Slobbing out in southern Spain
El Morrean, Andalucia: a retirement village for wealth-less twenty-, thirty- and fortysomethings.
Andalucia is no stranger to foreigners.
Torremolinos is here, and the Costa del Sol. The city of Granada trades on its culture, history, and architecture. Seville is the administrative capital of the region and the party capital of southern Spain. In the summer, Andalucia teems with tourists and travellers. For the past 20 years, its sun-drenched coastline has been the retirement resort of choice for Europe’s fun-loving pensioners.
And away from the tourist traps and hotspots, the sardine-tin beaches and sun-bleached apartment blocks, Andalucia attracts a different kind of leisure seeker. The region’s isolated interior has become the European equivalent of Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s, a twenty-first century Mecca for dropouts, downsizers and non-conformists of all kinds.
Officials estimate that over 40,000 foreigners will settle in Andalucia this year, and while the ‘grey hairs’ head off to mix Martinis on the Costa del Sol, younger immigrants push inland, in pursuit of their particular idea of an ‘alternative’ way of life.
They end up in places like Orgiva, a sleepy town of 2000 residents that nestles high in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Orgiva is rapidly becoming the capital of a thriving, predominantly British alternative community. The hub is El Morreon, an incongruous collection of tumbledown shacks, lovingly restored cottages and imaginatively converted trucks, buses and horseboxes, a mile or so down a dirt track from the centre of town. Some of the vehicles – an old army Bedford Hippo, for instance – could be prize exhibits in a transport museum, if it weren’t for the psychedelic paintjobs and the overpowering aroma of patchouli.
Further down the valley, a few newcomers without money or contacts are forced to live in caves by the river. Up towards the snowline, another community chooses to live in teepees.
Some of the bus-dwellers and all the citizens of the teepee village could be described as full-time hippies. They reject the plastic-pretence of twenty-first century Europe, have given up on conventional politics, and want to be left alone to live what one describes ‘as a more natural, human sort of life’. For the rest, however, the main alternative on offer in this alternative community is to live without work for most of the year.
Some of the denizens of El Morreon dabble in new-age mysticism, a few are anti-capitalists, and one or two get stoned and share conspiracy theories that wouldn’t seem out of place in the shotgun shacks of Alabama or the Rocky Mountains. But they are all hedonists. Self-indulgence, as much as self-discovery, is the community’s raison d’etre.
Despite down-at-heel appearances, El Morreon is really a community of leisure-seekers, a retirement village for wealth-less twenty-, thirty- and fortysomethings, where the living is easy and the pleasures are simple. The stark, mountainous landscape lets the spirit soar. The weather is good all year round. The beach is 90 minutes away in one direction, the hot springs an hour in the other. Food and alcohol sell for a sixth of what a Londoner would expect to pay, and there is a plentiful supply of drugs. Nearly everybody you meet in El Morreon can strip and service an engine, and some days the mountains echo to the throaty roar of speeding motorbikes.
‘I’m here for the good life’, confirms Dan, 31, who was, and still occasionally is, an IT support worker from London. ‘I was sick of working 50 hours a week in Britain. It’s gone too far. People don’t come here to give up on civilisation, they come here to get away from a life that’s totally based around work. It’s really cheap to live here but it’s not like it’s a third world country.’
The ‘good life’ is made possible by the huge disparity of wealth that still exists within Western Europe and the community’s adeptness at playing the ultimate ‘work to live’ game. Old hands estimate that the British population of Orgiva and the surrounding area can number up to 700, but it ebbs and flows like the tide. Those who can afford it spend the summer travelling. Those who can’t spend it crashing on the floors of friends back in England, taking advantage of comparatively high wages and Britain’s booming market in unskilled short-term labour.
‘Very few people here never work’, says Steve, 44, who has lived this life for the past decade. ‘A few have savings. A few indulge in slightly dubious activities, like running busloads of booze and fags to England. But most people just head back to London when they’re skint, sleep on someone’s floor, and work like crazy for two months. Then they come back to Spain and spend 10 months recovering. You can always top up your money with odd jobs out here, and there are lots of wealthier people moving into the mountains now. If you can turn your hand to building a wall or fixing an engine, you could probably get by without going anywhere.’
But there is trouble in paradise. The wealthier folk are driving prices up, and the natives are getting restless. In Orgiva, there is already some tension between the Spanish and British communities, who rarely have anything unconditionally positive to say about each other. The English bring money ‘but don’t mix’, says the waitress in the local pizza restaurant. The local hotel owner complains that his town doesn’t seem Spanish anymore.
Experienced ex-pats advise visiting friends to avoid one of the town’s three bars (‘you won’t get beaten up – this isn’t England – but you won’t feel welcome’). Very few of the British speak Spanish, and when a local teacher started free Spanish classes to encourage interaction, it petered out after a few weeks because of a lack of interest.
‘There’s a definite feeling in El Morreon that the authorities will start clamping down on the community soon to make the area more attractive for people with money’, says Steve. ‘For a decade or more, they’ve tolerated us. But soon it could all be over.’
Hugh Wilson is a freelance journalist based in London.
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