I have been here on and off for seven years, and now mostly on. I can hardly believe it. I don’t want to. It brings home the brevity of life. The first two years were spent looking for the ideal retreat from the modern world – something clinging to the side of a mountain where no one would ever bother me. I never found that place, but I found something else that I grew to love with all its compromises just the same.
In these years I have come across people from all walks of life, made unexpected friends, and at times stumbled across some who do not care for me too much. I still get bothered, mountain or no. That’s life. If I understood these things, they would not happen.
One of the acquaintances I have made is the prolific and diverse writer Jason Webster. Amongst his many books is ¡Guerra! about the Spanish civil war, the only one I could actually ever understand, and at the other extreme, the achingly romantic “A Year on a Spanish Mountain”.
This autobiographical account stems from his purchase in circa 2003 of an 18-acre mountain farm high in up in the Maestrat, nestling in the apron of Penyagolosa and about one hour from the Mediterranean coast. I read the book around the time I started to do my own finca up, caught up in the stories he wove and wondering about his mysterious partner, the flamenco dancer Salud. On an impulse, I sent a neighbourly email, never expecting an answer. But much to my surprise, Jason got in touch and generously invited me for Sunday paella at their finca, which they now only visited on weekends having decamped to Valencia since the arrival of boy number one.
To be honest I was supremely flattered. We arranged to meet at a hermitage outside Atzeneta and at the time I remember thinking that very strange, but I went along with it – who knew where their place was after all? In fact I did not even know where the hermitage was, but a few locals pointed me in the right direction. When I arrived an incredibly dashing, very tall, Jason Webster was waiting for me in his 4×4 Nissan Land Rover. He took a quick look at my Skoda estate and declared, better change vehicles.
And moments later, off we went.
Or rather wound. And wound, and wound. Up and then down, and then up again, along narrow mountain roads skirted at times by creeks full of water. I craned my neck to admire the amazing views, at the same time trying not to take in the slightly frightening drops – some of which would have put my stomach in several knots if it were not for the slick expertise of my chauffeur. I was very glad not to be at the wheel.
After about 35 minutes, (there is a shorter route, Jason assured me) we lurched around the last corner and slid to a stop on what seemed the top of the world. It certainly was the end of the road. An enormous oak tree sheltering a wooden swing sat to the side of us. This in itself is fairly rare as there are not many oaks in Castellon anymore. Queen Isobel is typically blamed for the uncontrolled slaughter of Spain’s forests to construct the Spanish Armadas. But in Castellon, it is well known that the tile factories consumed more trees than any sailing fleet.
Just beyond the oak was an attractively proportioned white stuccoed farmhouse and beyond that another in the process of renovation. A lovely stone terrace snaked around the ensemble framing the most fantastic panoramic views you possibly imagine. Below the terrace sat a small detached building that, dare I say it, I had already allocated as the guest cottage.
To the side, halfway to the top of his very own mountain peak was yet another one. Wonderful!
I thought back to my purchase and compromises and reflected, I found a place in the end, true, but nothing like this. I was red with envy (ok, green).
A bit hard to explain but let me try again in a different way. It’s a bit like, wanting to have a change, and loving the unspoilt something or other of somewhere, and then ending up building something new. That is what I did. But that is not what Jason did.
As well as being envious, I was enchanted.
We had a mad lunch, with the lovely Salud, now his wife, and his father, and an English bloke called John who lived nearby, having married a Spanish woman called Carmine some 40 years ago. They still appeared blissfully happy. Could it be the mountain air? An eagle or two flew overhead and Jason peered into the deep blue sky through binoculars while his son Arturo played with a giant pine cone.
I looked around at the idyllic stone fincas dotted sparsely around the mountains, all without access roads of any kind. What would happen to them? Without a tractor or a very robust off-road vehicle, they were seriously off limits.
The red wine flowed and I took a number of photos. Salud’s Paella was very, very good, though she was anxious about its perfection. Paella is a serious business in Spain. I don’t know how to equate it in England. Maybe drawing the perfect pint?
A lovely summer’s day drew to a close and Jason drove me all the way back to Atzeneta, and then of course had to return to the finca, and then to Valencia. I felt bad and touched in equal parts about his unstated generosity. After all, we were truthfully strangers. Happily, we kept in touch, and I heard about the birth of his second child, another boy, and the debut of his detective novels, which I bought and enjoyed reading, and then recently he sent me an email. “I am selling the finca”, he explained, “with two young boys our needs and time available have changed”.
I guess all things come to pass, but I was unreasonably upset. Not only had Jason written about the magic of this area, but he also loved it just as I do. Now he was succumbing to the pressures of fatherhood and turning his back on MY dream retreat up a mountain.
I pouted, and then recalled when our two boys were toddlers. Of course our needs were very different then. And our time was not our own.
If I could I would buy it, but anyone who has been reading my blogs on Anglo.Info would know this is now financially impossible. The place at the end of the stresses of the world is available for a mere £140,000. 18 acres, forty truffle trees, four stone farmhouses and much more. To fund the renovations, any future owner can even legally subdivide it into as many as 9 plots, though 2 would work best geographically. There is a solar installation and working well and you can moved straight into the main house. Get it while you can. Sadly I can’t.
For more details of Jason Webster’s finca click here.