Thursday, 30 May 2002
Urturi, Irurita and Ezkurra
Tired of taking pot luck, seeing what happens, serendipity, the Lord will provide etc, I decided on the scientific approach to finding a room for the night. Spreading the map over the bonnet of the Beast, I marked out an area containing neither roads nor tracks. It was shaded grey and green indicating mountains and forests. There was one road leading in and no roads leading out. The village at the end of the road had two ‘Agroturismos’ or farm B&Bs listed in the official guide. I phoned the more expensive of the two and booked a room for a couple of nights.
“But we are full on Saturday,” I was told.
I drove leisurely from Vitoria along the side roads and found myself getting deeper and deeper into the countryside. ‘This is looking good!’ I thought.
I arrived in the little hamlet of Urturi in the middle of a National Park around 5 pm and found it sleepy and silent. The only sounds were from tractors in nearby fields and an elderly couple re-potting petunias for their window boxes. The village was picture post card perfect. I parked and walked around. Every house had been restored. Every tile replaced. Every gutter renewed. Every block of stone regrouted. The gardens were immaculate. I think I saw a weed on one anally-retentive lawn but the SWAT team surrounding it, armed with Paraquat and weedkiller with a crop spraying helicopter hovering overhead, obscured my view.
It turns out that this is the home of Golf, note the capital ‘G.’ Someone has built a golf course here and people flock from miles around to belt little balls about. Having done so, they buy a barn, turn it into a replica of a town house, plant a putting green in the front and disappear for the rest of the year to Bilbao or San Sebastián or wherever. The locals, profiting by others’ madness, have invested their gain made on selling their fields and barns by turning their homes into B&Bs. After my walk I returned to my car parked outside my boarding house called ‘Aitonaren Etxea’ which I presume means ‘Bonny Doon’ or ‘Dun Golfin’ in Basque and rang the bell. The woman who had been planting petunias came out and I introduced myself.
“I am the English writer who telephoned you this morning,” I said.
She denied all knowledge of having spoken with me despite my insistence, even down to details like I knew she was full this weekend. Eventually we agreed to stop arguing and I asked if she had a room for a couple of days.
“Oh yes!” she said, “all six rooms are empty.”
She tried to ease me into the two-bedroomed apartment at 30 quid a night but I settled for a small, neat, spotlessly clean, double room with bathroom and shower and views over the tiled roof to the distant hills for 17 quid, breakfast extra if you book the night before. No crucifixes, no frills but no telephone either so I don’t know when you are going to be reading this.
I am sitting at the little table under the window and can see the mist rolling down the hills a short distance away. Looking at the map, I calculate I am about 3000 feet up in the Sierra Cantabria, half way between Vitoria to the north and Logrono to the south. Not only is there no phone here but my mobile doesn’t work either so the sense of isolation is complete. There is a restaurant across the square which she tells me serves good food and the bar at the golf club is open to non members. I may be here some little time.
On the drive here I was weighing up my options. It is amazing how much thinking you do when you have no radio and no one to talk to. I have a little DiscMan to play CDs but I don’t feel comfortable using it whilst driving. My original plan was to live in the wine growing region, to absorb the knowledge and experience of the people who tend the vines and work the bodegas. This is still my plan. To achieve this I need a place to live and I intend finding a suitable old stone house, buying it and restoring it to my taste. To do that I need time to look around and make contact with owners, builders, agents, etc. Renting a house in the area seems more than difficult and so far I have drawn a blank. I am sure that there are some houses out there somewhere but so far I have not been lucky. Meanwhile, I am paying out for B&B and hotels at relatively high rates.
I have been offered a house way outside the wine region, mid way between Bilbao and San Sebastian but isolated in the middle of the country, surrounded by apple orchards and mountain pasture.
Built in a sort of Swiss Alpen style with a long, sloping roof, it has two bedrooms on the first floor and a third on the second floor and lots of space in the cellar to store stuff. It is fully furnished and I can have it for as long as I want. I have only seen it from the outside so I am meeting the estate agent tomorrow at three to look inside. Thing is it is only 45 squillion pesetas a month which works out about 200 quid. So what that there’s no phone?
This agent is a bit dodgy. Her name is Elisabeth and her command of English is less than zero. Couple that with an estate agent’s eternal optimism and the sort of enthusiasm that fat, jolly girls seem to exude and you can see why we have difficulty in communicating.
I walked passed her office and noted a photo in the window of a delightful stone barn, partially modernised and very remote.
No price so I went in to ask. I explained my requirements, access, water, electricity, decent roof if possible.
Would I like to see this dream of a cottage, straight out of a story book, almost finished, owner just died before actually completing work, kids want to sell quickly, special price?
“Does it have access?”
“Oh, yes, very quiet and remote but there is a road nearby.”
“Does it have water?”
“Water? Oh, you’ll love the little stream that runs alongside the property. Loads of land about 1000m2.”
“Do you know the Navarra government is subsidising solar panels by up to 40%? And anyway it’s cheap enough to get a generator. Or candles. So romantic, don’t you think?”
I paused, a mistake as she thought it meant I was tempted.
“Why don’t you have a look? Let’s go in your car, it’s only a few minutes down the road.”
So, reluctantly, nothing ventured, nothing gained, I drove out into the National Park.
“Turn off here!”
If she said it once she must have said it a dozen times, each lane narrower than the last. The trees had closed overhead and the bushes on either side of the road were brushing the car when she told me to stop.
“There’s the entrance!” she cried, pointing to a rabbit run between to clumps of hazel bushes.
“Drive down there!”
Drive? Even the rabbits had to breathe in.
I stopped the Beast in the middle of the road (to be precise, I stopped it in the middle and on both verges all at the same time) and got out to have a look. There was a precipitous drop down a gravel strewn scree path towards a small stream overhung with huge old beech and hornbeam trees.
Following Elisabeth’s rapidly disappearing bum, I scrambled down the slope and emerged at a clearing next to a shallow ford across the stream. Elisabeth was sitting on the ground taking off her shoes and socks.
“See? Plenty of water!” she said.
Crossing the icy stream we emerged on the other bank and, blinking in the sunlight saw the most delightful little tumbledown whitewashed stone building. A new roof, door and windows had been fitted and the area around the building had been cleared and levelled. Parts of the walls were living rock as it was built up against the cliff face. There was a huge open fire place, a little kitchen with a bottle gas stove, an even tinier bathroom with just a loo and a shower and an open staircase leading to the first floor.
Upstairs was just one long open gallery, ideal for the master bedroom but it had not been completed. The roof needed lining and the floor needed laying but otherwise it was ready to move in. When she opened the sort of french windows upstairs that led out onto the raised ground at the back, bats began to swoop and flit. She screamed and ran out into the open air.
It was perfect.
Except it had no access, no sceptic tank, no electricity, no phone and cost 50,000 quid.
It took me about twenty minutes to execute a very nail-biting 23 point turn to get the Beast facing the right way up the track and we returned to the office in silence.
“You like?” she asked.
I said it was lovely, just what I was looking for but lacked access, etc etc and was a little out of my price range. I needed to buy something very cheap and do it up myself. Elisabeth is going to keep her eye out for something suitable.
Meanwhile we meet tomorrow to view this house to rent.