I chose Farol on the Costa Brava and as it turned out spent three summer seasons there, studying and writing about the life of the people. Protected by an approach down something hardly better than a can track, followed by steep gradients and hairpin bends, and a final patch of swamp crossed by a swaying bridge, the village was perfect from my point of view. A further slight drawback to the visitor was that a spare room in a house had to be found, although in a friendly and hospitable environment this offered no difficulty. Such were these small deterrents that in the first of three incomparable seasons of my stay, there were no other intruders from the outside world and in consequence I was able to enjoy life in surroundings that had hardly changed in the previous century or two.
Apart from the priest, a shopkeeper, and a Civil Guard, the people of Farol lived wholly by fishing, and even a young doctor possessing the legal minimum of qualifications for practising his profession put in an hour or two dickering with the nets with which he caught an occasional fish. There were neither rich nor poor, and even the charming old aristocrat who owned most of the land grew on it no more than a few meagre vegetables, and stole out at night to put down pots from which once in a while he recovered a lobster. Life here, although devoid of modern stress, provided an abundance of small pleasures. The fisherman back from the sea told tall stories and composed poetry in the single bar. On Saturday nights there was dancing no a wind-up phonograph in the tiny square. Fiestas were frequent, as well as outings to accepted beauty spots and local shrines. For financial reasons courtships were protracted and marriages entered into law: in life than in the towns. Families with more than two children were rare. Above all, it seemed to me, the villagers lived in harmony. The fisherman’s calling is the least boring of professions, for however meagre the daily return, hope of great catches to come is never extinguished. Fishing where large shoals are frequently involved calls continually for communal planning and action as opposed to individual effort. In Farol, a living constructed from the sea was devoid of my taint of had blood.
I was late on the scene the next year, and by then the first of the tourists had arrived. They were two French girls who had found a room over the bar, but who soon moved on, although their brief presence left an extraordinary effect. The fisherman’s wives who spent most of their day mending nets spread out on the beach had been much impressed by their clothes, and had copied them carefully. Within a matter of weeks, still busy with torn netting, they were clad in reasonable imitations of French fashions. These, although unsuitable to the background, attracted much admiration both in Farol and in other villages in the vicinity. The accommodation over the bar had been rented at rather above-average prices, thus giving the couple who ran the place the idea of adding to their establishment an annexe with two more rooms. As soon as this was completed it was occupied by more French tourists, and a developer attracted as if by magic to the scene put in plans for a three-storey hotel.
By year three a startling change had come about. All the main highways from the frontier were now resurfaced, the potholes in the local roads filled in, the swamp drained and the bridge put in order. The new hotel‚ ‘modernistic’ in design, dominated the mild contours of the old village like an army strongpoint and was full of English and French, and the foundations of two new hotels were already in place. Dances were arranged for the foreigners every night, and the young fishermen, having overcome their shyness, joined in. Most significant and even disturbing was the news that two or three had abandoned the sea to work as waiters in the hotel and a cafe that had opened, and in doing so made far more from tips than the most experienced fishermen on the boats.
I was shown the plans for the further development of Farol, which was to include a marina, a sea-front promenade, several restaurants, more hotels and a large car park. By the time all this was completed what had once been a tiny village would have become a town with suburbs. Someone mentioned that there had been emotional disturbances. Two local betrothals had come to nothing following fifteen-day romances with foreign holidaymakers, and one promising young fishermen had gone off, taking nothing but his guitar, and no more had been heard of him. The time had come, I decided, to move on.
In 1984, after an absence of thirty-four years, I returned to Farol on a visit suggested by a London newspaper. I had suspected that I should find it unrecognisable and this proved to be the case. What I drove into after formidable traffic delays was a Costa city stamped out as if by some industrial process. Part of the village’s original charm lay in the straggling irregularities of its narrow streets. Now they had been blasted and bulldozed into a uniform width with buildings of a standard design. A one-way system corkscrewed its way down through a firmament of traffic lights to a point where I knew the sea lay somewhere ahead, but it was invisible behind hoardings. Moments later I was to find that most of the beach had become a car park, with long lines of cars and notices warning of the danger of theft. Back in the streets there were burger restaurants, concerned at such happenings. ‘Mallorca is a botanical garden on the verge of extinction,’ said a headline in Diario De Mallorca on 1 October 1995. The paper warned that 37 per cent of the species of plants to be found only on the island had already been destroyed by tourists uprooting them. An attempt to protect what was left had been made by enclosing several hundred miles of roads with wire fences, but the fear was that this measure might have come too late.
Animals are equally under threat in Spain, the rarest of them, such as the lynx and the brown bear, although protected by law, having survived only in the remotest areas. Within a year of the opening of the frontier at the end of the Civil War, the international press carried an account of an incident when bears held up traffic on the main highway joining Huesca with Pamplona. Cars formed a queue and after a half-hour or so the bears ambled away into the woods.
With the return of peace and prosperity things had changed. I made the acquaintance of a road-construction engineer who had just put up an ugly house in the village. ‘If it’s wildlife that interests you,’ he said, ‘you should go to the Cantrabrians. We’ve just built 200 kilometres of new roads up there. The wolves come into the villages to clear up the rubbish at night. I read in Vanguardia that they still have bears in the caves at Somiedo and foreign sportsmen pay up to 300,000 pesetzs for the chance to kill one.’
Remembering this conversation several years later I went to Somiedo and, finding the caves empty, was directed to Abbeyales, believed locally to be the most isolated and inaccessible village in Spain. People here still lived in the circular stone houses of pre-history, with their animals sheltered in byres under the living rooms (We need them in winter to keep warm). Don Juan Fernandez Sena, the priest, was also unofficial mayor and an honorary policeman. From the wildlife point of view, he said, the news was poor. Only the wolves were doing fairly well, but with huntsmen now paying up to the equivalent of £3,000 even for a bear cub, and £1,000 for a lynx, these species were locally approaching extinction.
Otherwise, he said cheerfully, things were looking up. Their new road had opened up exciting prospects for the community, and government officials had promised the construction of three ski-lifts, designed, he supposed, to carry foreign tourists to the treeless upper pastures ideally suited to their sport. There was talk, too, of building a holiday camp to accommodate 250 visitors. If the scheme went through, a discoteca was certain to be opened, and there were plans to provide entertainment of the sort enjoyed by holidaymakers in an exceptionally lively small town called Espinareda, twenty miles across the mountains.
I went to Espinareda, of which I had seen picture postcards in Somiedo. They showed a row of gracious wooden houses with enormous Alpine-style balconies but these, I was to discover, had been demolished and replaced by angular breeze-block constructions like miniature forts. Espinareda had three discotecas, a super- market, a police station and two English-style pubs. Graffiti were spreading across its walls, there were notices in English and a degutted car had been abandoned in a ditch. Some trouble had arisen through children caught taking drugs, the mayor told me, but otherwise things weren't too bad. He was bursting with enthusiasm. ‘Someone like you from the big city is bound to see this as a sleepy little place,’ he said, ‘but the population is due to double in five years. Come back after that and you won’t recognise it.’
Norman Lewis, 1997