Montecorto, Spain, may have redefined the term “sleepy town” for me.
My brother, John, and I just spent a week in this village with a population of 650 (mostly aging) inhabitants. Montecorto is one of a series of “pueblos blancos” (white towns) situated in Andalucia, the southernmost part of Spain. The pueblos blancos are deservedly famous for their aesthetic charm; all of the buildings in these towns are made from white concrete, and they cast striking silhouettes against the area’s rolling green pastureland, olive plantations, and dramatic limestone and dolomite mountains.
This zone has always been a stronghold of sheep and goat farming, cheese making, wool production, and olive cultivation; however, in recent years, tourism has become more and more a source of revenue. Both Spaniards and international visitors have discovered the beauty and slow pace of life in these towns, and the availability of inexpensive food and housing has made them popular sites for weekend getaways and retirement stays.
John and I were stationed in Montecorto for a week of mountain biking. As part of our trip, we were lodged in a villa on the edge of town, which came equipped with a full kitchen. While Montecorto claims to have three or four bars that serve food, only one was ever open (and not between 2 and 5pm when the daily siesta closes down the few amenities that exist). I ate there upon arriving to town while I was waiting for our house to be ready. After consuming a huge baguette with scrambled eggs (called “tortilla española” here), mayonnaise, and a side of french fries, I decided that John and I would need to be doing some cooking if my vegetable-dependent middle-aged body were to survive the week of physical exertion. Thus began the search for provisions.
We had been told that there were several markets in Montecorto, and that turned out to be true. Finding them was tricky. Finding them open was trickier still. The guide who had picked me up at the train station in Ronda (a city of 35,000 people about 20 km east of Montecorto) had warned me that nothing at all was open from Saturday afternoon through Monday morning. As a result, he had taken me to a supermarket in Ronda to get some “survival items.” I had neglected to buy olive oil (it being the main product of the area, I wrongly assumed there would be some in the house), so on Sunday night, I went out in search of some. I brought a drinking glass with me, figuring I would go to a bar and beg an ounce or two off of the cook there.
Earlier in the day, I had noticed a wooden sign in the Montecorto plaza with the words “commercial center” on it, along with an arrow pointing up a steep and narrow cobbled street. I figured this would be the best place to start.
With the exception of a skittish cat, there wasn’t a soul around; but after a few turns in the alley, I saw a tiny store with its lights on. There was no sign on the door, and, to the best of my knowledge, the place didn’t have a name, but the woman inside was amused by my effusive enthusiasm about her being open. In addition to selling me a bottle of oil, she responded to my pleas for “chocolate caliente,” a treat I thought I deserved after a day of mountain biking in the rain through seas of sticky mud. Since we had a good rapport going, I asked the shopkeeper where the other stores in town were, and she said something to the effect of “next door” and “across the street.” Again, no signs, no “stuff”in windows, no hours posted, no obvious indications of commercial activity at all. She suggested I come down in the morning and look around then.
On my way back from this shop, I noticed a man walking down the street holding a broccoli. This was exactly what I would be looking for, so I stopped him and asked him where he’d gotten it. He laughed and replied, “from my store.” I asked where his store was (it goes without saying that he said “in the commercial center,” prompting me to solicit a few more specifics..) and what time it was open.
“Eight to noon,” he said. He seemed so pleased by having been asked about his broccoli by an American woman on the street that I figured I could press him for a little more information.
“I’ve noticed there’s a panadería (bread shop) and a pescadería (fish shop) in town as well. Can you tell me if or when they are open?” I asked.
“The panadería is open every day from eight until eleven. The pescadería is only open on Wednesdays and Saturdays, from eight until he leaves or runs out of fish.”
It’s moments like these – and there are many – when I am relieved to be fluent in Spanish. It makes these interchanges much more fun than stressful.
Armed with this wealth of knowledge, I set out the next morning and bought the very same broccoli from his shop, along with bananas, plums, and a chunk of goat cheese. I also stood in line behind three gossiping ladies at the panadería to purchase a couple of Euros worth of bolillos (rolls). I found eggs at another shop and some decent granola at still another. Mind you, none of these stores had signs. I came to realize that the “shops” in Montecorto could be recognized by their chain-link style curtains in the doorways. Through them you could see crates of vegetables and bottles of soda – if you were looking. You have to duck behind these metal curtains to get inside and discover what kinds of treasures each establishment is harboring. As John put it, “this is an ‘if you don’t know, you don’t belong here’ kinda town.”
By Tuesday, we had the food scene dialed, and we even managed to rally for a trip to the fish place on Wednesday morning at 8:30. There we were met by a line five deep. “Wow, nearly one percent of the town is here,” John quipped. We succeeded in providing both the fishmonger and the ladies in the shop with some high entertainment as we asked both what everything was and how we could prepare the various options available (the answer to the latter question was mostly “se lo frei” – “you fry it” – exactly the response we were trying to avoid). We walked out with three Euros worth of some kind of white fish and fifteen small prawns. After cooking all of that, we each enjoyed about six bites of meat. Perhaps that’s really why the ladies were laughing at us – because we barely bought enough to feed the town cat, let alone two large Americans. Or maybe it was because we called the prawns “camarones” – a distinctly new world vocabulary term. It also could have been my Mexican accent that made them smile. We provided so many sources of amusement that it’s hard to know what was the best part…
In the course of our food-procurement missions and daily wanders, John and I had ample opportunity to look around at Montecorto. It was hard not to notice that the majority of its residents seemed to be over the age of sixty –well over the age of sixty, in fact. There is an elementary school in town, and we learned that about fifty children from kindergarten through sixth grade attend it. After sixth grade, kids are bussed to nearby Ronda. We did see a few children here and there, and they had a nice playground, soccer field, and pool area to make use of. However, there was a distinct lack of people between the ages of fifteen and forty-five hanging around. Either they don’t live there, or, if they do, they are driving out of town for work. We mostly saw older men sitting outside the bar chatting and playing dominoes as well as older women doing morning errands.
John and I couldn’t help but wonder what Montecorto would be like in ten years. Would there be any locals left alive? Given the already-obvious presence of Airbnb-style lodging in the town, would it soon be overrun with overpriced vacation housing and left to exist as a shell of its former self?
At the same time, as we ran around the hills above town, we commented to each other what a mountain biking mecca this place could be if they decided to build some singletrack trail just outside of town. Already, Montecorto and the surrounding pueblos blancos have become magnets for road bikers who adore the winding, rolling, seldom-used paved road network that connects one quaint village with another. Cyclists are flocking to these towns in the spring, spending money on food and lodging (and coffee – lots of it!) and giving a big boost to the local economy. But, they’re British, by and large. They don’t speak Spanish, and they have certain demands – such as for stores that stay open during siesta and sell meusli and artisanal yogurt. The more of them (well, us, really – although few Americans come through, we are a part of this wave) that visit, the more likely the town will begin to adapt to “our” norms – which is both good and bad.
At the end of the trip, when we were being driven to Ronda by one of the bike company’s owners, we were told that the other owner had asked the shopkeepers to stay open on either Saturday nights or Sundays. His clients arrived those days, he said, and it would be a great opportunity to make a bunch of money in a short time. He wouldn’t have to give the business to the supermarket chain in Ronda and could keep it local instead.
The shop owners said they weren’t interested. Saturdays and Sundays were their rest days.
Fair enough. That alone might keep Montecorto “sleepy” for a little while longer.