A Happy Valley in Cadiz

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I’d be pretty happy if I had a rustic, low-slung Andalucian farmhouse and garden bordered by a trickling stream in the valley below Grazalema  – particularly if the January temperature could raise itself by around 8 degrees. It’s the complete cliché, and I’m surprised and annoyed at how quickly and rigidly I’ve resolved to be clichéd and at how much it’s going to cost me: about five times the cost of the property I bookmarked one boring afternoon, and got us all fired up and over here in the first place.

In rural Cádiz at least, the majority of local landowners prefer to live cheek to jowl with old friends, a stone’s throw from the bar in the village, than on their own in a field. They are not necessarily abandoning their farms – they’ll leave a few dogs there, hens, donkeys, and drive out to feed them and do stuff with olives – but they are wiping their hands of old properties without bathrooms and modern kitchens, with collapsing walls and missing roofs down at the far end of unsurfaced tracks. To arriviste foreigners, who probably have no friends in the village, don’t like the tiled bars with their fruit machines and girly calendars, and who have dreamt of open space all their working lives, these places seem glorious. Particularly after a glass of wine in spring. By the time they’ve fully understood that the entire building will need to be levelled and rebuilt (subject to planning approval), thus hoovering up all savings, they are too immersed to retreat. 

Yep. And I am one (and Dave makes two). Although we have made friends in the village, and got used to the dancing, and shouting, processions and hubbub, and fallen into a routine that includes Saturday breakfast in the square, and trips to buy firewood or bread that evolve into lengthy conversations and end in front of a plate of cheese in someone’s house. ‘Why are you looking in the campo?’ say the Parras, the elderly couple whose top half of a village house we are renting. ‘Buy this one!’ It’s tempting, and confusing.

However, when we are driving the meandering way up to Grazalema in order to pass through happy valley and all the properties we can not afford, we usually pause and wind the windows down to let in a whiff of pine, woodsmoke and mountain herbs, donkey hee-haws and the sound of goat bells and bleating outside the Schoolhouse.

The schoolhouse represents all that I want. It is also largely derelict, in need of a new roof, windows, some walls and some doors, a bathroom, a kitchen, internal walls, new floors, ‘re-configuration’, wiring, plumbing, insulation, painting and re-plastering. It was a bodega, and then, as the name suggests, a schoolhouse. It is priced higher in its current state of disarray (€149,000) than we have available for a house that is habitable, and it has no land in front of it. It lends itself to being a B&B which I don’t want to run, and it is quite possible that it may have been sold.

But sometimes you just like a place.

The door is usually open and so we went inside once to have a look. Nice. A fireplace you can stand inside, the remains of a high ceiling, a wall of tall (broken) windows, and loads of other rooms. Sunlight was slanting in and highlighting the fallen birds’ nests and bits of glass. ‘We can put the table here’ said Dave.

Casalsur, an agency operating from the back of the distractingly good art gallery in Grazalema, showed us a property across the road with more land, and requiring marginally less work. La Betania actually had roses climbing up the wall, and a river. Square metres never used to mean much to me, but this had 274m2 which is big, and 20,000m2 of land. Dave didn’t like it. ‘Crowded’, he said, crossing it off the long list. What? I said. It’s got 20,000m2 of land, it’s in a remote backwater, and all you can see is  fields, olives and mountains. But he was adamant, which is just as well because we couldn’t afford it. At least, we could afford it if we were prepared to live in it without a roof.

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