Extremadura on my mind
Years ago, when we were thinking about buying a house in Spain, I was talking to a friend who had bought a place in Italy a few years earlier.
"Of course," I said, "the economics don't make any sense. You could stay in a different place every year for the rest of your life for a lot less than buying somewhere of your own."
"That's true" said my friend, "but when you have your own place, you live there in your mind every day."
That advice helped swing our decision at the time. Five years ago we bought a former casa rural with a falling down barn in southern Extremadura. Since I stopped working a couple of years ago we have been spending roughly half our time there, with the aim of renovating the barn. It's hard to believe now that we were there just a month ago. We went for a wedding.
When we arrived at the church for the 7pm service on a bright, chilly evening, only one of our friends from the village chose to give us an elbow bump, everyone else went straight for a two-cheeked kiss. Later, at the sala de celebraciones next to the petrol station, we danced long into the night: up-close paso dobles and Spanish line dancing rather than socially distant British bopping. We talked a bit about el coronavirus over prawns and ibérico pork, but at that stage it seemed like a faraway thing. If that sounds irresponsible, this was still a few days before the Cheltenham festival went ahead with crowds of 70,000 people.
A couple of days later, we flew to Barcelona for a long-planned trip to research a chapter for a guidebook I'm working on. It was then that everything started to change, rapidly.
In recent years Barcelona has become overwhelmed with visitors. Angry grafitti near its landmarks reads "tourists go home"—often less politely than that. When we arrived, there were long queues for La Sagrada Familia. By day three you could stroll straight into the usually saturated Picasso museum.
At the entrance to Gaudí's surreal Casa Batlló, assistants in blue surgical gloves squirted sanitizer into the hands of every visitor as they arrived, and wiped down the audioguide handsets at the end of the tour.
For guidebook purposes, we stayed three nights in three different hotels. On our second night, Julia woke me at 3am to say: "Trump has banned all flights into the US. Do you think we should go home early?" We agreed to sleep on it. By morning we concluded it should be ok to carry on. Rishi Sunak was on the radio confirming there were no plans to stop travel to the UK. We had one more full day and then an afternoon flight back to London on Friday 13 March. Should be fine.
The next day I set out to visit the National Museum of Catalan Art, in the vast hill-top palace on Montjuïc. I walked around Europe's finest collection of medieval art almost alone, nodding at the attendants in the corner of each gallery.
For our last morning, we had planned to visit Casa Vicens, the first house built by Gaudí, recently restored and opened as a museum. When we tried to buy tickets online the website said it was closed. We assumed because of a lack of visitors.
Instead we went to MUHBA, Barcelona's history museum with underground walkways through the Roman ruins of Barcino. As we left, we noticed staff taping laminated signs on the doors—closed due to coronavirus.
We walked back past Gaudí's Palau Güell as uniformed staff were huddling in the street, talking on mobile phones. We asked what was happening. They had just received the order to close its wrought iron doors immediately. Sightseeing was over. We decided to have a long blowout lunch before leaving for the airport.
That morning we had managed to book Dos Palillos, an El Bulli-inspired fusion restaurant adjoining the hip Casa Camper hotel. A chair at its U-shaped counter surrounding an open kitchen is usually as hard to come by as toilet roll at Sainsbury's.
We were the only guests for lunch. The waiter told us they had had eight cancellations in the course of the morning. The food—tiny plates that blend Asian and Spanish cuisine—was superb: marinated squid, slow cooked pork, translucent strawberry cake. We were heavily outnumbered by the cooking and serving staff, who seemed to be doing a training day. The set lunch comprised around ten plates, but as we were the only guests they threw in a few more exquisite creations along the way.
On the bus to the airport, we started to plan for what would happen if we couldn't get on our flight to London.
"I suppose", I said, "we would make our way back to Fuentes de León and do lockdown there." Our house is more than 1000km from Barcelona.
Since we've been back in London, we have often speculated about what lockdown would have been like in rural Extremadura. There would be almost unlimited space for daily exercise, little need to visit the supermarket because we could grow our own fruit and vegetables, and plenty to think about as the barn renovation inches towards completion. On the other hand: no internet, no Zoom, no James Corden.
I haven't met Paul Richardson, the British writer living in northern Extremadura, who has written about his experience of lockdown at his finca about three hours north from us. But I recognise his description completely, and the reason he feels a little smug. I feel a little envious.
Spain has been one of the countries worst affected by coronavirus, with some 15,000 deaths to date. Every evening at 8pm in our nearest village, the people come out on to their balconies to applaud the country's heroic health workers. So far, thankfully, our health area— one of Spain's most isolated—has seen few cases, and just a handful of deaths. Who knows when the lockdown will be over, here or there. Who knows when we will be back in Fuentes de León. But, for now, we live there in our minds every day.