Journeys Into The Unknown

Although it’s hard to realise, it’s twenty months since I relocated to Spain …

For many British people who retire to Spain, life basically consists of lying in the sun around the pool, consuming copious amounts of relatively cheap booze, and venturing out to local shops and bars owned by fellow Brits. Many appear to live in a comfort bubble within a 20 km radius of their homes and I have lost count of the number of times I’ve mentioned places that I’ve visited, only to be greeted with the ‘where’s that?’ comment. It has become very apparent that people simply don’t look at maps or, indeed, are incapable of doing so, but for those struggling to read maps, there are easier ways of finding places, notably the Internet, as well as enquiring at local information centres. For those who do make the effort, there is a wealth of history, culture and scenery to be discovered almost on the doorstep.

I appreciate that Spain is a large country and that many places cannot be visited in a day. I am fortunate in living in the north east of Almería province which affords easy access to Granada and Jaën provinces as well as the autonomous region of Murcia. To put things into perspective, Almería province covers 8774 sq kms, which is the approximate size of Cornwall and Somerset combined but somewhat smaller than the total area of Dorset and Devon. As well as coastal towns and villages, there is an abundance of secluded coves, and moving inland, one will find mountains, valleys, hidden villages, lakes, forests and ancient monuments. When navigating mountain roads, many of which are maintained to a good standard, one can expect ever-changing vistas with a surprise around virtually every corner. Admittedly, some roads are very narrow and twisty, even degenerating into dirt tracks, but persevering with these will reward the traveller with uninterrupted views and frequent hidden gems.

As a general rule, I do try and explore new places at least twice a month. Of course, this is weather-dependent but for the most part, the sun shines! Having said that, some of the mountainous areas can look stunning with cloud formations looming overhead, and their overall appearance changes to reflect the seasons. Quaint villages with their narrow streets, plazas and churches are a joy to wander around, and maybe partake of a drink in the local bar whilst soaking up the views! Obviously, to experience these hitherto unknown places, a car is essential, but seeing as public transport in this part of Spain is fairly minimal, almost everyone has access to private transport.

Much of the interior of Almería province consists of a parched, lunar landscape with low mountain ranges and dried-up river beds. However, two areas of the desert boast exceptional geological features, namely the Karst in the Yesos de Sorbas Natural Park which is the most outstanding gypsum landscape in Spain, and the eroded mountains of the Tabernas Desert Natural Park. Nestling in the shadows of the Sierra Alhamilla Natural Park is the town of Níjar, famous for its primitive earthenware ceramics, and further into the mountains at 550m above sea level is the village of Lucainena de Las Torres. This quaint Andalucian village boasts narrow streets with whitewashed houses, and the 18th century church faces a ‘mirador’ or viewing area giving panoramic vistas of the surrounding landscape. Of particular interest are the remains of large kilns used for iron extraction from the rocks. Mining began in 1895 and due to its secluded location, a special 35 km railway line was constructed to transport extractions to the Mediterranean coast. The industry functioned until its closure in 1942 and the recently renovated kilns are now a site of special historical interest. The eight round kilns, which were constructed in 1900, were used to transform the rock into a much richer material. The kilns were filled from the top with alternate layers of rock and charcoal, and after cooking, the nuggets of ore were removed from the mouth of the ovens and loaded into wagons for their onward journey by train. Each oven was capable of producing 50 tonnes of ore per day.

To the south east, and close to Almería city, is the Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park. This is the largest coastal protected area in Andalucía comprising a wild and isolated landscape of specific geological interest. Offshore are numerous tiny rocky islands and underwater extensive coral reefs teeming with marine life. In the northern corner of the province lies the Sierra de María-Los Vélez wooded park, bordered by the towns of Vélez Rubio and Vélez Blanco, the latter boasting an interesting castle. For those wishing to stay closer to home, local fiestas are a great way to experience regional culture. As the Spanish are very family-orientated, with several generations often living in the same house, they are proud to share their country and heritage. And that is just part of what my home province of Almería has to offer …

So, to those who simply want to soak up the sun, I say good luck and beware the health risks. However, they are missing out on an enrichment of life, education, enjoyment, and fun! Travelling in this part of Spain is a pleasant experience with generally little traffic and discovering some of these hidden places is, indeed, a journey into the unknown!

¡Feliz viaje!

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The Big Move

Some of the essential requirements when considering a move to Spain …

With the growth of the European Union, one might expect that moving to another country within the EU would be generally straightforward. In an ideal world, basic laws and procedures would be standardised across all member nations, making movement between countries truly free to all. That situation would in no way erode individual countries’ heritage or sovereignty, facts that many people choose to quote when disagreeing with the EU concept. People are more than happy to visit member states for holidays and often expect the same standards to which they are accustomed at home, but when it comes to any form of amalgamation or common policy, they protest vehemently. Quite simply, one cannot have one’s cake and eat it. I believe wholeheartedly in the European Union, not only on the basis of trade between nations, but also as firm allies in what is becoming an ever-increasing violent world.

So back to the subject matter! In simple terms, relocating to Spain can be something of a nightmare. House purchase procedures are quite different to those in the UK and before one can do anything, it is necessary to obtain a Spanish tax number known as the NIE (Número de Identificación de Extranjero). In fact, this number is needed for many transactions including car purchase and the buying and selling of items. The document is issued by the National Police and can be obtained from a variety of sources including in person direct from the Spanish Embassy. Rather foolishly, I left the matter to my Spanish solicitor so it took longer to obtain but at least it was through in time for me to buy a car!

The next requirement is a Spanish bank account. One can forget all about ‘free’ banking of which many British ex-pats will be familiar. The process is very long-winded and has to be done by prior appointment. Proof of identification is required as well as the source of the money to be deposited, and once the account is set up, copious amounts of paper documents are churned out by a printer. Every page of a document then has to be signed even though the majority of people will have no idea what the document is saying. The bank then levies charges which are high whilst the account holder is not officially documented as a resident. Counter service is also abysmal, at least in the branch of my current bank, but it was arranged by my solicitor. In time, I will shop around for a more progressive company as I get the distinct impression that the bank I use is stuck in the Middle Ages!

Andalucia Regions
Andalucia Region

An initial property search can be undertaken and a reservation made without these essential commodities but they will be needed prior to any legal documentation being completed. If you have not already engaged a solicitor, I would suggest that it would be prudent to do so at this point. It’s also esential that the solicitor engaged has a fair command of your native language so that contracts can be translated. After all, you may think you’re agreeing to buy a modest villa or apartment, only to discover when it’s too late that an entire street of properties has been contracted to purchase! In any event, a good solicitor will be able to help with other matters so it is worthwhile trying to find one who will be both approachable and reliable. Having finances sorted out beforehand will undoubtedly make any procedure less tiresome, and for transferring monies abroad, it is advisable to use a specialist currency broker rather than your UK bank. There are several of these companies in operation including Currencies Direct, Moneycorp and Global Currency Exchange. They all offer a better exchange rate than the banks and don’t levy charges for the transactions. That said, my Spanish bank charged a small fortune to receive the money! They certainly didn’t mention that beforehand and no doubt keep quiet until the deed is done.

Obviously, if you’re moving from one country to another, it’s advisable to do as much property research beforehand. Thankfully, that task is far less onerous nowadays because of the internet but be aware that many properties are in the hands of multiple agents and may actually already be sold. Also, prices can vary considerably as notifications of any change don’t always filetr through to every agent! Once you have shortlisted potential properties which, on paper at least, meet your requirements, area and budget, it is a good idea to liaise with agents and arrange a trip that will maximise your viewing time. The downside to this is potential property overload and forgetting most of what has been seen but it is costly to make repeated visits abroad. It also makes sense to keep accommodation costs down so I would recommend staying at a bed and breakfast. I found an excellent place in the Almanzora area of AlmerÍa run by British ex-pats who made me feel very much at home. Their website can be found here: http://www.alittlebitofengland.es/

The actual buying process works very differently from the UK and once you agree to buy a property, a purchase contract will be drawn up and after being signed by both parties, a 10% deposit will be payable. Subsequent ‘completion’ of the purchase will depend upon the status of the property being purchased when the balance of the purchase price plus taxes will have to be paid. Please note that both the vendors and the purchasers have to be present when documents are signed … this can often lead to lengthy delays. Finally, something that really need not be said but do not part with any money until all legal aspects have been confirmed by your legal representative.

Almanzora in Cantoria, Almería
Almanzora in Cantoria, Almería

New Beginnings

There comes a time in many people’s lives when lifestyle options need to be reviewed. This can be for any number of reasons including work, health, family, or simply to escape the everyday hustle and bustle.

For many years, I have had the desire to move away from my native country of the United Kingdom and explore new horizons. In fact, I nearly started a new life in France way back in 2004, but this failed to materialise as I was unable to sell my home at the time. Nevertheless, my aspirations for a move to France didn’t diminish and until 2012, my mind was focused on the Lot Valley area in the south west of the country. This part of France offers dramatic scenery, ancient history and warm summers but the downside is that the winter months can be almost as cold as parts of the UK.

With a longing for a warmer climate, my sights began to wander further south and for the last few years, Spain became the number one choice. There was still the problem of having to sell a property before being in a position to purchase another as I’m not one of the nouveau riche who can afford a second home! After a spell of ill health and diminishing work, I eventually found a buyer for my house in the UK and in the autumn of 2014 began an in-depth search for a property in sunny Spain. Prior to this, I had already decided upon the region of Andalusia in the south of the country. This was mainly because of the climate with its mild winters and hot summers. The autonomous region is the second largest in the whole of Spain and also the most populated. Historically, there has been high unemployment as the region relies heavily upon agriculture and tourism for inoome, but recently there has been growth in the industry and services sectors. Andalusia is divided into eight provinces, namely Almería, Cádiz, Córdoba, Granada, Huelva, Jaén, Málaga and Seville. Many cultural and Spanish customs originate in the region, and much of its architecture is influenced by the Moors.

After a couple of house-hunting trips to Spain, I finally decided upon a property which was within my budget. It is well reported that property prices throughout Spain reached an all-time low during 2013-14, especially in rural areas, so arguably it was a good time to buy. The reality, however, is that for a half-decent property, one has to fork out a fair amount of money and properties with pools command an average €30.000 premium. Whilst many will see a pool as very desirable, most are only used for about four months of the year. They are expensive to maintain and keep clean, especially with the amount of dust blown in the strong winds, and households with pools face water bills of double those without. Having spoken to people who have pools, many express their regrets and wish they were not encumbered.

No doubt readers will guess which option I selected. Being cost conscious and a non-swimmer, I decided to seek a property without a pool but this restricts the number of properties available. I also stipulated an average sized plot as too much ground would require maintenance. Even so, plots are generally far larger than the average UK property and houses are built to keep the heat out rather than in! This means that they can be very cold in the winter months as neither central heating nor insulation are common installations and floors are traditionally all tiled. After extensive searching, I finally decided upon a villa-type property with some mountain views yet convenient for shops and easy motorway access.

In mid January 2015, I finally left the UK to embark upon a 1500 mile [2400 km] drive to my chosen province of Almería. Things didn’t exactly go to plan as I was unable to move into the house immediately and also had to wait for my possessions to be transported from the UK. Finally I moved into my new home on 28 January and have most rooms straight and tidy, hence the chance to sit down and write this overdue blog! There will be plenty of maintenance to undertake in the future, especially redecoration, but overall the place is now clean and habitable. The priority is to integrate into the community that comprises a large number of expats from the UK and Belgium, as well as local people. Also, one has to come to terms with excessive Spanish bureaucracy and the time taken for things to get done. It’s all part of the Spanish lifestyle though which simply adds to the charm of living here. In time, there will be plenty of places to explore, both locally and further afield, and it is hoped that some of these will be featured on these pages. Meanwhile the featured photos show the landscape in February although I should mention that, overall, the winter here has been the coldest for at least four years with snow on the highest mountain peaks. Talk about bad timing on my part!

Common Courtesy

Another brief trip down memory lane…

Exactly seven years ago this month, most days seemed endless and extremely boring. I was in the early stages of living life without gainful employment and even though I would often grumble about the daily routine of work, it does give a purpose to each day. With typical dull, cold and wet British weather, I had little incentive to venture out of doors, thereby exacerbating an already strenuous situation. Almost daily, my life was taken up with searching for new employment. For anyone not over familiar with this task, it is an extremely time-consuming and wearisome occupation, endlessly scanning the plethora of job sites available on the internet. One of the most frustrating things I discovered was that jobs were not classified under sufficient headings, so in order to find potential opportunities, it was necessary to search under almost every category. Once the slowness of page downloads was taken into account, the hours of the day quickly passed by! Of course, this was in the days before ADSL broadband connectivity was widely available!

In order to try and numb my boredom, I participated in the National IQ Test 2003 via interactive television. This was the one bright spark in a gloomy month… Normally, I’m not one to blow my own trumpet (perhaps that’s where I have been going wrong in life!) but I achieved an IQ of 136 which compared very favourably with the national average of 105! This was also in a period when the average IQ had been falling.

With only twelve days of employment remaining, it was very evident that certain people were keeping their distance. It never ceases to amaze me just how many individuals see a person for what they do rather than for who they are; indeed, inconveniences such as a period of unemployment (through no fault of my own, incidentally!) can prove to be a real test of true friendship.

Looking back, I made one of my final day trips to France. This was predominantly for the purpose of stocking up on some cheap booze…I anticipated being in need of copious quantities to drown my sorrows! There was also time to enjoy some of the local scenery in close proximity to Calais and the weather was fine, in marked contrast to that in Britain at the time. I stated that it was one of my final day trips for several reasons. Firstly, the costs of such day trips are now much higher since the abolition of cheap day ferry tickets. Secondly, the cost of alcohol in this country is now comparatively lower than several years ago, and thirdly, I no longer live within reasonable travelling distance of Dover for the short crossing to northern France. The trip from my local port takes in excess of 6 hours and lands in Brittany!

A final word on the subject of seeking new employment. I found it both frustrating and extremely discourteous that companies seemingly ignored applications and correspondence. Even jobs applied for via e-mail failed to generate a response, despite the fact that it takes but a few seconds to acknowledge a communication with minimal cost. Incidentally, nothing has improved with regard to replies from companies as recent experience will testify. Perhaps I am old fashioned and expect too much from people, but if more common courtesy was extended between human beings, then the world would be a far better place.