The sharp morning air blasted me in the face as I stepped out onto the cold ceramic tiled balcony. It was already 10 am, but the village was still asleep. As I stood there, a dog trotted out from a side street and crossed the dusty road without looking both ways. An elderly man wearing a cardigan and cap walked away from the village. He stood proudly upright, backlit by the cool morning light. Anywhere else, it could have been 7 am. But what hurry is there in the Spanish pueblo?
There is no direct translation in English for the Spanish “pueblo.” I hear you, those complaints in the back of the room, telling me that the translation is “village.” But it’s not, not really.
Village does not accurately encompass everything that a pueblo is and all that the word evokes. Say “pueblo” to a Spanish speaker and immediately images, feelings, even smells and sounds may come to mind. The word “village” doesn’t carry the same weight, the same connotations.
Because pueblo is not just a place. It also means “the people.”
Every Spaniard has a pueblo. When I was teaching English as a language assistant in Madrid four years ago (four!), I used to ask my students what they did on the weekends. (Or, “at the weekend”, since I taught British English.)
“I went to my villahhge, teeeacher.” They’d respond in accented English.
For a while, I was quite confused. How was it their village? These kids lived in Madrid; I taught them here, in a working class neighborhood that elicited gasps from Madrilenos when I said where I was working. In an attempt to understand, I asked if they had been born in these villages.
That got me only laughter.
I began to start to understand the concept of pueblo after a few months into living in Spain. Still, it took walking for five weeks on the Camino de Santiago and sleeping in many pueblos to begin to feel the sentiment. But it wasn’t until this weekend, when we were invited to stay in someone’s house in a pueblo a few hours from Madrid, that I got to truly experience a day in the life of one.
When people talk about their pueblo, they may mean it’s where their parents, or more often now, their grandparents, grew up. Or it may be the place where the family bought another house (houses are cheap in pueblos). In any case, the pueblo is a place for weekends, long holidays – a place to relax.
The Spanish landscape is dotted with thousands of sleepy pueblos just waiting to wake up during the weekends. A hundred or so – often less – inhabitants may live there during the week, but these are all older folk who are either retired or worked in the fields their whole lives. These towns are more often than not partially decaying and neglected. Houses of a hundred years stand waiting for a new owner, which may or may not appear.
Last weekend, our friend Juan invited us to his pueblo, the tiny town of Miedes de Atienza in Guadalajara, which is a region in the autonomous community of Castilla La Mancha. Spain has 17 autonomous communities, and Castilla La Mancha is best known as the place where the famous novel Don Quixote is set. It’s one of the least populated regions of Spain and most people only ever visit its stunning capital city – Toledo, the city of three cultures.
About an hour into the drive, we were surrounded by fields of wilted sunflowers and harvested fields. We hadn’t passed a town for a bit of time. There was no one else on the road and ruins of a castle lay in the distance, lit up by the fading light of the late sunset.
Juan turned to us and grinned. “This is the real Spain,” he said.
An hour later as we drove up to Miedes de Atienza, we came upon a couple walking hand in hand down the road. (There are no sidewalks in pueblos, only roads which are used intermittently by both vehicles and people). Juan slowed down and peered out the window, wondering aloud, “Who are those people?”
Everyone knows everyone in the pueblo.
Nothing quite exists in the U.S. like the tradition of spending time in the pueblo. Who would voluntarily sign up to go out to a crumbling town in the middle of nowhere without data, WiFi, or even – gasp – any phone service at all? With the ambition of doing absolutely nothing but walking and having a large midday meal?
I rest my case.
Yet weekend after weekend, families head out to their pueblos to sit around the lunch table holding long sobremesas (another untranslatable word that refers to the time spent talking after a meal is finished – literally means “over the table”).
A day in the pueblo begins with coffee and perhaps a piece of toast with homemade jam gathered from the bushes at the end of town. Or breakfast may be pan con tomate, fresh bread with tomatoes (fresh from the garden, of course), sprinkled with salt and olive oil.
While we were having our coffee, an elderly woman poked her head through the beads hanging at the entrance to the door that opened right onto the street. She gasped with surprise to see unfamiliar faces sitting around the table and apologized profusely for not being dressed. Her gray hair was in curlers and she was sporting a floral dressing smock. After much laughter, she shuffled off back home – next door.
Breakfast was over, and it was time to greet the other inhabitants in the pueblo.
We walked down the street past a stack of red Mahou bar chairs. It’s the village bar that only opens when the owner feels like it – when friends are in town or maybe just when they feel like being social. The other bar is located in the ayuntamiento – the town hall, which is located in the main square.
In the middle of this square stands a water fountain, and the falling water was the only sound in the late morning air. There are two long wooden, grooved planks that transport water from the spouts to the person’s mouth or bottle below.
As we were filling up our bottles, up walked a short, toothless man in blue coveralls. Ruperto’s reputation preceded him, so I turned on my listening ears. I’d already been warned that his Spanish would be hard for our foreign ears to understand. This is normal with the elderly Spanish who have raspy voices from years of smoking and/or no teeth from the same. (“If you can understand Ruperto, you can understand anyone,” Juan congratulated me after our successful encounter).
Ruperto is an 89-year-old shepherd who has lived in the pueblo his whole life. He was jovial and surprised to see two foreigners in his town.
After he heads back home, we start out once again with a new goal: tending to the garden. Far off past the end of town lies a large area with various individual vegetable patches. Giant green tomatoes wait to be ripened in the September sun and a large pumpkin lies on its belly, growing big and fat. We plunge our hands into the prickly leaves of the zucchini plant and discover plump green zucchini ripe for the picking.
With our bounty bagged, we continue on to the woods, taking the long way around back. We pass the ruins of a castle, which in reality is just some large boulders. The rest was taken and used to build houses in the village hundreds of years ago. Now there is a short, slightly less ruined tower at the top of the hill. The villagers used to raise pigeons there for food up until only fifty years ago.
We pad back to the house, tired from the strong sun of the Spanish plateau. It was time to return back to the big city. We packed up the car with the fresh vegetables, said goodbye to our hosts, and set off for Madrid.
The pueblo, where time has stood still, will always be waiting.
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