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SQUISHED BY LEMMINGS - Buying a home in Spain
Maggy P -
... looking out saw that many of those trees had now been felled to make way for a small municipal car park.

LATER . . .In October, still without a response to our offer, we decided we should go and have another look. So we booked ourselves in for a week at half-term at the same self catering apartment that we had used previously.

The initial cursory survey, carried out by a local expat builder, had identified some minor problems with the house that needed to be addressed, mainly carpentry; doors that needed rebuilding, windows and shutters that needed renovating. The house itself needed a through scouring, some rewiring and a coat or two of paint inside and out. There were a few cracks in the walls, and the stone floors needed work in some places too.

We thought we should go and assess the likely cost of these essential works in case we needed to up our offer in order to clinch the deal. There would be no point in buying the place only to be without the wherewithal to make it sound.

The turbulence on the flight to Malaga was quite severe, but was nothing compared to the Autumn gales we had left behind in Britain. The sky was overcast at the airport, but the air was still gentle, warmly caressing, and we gleefully stowed our coats, scarves, gloves and so on in the boot of the hire car, and set off on the three hour drive along the coast and up into the mountains.

We stopped in Orgiva to buy some provisions, and looking up saw that the road above the town had vanished into a blanket of swirling mist. We climbed into the murky heights slowly and carefully, as the visibility was now very limited. Every so often a car hurtled out towards us from the next hairpin bend at what seemed like reckless speed. They must be locals we thought, to be sufficiently confident to be taking such risks. The roads themselves were excellent, well-built and maintained, but the route up the mountain slopes was giddy-making.

Rounding a bend, we saw ahead of us some twenty or thirty yards off, at the limit of our visibility, something large and black in the middle of the road. Creeping closer it materialised as a freshly striated rock the size of a microwave oven, glistening wetly on the tarmac. Gingerly we drove round it then, after going a few yards further my husband suddenly pulled over and stopped. Worried and perplexed, thinking we had a car problem, he reassured me that everything was fine, but that he really felt he must just go back and take that rock off the highway in case it caused an accident.

Melted yet again by the sheer chivalric altruism of the man I loved, I waited as he got out of the car and headed back towards the hazard on foot. Gazing at the mist and the dripping foliage, it seemed as if I was in a tropical Dartmoor landscape. Strange, weird beyond imagining. And then I saw a few more pebbles trickling down a cliffside on the next bend. Suddenly the car bounced violently, as my husband jumped back into the driving seat, slammed the door,and, engine screaming shot off up the mountainside. I could see he was white faced and visibly shaking, and after a moment to collect himself he told me that as he had reached the monster rock in the road, and was considering just how to lever it into the verge, he had heard pebbles cascading down from far above and looking up had just been able to dodge a second huge rock the size of a dustbin as it hurtled down to crash-land alongside its fellow. Phew! He had been very lucky indeed to have come away unscathed, and we made it up that mountain road in double quick time.

When we arrived at the village pension where we were staying, we were no longer warm or buoyant, we were chilly and rather subdued.This was actually quite scary country. Life here could be vibrant, exciting, vital, stimulating, varied, fascinating, but it could also be unpredictable, violent, hard, and dangerous.

We were glad to see that there were logs in the fireplace, huge knotty chunks of fruitwood, and that the central heating system was working. We set to, lighting the fire and making ourselves at home. An hour later the heating went off, and despite our best efforts we gave up on trying to make the fruitwood burn. The building was of modern construction, brick built with tiled floors that transmitted every last sound, and the single-skin walls soon began to transmit the cold as well. Donning every piece of cold-weather gear we had with us we went out to find some hot food and comfort. To our surprise the drenching mists had turned to wet snowfall as we scurried around the village looking for an eaterie with a functioning fireplace.

Nevertheless, we felt, we were glad to have been able to see this place in it’s less benevolent mode. We had a clearer overview of what we were contemplating and what some of the pitfalls might be. We made the best of it, ate a hearty meal and bought a mansized box of firelighters which did a fine job on the lumps of recalcitrant fruitwood. We recalled the cherries we had picked through the windows of this same apartment back in July, black sweet and juicy, and looking out saw that many of those trees had now been felled to make way for a small municipal car park. No wonder the wood wouldn't burn, it was still green.

The next day the skies had cleared and we met up with some British expats, a couple we had first become acquainted with during our first visit in the summer. They had lived in the area for nearly thirty years, and had in fact stayed in ‘our’ house on their honeymoon, back in the seventies. Jonathan and Wendy came with us to look at the old place again when we got the keys from the agents. And we were very glad they did.

We struggled with the rusty wrought iron gate on the steps and fought our way through the undergrowth, now laden with bunches of grapes and ripe rose hips. By torchlight we wrestled with stuck doors and windows, stiff catches veiled in cobwebs, until finally the dark mustiness gave way to bright golden light as the sun streamed in.

It was a sweet house, and we again felt that sense of welcome we had been aware of when we had first seen it. Fronting onto fields and meadows, far below in the Poquera Gorge, the river roared over the rocks, invisible but still just audible. Reputed to be one of the original dwellings of the settlement, there was a feeling of solidity and permanence about the place. As strangers in a strange land, we had not felt equipped to take on a more remote homestead. We had seen quite a few of these; some had terrifying access roads, some had no power or water, some were ruinous, a few were overpriced.

Here, on the edge of a community with everything on hand from a bank to a bakery, and including a thrice daily bus service to Granada, we felt we had more chance of making the transition from tourist to resident at some point in the future.

Wendy and Jonathan went from room to room reminiscing and pointing out the changes that had been made over the years. They were a lively pair, knowledgeable about the area and it’s people, and of course fluent in Spanish. One of their main sources of income was serving the needs of wealthy expats, organising projects such as the installation of swimming pools, supervising renovations and building extensions. This expertise, combined with their familiarity with the house led to some very unexpected discoveries.

As they wandered around, they noticed the cracks in the walls and some in the floors that the initial survey had identified as needing only cosmetic repair. Going upstairs and downstairs a few times they called to us and together we made a closer inspection. The sites of the cracks downstairs corresponded roughly to the ones upstairs, and to our dismay we realised that this could mean that the whole frontage of the house might be involved. We also noticed faint signs of water damage in about the same area upstairs near the ceiling. This might mean that the roof too was affected. We went outside, and sure enough there was the evidence that some of the cracks were unlikely to be merely superficial. Some of the floor level ones even extended across the patio of the next house. Once again our hearts sank as we saw our dream dissolve in an imaginary landslip of epic proportions down the hillside and into the Poquera.

Thoroughly disheartened now, we closed the house up again and decamped to the bar for a stiff drink. Wendy and Jonathan were not at all phased by what we had seen, and explained that the Alpujarras were subject to earth tremors all the time, and that cracks in walls and floors were commonplace.They pointed out that a five hundred year old house in such a region wasn’t likely to be going anywhere in the near future since it had already withstood half a century of volcanic activity. The only real question as far as they were concerned had to do with the more recent activity of the local property developers, who had put up an apartment block nearby some five years or so ago, against strong local opposition regarding the suitability of the site. Perhaps this was what had generated the cracks in “our” house.

We knew that it was one of the oldest buildings in the village, and that it stood safely on solid bedrock, because some of it was visible inside the house in places, at the back, where it connected to the hillside.This was what helped it to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter. But we were still very worried.

From the bar Wendy and Jonathan escorted us on a tour of the new apartment block, some fifty meters or so further along the barranco from the house, just beyond the original village perimeter. Built on two levels, there was a ten metre walkway between the upper level and the lower one, with a total of about thirty individual units, fifteen on either side. We gazed in disbelief at the gaping fissures in the concrete that ran the length of the walkway on the lower side, six inches wide in parts and affecting the service steps and balustrades at the entrances to each apartment. Many of the units remained unoccupied. Now we could see why. Parts of it looked like a battle zone, with cracked walls and ruined facades. The walkway itself, built of concrete pavoirs, was rippled and rucked like a shaken rug, undulating along it’s entire length.

Wendy and Jonathan explained that when the development was first proposed, the villagers had opposed the plan because it was well known locally that the area of land at the head of the barranco was notoriously unstable. There were several of these smaller ravines that fed the Poquera, and the forces that were unleashed by the snowmelt in the Spring were mighty indeed. This was why the land had never been built on before. We looked down at boulders the size of houses lying in the bed of the now docile stream, and heard all about the deafening drama that went on when it was in full spate. We heard too about the pile-driving that had gone on when the footings for the apartment block were installed, of how explosives had been used in some places to obtain secure foundations.We were horrified. Horrified and outraged that profiteering greed had triumphed over the common-sense of centuries of people living in harmony with Nature. Gloomily we thanked our new friends, and told them we would have to think very hard indeed before renewing our offer on the house.

That evening after supper, we returned to look again at the damage the developers had done to our dream. We followed the gaping crack along the hillside to where it tapered to nothing two houses along from “our” house. It looked like we had found the real reason it had lain empty for all those years. And we had to accept that going ahead with this project would in all probability be an exercise in utter foolishness. What an awful waste, what a terrible disappointment. We gritted our teeth and slept on it.

The next morning, we went out shopping for provisions for breakfast. The bakery made exceedingly good croissants and we felt we needed cheering up. On the way back we decided to stop for a coffee at one of the pavement cafes. The sun blazed down, the chestnut trees and the poplars afire with Autumn colour rustled in the clean fresh air. We sat sadly sipping our coffee, resigned to defeat, dejected. We watched the village bustle into life, a happy busy community we now knew we could never be a part of.

Suddenly Wendy and Jonathan appeared, bright and breezy, encumbered with dog and shopping, and asked if they could join us. They had some news for us apparently. Having ordered coffee, they explained that they had discussed our dilemma and felt that a certain friend of theirs may be qualified to advise us. He was an Anglo-Spanish architect, a specialist in vernacular architecture from Granada, due to arrive the next day to advise some clients of theirs about a building project. Having spoken to him on the phone, he was willing to come and inspect “our” house if we wished, and would be able to tell us right away whether to proceed or drop the whole idea.

We were so deeply sunk in doom and gloom it took a real effort to register what we were being offered. A faint flicker of hope disturbed the ashes of our aspirations. With a struggle to muster some social grace and sense of optimism, we accepted the idea, and arranged to meet the architect at the house at noon the next day.At least we would have a clearer picture of the situation, even if our worst fears were justified .

© Maggy P. 2001

Part One Discovering the house


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