I thought finding housesitting gigs would be easy. Turns out there is a lot of competition for the “good” ones, so they get snatched up right away. While in Malaga, Spain, just prior to my Portuguese stint, I saw a listing for a little town called Ubrique—only a few hours by car from where I was. The start date was the day after I finished housesitting in Palmela, Portugal and ended a few days before my flight home from Barcelona. It would be a total of five weeks. The timing was perfect.
Ubrique is a small pueblo blanco (white town) about 75 miles south of Seville in southern Spain. These villages of white-washed buildings and terracotta roofs are common throughout the Andalucia region. They’re quaint, beautiful and harken back to a time long past. With a population of 17,000, Ubrique isn’t exactly teeny, but it reflected the epitome of what I thought small-town living would be. The next closest town was about 6 miles away, through the mountainous foothills. I wasn’t sure how I’d fare alone in such a small town, but was ready to find out.
In fact I wasn’t alone. Tallulah, Betsy, Angel and Lala were with me—two Spanish water dogs and two black cats. The dogs and I, particularly Tallulah, became fast friends. If I walked up the stairs of the house to hang some laundry, the dogs would follow. When I headed back down, my shadows were right behind me. Tallulah had a heart condition that caused her to wheeze loudly when she got excited. Her heart was literally too big.
I housesat for Sarah-Jayne, a British expat living in Spain. She chose Ubrique because she was starting a leather goods business and Ubrique is a “famous” leather-making town. I use quotes because it’s well-known in the fashion industry, but not much beyond that. The town is situated in a valley, and the water run-off from the surrounding mountains provides an ample supply of clean water—a resource critical to leather tanning and processing. Raw hides from other areas, mostly Italy, are sent to Ubrique for processing, dying and turning into beautiful coats, purses, wallets… you name it. Some of the biggest names in fashion have a presence there: Chanel, YSL, Gucci, Pierre Cardin, Ralph Lauren and dozens of others.
Sarah-Jayne was delayed a few days before leaving town, so I got to tag along on some leather errands. The first guy we visited was a supplier and his shop was jam packed, floor to ceiling with rolled leather samples and messy piles. The organizational system was all in the owner’s head. Ask for a piece of soft, green vegetal leather and he’d walk around his warehouse pulling different samples with the speed and accuracy of a robot.
I stood next to a giant box stuffed with shocking pink, azure blue, chocolate brown and eggshell overcuts. My hands mindlessly rummaged through the pile to touch as many as I could. Some were thin, smooth and incredibly supple. Others were thick and stiff with a bumpy texture. Sample books were brought out and I touched those too. It was like leather Disneyland, and I was paralyzed by the thought of someone having to choose. We later visited a manufacturer whose shop included a small showroom and very tidy workroom. About 10 or so craftsmen sat along benches performing delicate finishing work like attaching buckles and painting the sides of leather straps.
To say the weather that summer was hot is like saying it’s nippy inside a giant freezer. I’ve spent my share of time in tropical climates where heat and humidity made walking around nearly unbearable, but I almost always had an air-conditioned room to sleep in, or at least a blizzard-strength fan. This little Spanish house had neither. Nope, not even a puny little desk fan. My saving grace was that the walls were thick plaster and incredibly well-insulated, so I spent most of July under self-imposed house arrest. I asked Sarah-Jayne about her fan-free zone and she said the electrical was so old that she had blown circuits multiple times. But the toaster was ok? Hmmm. I began to wonder if I was part of a strange foreigner experiment, or perhaps a character in some hidden-camera reality show about the lengths travelers will go to for free accommodation.
Temperatures ranged between 95-105 degrees F, and each morning I’d look at the weather app on my phone to see how many buckets of sweat I’d produce that day.
I always walked the dogs before 10am, taking them up the mountain at the back of the house, and after 9pm in the evening. If I needed to hit the grocery store, I had to race there after the morning dog walk… down the steep, cobbled road and down into town. That was ok, but walking back UP the hill with heavy grocery bags and melting ice cream was an experience I tried to limit as much as possible. It was only a mile round trip, but felt triple that. Sweat erupted from every pore and my thighs burned.
Evenings grew so hot and still that I took to sleeping outside on the concrete upper deck. I’d grab two purple, striped lounge chair cushions and stack them on top of each other, then throw down a sheet and two pillows. The dogs had beds up there too, but as soon as I laid down my cushions, it was a free-for-all; Tallulah curling up on one end before I was finished. I’d explain that she had her OWN bed, but she wasn’t much interested. Many nights I woke up in a ball on half the cushion while she was stretched out diagonally across the bottom. I could only laugh. Each night I fell asleep under a sky full of stars, more than I can remember seeing in a long time. Not a bad way to drift into slumber.
Mornings were spent at my computer on the covered patio surrounded by a beautiful jungle of plants and flowers. I’d sip my French press coffee with the dogs and cats at my feet. It didn’t suck.
After lunch the heat would send me into the living room to continue working on the couch, like taking refuge in a cave. Around 7pm I’d open the front door window to catch whatever breeze I could, the sun no longer a direct threat. Long summer days meant it was light until nearly 10pm, and sometimes I’d have little visitors at the door. A group of five neighborhood boys, aged six to 10 enjoyed making faces at me through the window. One of them would say something in Spanish, then they all laughed hysterically. Clearly they were calling me ridiculous names, which was amusing for about three minutes, then I’d say “adios” and close the window—a prisoner once again.
For our evening walks, sometimes I’d take Betsy and Tallulah up to the Mirador, a lookout point higher than we were, providing a view of the entire valley. We’d walk past neighbors sitting on their front stoop, fanning themselves, just as you’d expect the Spanish to do. Each day I’d see the same people, and each day the dialogue went like this:
“Hace calor!” they would announce (it’s hot), while fanning more briskly.
“Si, mucho calor!” I would retort.
This repeated several times with different people. I grew fond of the routine, and at times I’d stop for a slightly longer conversation that I would half understand, smiling and nodding my way through. They all knew I was housesitting for “the British woman.” No one spoke English. Not even a lick.
The dogs and I walked past the same old man sitting in a wheelchair at his doorway, foot bandaged, in only his shorts. Sometimes we’d pass kids throwing water balloons, trying not to get caught in the crossfire. Then there were the two enormous Rottweilers who would bark from the roof so ferociously we’d pick up the pace and jog as nonchalantly as possible. Visions of those dogs jumping off the roof and eating us for dinner were never fully absent from my mind. The neighbors must hate them.
At the top of the Mirador I’d let the dogs off the leash. Betsy would wander farther up the hill or stare at the view, and Tallulah would sit right next to me. If we weren’t touching, she’d shimmy closer and we’d look out over the town together, lights twinkling as the sun set.
On the days we didn’t go up, we’d go down. Sometimes we’d take one of the stone staircases that lead to the center of town, and other times we’d walk down one of the narrow streets.
Halfway down one route was the Ayuntamiento, or town hall. The girls and I spent many a night on this plaza where I became a regular. During the day it was pretty empty because of the heat, save a few people on benches under the trees, but in the evening the plaza sprung to life. Tables and chairs from the restaurant grew in number to accommodate bodies. I’d grab my seat, put the dog leashes under the legs of a chair, give them some water and people watch.
My order was Cruzcampo beer, but my life changed dramatically when I was introduced to the frosty mug by the waiter. For a few cents more, my cerveza was delivered in a frozen glass, ice crystals forming at the top. There is nothing like sitting outside on a hot summer night with an ice cold beer. Nothing. Nada. A dish of olives usually accompanied my beverage, typical of Spain. So for less than $1.50, I had myself a beer and olives (thanks to the weakened Euro and small town prices). Sometimes I’d splurge on a small plate of jamón ibérico, the most amazing pork product I’ve ever put in my mouth. It’s similar to prosciutto or Serrano ham the way an Oscar Meyer hot dog is similar to a gourmet bratwurst. The depth and richness of flavor is unmatched. It’s truly magical.
This glorious meat starts with the black Iberian pig, distinguished from other species by its black hoofs (although I read some places actually paint the hoofs black to trick people!). How would you know what color the hoof is? Most restaurants slice it off the leg right in front of you, carving paper-thin, delicate pieces that melt on the tongue. There is a special holding device for the leg, a nearly ubiquitous site in Spanish restaurants. While ibérico ham comes in different grades, the highest quality feeds exclusively on acorns during its last days. It’s so good it deserves its own sonnet.
Ok, back to the plaza. People of all ages would sit together at tables, their kids chasing one another, riding bikes or playing a game of freeze tag—remember that one? I’d look up from my beer to see a bunch of tiny statues in contorted positions. One kid about three or four years old was a little hell raiser on his big wheel. He pedaled at top speed, nearly clipping diners and jumping off small steps. His parents… wherever they were sitting… were clearly unfazed. Kids and adults alike would visit the water fountain for a drink. Oh the Ubrique fountains. I fell in love. Old fashioned spigots are found all around town, delivering fresh, cool, spring water. I’d usually carry a water bottle for my own fill-up, and top off the dogs’ water too. Very handy during that hot, hot summer.
My favorite plaza regulars were a group of three elderly women in their 70s or 80s. I saw them at least half a dozen times that month, always wearing multi-colored house dresses. They’d order beer or tinto verano (literally summer wine, a mixture of red wine and 7-up or soda water), and bring their own food in Tupperware for sharing. I’d watch them eat, drink and laugh thinking I wouldn’t mind if that were my future. Once I saw them sitting on a bench eating popsicles like they were five years old. I was smitten.
You could tell most people on the plaza knew each other—whether friends, neighbors or extended family. It was very Norman Rockwell. No one cared what brand of jeans you wore or where you worked; it was about enjoying those around you. Simple times in a small town. Sometimes I caught myself randomly smiling.
The Avenida is what locals call the main drag in town (full name Avenida España). It’s a pedestrian street lined with small shops and restaurants. Tio Carlos is a popular spot for tapas and pizza; naturally I sampled both. One of my favorite tapas is patatas bravas, Spain’s answer to the French fry. Chunks of potato are baked… maybe fried (let’s go with baked) and topped with a thick, spicy tomato sauce. If you don’t like spice you can ask for garlic aioli. Even better, get both and order patatas bravioli. Seriously yummy. On weekend nights people would get dressed up and walk the Avenida or dine outside in large parties. For some reason it seemed strange to dress up in such a small town. I don’t know why. Maybe that’s just jaded big-city thinking.
Ubrique isn’t a popular stop on a whistle tour of Spain, although it receives more tourists than I expected due to its leather industry. The main highway, Avenida de Los Callejones, has dozens of leather shops selling everything from coin purses and bags to belts and jackets in a rainbow of colors. Prices vary as well, although everything seemed to be of good quality and good value (says someone who accidentally bought a made-in-China pleather jacket in cow-infested Argentina—perhaps not the best judge).
Ubrique residents have been fabricating leather goods since the 17th century, so it’s not surprising they have a leather museum (Museo de la Piel) to document their history. It’s housed in a gorgeous building on a hill, formerly a convent–Convento Capuchinos. During my visit I had the place to myself. The woman who sold me the ticket also gave the tour and ran the museum, curating all items. About a week later I ran into her at a shop on the Avenida, and of course she remembered me. I recognized her first by her bright blue eyeshadow.
The tour was in Spanish, but I understood a surprising amount. It’s amazing what slow, clear speech with hand gestures can do. She explained Ubrique’s geography between the two national parks, and the rain each provided. We walked past machines for sewing and stretching the hide. Part of the museum was upstairs, so she left me to wander on my own while she watched the front. It was well done, and a lovely way to spend the better part of an hour. Upon my departure she invited me back at any time for free. Very sweet.
Most days it was just me and the dogs, but there were a few other cameo appearances. Noemi was a neighbor who worked at a shoe store downtown. Her house near Sarah-Jayne, where she lived with her dad, was being renovated so they were temporarily living with Noemi’s twin sister. One day I invited her over for lunch and made chicken fajitas, which she thoroughly enjoyed. Spain is famous for its siestas and I found the work schedule interesting. Noemi worked at the shop from 9am-9pm with a three-hour break from 2-5pm, which is when she came over. This midday break allows for a slow, lingering lunch and a rest. The Spaniards aren’t too concerned about being late, however, as Noemi didn’t even leave the house until 5:10. She works by herself, so it simply reopened when she returned. I was horrified and delighted at the same time.
A few houses up the hill lived Tony and Maripepa, along with Maripepa’s two sons aged 5 and 8. The boys’ dad was in jail, so drunk uncle Tony lived with them (apparently for the free house, left to them by their parents). They were indeed an interesting bunch and kept inviting me over. One day I conceded and spent an hour in their living room drinking beer and eating tomatoes with ham. Tony was obnoxious and I didn’t feel entirely comfortable around him, so my encounters with them were infrequent. The boys, sadly, didn’t have much oversight.
Toward the end of my stay, I went to the main Ayuntamiento Plaza and found it full. No more tables and chairs were being brought out, so I went to a smaller plaza nearby: Plaza Verdura. There I met Pepe the waiter and his friend. Somehow we got on the topic of gazpacho (cold tomato soup) in my broken, caveman Spanish, and they were mortified that I bought it premade from Mercadona, the local grocery store. Gazpacho was born in Andalucia, so I quickly learned this is sacrilege. Pepe told me to come back the following day for REAL gazpacho, which I was happy to do.
When I arrived at 1pm, there was no soup. I sat with Pepe and we had beer, then fish as I butchered the Spanish language. Two hours later his sister came by and handed me a jar in a plastic bag. It was her homemade gazpacho. I thought we would be sharing it at the table, but Pepe insisted I take it home and eat it when feeling “relaxed.” Hmmm, perhaps something was lost in translation.
On my last night in Ubrique, Pepe and Noemi joined Betsy, Tallulah and me on the plaza for my last frosty cerveza. Before Noemi arrived, I asked if Pepe knew her, making my own private joke about small town living. Indeed he did. He knew almost everyone, in fact, living there his whole life. While my time was much shorter, it felt like I was surrounded by old friends. There were the three elderly women with their Tupperware, and the kids playing freeze tag. Pepe’s sister and nephew waved from another table. For five weeks I was part of them. I stared up at the beautiful bell tower against the mountain and breathed it in one last time.
The next afternoon Noemi’s dad, Piri, knocked on the door. It was time to leave for the airport. Sarah-Jayne was a few days behind me, so Noemi would take over watching the animals. I had dreaded this moment all morning; saying goodbye to the dogs. A lump formed in my throat and my eyes welled as Piri waited in the doorway. I blinked the tears away and gave them each one last hug, ignoring the confused look in their eyes. I wasn’t ready to leave. I wanted one more day, but Piri’s car was running, so I hesitantly walked out the door and closed it behind me. The lump remained as we drove down the steep, cobbled street and past the leather museum. Then out of Ubrique.
Once we left the valley, I looked down on the cluster of tiny white buildings, wondering if I’d ever return to this little leather town; to the blue eye-shadow museum lady; to the plaza; to the frosty beer mug; to the steep hills; to the wheelchair man; to the homemade gazpacho; to the Mirador; to the sweet, lovely dogs. Maybe not, but I love knowing places like Ubrique exist. Where the pace is slow, neighbors are family and simple is all you need.