At the end of 2018, I swapped cold, damp Manchester for the cold but dry climes of Hoyos in the Sierra de Gata, Extremadura in the middle of Spain and just 15 minutes from Portugal. Hoyos is the administrative capital of the area and its population hovers around 900.
My friends there had found me the sweetest house to rent comprising a living room with a wood-burning stove, a bathroom, a kitchen, a bedroom and an upper floor with a hammock, a washing machine and a view of a lemon grove. This was to be my home for four weeks.
My first day in Hoyos was market day. I stocked up on supplies then walked past olive groves, orange trees, fields of corn, hens, chickens, goats, sheep and horses up to my friends’ finca where I was put to work massaging three kilos of cabbages into sauerkraut. Lunch came almost entirely from the finca’s produce and included winter salad of cabbage, walnut, apple and pomegranate. Heavenly.
My next job was to bottle up and label olive oil. By then I had ‘earned’ fire wood for my wood-burning stove so off we went to gather, box and drive it back to mi casa.
And so began the daily pattern. A walk up to the finca. A variety of chores including grinding flour, painting fences, feeding pigs and other animals, counting olive trees, weeding, etc. Chores were followed by wonderful ‘zero kilometre’ food, then a walk home. Sometimes I’d stay until late and walk back by starlight. One magical night I walked home under the full moon.
The life of Hoyos revolves around its bars. The weekend I arrived, in Bar El Redoble they were celebrating their 25th anniversary. A pig was roasted, and everyone came to eat, drink and dance around the fire until well into the following morning.
An anniversary wasn’t essential for a celebration to happen in Hoyos. And the out-of-towner was always welcome. A three-year-old’s party. An 18-year-old’s lunch. I was there. Mojo de Naranja (orange and salt cod salad) cooked by local chef Antonio and served in the orange grove behind his house happened because we’d had a day trip to the market in Fundão in neighbouring Portugal and had bought salt cod.
Another trip took me to Caceres to the Centro de Artes Visuales Fundación Helga de Alvear whose unexpected collection is a comprehensive and intelligent journey through minimalism with works from artists including Josef Albers, Carl Andre, Lygia Clark, Dan Flavin, Carmen Herrera, Donald Judd and Richard Tuttle.
We visited the National Park of Manfragüe and its brand new visitor centre where I learned that the 18,000 hectare park is home to 180 different bird species, although we saw mainly vultures and kites.
Every Friday I helped to cook a hearty vegan lunch for the ReForestActionNetwork volunteer team who, led by the incredible Bongui, are planting trees to replace those lost when fires in 2015 devastated thousands of hectares of pine forest in the Sierra. Rather than replace the pine – an unwelcome leftover from Franco’s dictatorship and also a tinderbox – they are reintroducing native species like oak and hawthorn. In the two years that the project has been active, Bongui and his volunteers have planted an astonishing 100,000 trees.
Christmas and New Year celebrations were kept low-key with long, sunny walks around the villages of the Sierra and then home for good food, drink and conversations about the seasons, the stars, the lack of acorns this year and the lateness of crops. All told, they made even this hardened urban flâneuse feel a little bit more prepared for survival.