“Annie has only been stung once by a scorpion, admittedly in bed,” says Chris Stewart, a smidgen defensively, about the home he has shared with his wife, Ana, for the past two decades in the Alpujarran hills of southern Spain. “I’ve never been stung, and considering one day we found seven scorpions under seven stones in the garden, that isn’t bad going.” Scorpions might not loom large in most people’s idea of heaven, but they’re a fact of life here in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Stewart, 58, isn’t merely living the Spanish dream, he wrote the script. His three books about life as an Englishman in rural Andalusia — Driving Over Lemons, A Parrot in the Pepper Tree, and The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society — have sold more than 1m copies in the UK, inspiring countless Britons to try a new life abroad. He has done for southern Spain what Peter Mayle did before him for Provence.
The Alpujarras mountains of Andalusia
Head inland towards Granada from the Costa del Sol, leaving behind the coast’s ugly developments and sweaty crowds, and as the snow-capped peaks come into view, you enter a different world of dramatic countryside and empty space. In spring, it is lush with flowers and fragrant bushes, but for the rest of the year it can be quite desolate, which appeals to Stewart. “There is so little wild and savage terrain left in Europe, and here we have it,” he says.
It has little in common with the British ghettos of the Costa del Sol.
“Places like Marbella and Puerto Banus are Sodom and Gomorrah to us,” he says. The area is not entirely devoid of reminders of home, however. One of the neighbours is Margaret “four homes” Moran, the disgraced MP for Luton South, who faced questions earlier this month after it was alleged that she had pinned up notes written on House of Commons notepaper warning neighbours off her land as part of a dispute over access.
The Stewarts’ 70-hectare farm — 68 of which is “savage terrain” — is half an hour down a dirt track outside the town of Orgiva, nestled in the fork between two rivers that gush with ice-cold snow melt in the spring. Because of the river, their farm, called El Valero, is inaccessible by car for much of the year, and can be reached only by a rickety old footbridge. “Since we’re on the wrong side of the river, few people come this way,” Stewart says. “It’s what makes this place so special.” He keeps an old jalopy by the house to make life easier.
Here he and Ana, 53, live in their own secret garden, which they share with seven cats, a dog, and a misanthropic bird that inspired his book A Parrot in the Pepper Tree. “The parrot hates everyone except Annie, but especially me,” Stewart says. The couple’s 18-year-old daughter, Chloë, born two years after they arrived, has just left home to go to the University of Granada.
“You need fortitude, and a certain type of woman, to live here,” says Stewart. The pair have slowly been improving the property since they arrived in 1988 as “refugees from Thatcher’s Britain”. The couple bought it off an ill-natured old peasant who stayed on for months, providing rich material for Stewart’s books on life among Alpujarran shepherds and eccentric expats. It is now a model organic farm, specialising in sheep, olive and citrus, and is almost self-sufficient. “Annie grows, I cook. Producing our own food is almost enough reward in itself,” says Stewart, who once did a French cooking course, and who seems to have done everything in life except wear a suit and work in an office.
Their homestead is made up of two buildings built in classic Alpujarran style, where the previous owner used to live in squalid conditions with his livestock. The couple have turned one of the buildings into their living quarters, simple yet comfortable and charming, with a Moroccan touch. The other building contains guest, utility and store rooms, the library and “the erstwhile rat room”. “We didn’t always have seven cats,” says Stewart. “It’s not called the erstwhile rat room for nothing.”
Early on in their time at El Valero, the couple were given planning permission to do whatever they liked, provided they respected local building and architectural traditions. Alpujarran houses are whitewashed affairs, built on one level with thick stone walls and low, flat roofs, using natural, local material like launa mud, esparto grass and roof beams from eucalyptus trees. One feature that isn’t typical is a cupola they have built above the larder, just off the kitchen. “In a way, it is a return to the architectural roots of the region, as domes are part of Islamic architecture, and the Moors ruled here for hundreds of years,” Stewart says. “I can’t explain why, but it keeps the larder very cool.”
The couple, originally from Horsham, West Sussex, have transformed the place from a rough peasant dwelling into a home of character, doing much of the building work themselves. What was a filthy storeroom is now a beautiful library, where a simple desk and chair stand in front of a window with a dramatic view of the valley. It is here that Stewart works on his books.
The ‘eco-pool’ – Stewart’s pride and joy
At the bottom of the lush and exotic garden is an “eco” swimming pool that is his pride and joy. It uses fresh water, filtered by a series of pools containing plants that remove waste naturally. The water is circulated by a huge water wheel driven by solar power. “We used to swim in the river, which was romantic, except for the snakes, wasps and horseflies,” he says. “The pool is less romantic, but more pleasant, and once you have swum in it, you’re done with chlorine pools for ever. It went over budget by 10,000 Euros, but it was worth it.”
All the building work has been done by the Stewarts, with the help of friends, which partly explains why progress has been slow. “Local contractors can’t be bothered to come up here, it’s too far,” says Stewart. As he explains in Driving Over Lemons, the original building work to make the house habitable was done by a team of Kiwis that he brought over from London.
If building progress has been slow, it has also been fitful, spurting forward and then grinding to a halt according to the availability of funds. The eco pool was built with royalties from Driving Over Lemons, whilst a stylish new bathroom, made with straw bale walls, violet-blue wine bottles recycled as windows, and Moorish tiling inside, has been 6 years in construction. With his new book ‘Three Ways to Capsize a Boat: An Optimist Afloat’ coming out now, it might be finished in 6 months.
El Valero run entirely on renewable energy sources
Electricity comes from four large solar panels, and thanks to careful use, the Stewarts live with all the mod cons, except air conditioning. “We’ve become naturally parsimonious, and always switch everything off when we leave a room,” Stewart says. “But we have all the electricity we need to run our food processor, bread-maker, lights, computer and hi-fi.” Music is important to Stewart, who was the first drummer in Genesis, and plays classical guitar.
Visitors to El Valero could be forgiven for thinking that life in the Alpujarras is a bed of roses, but the idyllic life disguises a harsher reality. “Farming here is purely subsistence,” Stewart warns. The income from his books has made life more comfortable than it was when he eked out a living from farming, selling seeds gathered from wild flowers and shearing sheep, locally as well as further afield in Sweden. “We would still be here without the books, but living very frugally,” adds Annie, who worked as a shepherdess and horticulturalist before they moved to Spain.
So how do their fellow British expats survive? “There are quite a few alternative medicine types about, but I don’t know who their patients are,” Annie says. “There is a cannabis festival nearby every year, so there is some home-grown business, but it’s small-time. Then there is renting out cottages, but most of all people seem to live off vast profits from selling up in the UK.”
Prices have surged in the two decades since the Stewarts bought El Valero for £25,000, though the market is slowing down. “Prices in the Alpujarras rose to ridiculous levels,” says Annie. “Ten years ago, a Dutch couple bought a farm over the river for less than €100,000, and sold it a few years ago for €600,000. Asking prices are still crazy, though I’m not sure anyone is paying them now.”
Stewart’s first book, Driving Over Lemons, published in 1999, may be funny and inspiring, but it is also a guide to what you shouldn’t do when buying property in Spain. “We did everything wrong, but it turned out okay,” he admits. “We bought without checking anything, and we bought on the ‘wrong’ side of the river, which turned out to be a blessing. This place has brought us nothing but luck and joy.”
Perhaps those were more innocent times , but not all those who have followed in his footsteps have been so lucky. Many have bought what turned out to be illegal properties, and are now living with the threat of fines or demolition. To help forget their sorrows they should read Stewart’s latest book ‘Three Ways to Capsize a Boat’, a hilarious and uplifting account of Stewart’s life at sea before moving to Spain.
Young and stupid, perhaps? “Not that young. I was 38 when came out, but still bloody stupid. Stupidity has always worked for me,” says a man who went off to skipper a boat in Greece having never sailed before in his life.
Does he accept any blame as a role model for the foolish way in which many Britons have gone about buying property in rural Spain. “No, I don’t think so. I didn’t exactly paint too rosy a picture of our experience. On the other hand I do get thank you letters from people saying my books inspired them to start a new life.”
He also rejects the accusation from fellow expats that his books have ruined the area. “‘All these foreigners have come here because of you and your books’ they say. But immigrants have enriched this place, just like they do London.”
Stewart does have some practical advice for people thinking about buying a home in rural Andalusia. “Stay in the area for a year before you buy. Live through all the seasons, get to know the people, and get to know about water. In this part of the world, the three rules for buying are not ‘location, location, location’, but ‘water, water, water’. ”
He half jokes that El Valero is worth less than what he paid for it 20 years ago, mainly because it doesn’t have its own guaranteed water supply. “Our access to water is a sort of gentleman’s agreement, and new owners might have a problem.”
But that doesn’t bother the Stewarts, because they love the place so much that selling is out of the question. “Hopefully we can hang on another 20 years so that Cholë can take it over when she is ready,” says Annie. “But anyway, our philosophy is don’t plan for the future, and it has never let us down.”
© Copyright Mark Stücklin (Spanish Property Insight)
Books by Chris Stewart
Charming, hilarious, and insightful, Stewart’s books are a must for anyone with an interest in Spain. His latest book, Three Ways to Capsize a Boat, is travel writing at its most enjoyable, crackling with Stewart’s zest for life, irresistible humour, and unerring lack of foresight. Dry land never looked more welcoming. Books by Chris Stewart at Amazona, including his Spanish classic ‘Driving Over Lemons.