"If we had been keeping strictly to chronological order we would now be heading off to Morocco as that had been our destination after we left La Bergerie. Reclaiming a ruined riad just outside The Jemaa el-Fnaa, Marrakech's main square and the most important part of the medina, was yet more hard work, but also brought a love of North Africa, its architecture, its mountains and deserts that will never leave us. Morocco was to be our destination again on this trip but, en route, we passed through Finestret, a small village at the foot of Mount Canigou, almost as far as you can go in France without being in Spain. Slight detours are easy enough when meandering our way down to the sun en route to North Africa without an agenda or a timescale.
We had lived in Finestret for almost five years, putting down roots once again after a lengthy spell of travelling. Finestret is not on many maps, there are no shops and apart from a man selling bread from a van honking his horn every morning it’s a very tranquil place. Oh, apart from the church bells which ring out the hours twice so the workers in the surrounding peach fields don’t miss out on the sacred lunch break at twelve noon.
Our arrival in Finestret was supposed to have been a watershed moment. Apart from a bit of ‘doing up’ this one wasn’t much of a renovation project. Unless you count removing every single roof tile and replacing a leaking roof. I gained access, it was a very ‘tall’ house, through a velux window in a bedroom ceiling, tied myself to the chimney with an old rope as a sop to safety procedures and threw the old tiles down into the courtyard. Pretty basic stuff. Marigold hardly complained at all when passing the new tiles up through the ceiling opening, a few at a time. As I recall there were only 2,000 of them.
We decided we were now retired from renovation work. Finally we could concentrate on enjoying life while we learnt the advance requirements of becoming old people. Of course, we still travelled, still yearned for the open road at times, but it was the lure of winter sunshine that provoked our next move, from the South of France, following the sun to Andalusia.
We bought a tiny house in Competa, a pretty mountain village, while we looked for our next project. Yes, we had got the renovation bug back. What we found was very special; an old finca, in the campo, but within a couple of miles from the village. The approach was a dusty, rutted old dirt track with a sheer drop on one side. Now, half a dozen years since we left, the track is smooth tarmac and at least a dozen villas have been built. The road surface may be smoother but it’s still barely wide enough for one car and the vertiginous drop to the valley floor far below is no less daunting.
We parked up outside a deserted Finca Venus which appears to have been empty for several months. Either that or the present owners aren’t especially keen on sweeping leaves from the terrace. We stood enjoying the solitude, feeling the sun’s warmth on our backs and watching a herd of goats spread out in seemingly random patterns across the far hillside, their guardian seated on a large rock with an assortment of scruffy dogs around him. I conjectured on the blissful nature of that man’s life with just his goats and his dogs for company as he wandered at will through the countryside.
Sunlight striking the overhanging canopy of leaves produced a kaleidoscope of fractured rays. Stray shafts of light splintered through the shadows forming a golden pool of light on the old dusty stones. The effect was intoxicating; a riotous assembly of vibrant colours and dappled shade and the blue Mediterranean sparkling like a jewel in the distance. We shared a glance, moments such as this were the rational behind our original decision to move here many years ago.
Far below, down among the grapevines, was a gorgeous, old ruin of a house with a boundary wall extending to the point at which the land fell away completely to a sheer drop. We walked down, crushing aromatic herbs at every footfall. The once sharp edges of the stones had been softened by the erosion of time and the attachment of a furry cloak of lichen that extended over most of the visible area of the wall. A full-length loggia, old scaffold poles painted a vivid green forming a frame for rough planks provided welcome shade to the front of the house. A magnificent flowering jasmine entwined around one of the columns spreading its sweet-smelling curtain of white flowers across the open beams above. The roughly tiled floor was deeply carpeted in white where the blooms had dropped down.
This lovely old house on the slope of the hill had long since been abandoned, but when we were still young and foolish – Marigold disputes we ever left this point - this was exactly the type of project we'd have taken on. It was a ruin, so it would be cheap. A year of backbreaking toil and about the same amount of money as the original purchase cost would have produced a liveable house in a perfect location.
We weren't tempted though. Neither of us fancy the aforementioned backbreaking toil any more, the prospect of selling on the completed house, hopefully for profit, is far more fraught than it used to be and, above all else, we've been there, done that. Many times.
We sat in the shade and the absolute silence, looking back up the slope to our former finca. Seen from this angle, the steep slopes of the raisin beds resembled giant open matchboxes spread out to catch the rays of the sun. Thirteen in all, a couple already filled with drying bunches of grapes; the others revealing bare scraped earth beneath. Each was about twelve paces long and roughly half that in width, separated from its neighbour by low whitewashed walls. Stacked at the lower edge were neat piles of rough planks, ready to protect the precious fruit in the event of bad weather. Stacks of opaque plastic sheets were the final defensive system if a sudden thunderstorm should arise. Rain and dust were the enemy, but plans had been made to protect the harvest from most climatic dangers.
We puffed our way back up the steep hillside, one of us complaining at every step, the other skipping lightly along, revelling in the opportunity for exercise.
NB. That last sentence contains one accurate description and one that is totally false.
Finca Venus wasn’t the most laborious of our ventures – adding a swimming pool was far beyond my capabilities, so we became project managers at times while ‘proper’ tradesmen did the tricky bits – but it remains our favourite house project.
Our first viewing wouldn’t have been many peoples’ idea of perfection. The old finca had stood there for over three hundred years and only ever previously catered for mules. Basically, one big room with a metal door and one tiny metal window and a separate section where the roof had long since collapsed. That was it. What made it special was where it was. Three thousand feet up in the Sierras Nevada; ringed by jagged peaks and overlooking the Mediterranean with a view across to North Africa it was one of the best views I’d ever seen.
‘Perfect,’ Marigold said as we walked past the end of the house. We didn’t go inside – there wasn’t a key anyway – but we both knew this was the one.
We added extra rooms and terraces, a swimming pool, and divided the existing interior to form a kitchen, small sitting room, a tiny bathroom and two bedrooms. A lot of work, but well worth it. We rented it out for ridiculously large sums while we worked on our next ruine and lived in it, very happily, the rest of the year. I shall never again be able to recreate that sense of utter peace that welcomed me every morning as I stumbled onto the terrace in my underpants and sandals to gaze out across a shimmering sea to the mysterious African continent so near, yet so far away.
Last night, I stood on the terrace I’d built –the new owners only come here in the summer – and wondered how a view could still be so perfect. It’s busier now, there are cars on the track once used almost exclusively by goats, and the proliferation of new villas on the hillside, while not exactly suburbia, is a sad reflection of unpredictable change and a stern reminder nothing that was once perfect can endure for ever.
We drove on, twenty miles around the mountain, and parked up on a piece of land we still own. It’s not much. It’s a section of barren scrubland, useful as a place to park a camper van for a few days while enjoying the views of Lake Vinuella, but it’s ours. Trust me, it’s not much of a boast and only remains in our possession because we forgot all about it when we sold our final finca.
The finca in question, the last house we restored and sold in Spain is still there. The new owners had added a glazed conservatory. It looked ridiculous and must have been unbearably hot in the summer. That house renovation was ‘the mistake,’ the one we wished we hadn’t started. Leaving aside any views on retiring from the ‘doing up houses’ that little finca nearly broke us in two.
It was, once again, an uninhabited – make that uninhabitable – ruin when we bought it. No water, no electricity and access by a rough track. Okay, we can do that, we thought. Where’s the problem? The answer lay in basic physiology. The virtual collapse of my knees, just for starters, together with an increasingly mutinous work colleague whose ‘pack horse’ complaints were now being broadcast with much greater regularity. ‘You’re too old and cruddy to do this any more,’ Marigold informed me. It may have been on the day I left her perched on the roof, levering up tiles, while I ‘popped’ out to buy sand and cement. Well, how could I predict Marigold would be stung by a scorpion the minute our truck disappeared over the horizon?
We should have anticipated there’d be the odd live specimen hanging around as the roof tiles were thickly coated in chitin. Marigold wishes it to be known that she was very brave and didn’t actually die, but it was very unpleasant.
There were better days, lots of them, and much laughter. Much of the feel good factor came about when we met two of the best people we’ve ever met. Jim and Linda saved us and most certainly saved the finca ‘project.’ I explained we couldn’t afford to pay proper builders so they would have to do.
(They’re used to remarks like that, don’t worry.)
The four of us, plus Rhett the canine foreman, found a blend of work, laughter and nonsense that made us wonder why every workplace couldn’t function like this. Great times. Washing off the dust and filth of a working day in a bath reclaimed from a skip or hiking over the hill with a spade in one hand and a roll of toilet paper in the other, these most basic aspects of ‘making do’ became so familiar it actually felt strange to get back to the world of flushing toilets and hot water on tap.
We never (quite) finished the house, but sold it as a work in progress. It was more than slightly disappointing to see how the new owners have turned what was the epitome of stylish simplicity into ‘just another house.’
Of course we didn’t approach. We never knock on the door of a former house and introduce ourselves. Yes, we lived there once but those days have gone. Gone for ever. We’ve moved on. Bygones. It’s my favourite word. Move on to the next adventure.
Tonight we’re parked on a glorious stretch of white sand. The sea is rolling in, waves tipped with foam, for this is the Atlantic and we’re in one of our favourite places: Tarifa. It’s laidback, Bohemian, packed with fresh-faced young surfers with bleached hair and can-do attitudes. Could I borrow a board tomorrow. Go surfing? Just like riding a bike. You never forget how to do it, do you?
Well, maybe not. Once, I had perfect knees; not the wretched appendages held together with string and rubber bands I have now! Time for common sense. Next, we’re heading back to Morocco. The ancient cities, Fez and Marrakesh, ageless and magnificent; still largely unchanged over a thousand years. The Rif Mountains where young boys flash passing cars with broken shards of mirror and call out ‘Keef, keef.’ Kif, the local term for hashish, is both cheap and plentiful. I’m never a customer, having seen the ravages of drugs at first hand over too many years to even smoke a little dope.
One of the highlights of our trip will be returning to the High Atlas and the fascinating Berber villages. After that, it’s the Sahara; that vast and timeless region where modern life scarcely ever intrudes. We have a vague idea about reaching the fabled city of Timbuktu, but that’s as far as our plans go. Planning removes spontaneity and without scope for acting on impulse nobody never achieved anything of note.
We’ve owned many houses in our time. Bought, sold, moved on. Including five total ruins, mere uninhabitable shells, unfit for purpose. We moved in, spent a few months living in squalor, surrounded by dust and rubble, bashing away, one room at a time. Some are far more memorable than others, but all have their tales to tell.
Do we miss any of them? Not for a moment. Is it a viable way of earning a living? For twenty odd years, until the pensions arrived, our only income was the profit we made on selling property. If you’re living, working alongside, the person you want to be with 24 hours a day, every day and that proximity remains special, then of course it’s good. It’s brilliant, actually.
Add the opportunity to live in a foreign country, soaking up the delightful ‘difference’ factors and it’s life at its most desirable. Just assuming you can cope with dirt, dust, mess, the absence of creature comforts or even a modicum of modern life as we know it. There are compensations aplenty for those willing to experience a good slice of mediaeval living.
Do we have any regrets? No, not one, without question. Would we take on a total rebuild project now, a fair few years down the line? Hmm, let me think about that,
Wherever I lay my hat, that’s my home. I heard the song on the radio the other day. That’s about right. For the last week we’ve woken to the sound of the waves on the shore. Last night it was the mountains, tipped with crimson as the sun rose. Soon it will be the utter tranquillity of a desert landscape. Each day is memorable. I’m determined to wring every drop of joy from life. After all, we pass this way but once.”