Naturist Kevin Wheeler shares his experiences about making a stone 'mas' habitable on his own Finca in Spain.
There is nothing better than a hot day on a British naturist beach. The problem is that there are just not enough hot days in the typical British summer. I am privileged to live on a farm with a private sheltered garden in beautiful part of Devon, but in forty years of Naturism I have seen no great improvement in the weather. So I am writing this in Spain.
Four years ago I decided to try to buy a place somewhere sunny. A villa with a pool, or an apartment by the beach would be nice. The problem is that my spare cash would not run to either one. I needed to do this on a very limited budget. Time share would not work for me, I need more than two weeks a year in the sun! Then I heard about fincas.
The Spanish word finca has many translations, Google Translate suggests land, property and estate. My finca is fairly typical, it is an olive grove. Two acres of terraced land on the side of a mountain. There is a stone building with one room inside. We Brits might call it a shed! Traditionally these houses were lived in for a short time when the land was worked or during the harvest. Mine still had a section where the donkey would have stayed. These buildings were very well made and would have been warm at night and cool by day. If you buy one that is a hundred years old it may not be quite so weather-tight.
I pictured myself sat naked outside such a house with a drink just soaking up the sun. Today that is precisely what I am doing. Then later on I will take a stroll among the trees.
A quick word about Spanish law, it is lawful to stay in these buildings, but most Spanish authorities will not give formal consent for them to be lived in permanently. Nonetheless many intrepid Spanish people and expats do live in them. One thing is sure, they make great and perfectly legal holiday homes.
So where exactly are we? Well very close to the frontier of Catalonia and Aragon. The nearest settled community is Maella, which must be a town as it has a town hall, but it is the size of a British village. It is an historic town and is best known as the birth place of Pablo Gargallo the noted Spanish sculptor.
As is frequently discussed elsewhere, the Spanish constitution includes the right to public nudity. When on the finca we only dress by day when we need to limit our exposure to the sun. Public nudity is not really an issue here as we never see anyone except for visiting Naturists who have their own fincas in the area.
Sitting naked in the virtually-guaranteed sunshine can be the principal pastime for six months a year.
The temperature here often gets into the high thirties in June, in July and August it can reach 40. I have been asked “What can you wear at 40 degrees?” My answer is water. Get in it, or get it all over you. One of the things I did on my first visit to the finca was to install a plunge pool. It is only a very simple design but it makes an amazing difference.
Then there is swimming in the local river. There are four rivers in the area, but for me it has to be the Algars. It has sink holes so you can swim even when the river starts to dry up. There are small fish who show no fear when you swim with them. The surrounding countryside is stunning. The banks are gently sloping and covered in small pebbles. It is like being at the beach.
On the subject of beaches, my nearest Naturist beach is the amazing El Torn at Hospitalet del Infant. El Templo del Sol is the Naturist camp site which is on the cliff above the beach. The reviews of the camp site are mixed but everyone loves the beach. A review on Trip Advisor called it one of the best naturist beaches in Europe. About a kilometre of beautiful golden sand and shingle. The water is usually calm, clear and warm even in May. The back of the beach is fringed with pine forest. It is very popular, but never feels too crowded. There is a very good tapas bar on the beach which does not seem at all out of place. This is not a commercial, but explains why my friends and I love it. It is quite a way from the finca, but well worth the drive.
An average day here often begins with an early start to carry out any work that needs to be done before the sun rises fully above the surrounding hills. This is the cool time of day, the temperature is around 16 - 18 degrees which is very comfortable for working. Equally this is a great time for walking around the finca and enjoying the amazing countryside views.
When the sun hits the finca fully, a couple of hours after sunrise, the temperature rises quickly. Breakfast time, then settle down with a book for some sunbathing and frequent dips in the pool. Alternatively head out for a day on the beach.
Around 1 pm to 3 pm is a good time for swimming in the river. Local people seem to observe the siesta and will tend to go to the river around 4 pm. So mad dogs and Englishmen have it to themselves in the early afternoon.
Grocery shopping for a supper of fresh local produce on the way back to the finca and there is still time for a few hours sunbathing.
Many expats like to take a walk in the evening, if you are en casa this is when you may get a visit from the neighbours.
There is quite an active café and bar culture in Maella. There is a good chance you will see friends in the local tapas bars at lunch time and in the bars in the evening.
My nearest neighbours, one Dutch and two British, stay on their fincas for several months a year, and one lives there full time. I must admit to envying them when it is time for me to return home.
The mountain climate in summer has been a revelation, the day carries on getting hotter well into the evening. You can leave the beach as the day cools, drive up the mountain and find that when you get home it is hotter than when you left the beach. There are often a couple hours more sunbathing if you need it.
When I wrote this, it was my third summer visiting the finca, I get five weeks holiday a year and I spend it all here. I have a week in May, June, and July and two weeks in September. That way I have five months a year which feel like summer.
Sunbathing, swimming, local wine and the Mediterranean diet, my Spanish naturist hideaway is a great place to be.
Like so many people of my age I caught the DIY bug back in the eighties. As a younger man I was very keen on knocking down walls, fitting breakfast bars, stripping floors and painting or varnishing almost everything. So I can still tell one end of a screwdriver from the other.
I have been able to carry out a fair amount of work on the house myself. When I first took it on, I described the building as a shed. Now it has had work done on it and it is upgraded to a habitable shed.
It is important to note that any substantial work here needs permission from the town hall. I was advised by the estate agent that I needed a concrete floor inside and a patio outside. This would provide a clean area in which to stay, work and relax. That proved extremely good advice, it was a big job and I was not keen on mixing concrete in the summer heat. This was a task for a local builder. He arranged the necessary permission to restore the building and carried out the agreed work. All this was done in the spring, before my first planned stay on the finca. I was very pleased with the result. From that point on I have done the work myself.
During my first visit I noticed that the roof was sagging a bit. So as a temporary measure I reinforced it from below and replaced a few broken tiles. That at least kept it water proof for the first few years. I was not sure how much longer my temporary fix would last. The major project this year has been to rebuild it. I have had a great deal of help from visitors who are staying on the finca and a friend from a neighbouring finca.
The traditional roofs in this area are the pan tiles which you see in older Spanish buildings. Below this is a layer made from rushes and soil. All this is supported on wooden beams. The rushes are around four feet long and about as thick as the bamboo we would use for growing runner beans. They are mostly split in half long-ways. They are woven into a panel and laid on top of the beams. On these there is a thick layer of soil, possibly applied wet. If you can imagine a wattle and daub wall on its side you will have the picture. The tiles rest on the soil.
In the long term the rushes start to break up and a constant light rain of dust and small stones falls from the ceiling. To be fair the roof here may be more than a hundred years old, so it has done really well.
I don’t know where I would get the rushes, I am fairly sure that I would not be allowed to cut them from the river banks, and I did not fancy spending days splitting them so instead I decided on a wooden ceiling.
A word about wood. There are pine trees growing on most mountain sides, but it is not permitted to cut them as they are a protected plant species. I imagine they are an important wildlife habitat. As a result I understand that most of the timber in Spain is imported. This means that it is not readily available and when you can find it, it comes at a high price. As a British farmer I am used to wood being relatively affordable, so I was surprised to find that it is actually more economical to buy the timber in the UK and have it shipped to Spain.
With all the materials on site and the work force prepared each day by having had a very substantial breakfast we got started. The old roof was dismantled taking care not to break the tiles. A lot of broken rushes and soil were hauled away in the wheel barrow. Then new timber planks were fitted and tiles rested on top. The entire job took four days, but has been well worth the effort. The roof is now secure and the ceiling looks good in a rustic way.
I had expected that one of the major DIY jobs would be going “off-grid”.
There has been a great deal of discussion in the British press recently about living off grid. Experts tell us that it may hold the solution to increased use of renewable energy. They seem to be promoting large banks of very expensive batteries linked to equally expensive solar panels and wind turbines. Personally I am entirely in favour of renewable energy, from our farm in Devon you can see six windmills and there are another eight within a mile or two. There are also three substantial solar farms nearby, in my view they are all necessary and when properly planned they blend nicely into the countryside. Of course there are those who will disagree.
What I am not so sure about is the high cost of renewable energy in the UK. Life off grid here in the Spanish countryside is a far simpler affair, I often think the planners would do well to look at the way rural communities live. When you are up a mountain off grid is your only option. There are no mains electricity, gas, water, or drainage here. There are some truly enormous arrays of wind turbines and solar installations serving the Spanish mains, but it is the small scale local systems which interest me.
Going off grid has proved to be much less complicated than I had thought.
In many parts of Spain bottled gas is the most popular choice of energy to cook with, this applies even in town. Most garages therefore sell gas. The sale of gas is regulated in Spain, to buy the first bottle you need a license. After that they exchange an empty bottle for a full one as we do at home. Gas takes care of the cooking. I could not survive out here without a steady supply of cold drinks. A fridge is essential, this also runs on gas.
The next question is water. As everyone knows you cannot drink the tap water in much of mainland Europe, so we all buy vast amounts of bottled water. Go to any supermarket and you will find that everyone’s trolley is half filled with bottles of water. You also need water for other purposes and there are no mains taps where I am. Being British I thought about a bore hole. I made enquiries much to the amusement of local people who told me that you can drill as far as you like, there is no water under these mountains. I have since learned that at least one person has tried, they now own a very deep, very dry hole. I now have a rain water harvesting system which gathers water during the winter. This consists of metal roofing sheets on a timber framework with gutters leading to water tanks. These are the caged plastic type known in the UK as IBC tanks, in Spain they call them cubes. I have four tanks which when topped up by the occasional summer storm hold enough water to see us through. This system is at the highest point on the finca, well above the house. By the time it has come down the hill the water pressure is about the same as it is at home. The taps run quickly and we can have a good shower. We also collect water from the house roof for the pool.
Heating the water is surprisingly easy, simply run it through a black pipe. This is solar heating at its most basic. I was warned by the locals that this will provide water which is too hot to handle, it is certainly true that from mid-day and all afternoon it is necessary to mix it with some cold water, so we bury blue pipe to carry the cold water and use black pipe laid along the ground for hot water.
At the same time I set up the shower. This is outside. I made a privacy screen, which no one uses. Showering in the great outdoors is described by some visitors as one of the highlights of the stay, it is like something out of a shower gel commercial.
A hot water storage tank would probably improve the system, but so far we have not needed it. Instead we have learned to have our showers and do the washing up when the water is hot. It is all part of adjusting your lifestyle to match the environment and the natural patterns of the day rather than trying to do things the other way around as we are often obliged to at home. I think this fits in well with the naturist philosophy. Very occasionally we also do some laundry such as beach towels, but living the way we do there are very few clothes to wash! There is more than enough hot water for all these tasks.
The drains are even easier. The ground here is parched in summer. A simple, shallow soak away will take all the used water. The nearest trees respond with richer, greener leaves and bigger fruit. Hopefully as a result they also support a few more insects and birds. This way of life encourages us to think carefully about waste and to recycle as much as possible on the finca, if the water is no use to us perhaps it will benefit the wild life.
Naturally there is another kind of drain needed when you are making a holiday home miles from the nearest loo. A composting septic tank takes care of that. I won’t go into detail about it here, suffice to say that it provides a hygienic solution to a potentially tricky problem.
This leaves the electricity. I only need power for the phone, the camera, and some lighting. The car will charge the first two.
It was therefore a priority to install solar lighting. Solar electricity presents two main problems. The set up cost can easily run into hundreds of pounds and in one local case a system with computer controlled solar tracking panels cost tens of thousands. The second concern is that solar panels have been targeted by thieves in some parts of Spain. Thankfully that has not been an issue in our area, touch wood!
My preferred system is much simpler. Four lights, each connected to its own very small solar panel (about the size of a smart phone) no controllers or inverters, the batteries are inside the lights. The whole system cost less than twenty pounds and the first parts of it have now lasted for four years and counting.
The finca is now as off grid as it is possible to get and the system is mostly self-sustaining.
I would not want to give you the impression that we have only been working this week. We have stopped to go swimming in the river almost every day and we have had a day down at El Torn, our nearest naturist beach. Now that the work is done we will be back on the beach tomorrow.
One question that sometimes arises, “Is it safe to do DIY without protective clothing?” Or in the case of BN members “In no clothing at all?” I think it depends which tools you are using. Personally I draw the line at dodging sparks from the angle grinder.
A little understanding of DIY is a good thing on the finca, but not essential. Neighbours are usually generous with their advice and quick to lend a hand. They have usually got the one tool I forgot to pack. Alternatively there are local builders who will handle it all for you, if you prefer to sit back and relax.
The building work is done, and we have a few bottles of wine in the fridge. I think it is time to call it a day