A gated community for the rich in Spain? No thanks

Give me a busy egalitarian community over a gilded cage any day


I was talking to a thin brown man I am acquainted with, his bony legs (and my more substantial ones) dangling in the cool blue water of the municipal swimming pool that serves the mountainous Spanish village I’ve been staying in.

He was wearing a bleached straw hat and baggy cotton trunks, and his nut-brown abdomen wrinkled ever so slightly under the milky sun. He was telling me about his ex-wife, who has various homes scattered around Europe, one of them in a gated community down on the coast. You have to have a permit to enter the neighbourhood, he told me.

Her neighbours – those of leather-booted oligarchs and silk-wrapped sheikhs and others who, maybe by kicking a ball accurately, or exploiting the resources of small republics, or distilling aphrodisiacs or God knows what – have made themselves exceptionally rich.

How did his ex-wife make her money, I asked him.

“She’s beautiful,” he said, without rancour. “Always was, still is. Women like her don’t end up in places like this.”

I went back to my book under the lemon tree, unwrapped a home-made sandwich from its tinfoil bed. Sturdy brown toddlers in water wings bobbed on the surface of the pool like lovely fruit.

Open the gates
I’d hate to live behind gates. The village’s communal pool is open from early July until mid-September. It costs €4 for the day. There’s a bar, showers, tombolas, ice cream, a pool table, food – but you can also bring your own. You can bring the kitchen sink if the fancy takes you.

One Sunday last year, when the sun was so hot that walking felt like drowning, and the mad-eyed guard dogs chained to tool sheds down on the campo were too exhausted to howl, and the goats slept and their bells were silent, and the narrow whiteness of the streets burned your eyes, I sat in the shade by the swimming pool and watched entire extended families arrive for the day.

They carried barbecues and cool boxes and picnic tables and stackable chairs. Into the silence came great gusto. Thickset men, brothers maybe, threw each other fully clothed into the pool, golden-brown children dive-bombed floating mothers in pleated swimsuits, babies napped, food was cooked and consumed, ants built empires from the scraps.

I’ve been coming to this village since before my eldest son was born. Since my sons have got older and can carry their own backpacks, we’ve also ventured beyond the village, spent time crossing the country by bus.

Last year, heading north, we disembarked in Madrid, where there were protests in the streets. I stood on the lid of a bin in Puerta del Sol to watch. I look at the pictures in the newspapers, try to unpick the language on the radio. I don’t need a translator to understand that, no less than home, this is a country cowed by economic uncertainty.

Ghostly industrial zones
This year, on the way to the mountains, we took a bus from Valencia to the naval port of Cartagena, driving along the spine of Benidorm and Alicante and the Costa Cálida, where the wounded coastline seems bound together by a vast strip of inflatable lilos. Along the back roads, beyond the reach of the hotels and apartment blocks, there are ghostly industrial zones, great warehouses with Chinese lettering above the doors, full of plastic flip-flops and rubber rings.

There is trade going on, a handful of white vans in almost empty parking lots. There are sheaves of concrete factories along the route, baked yards holding mountains of powdery bricks, silent cement mixers bleaching under the sun. There are few people. The bus winds down to the coast, through small towns with big names, where men in grey vests glower outside dark bars.

There is uncertainty in the air, especially in the cities, a pulsing disquiet, but for now the tourists continue to eat their potato chips and dance on the waves, and life goes on. Ireland has a lot in common with Spain, I think: a big religion, memories of civil war, old men with bent knees and tall sticks standing at crossroads. This summer we have even shared sunshine.

One evening in the mountain village there was an outdoor film screening in the grounds of an old mill, rows of hard-backed chairs lined up to face the big screen. The film started at about 11, admission was free (as was the popcorn), and a robust glass of Rioja cost next to nothing.

Calm babies sat on welcoming knees, watched the screen, watched each other, sucked dimpled fingers. The film was Life of Pi. It was in Spanish, but tigers are tigers in any language. I watched families stroll home under the yellow moon, and thought that life in this busy egalitarian community is richer than any to be found in a gated golden cage.

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