SEEKING some respite from the hot summers of Jerez, we concluded that a cottage in Northern Spain would be a useful bolt hole. We were initially tempted by Arbo, famed for its lampreys and river beaches on the border of Portugal.
Naturally, there would be an element of risk from the latching mouths whilst taking the waters and we certainly didn’t feel like sampling the local delicacy of ‘lampreys cooked in their own blood’ but, putting that aside, the fact you could swim over to Portugal or, more realistically, walk there over a bridge, was tempting.
The first house we offered on was a mansion stuffed with dusty antiques and we considered creating a boutique hotel. On mentioning this to the estate agent and having the information passed to the elderly lady who owned the house, the sale was suddenly off because her grandchild thought our idea was good enough for him to try himself.
Deciding to keep our ideas to ourselves in future, we found another dwelling nearby, less grand but with a valley view and a pear orchard.
The pears were ripe at the time of our visit and those sweet juices persuaded us to offer the asking price.
Unfortunately, there was then squabbling amongst the four owner siblings about the price.
We engaged a lawyer to handle the sale – if and when it went through – but she had discovered an archaic rule: To buy a property on the Portugal-Spain border we would need permission from the Spanish military, a lengthy business with a slim chance of success. We withdrew the offer and decided to look far north of this troublesome border.
Buying in Asturias had no peculiar rules. We settled on a typical house of the region, stone and chestnut with parts painted in chalky rojo inglés. The house had been empty for ten years and virtually unchanged for a hundred with the little oil lamps still on the walls…a time capsule we immediately wanted to preserve.
Contents are often thrown in as part of the sale in old abandoned houses in Spain, but when we asked about this, the estate agent said the owner, the granddaughter of the former owner, had become suspicious, believing there to be something of great value amongst the goods and chattels.
To put the granddaughter’s mind at rest, we agreed to a slightly inflated contents fee. She never understood our wish to be custodians of this mini museum and to keep it, more or less, as her grandmother left it.
We only know a few things about Paula Solis who lived in that house all her life, her parents before her. We first saw her name carved into a wooden mortar and there was a branding iron with her initials.
We found two pairs of wooden shoes that some country people still wear in Asturias. Paula’s feet were small, as was her stature, at least in old age because the dresses left in the wardrobe would fit someone of around five feet.
There were some mystery items: I called one a ‘whey pig’ because it had four legs, a sort of snout and looked like something that would drain a large round cheese.
Another item hanging on a wall, with a cluster of sharp nails dangerously at eye level, was perhaps for carding wool.
Hanging from Paula’s kitchen ceiling were various baskets, perhaps used for picking and storing apples.
There were ceramic pots stained with soot to put on the stove to keep food warm. Paula was gingham mad: curtains, cushion covers, aprons.
Soap was stacked in a cupboard upstairs, perhaps because its pungent odour was a moth deterent.
Perfume bottles and talcum powder filled the top drawer in her bedroom.
A prayer stool was placed beside her bed.
Next to that her wash stand where she probably washed before praying.
A wooden crib in its stand had been kept, perhaps where she had lain as a baby and her own babies thereafter.
Auriel’s further adventures with this house in Asturias will be published on her website this summer. Another renovation project, an old house in the historic centre of Jerez, also features on www.aurielroe.com.
Auriel Roe taught drama, literature and art at secondary school teacher in the UK and abroad for twenty-two years and now spends her time writing, painting and managing her rental properties. Her debut novel Blindefellows was #1 in humour in Amazon UK, US and Canada. She is also an editor of www.memoirist.org