SECASTILLA IS ITTY-BITTY AND REMOTE. An untouched morsel of the world, nestled sweetly in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees. And yes, it is quiet and slow-paced. But it is not a sleepy village. It’s not like some others I’ve been to where dried leaves and old twine have twisted into knots and blown into the street’s corners. Where the sign on the bar door says “CLOSED” and you wonder “…for how long?” Sleepy villages put lead in your feet and make your head too heavy for your neck. It’s not like that here.
Here, the sun teases and flirts its way through cast iron railings and across the terracotta roofs. Four lanes wind around the clustered houses, each studded with carefully maintained potted plants and flowers. Laundry hanging on clotheslines adorns the faces of homes like flags and creates a rotating gallery of color. An innocently voyeuristic peek into someone else’s life. Even an empty pathway feels alive; the sound of someone washing dishes whispers from a glowing window overhead and an emphatic Spanish conversation gains momentum from the Bar, like the swell of a wave. Even when there is no one else around, it feels like someone has just been where you are. Like you just missed a pocket-sized Spanish woman in a housedress sweeping the sidewalk. Or the chance to stop and visit. Even in Secastilla’s quietest moments, life buzzes from behind doorways and ripples into a warm undercurrent.
In the countryside and farmland surrounding the village, daily activity creates its own unique soundtrack. The thwack of a pole in the almond tree branches, the throaty growl of a tractor, men bellowing orders at one another. As dusk settles, the shepherd and his sheep roll in from wherever they go, the hollow clanking of the sheep’s bells growing closer and closer. A bee hums in the heat of midday and the church bell tolls on the quarter hour to announce the time. Sometimes accurately, sometimes not. From around the corner a cat shouts for food, an irritated mewl echoing through a slatted wooden gate. In the dark of night, below a hazy white swath of sky that is the Milky Way, boars crunch and snort amidst the almond trees and an owl yodels from afar.
There are about 40 people who live in Secastilla regularly, and about 60 or 70 more who have vacation or family homes here. The cast of characters does not disappoint. There are “The Queens,” a pack of four moms in their 50s who come from strong families that have long been in Secastilla. They are not snotty or unkind, but they are the royalty. They have husbands with neatly combed hair and twenty-somethings children who do things right; go to university, attend church when they’re in town and get married and make babies. The Queens and their broods have vermouth every Sunday after church in the Bar and the women open and close the window behind them because they’re too cold. Then they’re too warm. Then they’re a bit too cool again.
The Bar is run by Jose and Juani, a middle-aged couple from Barcelona. They hold hands on their afternoon walks and pat each other’s bums playfully as they work. Jose has cherub cheeks dappled with a coarse and constant five o’clock shadow, a tumbleweed ’stache and small spectacles. He has an easy, boyish chuckle and a crude tattoo on his forearm of a woman’s face. Juani has big, expressive eyes and becomes more authoritative when Jose’s not around. They are warm, unimposing and consistent. And like all good barkeeps, know just enough about your life. They are always there, in the bar, the light from the windows a snug affirmation that everything is as it should be.
There is the easy-to-like shepherd who carries a staff and a cell phone. Chirpy old women who fuss and flutter like agitated hens and who can bend and lift more than most 20-year-olds. Gentle but strong old men, often spotted in the tops of trees pruning or harvesting something. Secastilla does not produce wimps. There is the wisp of an elderly man who meanders the lanes starry-eyed and comfortably confused, often times with a single pristine red rose in his fingertips. Where he is going or what he is doing, I am never sure. There are the crones and the bachelors, getting older and rarer in their singlehood as the years pass by. Caught between their love of this place and wanting a little something more for themselves. Loneliness creaks out of them like a door that won’t latch shut, no matter how many times you pull it to.
There are the bricklayers, who aren’t only bricklayers but also the general keepers of Secastilla. There are four of them, and sometimes you’ll find them tearing open an entire road to install new water pipes; sometimes they are doing the more delicate work of preserving stonework from the 1300s. And other times they are doing everything in between. They clean up nice, but during their work day they’re a knockabout crew, as rugged and boisterous as a bunch of billy goats. They tumble into the Bar after lunch, every day, at two o’clock. Cement dust in their hair and paint splattered on their faces, big boots and calloused hands. Three coffees, two with an herbal liquor and one with cognac. It is not uncommon for the men to get into heated debates, and it’s not uncommon for one or more of the men to glance over at you and give you a cheeky wink mid-fight. As if to say, “don’t worry, I’m just winding him up.” Then they’re off again, never sitting still for long, and shortly thereafter you can hear them hollering at each other over the rumble of their machinery.
And then there is a handful of regular Secastillians under the age of 40. Just a few of us, most of who ended up here thanks to a Spanish-American couple who run a help exchange program. Their life is a revolving door of mostly young folks visiting from all over the world, drawn to Secastilla to help with making wine, harvesting almonds and olives, and all the other daily work required of an agricultural, mostly-off-grid lifestyle. A few of us came and found our sweet spot and decided not to leave. And now we’re here doing our little part to preserve this special place.
At sundown, the sky always presents a different show. A reef of grey clouds reflecting the sun like pennies. A canvas of bright blue. The sun melting behind the hills. Feathers of white and pink and violet dancing over the horizon. Cords of sunshine piercing through black clouds. Every day I wonder what surprises the sky has in store for its evening spectacular, and I ooh and aah like an eager season-ticket-holder in the front row. It is at this time of day when the older folks in the village gather on the benches in the Plaza del Cruz. Chirping like birds. It’s this time of day when the fruit lady who comes once a week starts packing up her crates of peaches and kiwis. The time when you can look out onto the terraced hills and the rows of grapevines and the almond trees shimmering in the golden hues of sundown and see men on tractors coming in for the day. When someone starts cooking dinner; an amber spiral of olive oil and garlic sizzling in a well-worn pan.
Secastilla is accidentally profound. Enlightening in its simplicity. As if the people here who have seen very little of the world beyond this place unintentionally have all the answers. They didn’t have to search far and wide to figure out what matters in life. It is all right here, growing within them and reflecting back at them. Coming to life in the shimmering sliver of space between all things great—a magical sky—and all things small—a pristine red rose between your fingertips.