tp not_in=”es”] Major update due to second visit!
La Estrella is a village 24 kilometres from Mosqueruela and the same again from Vilafranca. From the first town the track is of dirt and very bumpy, largely impossible without a 4 x 4 or walking boots. From the other, it is partially-asphalted and narrow, a spectacular drive that twists and turns with deep ravines at the side.
For the last 30 years only two people have lived in this village; Juan-Martin, 79, and Sinforosa, 82. For company they have 25 cats called Michurrin, 5 dogs, one of which answers to the name of “Estrella”, 4 hens, a rooster, 35 bee panels, and until 8 years ago, 22 horses.
The village is very unusual.
A simple scattering of houses it is not. The buildings are indeed few, but extremely well built, petering out from a generous square presided by a magnificent church, a blue-tiled copula and all the trappings that go with such. At one point this tiny village bustled with life, a constable prowled the three tavernas, a residing priest took confession and two teachers ruled over the schools – one for the girls and the other for the boys, just in case there were any temptations!
Legend has it that La Estrella was constructed to house the mistresses of many wealthy and important “holy” men in its day, in particular one countess who was responsible for the church. Surely not, but then again no Spanish has been able to give me a better explanation for la Estrella’s existence, despite the fact that during the civil war it was a refuge for many of the “maquis” (Spanish guerrillas).
Its abandonment is easier to understand.
In 1883 a torrential storm sent a giant cascade of water down from the mountain above that in one single stroke wiped out half its inhabitants and 17 houses. It was as if the wrath of God had visited. Of interest is that the square, vicarage and church remained intact. A memorial plaque to this dreadful happening can be found embedded in a wall to the side of the square. After the flood La Estrella lost its shine. That is to say, it was abandoned bit by bit.
But it was going to take a good while still for some 70 years later the couple that reside there today met each other at a dance in one of the two tavernas left. They stayed to raise a family and although their children have long since gone, they have never felt a need to follow.
When told the story I felt a strong urge to meet Juan and Sinforosa, feeling some kind of kinship, perhaps misplaced, but there all the same for this couple that live away from mainstream society. Like myself they have neither television nor phone. They too source their electricity from solar panels and a cisterna supplies all their water.
We have plenty to do with the animals and our cherry trees, they told a reporter, and a radio is just fine. Most weekends one of our children visits.
For the odd trips to the local town, to see a doctor or dentist, they rely on an old jeep to negotiate the perilous tracks.
All this I found easily on the internet, the pair are as written and filmed about as this village is neglected it seems. They live alone, they look after the church for no remuneration, and they probably do not know how famous they kind of are.
Ok, so nothing like me at all, but definitely intriguing and I really yearned to see this village and meet them, but with no idea how to get there, I thought I never would. It is not exactly a place you just take off for. A place hidden in one of the most unpopulated areas of Europe by the way.
Then a local agreed to take me there.
We started early at 7am and he drove his 4 x 4 up and beyond, his little plucky dog next to me, jumping around in jubilation, rolling the automatic windows up and down with his paws. We saw virgin forests, hidden caves and sheer drops. The beauty of El Maestrat is no stranger to me, but now it was augmented to the point that I became so landscape drunk that when we turned the corner and saw La Estrella I was unmoved. From afar yet another small enclave nestling in the shadow of a mountain. So what? I was expecting a mirage, a vision arising from the Campo, complete with virgins, statues and God knows what else.
We entered and walked around. This took exactly 3 minutes. In the centre was the famous square and church, with a vicarage of gigantic proportions, and a striking town hall. The walls were painted with frescos. On the façade of the town hall was a plaque commemorating its most famous erstwhile inhabitant, Silvio Zafont Colomer, the bullfighter who died young in a car accident in France.
Lets go, my driver said abruptly.
No, I replied, I want to meet the old couple.
They are not here he stated, if so they would have come out to see you by now.
I was not sure. A dozen cats clustered outside the vicarage doors telling me otherwise. They had expectant looks and also a stand had been placed in front on the square. Tomorrow would be the fiesta of La Virgin de la Estrella, one of the only two days of the year that this town comes back to life.
Besides where would the couple go?
Let’s leave, he repeated. It dawned on me that he was on council time in council car and did not want to be discovered. But I held back.
At that point the door of the vicarage opened and a sprightly man emerged, beaming ear to ear. It was him, Juan-Martin! He agreed to photos, his wife too, although reluctantly (she does not like photos of herself, he confessed (another kinship here?). Then he cheerfully showed me around the church and the vicarage where they lived; its dining halls, the kitchens, the communal bakery, and a multitude of small bedrooms in which once upon a time monks had resided.
The vicarage was god smacking. Forgive the pun. I was overawed by the quality of the entire construction, but the wood in particular. The splendor of the church was incomprehensible. How did it come to be? When it was built all the only access to this hamlet was by single file mule track. Just getting the huge stone pillars there must have been some feat! This was bought into focus when I stumbled across a long discarded beam at the edge of the town, hollowed out in a U-shape to increase its strength and help its preservation. It was a work of art, the cavity filled with mud, a scattering snails clinging to it, and yet the wood was intact. I lifted one end – it weighed a ton. Or more. It was sadly abandonned, yet I could think of no way I could transport it to my masia without cutting it into three sections and tying it to the roof rails.
We left, passing the haunting cemetery just outside the village – I imagined the drowned wailing from inside, in another dimension. My guide drove us silently up the other track towards towards Mosqueruela. Bumpy, very, and difficult, but even more beautiful.
You were supposed to give a tip – the man asked for one, he finally said.
I felt bad. And I was surprised I was not wrestled to the ground. I decided I would go back and eventually six months later I did in my old Skoda estate, my heart in my throat as the track was worse than the first time due to recent floods.
With me came hubby James and friend Miguel – to give a guiding hand. I was still unclear as to the exact route. I took along a large photo of the village from the first visit and some money which I pressed in the beaming Juan-Martin’s hands as soon as I saw him.
What is this for, he asked?
A tip, I replied. He looked very puzzled so I hastily added, a contribution to help with this place. He graciously took it and then spent two hours showing us around La Estrella, in places I had not seen the first time. Once he even confessed I was the first journalist to see the priest’s changing room. His ceremonial garments still lay neatly folded in a large heavy drawer.
The day was chilly and towards the end an icy wind whipped around the neatly chiseled stone corners. The sprightly Sinformosa showed me where the bullfighter was born, a tiny house that had been crammed with his siblings. She noticed me shiver. Us women are always cold, she confided.
Later James asked me what was the highlight of the day was for me. It was not the priest’s chambers or the screen the monks were obscured behind, neither seeing the heartening reformations taking place around the village, none of that. It was those two words “us women”. My kinship was not misplaced after all.
Tap Spanish flag at top for spanish translation by Anna Belles