Life's rich mosaic
Where we live in London, streets make people cross. They are cluttered with speed bumps and bollards, daubed with bossy red and yellow lines, littered with dog poo.
In southern Spain by contrast, the way a village's streets and pavements look is a matter of enormous civic pride. Most of the village squares around us feature decorative stone mosaics (empedrados), often depicting the escudo (coat of arms) of the locality.
In our nearest village, Fuentes de León, the pavements have been getting an overhaul over the past couple of years. Elaborate mosaics celebrate the village's danzantes, who skip across the cobbles during the festival of Corpus Christi. The craftsmanship and scale of the task at hand, involving thousands of individually placed pebbles, is an inspiring sight.
So when we were thinking about how best to finish our barn's walled patio (and former pig sty), we asked our architect Jesús if it might be possible to do something in the same vein. "Let's ask them!" was his immediate reply, and a few days later he confirmed they were willing to do it.
This was a big deal. The craftsmen doing the civic work aren't locals, they come from Granada, 350 kilometres away. They belong to a legendary family firm called Empedrados Los Picantes, who have been laying stone mosaics for five generations. Their website showcases restoration work on the glorious pathways of the Alhambra and Generalife.
I never quite believed it was going to happen, and for a full year we heard nothing more from them. They probably had more pressing projects than our backyard.
So we turned our attention to how the patio design might look. As Matthew Parris describes in his enjoyable book A Castle in Spain, there's a big temptation when you do a restoration project to leave your mark for future generations. A little self-consciously, he couldn't resist including a personalised escudo in the final design. To be fair to him, his carved crest is a pretty modest affair compared with the grandiose embellishments that grace the larger houses in most Spanish villages.
I confess we did toy with the idea of an escudo. Our prototype included a lion representing Fuentes de León. Five rings symbolised our family members, crowned with an acorn. A pig rampant hinted at the patio's former role.
Then, just a week ago, Los Picantes got in touch to say they could start on Monday. Maybe the Alhambra had cancelled. It was suddenly time to decide whether to go for pig rampant or a more restrained alternative involving a geometric Moorish border and central star. (The patio is a great place for stargazing, framing Extremadura’s spectacularly unpolluted night sky)
In the end, the decision was taken out of our hands. The company simply ignored our hand-drawn design and sent through a selection of more tasteful patterns that wouldn't look out of place in the gardens of the Generalife.
On Monday, two studious-looking fellows arrived with piles of smooth black and white pebbles, rubber basins, protective gloves and cushions to counter mosaic layer’s bottom.
We never met them, because we are still locked down in London. But Jesús and Pláci sent regular photos and videos, accompanied by beaming messages such as: "you really should be here to see this - these guys are artists!"
And speedy artists too. They marked out the patio with metal rods and string, and within hours the design began to emerge - thousands of pebbles lovingly arranged in the soft cement. They worked non-stop through wind and rain, and in just five days the job was done.
We think the result is simply beautiful, and there’s no pang of regret that we didn’t leave our mark for the ages with a coat of arms. “You can always do an escudo in tiles above the door” said Jesús. And we might.
Patio photos by Pláci Verde and Jesús Bonilla.