Death of a pueblo

It seems fitting that as an Easter trip, my Mother and I found ourselves in the gorgeous bleak countryside of España Profunda witnessing the story of a kind of death and resurrection, a clear example of what is intrinsically cyclical about life, all things dying away and coming back full circle. The village we were visiting and the circumstances of the friends we were visiting there seemed to encapsulate that decline of one thing and rise of another. While the village itself, no different from thousands of others in rural Spain, clung to life with white knuckles, turning what was essentially a slow death-mask to the world, my friends who had moved there from Madrid last year and had opened a bar appeared to have found new life and at last, hope.

Having checked in at the Casa Rural down the hill we wandered up to the deserted main square where the bus had dropped us earlier. When we’d spoken on the phone I’d asked Angel the name of their bar and how to find it.

‘Oh, you’ll find us easily.’ he said. ‘It’s called Casa de Abraham. Everyone here knows us.’

Everyone here? Everyone where….? There was not a soul in sight. I would have happily asked a local for directions if I could have found one. Heavy stone houses, as dry and sturdy as Derbyshire stone walls waited silently with shuttered windows. The only sound was the sluggish trickling of the river by the main road. Beyond the village were austere mountains and an expanse of sky rarely seen from the city, so much sky it was exhilerating. Luckily, just then the returning school bus pulled up, depositing Angel Jr and Juan Carlos, their sons, who cheerfully greeted us and led us uphill to the bar, while filling us in on their new life in the pueblo.

‘We sledged down this slope in the winter when it snowed, all the way to the road. It snowed loads. There weren’t any cars for days.’ they informed us as we made our way up a snaking cobbled road.

‘That’s where we live, the other side of that mountain.’ pointing past a romanic bell tower and some crumbling ruins on a hillside the other side of a dip.

‘There’s our new car!’ they pointed to a shabby jeep parked just inside an ancient gateway.

‘And here’s the bar.’

We would have had to make a detailled recce of the entire village to have found this. It nestled, low as a Hobbit house on the corner of a steep cobbled street, the entrance a solid wooden door on iron hinges. A hand painted sign hanging unobtrusively overhead indicated it was Abraham’s casa. On the telephone I had joked with Angel about which son he was going to sacrifice and he had answered that he hadn’t decided yet but was working on it.

Angel and Pili had undergone a stunning and welcome transformation. They were like the before and after victims of a zombie attack, only the other way round. In Madrid, due to the pressures of running their own struggling business and a family, and the pressures of the city itself, they had become zombified, leading a life that was a downward spiral of missed sleep and meals, impossible working hours, and unbearable stress. They both ended up with grey complexions, frazzled expressions and panda eyes as dark brown as old tea stains. They had owned a summer house here for many years, and last Summer moved here for good, closing the business, selling their house and starting a new life. Being industrious it was very little time before they had negotiated the lease on the bar and had opened it as compliment (for this read competition, village politics are harsh) to the only other bar in town. Here in the countryside they had become their old selves again, hippies and country-dwellers at heart. They had both put some weight on, their city pallor was now a rosy-cheeked glow, and though they were working hard with the Easter rush of customers, they were laughing more than I had seen them laugh for many years.

Later that evening we went back to the bar. There was a complicated procedure involving desperate attempts to find the live Barcelona/Arsenal game on the internet, after Angel had unsuccessfully flicked through all 927 cable channels looking for one that offered free football, pausing only to stare in contemplative mood at the abundant tits on one of the freeze-framed porn channels. In the end they found an internet channel and hooked it up to the television, and a group of men gathered round the set earnetly. It was a draw, thank goodness, so after much joking and vying with them, no-one had to admit national defeat. Angel Jr showed us video footage of nesting vultures which he had filmed for a school project, he brought out sets of antlers they had found on the mountainsides and explained their age and the process of shedding them, and a little later asked us if we would like to go to the slaughtering of a corderito (baby lamb), which we graciously declined. Surprisingly the bar filled up with male totty; every time the door opened my mother and I exchanged glances as yet another strapping bloke came in from the cold. Then came Felipe, a tiny little old man with a stick. Angel explained that he had fallen on the ice this winter in the pueblo and had broken his leg, and they had rushed him to hospital where he was fitted with a cast. Felipe had been sent to a ‘residencia’ for old people to recuperate, but with a month still to go, he had checked himself out and done a runner, as according to him ‘it was full of old people and really boring.’

‘He’s quite a character. We love him.’ Angel informed us, and after a drink or two we were given a blast of Felipe’s showmanlike abilities, as he serenaded my mother with coplas (traditional songs), and then recited patriotic Antonio Machado poetry to us about glorious and unforgettable Soria (Machado was an Andaluz poet who spent time in the province). As he circulated around the bar entertaining everyone with his stories and songs the stick became more than a stick- a prop. I remembered how attached I became to my stick for a while after fracturing my foot last year, and how useful it was to prod people with. Felipe used his to poke at people the other side of the bar to catch their attention, at other times it became an air guitar and finally a bandleader’s baton to be twirled over his head and held ramrod straight sticking up in front of his nose until the other locals told him laughingly to put it down, he´d have someone’s eye out with it.

After another vodka, and in oratory mood, Felipe told us a little of the history of the village. When he was a child there used to be 90 children at the local school; now there were 50 inhabitants in total. There used to be two bakers, a chemist’s, four churches (of which two remain) and two local businesses. There were two Visigoth warrior kings buried in the churchyard where the ruins are. The village started to decline in the seventies, people moved away and no-one came to replace them, and now apart from the houses there were only two rural hotels and two bars, mostly to accommodate weekenders from the cities, tourists and passing groups of hunters and hikers.

The next morning we coincided in the bar again over coffee, and we left Pili and a couple of locals discussing a consignment of jars of asparagus. Felipe took us to the local museum, of which he was keeper of the keys. He gave us an interesting tour, showing us the statue of the only known seated Jesus in Spain, a portrait of the ‘Virgin of the Milk’ who was breastfeeding her Christchild from what looked like a fried egg slapped on the front of her robe, a statue of the ‘Moorslayer’ on horseback, battered wooden chests for taking ecclesiatical robes and paraphenalia into war in order to be able to perform mass on the battlefield, gothic crucified christs dripping with rust-brown blood and the piece de resistance: a disconcerting picture of angels and cherubs and suchlike stitched from devout womens’ hair. When I mentioned this later back in Madrid to some students, they told me that here in Madrid there is a church housing the Cristo de Medinaceli, who is brought out and paraded in the Easter processions, and this statue apparently has a ‘wig’ made of womens’ hair, which is constantly being added to by the devout. When we got back to the bar the discussion about the jars of asparagus was still in full flow. We donned walking gear (what we had of it, including a pair of hiking boots kindly on loan from one of the regulars,) and Angel Jr led us away on a 7 km walk to the village where the family actually lived.

One of the high points of the walk was the incredible proximity of the vultures. There were scores and scores of them, gliding directly overhead, circling the peaks and valleys or perched in rows along the rocky ridges watching us with beady and hungry eyes, twiddling their feathers and waiting for one of us to trip and fall. Angel Jr informed us that he had feigned a fall a few times while walking in the mountains and had kept quite still, his eyes half-closed, until he heard the helicopter-blade whooshing of their wings and opened his eyes to find them virtually nose to beak with him. Supposedly they go for the soft, vulnerable eyes first. As soon as he moved they flew away. It was a disquieting sensation; although I have travelled extensively, it was only the second time I was consciously aware of a group of living creatures actively wishing my death so they could make a meal of me. The only other time I was spooked by this kind of reality check was when navigating the Galapagos islands in a smallish boat with a tour group, and being followed for several miles by Hammerhead sharks, their fins cutting the water in the wake of the boat and keeping perfect pace with us. Even thinking about it makes me shudder. I am of the generation that saw Jaws too young, when it came out, and has had a pathological fear of sharks and deep water ever since.

We followed an ancient Roman path, part of the old sheep and goat-herding route leading all the way to Madrid from Logroño, the other side of the mountains. The final part of the walk was through a wooded glade, pine trees on either side, bracken and scrubby thorns everywhere. Angel Jr showed us deer tracks, lizards, miniature ‘scorpions’ under stones, samples of the naturally-occuring mineral in the rocks, which formed almost perfect cubes grey as graphite, and the rooting grounds of wild boar, big swathes of earth churned over by their snouts as they searched for what he called ‘wild garlic’.

We arrived at their village which nestled in pastureland next to a river with a small waterfall. If the village below was semi-deserted, this really was the village at the end of the world. Here there were only 25 of the houses renovated and occupied only at weekends and holidays, with Angel and Pili and their family the only people to live here all year round. Angel Jr said it was best when the holidaymakers had all gone and they had the village to themselves. It was beautiful but eerie. The thought of living up here made me feel uncomfortable. No running water- that had to be brought up here by the road and then by track in 1000 litre tanks, no electricity- that was provided by generators, and in winter no other people at all. Also no heating- Pili had told me that they went out one day and when they came back the water in the dogs’ bowl was frozen solid, and when they checked the temperature it was minus 18.

On the way back down we saw a startled deer, zig-zagging away from us, its white tail flashing. When we trudged back to the bar a couple of hours later we were treated to a hearty meal by Pili who was churning out home-made food for a full house. Easter was good business and they had to make the most of the rush. There were days, she said, when one person called in for a coffee all day and the rest of the time she and Angel watched tv and pottered about on the internet.

The next day, after fond farewells and after Pili thrusting jars of locally-produced honey at us, we caught the only bus of the day back to Soria and from there to Madrid. Apart from the sheer pleasure of seeing my friends happy and rejuvenated after their radical life change, I genuinely fell for this bleak, semi-abandoned pueblo in the middle of nowhere. There is no way a confirmed urbanite like myself could live in a place like that, but it was the perfect place to get away from the city. Much as I adore Madrid, those of us who live here all agree that you have to get out from time to time, and, as the Spanish say, ‘breathe another air.’ There was something noble and tragic about this place clinging to life in the midst of the rugged hills of the least populated province of Spain. And the sadness in witnessing the apparent slow death of the pueblo was cancelled out by the happiness of seeing Angel and Pili and their children coming back to life, yawning and stretching and looking about them with new eyes as though waking from a bad dream. Lives can change, people can escape the rat-race and reinvent themselves; there is hope.

One Response to “Death of a pueblo”

  1. christine Says:

    Yet again I felt as though I was back there,myself,in the Tierras Altas.Beautifully written! Travel writing at it’s best.

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