On our first trip to Green Spain (the name generally given to this particularly lush region in Northern Spain) seeking a new life together abroad, we stayed at the Casa Zalama, one of the very good local B&Bs. We asked our hosts for their advice on how to get started. "Drive off the road and just look" Graeme and Mari Cruz said, somewhat tongue in cheek. So, we did just that.
In the nearby village of Loma de Montija, we spied a beautiful old farmhouse. It was set amongst gnarled fruit trees and an enormous, beautiful walnut tree. That would be perfect we mused. Rounding the corner, we saw a handwritten sign that said “Se Vende". Turns out, it was for sale. Returning to Casa Zalama, Mari Cruz offered to enquire for us, as we spoke no Spanish. Then after numerous discussions, we bought it! At first we were not entirely sure what we paid - negotiations were in pesetas and no one was quite sure what the euro conversion rate was! Our deposit, 500 euros, was taken from a local cash machine. After shaking hands with the owner, we were handed a receipt. A few scrawled words written on the back of an old envelope, and it was ours!
Four months later, the entire Spanish family we’d bought the property from arrived at the local solicitors to complete the purchase, all dressed in their Sunday best. Mari Cruz acted as the go-between and had to explain how Spanish conveyancing worked.
Some may question the wisdom of buying a house in Spain we hardly viewed for an unspecified sum. We did of course see inside - after a fashion. Like many Spanish farmhouses, the ground floor was a maze of animal pens and troughs, the concrete floor knee-high with decades of waste and straw and the huge oak beams were festooned with vast spider webs. With no electricity, it was almost in total darkness. The upper floors were barely accessible, although large holes in the collapsing roof afforded some light. But, it was love at first sight - and the heart won over the head!
The main tip we can offer on buying property for sale in Spain – if you buy direct, make sure you find someone you trust to act as your agent. We couldn't have done this without Mari Cruz's help, and with her advice on how to navigate the Spanish system.
When renovating a house in a country where you don't speak the language, use tradespeople who come recommended and who people you know have used. Mari Cruz, our Madrid-based architect, and the team of locally sub-contracted artisans and contractors they used brought this 150-year-old farmhouse into the 20th century over a two and half year period. They sourced reclaimed materials, and retrofitted modern heating, plumbing and insulation into the old shell without compromising its integrity. And over the years since it was finished, these same contractors always turn up almost immediately if we experience any problems or need help.
In 2008, we moved into the finished shell. This involved backbreaking work - cleaning and polishing reclaimed materials, huge blackened oak beams, creating a garden - it was an endless to-do list.
When it comes to rural Spanish life, we are invited to local events, and although still the only English speakers, they bear with us. Villagers swap produce and demonstrate to us how to preserve the wonderful local tuna. In turn, our numerous fruit bushes provide fruit to make preserves with them. On Tuesdays when we’re there, we meet up with them at the market in our local town, 10 minutes away.
Whilst looking for the rural idyll, we also wanted to experience this part of Europe. Green Spain has huge mountain ranges offering numerous outdoor activities, and skiing is available in the Picos de Europa a few hours away. France can be reached for day trips. Closer by, North Spain offers lovely sandy beaches and fantastic seafood. San Sebastian, Santander, and Burgos are at hand for a more cosmopolitan experience. Bilbao has become a firm favourite for eating, shopping and of course the Guggenheim museum. All offer fantastic architecture and food. We have numerous local eateries and tapas bars serving local cuisine for around 10-12 euros for a menu del dia (daily menu) including wine. We can reach Southern Spain in the same day, and Portugal is half a day away. The choices are endless and we’d highly recommend life in Northern Spain.