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The lost village of La Estrella

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La estrella
The village of La Estrella, Spain where only 2 people live

La Estrella is situated 24 kilometres from Mosqueruela and the same again from Vilafranca. From the first town the track is of dirt and unbelievably 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 through treacherous ravines which become terrifying when the asphalt road peters into a rocky trail.

For the last 30 years only two people have lived in this village; Juan-Martin, 79, and his wife 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. Oh, and some goats.

The village is very unusual.

La Estrella is very unusual
The light in La Estrella is very mystical

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 3, then later, 2 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!

The church of La Estrella
It is hard to understand how La Estrella’s church was built in the middle of nowhere

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 Spaniard has been able to give 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).

The interior of La Estrella's church
The church of La Estrella is stunning

Its abandonment is easier to understand.

AN ancient tree in La Estrella
The ancient tree in La Estrella’s square threatens to overshadow the vicarage

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.

In memory of those who died in La Estrella's flood
17 houses destroyed and 26 people killed in the flood of La Estrella 1883

But this was going to take a good while still, incrementally over decades. In point, it was some 70 years later that Juan and  Sinforosa  met each other in La Estrella 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.

The last two at La Estrella
Juan and Sinforosa are the only habitant’s left in La Estrella

It is a story that has rebounded through the vallies and mountains of El Maestrat for many years already.  Like others before me, I felt a deep curiosity about this couple and wanted 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 had neither television nor phone. They too sourced their electricity from solar panels and a cisterna supplied 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 Landrover to negotiate the perilous tracks.

Juan's Landrover, La Estrella
Juan and Sinforosa have had this Landrover forever

All this I found easily on the internet, the pair are as written and filmed about as this village is neglected it seems.  Mostly by keen hikers.  They live alone, they look after the church for no remuneration, and they probably do not know how famous they kind of are.

The monastery stairs of La Estrella
Juan slowly climbs the monastery stairs to the massive dining room for two, once for 200!

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 ranger agreed to take me there.

Alt Maestrat is littered with caves
A secret cave where the Maquis used to hide, Spain

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.

Alt Maestrat, Spain
La Estrella is not easy to find or get to

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.

Vicarage of La Estrella
There is a plaque on the vicarage for its most famous citizen, Silvio Zafont Colomer

Let’s 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.

Cats of La Estrella
About a dozen cats were sniffingoutside the monastery door expectantly

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.

cat in La Estrella
There are many more cats in La Estrella than humans

The vicarage was god smacking. Forgive the pun.  I was overawed by the quality of the entire construction, but the wood in particular. The splendour of the church was incomprehensible. How did it come to be? When it was built the only access to this hamlet was by single file mule track. Just getting the huge stone pillars there must have been some feat!  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 of snails clinging to it like sailing armadas. I lifted one end – it weighed a ton and the wood for all its dirt and damp was in perfect condition. How sadly abandoned and how to rescue it?  I could think of no way I could transport it to my masia without cutting it  with some super strong power saw into three sections and tying it to the ranger’s roof rails.

Old Spanish wood in La Estrella
The wood in particular was amazing

We left, passing the haunting cemetery just outside the village – I imagined the distraught wailing  of the drowned in 1883 from inside, in another dimension. My guide drove us silently up the other track towards towards Mosqueruela. Bumpy, very, and difficult.  I was tossed from side to side as I stared at the incredible virgin beauty around us.

Cemetery, La Estrella
The cemetery seemed to be howling with pain

The silence was heavy and I clung to the seats.

You were supposed to give a tip – the man asked for one, my driver 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 and the car was not up to the task (I had a 700 euro repair bill afterwards!).

With me came hubby James and friend Miguel – to give a guiding hand. We were unclear as to the exact route but got there in the end. 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.

Juan, La Estrella
A beaming Juan greeted us on our second visit

What is this for, he asked?

A tip, a propino, 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, including places I had not seen the first time. Once he even confessed we were the first visitors to see the priest’s changing room. His ceremonial garments still lay neatly folded in a large heavy drawer.

La Estrella alleyway
An icy wind was blowing down the grassy paths

The day was chilly and drawing to its winter 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 the highlight of the visit was for me. It was not the priest’s chambers or the screen the monks were obscured behind, neither seeing a few heartening reformations taking place around the village, none of that. It was those two words “us women”. My kinship was not misplaced after all.

Update! In 2018 it seems that Jaun and Sinformosa have even hit commercial fame with Landrover – I hope with all my heart they were justly rewarded! Click below to see this:

Landrover ad of Juan and Sinformosa

Sinforosa, La Estrella
Sinforosa made me feel special

La Estrella es un pueblo a 24 kilómetros de Mosqueruela y la misma distancia desde Vilafranca. Desde el primer pueblo, el camino es un de tierra y con muchos baches, con un ancho imposible de recorrer sin un 4×4 o botas de senderismo. Desde el otro pueblo, está mejor asfaltado, pero es angosto, un espectacular viaje que tuerce y gira con profundos barrancos al lado.

Durante los últimos 30 años sólo dos personas han vivido en este pueblo; Martín, 79, y Sinforosa, 82. Como compañía tienen 25 gatos llamados Michurrín, 3 perros llamados Pichurrines, 4 gallinas, un gallo, 35 paneles de abejas, y hasta hace 8 años, 22 caballos.

El pueblo es muy diferente.

No es una simple dispersión de casas. Hay realmente pocas construcciones, pero extremadamente bien construidas; han ido desapareciendo desde una gran plaza presidida por una magnífica iglesia, una cúpula de teja azul y todos los adornos que van con ello.

En un momento dado, este diminuto pueblo rebosaba de vida, con un constante merodeo en los bares, un cura residente tomando confesión y dos maestros llevando las escuelas- una para chicas y otra para chicos, ¡por si hubiera alguna tentación!

La leyenda dice que La Estrella fue construida para alojar a las amantes de algunos hombres ricos e importantes en su día, de hecho algunos de la iglesia. Seguramente no, pero por otro lado ningún español ha sido capaz de darme una explicación mejor para la existencia de la Estrella, además del hecho de que durante la Guerra Civil fue un refugio para algunos maquis.

Su abandono es más fácil de entender.

En 1883 una tormenta torrencial envió un torrente gigante de agua bajando desde la montaña, que en un solo golpe aniquiló la mitad de sus habitantes y 17 casas. Fue como si la ira de Dios los hubiera visitado. Lo más interesante es que la plaza, la casa parroquial y la iglesia permanecieron intactas. Podréis encontrar una placa en memoria de este terrible hecho en una pared, en un lado de la plaza. Después de la riada la Estrella perdió su brillo. Es decir, fue abandonada lentamente poco a poco.

70 años después, la pareja que reside hoy allí se conoció en un baile en una de las dos tabernas abandonadas. Se quedaron para llevar adelante una familia y aunque sus niños hace mucho que se fueron, ellos nunca han sentido necesidad para seguir adelante. Noté cierta afinidad con esta gente que no conocía. No tienen televisión ni teléfono (¡yo tampoco!), no tienen red eléctrica o agua (¡ni yo!). Un viejo cacharro para llegar al pueblo en un rato (ídem). Y tienen una salud perfecta, con todos sus dientes propios (vale, yo no tengo todos mis propios dientes).

Tenemos bastante que hacer con los animales y nuestros cerezos, dijeron a un reportero, y con una radio está bien. Muchos fines de semana alguien nos visita.

Yo tengo 451 árboles que regar en 5 hectáreas y con cubos, pensé. Y mi música es todo lo que necesito. Algunos meses alguien viene.
Hay poco más satisfactorio que un día de trabajo físico en la tierra seguido de una tarde libre y melodiosa.

Quería ver este pueblo, pero no tenía ni idea de dónde estaba realmente.
Recientemente uno del pueblo accedió a llevarme. Estaba realmente emocionada. Nos fuimos pronto, a las 7 de la mañana y él condujo su 4×4 subiendo más allá. Su pequeño y valiente perro se sentó cerca de mí, saltando alrededor de alegría, subiendo y bajando las ventanas con sus patas. Sabía lo que estaba por llegar.

Vi bosques perdidos, cuevas escondidas y auténticas pendientes. La belleza de El Maestrat no es extraña para mí, pero entonces estaba aumentando hasta el punto que me emborraché de vistas y cuando giramos la esquina y vi La Estrella, me quedé indiferente. Desde lejos otro pequeño enclave en la ombría de la montaña. ¿Y qué? Estaba esperando un espejismo, una visión surgiendo del campo, completada con vírgenes, estatuas y Dios sabe qué más.

Entramos y caminamos por allí. Tardamos 3 minutos exactamente. En el centro estaba la famosa plaza y la iglesia, con una casa parroquial de proporciones gigantescas y un ayuntamiento imponente. Las paredes estaban pintadas con frescos. En la fachada del ayuntamiento había una placa conmemorativa de su habitante más famoso de otra época, Silvio Zafont Colomer, torero.

Murió joven en un accidente de coche en Francia.

Vámonos, dijo mi conductor de repente.

No, respondí, quiero conocer a la pareja de ancianos.

No están aquí, afirmó, si no ellos ya habrían venido a verte.

No estaba segura. Una docena de gatos alrededor de las puertas de la casa parroquial me decían otra cosa. Estaban mirando expectantes y además se habían puesto delante. Al día siguiente era la fiesta de la Virgen de la Estrella, el único día del año en que este pueblo vuelve a la vida. Además, ¿dónde podía haber ido la pareja?

Vámonos, repitió. Entonces caí en que estaba en horario del ayuntamiento con el coche del ayuntamiento y no quería ser descubierto. Pero yo estaba retenida.

La puerta de la casa parroquial estaba abierta y un hombre alegre salió, sonriente de oreja a oreja. ¡Era él, Martín! Accedió a que le hiciera fotos, su mujer también, aunque de mala gana (no le gustan las fotos de sí misma, confesó él (¡otra afinidad!)). Alegremente, él me enseñó, alrededor de la iglesia y de la casa parroquial donde ellos viven, su salón comedor, las cocinas, la panadería. Una multitud de pequeños dormitorios- ¿para monjes?

La casa parroquial era para quedar boquiabierto. Estaba impresionada por la calidad de la madera.

Nos fuimos, pasando por el inolvidable cementerio justo fuera del pueblo. Mi guía nos llevó por el otro camino hacia Mosqueruela. Con baches y difícil, pero aún más bonito.

Creía que le habías dado propina- el hombre me pidió una, dijo él.
Me sentí mal. Y estaba tan sorprendida que no me derribó.

Sin embargo, en agosto volveré con las fotos impresas y quizás algo más.
Esa será la propina, con un poco de retraso pero mejor tarde que nunca.

Traducción español por Anna Belles

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  1. Maria
    April 30, 2020

    Very interesting history about this Villa La Estrella. I was fascinated reading, I read a lot and came to me your blog.
    I speak and write in Spanish as well, that is my mother language. I live in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. I emigrated in 1988 with my family.
    Looks like you are having a good time in Spain. To sad the village is empty, with just the couple you meet.

    • stephanie de leng
      May 7, 2020

      Hi Maria,

      I replied to you before but it didn’t get published it seems. The couple are fine and the children of the families that left are beginning to restore the village bit by bit. Since I first wrote this blog they have been getting more and more notice around the world. All they need now is a decent road! Or maybe not…

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