The first village we visited was Matavenero in León, in an isolated, mountainous region in the North West Spain. Matavenero’s original inhabitants, many of whom had worked in local mines, abandoned the village in the late sixties. But in 1989 it was resettled by people from many different European countries, following a Rainbow Gathering in Spain.
Unlike some other pueblos okupados (occupied villages) they managed to secure permission from the local authority to resettle the village, which was ruined, overgrown, and without direct road access. The early pioneers to the community lived in teepees and tents, but boosted by supporters (including a group from the autonomous town of Christiana in Copenhegan) they quickly cleared the old paths, reconstructed the school house, and repaired a two kilometre canal to bring in water. They also began to create gardens and plots for food, and over a longer period, repaired and rebuilt the ruined homes.
Since then, it has thrived as a environmentally friendly and alternative settlement, and is starting to see a third generation of children grow up there. It continues to attract people from all over Europe to live, to take courses, or just to visit – like us.
However, just getting there was a challenge – including twelve hours of driving over three days, and then a challenging hike through the mountains. But our reward was a dramatic first glimpse of the eco-village, with its with its varied collection of reconstructed wood and stone houses hugging the mountainside.
The colourful dome of the large meeting hall, the irregular and organic shapes of the homes, and the neat little paths through trees and past waterways made it seem more like a fairy village than a Spanish pueblo. And, indeed, as we quickly found, this is a diverse and international community, made up mostly of Germans and Spanish people, but also including people from many other countries.
The village is strikingly isolated, and accessible only by a stone footpath, meaning that supplied and building materials have to be winched down on a lift from the carpark high above the community. But that doesn’t mean that the community lives in austere conditions. As soon as we arrived, we found ourselves following a colourful sign to a bar, La Chiringuita.
Entering the stone, glass and wooden building, we were greeted by the friendly, English speaking German proprietor of the bar – really more of a cafe. The cafe commanded the most incredible Alpine views of the valley, the back-drop made all the more impressive by the sight of eco-homes, trees and meadows on the slope, and before long we were enjoying a very good latte and a tortilla – Not exactly what we had expected!
Inside, a group of young people people – both German and Spanish, second generation villagers – were chatting and making plans for a celebration over the weekend. There was to be a naming ceremony for a recently born baby in the community.
As we admired the view, the owner explained to us that the trees and wildlife all around us were a direct result of the human inhabitants. When they had arrived here twenty five years ago the hillside had been arid, with only the scrub and grasses that covered the rest of the hills. But once the settlers diverted water to their homes and gardens, the stunted trees that were there suddenly began to grow to their full potential. Birds followed. It was an inspiring story that added another narrative to the view before us.
After this we were invited to another celebration down in the sister village of Poibueno, deep in the valley below Matavenero. A Danish couple were celebrating an important anniversary, having completed their first year in the community. All prospective new residents on Matavenero and Poibueno are expected to spend at least one year living there, and this milestone meant that they were now eligible to stay and live in the community.
The party was being held on the land they had been given by the community for their new home. The steeply sloping piece of land was bordered by a stream, and surrounded by trees, including walnut trees. A group of young children from the village were clustered around a large pile of walnuts, cracking them with a wooden hammer, and sharing them out. Scarlett piled in and started eating some too. The adults were gathered around an open fire, cooking with a cauldron and a tripod, and baking flatbread on a large suspended flat griddle.
It was lovely to be able to share the excitement of the moment. Our hosts were very welcoming, and clearly excited to be starting this new stage in their lives. They had done a lot of research about interesting eco-communities throughout Europe before deciding to make this their home, using a guide called Eurotopia. Initially, they’d had their hearts set on a plot near to the stream, but this had gone to another family. But they were very happy with the spot they had, slightly higher up a valley, harder to reach, but more exposed to light and sunshine. In the end, they had decided that the extra level of isolation from Matavenero and its hard to reach car-park was a positive thing – it would make it all the more important for them to be self-sufficient.
Evidence of their practical skills was all around – elegantly wrought wooden fence posts, and the stone walled start of terraces for cultivation had already been built on the site. He was a trained as a builder in Denmark, and they had brought a good deal of equipment with them. Still, the shelter was a basic teepee and a lean-to with a fire pit – comfortable enough on a warm spring day, but tough during the winter.
Returning from the party later that night, up the steep stone path to Matavenero, felt like returning to town – by comparison, the village was a densely settled civilisation. As well as the cafe, there was a bar, a library, a gymnasium, and a communal hall where some people ate together and held celebrations, and even a small school. There was also a basic dormitory for guests.
Christina, who runs a small shop run filled with home-made wines, preserves and jams all made from local plants and crops, explained to me that life in Matavenero was really that of a village, rather than a strictly communal society. She explained that there are many different people living here, with their own homes and land, although they come together for the weekly consejo, or council meeting. Some people choose to work or eat together, but it was not compulsory. Likewise, visitors can earn their keep, and their food, by working in the community – or they can pay for what they consume.
Some of the homes, we later found out, are empty, because the people who built them have moved away. Children who grew up in the valley moved away to go to college, or for work – although many come back to visit, or to live here again once they are older. This sometimes means that newcomers to the community can rent or use vacant properties.
Beautiful and inspiring though it was, there are also considerable challenges to living in Matavenero. I was told that for several months recently there had been problems with the supply of drinking water, although now they had been able to connect almost all of the village to a good spring some kilometres away. Winter brings obvious problems – the village is sometimes cut off by heavy snows, and with both heating a cooking dependant on firewood considerable work has to go into harvesting and storing wood. Yet summer brings other problems. The slope above the village was scorched, the evidence of a recent forest fire – a threat which the wood and stone village has had to live with since its founding, and which it has so far avoided. And growing and harvesting crops on the land available – much of it steep and stony – is tougher work than most of us will ever experience.
These are the difficulties and challenges that rural communities across Spain have faced in the last fifty years, and the forces that have resulted in so many abandoned villages in the first place. But clearly this was still a very strong community – a place where it was usual to share celebrations, to work together, and a place where the people had similar if not identical visions of living in touch with nature.
Of course, there were some compromises. Some of the residents also work outside the community in nearby towns, and certainly much of the food and supplies for the village people is brought in. Matavenero is clearly more self-sufficient than most villages, but as was clear from the many vehicles in the car-park above the village, it was not entirely separate or self-sufficient from the outside world either.
As if to make this point, a few months before we visited Matavenero, they created their own Facebook and Twitter accounts – they already have a good website with lots of information about the community. They had a relatively new good quality internet connection to the village, which one resident I spoke to was very excited about – it meant that he could find useful teaching materials for his young son, without having to go all the way into the nearest town.
And just as the internet would allow the villagers to connect to the outside world, it would also allow the world to find them. I heard that since setting up their social media accounts, there had been a marked increase in the number of people asking to come and visit or to live in the community. One resident felt that the interest had grown and changed due to the economic crisis in Spain. Not only were more people asking if they could come – not just because they were attracted by the ethos of the community, or had the right practical skills to make a life there, but simply because they could not find work or afford a home. He was frustrated, because he felt like people expected to be given a home or a place to stay without having to work for it.
Open as the community is to visitors, this was creating a pressure, and apparently there was an ongoing debate in the community at the moment as to whether they should remain closed to new-comers for a while, so that they could consolidate their community and their shared vision, or whether they should remain open. At the present time, there was technically a fifteen day limit on stays for visitors.
My impression was that there would probably always be the space and the possibility for people with the right skills, beliefs and commitment – and particularly for people who expect to have to put in as much as they get out.
You can find out more about Matavenero on their website here, including details of the community and the courses on offer to visitors. They also have a Facebook page and a twitter stream. For more information on eco-villages in the North of Spain, check out El Red Iberica de Ecoaldeas.