party over Christmas and invited our Spanish village friends as well as our English and American friends. Several of the villagers asked who these people were. Were they family? If not, how did we know them? Their society is tight and closed and most people seldom leave the village except for shopping trips to nearby Ronda. Some not even that. While the surrounding landscape is forbidding and challenging, the people are friendly and benign and their only fear for us is that we are not contentos. “Estais contentos?” they asked us for the first six months we were living amongst them. Are you happy here? We hasten to reassure them that we are all exceedingly contento and especially the five-year old. Does he like the school? They ask. He loves the school. He has never been happier. He races off every morning to find the other eight children and together they go the few meters to the schoolhouse at the end of the village. His education is tailored to his needs and he is allowed to progress at his own speed. Although this is a passionately Catholic country, the study of religion is optional. As he already knew more arithmetic than the curriculum required for this year, the teacher has brought in more books to keep him engaged. A second language is introduced at age 8. Peripatetic teachers of English, music, physical education, and religion come twice a week to each of the seven villages that make up the Alto Genal. Idyllic really.
There is a bakery that produces bread in a wood-fired oven and a little store that sells a few essentials at relatively high cost. The bank opens for a few hours every morning. There is a pharmacy in Ana’s front room. Knock on the door if it isn’t open. If what you want is not in stock, she will order it and it arrives within twenty-four hours. The doctor comes four mornings a week from Ronda and I was waiting for a trivial complaint to arise with which to test his expertise. The necessity for syringing an ear before a long-haul flight provided the perfect opportunity. I sat in the bare consulting area with the old women who were delighted to have a chance to quiz their new neighbor, “la inglesa”. When it was my turn the doctor gave me some drops and told me to come back in a few days and to bring a large bottle of warm water and a towel. Que? I asked in surprise. We only have cold water in this office, was his explanation.
Incidents like this aside, it is staggering the progress that Spain has made in the intervening years since I lived here in the seventies and even more amazing to consider the state of the nation at the end of the Civil War in 1939. People were so poor, particularly in Andalucia, that they were reduced to eating grass. The social programs that exist now are as good as I have seen anywhere. The level of technology is as advanced as the States or northern Europe. The infrastructure is for the most part totally modern. And yet quality of life, often sacrificed for modernity, remains intact. The Spanish people still value community more than goods. They still go out of their way to help a stranger. Their fiesta days are numerous. They still believe in mañana.
It is indeed a far cry from San Francisco. Except for the mist that sweeps in during the winter months totally obscuring the spectacular panoramic views of the surrounding mountain range, Cartajima has little in common with my erstwhile home. Do I miss the City? Yes, I miss the bookshops, the restaurants, the views, and a few special people. Oh! And the sushi of course!
Since writing this article there have been several changes in the village. Shops have opened and closed. Bars have appeared and disappeared. New ones have sprung up. The tiny bank disappeared in 2008 when head office deemed it no longer profitable to give banking services to a handful of elderly people collecting their pensions😠. Cartajima is a changing village: as the population declined the mayor advertised for new families. He received over three thousand responses! I often wonder if the newcomers, who are Spanish but not from Cartajima, find it easy to adapt to this unique traditional Andalucian experience. Plus the local supermarket is selling sushi!!