IT is over three decades since journalist Paul Richardson, 60, swapped London for Extremadura, via Ibiza.
The well-known travel and food writer, who has penned for everyone from the Financial Times to the Guardian, has battled the elements to tame his idyllic farm in a rural corner of Caceres province.
Aiming for self-sufficiency, he and partner Nacho sowed seeds and planted a vegetable garden, while carefully cultivating his orchard of peach, apricot and cherry trees. They also took on a menagerie of animals, including sheep, goats and chickens, which they learnt to butcher when needed.
While their ultimate goal proved impossible, they have carved out an enviable, if often stressful, life in a stunning part of Spain, while frequently both travelling for work.
In his latest book, serialised exclusively in the Olive Press, he has mapped out life in rural southern Europe on a month by month basis, kicking off in January.
Richardson doesn’t pull punches and is brutally honest about the problems of fire and depopulation, plus issues with being a gay couple in such a backwater.
As every expat and regular traveller to Spain will know, August is about keeping cool and dealing with the constant fear of forest fires.
Violent heat like a carelessly wielded hammer
You’d think I’d be better prepared – after all, it does come round every year – but somehow there is just no preparing for August. It feels extreme, and every year more so, in a dull, violent way like a carelessly wielded hammer. Even now there’s an ongoing shock factor, a pinch-yourself feeling that this surely can’t be real.
An August day has two awakenings. One in the dew-freshened early morning, when you pull the bedcovers up around you and wish you’ d worn a T-shirt to bed, but struggle up and out anyway. Sometimes after our late hungry breakfast (eggs and ham, the full works) I feel a snooze coming on and happily give way to the impulse – an hour or so on the sofa, thence to work. But even cogent thought is hard: heat turns the brain to jelly.
So you batten down the hatches. Like the news footage of people nailing planks to their shopfronts before the arrival of a ferocious storm, I go around the house shutting windows and blinds though I can feel the sun already nosing around the house, the incipient heat on the window frames. Casting my eye around for anything that might suffer under the onslaught: a box of carrots newly dug; a canister of two-stroke; a length of garden hose (they go sticky if left out in the heat). One morning years ago I left a whole crop of just-pulled onions lying on the ground to dry off briefly, only realising hours later they were still out there and roasting, broiling, frying under the midday sun.
Between the day’s two bursts of activity, all is somnolence and sitting about, sweating lightly, in the darkened house. Yesterday I somehow forgot to eat as the window of opportunity for lunch gently closed and I was already on the sofa with my daily dose of Proust. Drifted awake at half past seven, confused and mired in sleep. The morning now seems irretrievably distant, like something that happened long ago in another world.
Up at seven. The sheep are eager to be out of their corral and scarper down the slope to their favourite pear tree, where they chomp on the night’s fallen pears awkwardly with teeth unsuitable for chomping, rolling the fruit around their mouths.
This morning a yellowish, dirty haze lies over the country, which wears an exhausted look, colour-drained, the line where the land ends and the sky begins nearly indistinguishable. In these dog days even the clean clear mornings are denied us. Just getting through the day feels like an achievement. I nip out at lunchtime to pick a leaf from the bay tree and the heat is shocking – I feel the air searing my lungs. The high today is on course for 40°C; the low, as much as 27°C. Heats I’ve never known in all these years. Heats so powerful they warp and bend the whole structure of your life. It’s horrifying.
Hidden Valley: Finding freedom in Spain’s deep country is published by Abacus Books.
Paul Richardson has written half a dozen travel books, his first being; Not Part of the Package: A Year in Ibiza