We’ve been in Mairena Spain for just over a week having arrived a few hours before the borders closed between the autonomous communities in yet another attempt to control the pandemic. This tiny village has fewer than 200 regular residents and maybe 400 people on holiday weekends and festivals. We’re the only guests at Las Chimeneas Hotel right now. We anticipate being the only guests for some time to come.
Around the Village
Our hosts, David and Emma Illsley, are a delight. They first came to Mairena in 1998 and take great joy in sharing their love of place and knowledge of life in this small village. Their introduction to village life and the farm lands surrounding the village helped us as temporary residents settle into the rhythm of life in Mairena. This is just how we hoped and imagined our slow journey characterized by “long stays” would work. So far, so good.
Our life here is quiet and comfortable. Our roomy casita suits us whether we’re cooking or relaxing. David even lent us a desk so we could adapt one of the bedrooms for writing and drawing.
Mairena isn’t known for its shopping options. Miguel sells fruit and vegetables from his van on Fridays. So we join the line on the church plaza. The bread vendor announces his arrival by sounding his horn as he drives to the plaza above our house every day around noon. The village, as tiny as it is, even has a little sundry shop for everything else. Well, they have what they have. If you want two of something you have to be first in line or come back next week. In the past few months a chiringuito (an open air or terrace bar/restaurant) opened just up the road from our casita.
Our Hosts Are Also Writers
Emma surprised us with a gift our first morning here. It’s a book co-authored by the Illsleys entitled, “Las Chimeneas: Recipes and Stories from an Alpujarran Village”, published by Casita Press in 2016. It’s available on the hotel website or from amazon.co.uk. Pages of recipes made popular in the Las Chimeneas restaurant are interspersed with stories of the seasonal flow of a village where people live close to the land. I feel I already know the people featured in the book and will recognize them on the streets.
Jamie discovered another book written by Emma on a hotel bookshelf as we were scouring for tomes about the surrounding natural environment. ”Bee-eaters and Other Migrants” is a compilation of Emma’s memories over a 15 year period presented like a diary with dated entries that begin the year on September 12.
I particularly enjoyed reading stories of their sons, Dan (19) and Tom (14), who were born in Mairena. Their childhood adventures reflect an even simpler time than my youth decades earlier. One similarity stood out. The village fair is as popular with the kids here as our festivals and county fairs were when I was young.
Our First Week
Gorgeous summer weather greeted our arrival and cooler, rainy weather ended our first week. We had time for a swim in the hotel pool, some gentle hiking, plenty of balcony sitting with a book and a beer or a cup of coffee, and several yoga session both inside and out.
We also helped harvest almonds. David and Emma invited us to the neighboring village of Júbar where Emma’s father owns a vacation home on land planted with almond trees. We did our best to wack the tree limbs (and not each other) with a long pole to knock the almonds onto a giant net spread on the ground below. Then we rolled the almonds to the center where we sat and chatted as we sorted through the keepers. Later that night Jamie and I cracked a batch and toasted them in the skillet with a little olive oil and salt. They were delicious.
That’s not all! There’s also the Illsley’s finca (farm). Two land purchases of five separate parcels knit this farm together. The finca is a round trip walk of about 45 minutes from the village but we think it’s worth a daily visit. It is an easy descent and a steep ascent but after three years in Valencia where everything is flat as a pancake, improving our cardio and hill climbing is part of the attraction.
Emma showed us to the finca our first evening here. On our next visit we ran into David hard at work managing his irrigation water allotment. The irrigation systems on these farms date back to the Muslim era and are quite complex. There are lots of rules with some farms receiving night water while others receive day water. All I know is that when your farm gets its water allotment you’d better be there to make the most of it.
My favorite part of the finca is the old farmhouse - a two room structure with a broad veranda renovated by the Illsley’s. The veranda is used for fair weather yoga retreats in normal years. This year, with no other guests, I’m claiming the veranda as my personal sketching, meditation, yoga, and book reading spot any day the weather permits. Jamie prefers wandering the farm with its chestnuts, olive trees, persimmons, walnuts, pomegranates, grapes, and more. I think his inner farmer is dancing. He’s already planning to weed and prune in the salad/herb garden adjacent to the hotel where we’ve picked rocket, hot peppers, onion shoots, mint, cilantro, basil, rosemary and lettuce to accent our meals.
Maintaining a Plant Based Diet
Some of our friends wondered how we would fare with our plant based diet in a rural village. Where scarcity and starvation exist in recent memory, most of the villagers can’t imagine excluding animal products from their diet. But vegetables are grown in Granada Province for export throughout Spain and Europe so we were optimistic that we could make plant-based work. And it is!
Even though the Las Chimeneas Restaurant serves meat, the entire Illsley family are now vegetarians influenced by their teenage boys. They thoroughly understand our style of eating and can accommodate us nicely. Plus, there’s the garden I mentioned earlier, the mobile vegetable vendor, the fruits and nuts readily available, and a pretty good selection at the local food shop. Maria, the shop owner, can even get soy and almond milk for us. When the current travel restrictions lift, it will be possible to go to the local market town for an even greater selection.
Alistair, a local British fellow and former chef, makes artisan bread for the Illsley’s and for the restaurant. We are now on his weekly list for a few loaves and look forward to getting to know him better. He’s one of those folks who came for a visit four years ago and stayed for the lifestyle.
Making Friends, Getting Involved
We are committed to making connections faster than we did in Valencia since we have no time to spare with our plan to move to a new location every few months.
Continuing our language practice is high on our list. Most of the locals only speak Spanish so that won’t be difficult for maintaining our basic communication skills. We also want to have Spanish/English intercambios and we’ve identified individuals who wish to begin early next week.
In addition, we’ve thrown in some manual support to the lady who cares for the local feral cats. She’s a non-native but 15+year resident. Like all individuals I’ve met during my years in animal welfare, she is overwhelmed with daily duties, financial struggles, and local misunderstandings. I’ll feel bad when we move on and leave her high and dry again but we can at least do our part while we are here by taking a few shifts and helping to socialize the cats. There’s one thing we fully understand and that is the importance of spaying and neutering. It feels good to have just funded the spay of a momma cat with weaned kittens.
With such a rich first week, I imagine we won’t remain strangers to the community. It’s a new experience for us and it has recharged our lives and our travel expectations. I think these long stays are going to work nicely.