“As you cross the border, you know you’re in Asturias”
We have friends who have bought property at the foot of a mountain range known as the Picos de Europa in Asturias, northern Spain. We like Asturias, and as they said, you know you’re in Asturias the minute you cross the border. Unlike neighbouring Cantabria, its regional government aims to preserve its culture, insisting that all new builds and renovations conform to the Asturian style of architecture. Place names are bi-lingual reflecting both the use of Castillian Spanish (the national language) and the regional variant. This feature is evident in other parts of Spain where two languages are spoken, Galicia, Basque Country and Catalonia, as examples. Whereas Valencia is the paella capital, Asturias is famous for its fabada (a smokey stew of pork and beans). Cantabria boasts a similar stew, but it’s known as cocido montañes. Apple orchards are a feature of Asturias, with sidra, a still cider being the main drink of choice. Poured from a height, it is aerated, allowing the flavour to open.
Asturias is marked by high mountain peaks, often snow-capped; slopes are covered in forest, and sparkling streams that flow from their mountain source. Now, in Autumn, the stark wintry peaks contrast with the autumnal foliage of the slopes. Ride outs on the Destrier are wonderful, but wet leaves on the roads present a new hazard, especially as the mountain ranges provide a backdrop for twisting roads and inclines.
We’ve just returned from a trip to Portugal which took us through the region of Castilla y León. The regions are not just culturally different, but also politically distinct and geographically divergent. Castilla y Leon is a high plateau with big skies and fields, oppositional to the undulating territory of Asturias and Cantabria, our base. There is greater evidence of industry, particularly passing the towns of Palencia and Vallodolid. The urban sprawl is interspersed with rural villages and the occasional castle ruin. History pervades all of Spain.
We stopped in Salamanca. We’d set off early enough to make good progress and arrived in time to explore the town. The historic part of town was just 15 mins from our hotel. We spent most of our available time in the cathedral, which is vast.
While we have learned that there is not one Spain, but many, we were still surprised by how different Portugal would be. English is more widely-spoken, and the historic connection between Portugal and the UK is something the Portuguese are particularly proud of. Portugal is forward thinking and knows that its economy relies on having immigrants, who come from all over Europe, Turkey and Israel. Its political policies encourage this. Post-Brexit, it’s widely believed Portugal will remain positive towards its British residents. There is a contrast between more traditional ways of doing things (for example, growing your own food and farming) and modern trends. So while pork is one of the main ingredients in most Portuguese dishes, vegan and vegetarian restaurants were easy to find. Tradition mingles with an acute awareness of contemporary political issues. The people are astoundingly friendly and helpful, voluntarily stopping on the street to ask if we needed help when we looked vague and lost, not to mention a wonderful sense of humour. In short, people seemed happy, recognising that money isn’t what makes them so, but their abundance.
Castelo Branco is not a well-known tourist destination, but it is popular with those who are looking for a small-holding, like us, which is the reason why we were visiting.
We’ve struggled to find a property to meet our needs in northern Spain. If the house is suitable, the land is small. If the land is plentiful, the house at best is a cosy ‘cabaña’ made of stone, and generally off-grid. This might sound perfect for our plans and so we also believed a cabaña would be the realisation of our projected future. The reality is, they are situated high in the mountains, with very poor access, and in winter you are in danger of being completely isolated by snow. It soon became clear a cabaña wasn’t an option. We’ve looked at alternatives. There are many abandoned properties that haven’t been lived in for years. They offer a potential project where you peel back to the basic structure and remodel it to your taste, but humidity is a huge problem in northern Spain and houses suffer the consequences very quickly. Having been here a year, we’re becoming more concerned about this on our longer-term health.
We’ve had a few visitors and met people on our travels that keep bringing us back to Portugal as an option. Verd took a leisurely look at properties one day and got excited by what we might be able to get for our money in central Portugal. I contacted one agent, just asking for more photos regarding one property, and I received the most enthusiastic of replies, something I’d not yet experienced in Spain where many of my emails are either not received, read or ignored. As I’d just received an unexpected windfall, we decided to have a ‘holiday’ and check out Portugal, so we would know for sure how we felt about the country.
We went to Castelo Branco, the garden of Portugal. Everywhere there are small farms full of olives, vines, citrus fruits, soft fruits, nuts and vegetable plots. There are regular farmers’ markets in most towns, but mostly they just share what they grow with those who can’t. There are some village specialities and these are celebrated in the form of festivals. Our agent particularly liked the mushroom festival, where you can go from house to house, sampling a variety of mushrooms and exchange recipes.
We looked at a total of 14 properties while there, and felt we could have done something positive with all of them. Each had a sizeable plot and as we searched we found ourselves discussing the ways different buildings could be used and what use we could make of the land. Every single one had plenty of water via springs, wells or boreholes. Access was generally excellent, even for the more remote of farms. Our future was opening up and expanding before us. Apart from a couple of colder days (a weather front that hit all of Europe), the weather was as good as the best of British summers.
We found ourselves favouring ‘Bat Cottage’, the name we gave to the second property we viewed, due to a tiny pipistrelle bat sleeping in the ‘bodega’, the wine making and storage part of the building. The vines were particularly mature here and hosted one heirloom variety that isn’t grown so widely now. The grapes had the nostalgic taste of artisan sweets you might have been given by your grandmother. Best, the land was flat. In some of the Asturian properties we’ve looked out, we’ve only been able to imagine ourselves scaling the slopes with ropes tied between the trees.
We arrived back at base with a lot to think about. We focus on our hobbies for a day before engaging in the post-mortem. We’ve both written down a few thoughts, but prepare for a long agonising session about how best to proceed from here. We sit down for ‘the chat’.
But we’re in agreement and it doesn’t take long for us to decide a course of action. Spain or Portugal?