Burton Holmes, the lecturer-author who stirred the wanderlust of thousands of Americans at the turn of this century, visited Andalusia during a trip to countries around the Mediterranean. After describing the charms of a Spanish village untouched by foreign influences, he wrote, "Let us hope that even sleepy, poetic, delightful Andalusia may yet thrill at the touch of the magic wand of industry in the hands of the Spirit of Progress; that she may be wakened from her dreamy lethargy, shake off the faded laurels won in driving forth the Moors, and seek fresh wreaths of glory in the arena of modern activity and enterprises."
Modern-day visitors to the Costa del Sol recognizehis words as prophetic. Where sleepy fishing villages once dotted the Mediterranean shore, concrete towers now hold thousands of sun worshippers from less temperate climes. Torremolinos boats over 300 nightlife establishments. In Marbella, only a small "old town reflects the style of a previous life.
On our first visit to the Costa del Sol in 1972, we were part of a wave of foreigners brought to Spain on charter flights to soak up the sun and listen to the siren song of the joys of owning real estate in Spain. During our stay we were promised to look at a "real Spanish village."
Packed into a bus we began a tortuous climb from the coast at Estepona on a road that seemed built for a donkey cart. As we twisted upward, we quickly left behind the hotels, restaurants, boutiques and cars that cluttered the beach resorts. Ahead lay the Sierra Bermeja, looking largely uninhabited and somewhat forbidding, shadowing a landscape of cork trees, prickly pears and an occasional cottage.
After nine miles (it felt much further), the bus suddenly made a hairpin turn. The passengers on the left side of the bus gasped. There below us, bathed in the glow of the afternoon sun, lay the Spain of our dreams. A craggy peak was covered with tiny white-washed houses. On the crest were the ruins of an ancient fortress. Small figures dressed in black dotted the streets, here and there accompanied by a donkey. The sounds of children's voices rose up to us from some unseen playground. The jumble of colors, shapes and textures suddenly seemed the re-creation in nature of the vision of the cubists. We had found a Spanish Shangri-La, hidden from time and the "Spirit of Progress."
Since then we have made a number of pilgrimages to Casares. Its impregnable mountain setting served as a last stronghold against the Moorish invasion. It is rumored that Julius Caesar himself took "the waters" here and gave it his name. It seemed never to change. We would climb the narrow cobbled streets to the crest, where a lively soccer game often took place on one of the few flat surfaces in the village between the church and the graveyard. From this vantage point we could look out some 20 miles to Gibraltar and the sea. We would stop at the bar on the plaza to enjoy a glass of exceptional sherry. Sleepy cats would look at us from doorways hung with beaded curtains to keep out the files.
We felt that Casares, a village so remote that most maps did not show it, ignored by the ubiquitous Guide Michelin, protected by nine miles of roadway that only the intrepid would dare, would always remain an example of life little changed since Roman times.
So it was with a mixture of surprise and dismay that I read the ad in The Washington Post real estate section:
"In Casares, a Spanish village of charm, character and dramatic beauty, we are offering 40 older houses for remodelling."
A visit with Philip Kelly, the realtor who placed the ad, filled in some of the details. A Belgian firm, already active on the Costa del Sol, had invested some of its profits by purchasing the homes. Kelly surmised that the houses had become available as young people left the village for more profitable occupations in the tourist trade along the coast, taking advantage of what seemed to them princely prices for the simple and unpretentious homes of their parents.
The houses were to be sold "as is," which meant that most had no utilities, no plumbing and needed a great deal of renovations. They ranged in size from less than 750 square feet; (two tiny rooms with a storage basement below) for $5,850 to a three-story dwelling (described as modernized, but without imagination) for $25,000.
I decided to make another pilgrimage to Casares, perhaps to see it for the last time as it had been for almost 2,000 years.
Driving along the winding road between the Malaga Airport and Marbella is always a special experience for me. The sun has an extra brilliance, the sea a special sparkle, the air a sweeter smell. The mountains rise high beside you, changing color with each hour, but always beautiful and welcoming.
I counted 75 half-built buildings along the 50 kilometer road, many of which I remembered from the previous year . . . grass growing around the foundations, devoid of workmen, skeletal bodies mocking the holiday air. There was no doubt that something was awry with the building boom that had swept the Costa del Sol during the early 1970s. Certainly the worldwide recession had played a role. In some ways I couldn't be sad. Perhaps this would be a time of reassessment. Perhaps the changing government would have better ideas about, and more control over, the growth of this important part of Spain's economic development.
I had arranged to meet with Peter White, who is in charge of sales promotion for Seghers, S.A., a large international conglomerate based in Belgium. He is the essence of the American's stereotype of the British - clipped words, a bearing that speaks of many years in the military and a general enthusiasm about his work that somehow avoids the hard sell that afflicts so many people in the real-estate game.
Over lunchon, a Spanish omelette washed down with white wine, we discussed the realities of real estate on the Costa del Sol. There was no doubt that Spain had been hard-hit. The harvest of overbuilding (often by foreign interests that came in for the quick dollar and collapsed when things got tight) and overselling to many who thought that they had found their castle in Spain, were now being reaped. White remarked that one colleague of his who had been involved in coastal real estate for over nine years had not sold one villa during the last year and a half.
Seghers had, through good management or luck, avoided the worst of the downturn. Some years back it had decided to include in its industrial and investment portfolio land development on the Costa del Sol. The initial effort was a large resort area near Estepona, which now includes apartment-liek hotel accommodations, a beachfront area, pools, tennis courts, riding facilities and other amenities of tourist life. When I was shown around after the height of last season, the public areas were filled with suntanned, happy people (apparently Belgian, Dutch and German from the languages that were being spoken).
He said that Seghers had begun to buy up houses in Casares, thinking that some day they might wish to develop property away from the coast itself. In response to my question about how these houses had come on the market, he referred to the increasing urbanization of the Spanish people and their movement away from mountain villages and inland farms to the more exciting life in the cities. His words seemed borne out by the recent 1,400-page report prepared for the Spanish government on the changing patterns of Spanish life. Even a concerted effort by the government to improve agricultural life through investment in large and ambitious irrigation projects had not made life in the country more inviting.
From the viewpoint of Peter White and his company, it seems much more responsible to find a new way of utilizing village homes than to let them fall into despair, possibly causing the wider community to deteriorate. We decided to set out and see for ourselves.
The road to Casares never changes. The twists and turns take one by surprise, and even someone like White, who must make this trip many times each week, treats the road with respect. And then there it was, just as I remembered it, whitewashed, shining in the sun, this time preparing for fiesta. On the tiny cobbled streets, booths were being constructed. In the plaza a ferris wheel and carousel were under wraps. Children peeked under the tarps to look in wonder at the magic machines.
I turned around to hear White say, "Juan Carlos' daughter is being married here today." It took me a minute to realize it wasn't the king, but a longtime resident of Casares who was taking precious time away from this very special day to turn over to us the keys to the houses for sale. The keys hung on a ring like a display in an antique store. Many were as big as a fist, all were rusted and hard-used.
We walked up Calle La Fuente and stepped into time past. The key opened the door only after a lot of juggling. Inside we entered a warren of little rooms, now covered with plaster and dust and cobwebs, still retaining some of the cast-offs of the family that had once lived there - a broken mirror, a chair with three legs.
It is hard for an American to visualize the living conditions that are acceptable to a Spanish village family. The families are often large and space is expensive. Wall space is valuable, windows a needless luxury often letting in heat as well as light and a view. We groped our way into a tiny side room. There on the far side was cut a small window, shaped like those in an old fortress, just big enough for the bowman to loose his arrows. Through that narrow cut we looked out, out to the sea, out to Gibraltar, out to the Riff Mountains in North Africa. It was breathtaking.
It was easy to suddenly begin planning what could be done with this little house. "We could open up this window, put a balcony outside, rebuild these stairs to the rood, make a large terrace on top." The spectacular view blinded us to the single light bulb hung from the ceiling, evidence of the only utility presently available to the house. Outside, our eyes squinting in the bright sun, we watched a neighbor woman wend her way to the village fountain to get her water supply.
We began to collect a small and interested local gallery. People regarded us with friendly interest. Some had been appointed guardians of the empty houses and joined us to look around. One house had been appropriated by its overseer for a hen house, and the tenants squawked their disapproval of this intrusion on their afternoon siesta.
Each house we saw seemed to have some special attribute: a special view to the sea, a vista across the valley toward the center of the village itself, the possibility of a large terrace or an easily converted floor plan. Many of the houses, White quickly acknowleged, could best be done over by complete gutting and starting from scratch. As long as the exterior remained true to the village there appeared to be no limitations on what one could do inside, except those set by pocketbook, patience and time.
Knowing a little about the frustrations of contending with Spanish versions of Mr. Blanding's problems, I wondered how propective purchasers would eal with this - especially since most of them will have little facility with the language, and will probably live thousands of miles away. Most Americans know that building or remodeling a house in their own hometown can defeat the most stalwart soul. Stories of disappointment, red tape, questionable business practices, legal entanglements, delays and general misery can be told by almost everyone who has undertaken this effort on a long-distance basis in Spain.
Only the buyer can determine whether the price is worth it, but i would urge that he not let the dream blind him to the realities.
What choices lie ahead for Casares? Spain presents a contradition somewhat unique in this world. On the one hand she has turned a blind eye to the commercial mutilation of her Mediterranean coast. On the other hand she has preserved the marvels of ancient castles, monasteries and private estates while providing lower cost accommodations for tourists. Somewhere in-between lies the answer for Casares. A combination of private development and government concern could open up new vistas for this small village, while preserving the very qualities that make it so special.
A great deal will depend on those who purchase the approximately 40 properties presently for sale. Some will buy because of the attraction of a quiet, secluded village that captures the atmosphere of years past. I hope they will fight to keep it that way. Others will speculate on increased values and commercial opportunities similar to other tourist attractions. I hope they will avoid the gimcrack merchandise so prevalent along the coast and emphasize local crafts and products consistent with the nature of the village.
If there is to be hotel development, this would seem the ideal opportunity for a parador, or perhaps a number of smaller facilities, so that the fragile nature of the village is not disrupted. Lack of present parking spaces, or land suitable for future parking facilities, may protect Casares from the waves of tourists afflicting some other "discovered" mountain villages.
We left Casares, slowly driving down the winding road, past the bump-'em cars silently waiting for action on fiesta night, around the new manorial home (being built, I was told, by a German entrepreneur who is developing a business in home crafts for export to European countries), toward a point of land marked by a peeling sign with a camera painted on it. There we stopped to see again the most spectacular view of Casares, the classic pose, stark, clear, cast in strong light and shadow by the late afternoon sun.
I realized that the Spirit of Progress will not be stayed forever, I hoped that the future would hold only the best for Casares. But I knew in my heart that if one wants to see Casaresbefore it is changed forever, he should go now.