Travellers pursue alternative lifestyles in Spanish off-grid eco-communes

Maribel Arbu felt she had to change her life when she had her first child. But she decided to reject the well-trodden path from the city centre to sleepy suburbia in a favour of a more radical move.

She helped found TierraLuz, a largely self-sufficient community of people who share the vision of leaving the rat race for a better life, closer to nature.

The settlement sits in the lush confines of the Montseny Natural Park, about an hour’s drive from Barcelona, surviving largely on the organic vegetables, fruit and berries they grow, and a few chickens.

The four adults and six children use solar panels and a generator for energy and get their water from a well. Fridges and central heating are unknown.

Alongside the permanent residents are families who stay for a while (Photo: Ecovila Amat)

For some, it is a dream: to throw off the shackles of the rat race and start life again in the rural wilds.

Arbu is among a growing band of people from across Europe who have moved to the depths of the Spanish countryside, often repopulating abandoned homes and villages.

Inspired by a wide variety of ideals, they set up ecovillages, or sustainable co-operative communities, to forge a new life.

“I had a very strong feeling that I wanted to offer my daughters a life which was safer and more enriching for them to grow up in,” Arbu told i.

“I think what we all share here is the idea that a better life is possible. It has not always been easy, but it is so much better than my life before.”

The concept of self-sustaining communities is not new, but the term “ecovillage” is, perhaps, born out of a rejection of the worst excesses of modern life.

TierraLuz sits in the lush confines of the Montseny Natural Park, about an hour’s drive from Barcelona (Photo: TierraLuz)

Pollution, overcrowding, the cost of city life and the lack of any real contact with nature drive many to quit the cities.

According to the Global Ecovillage Network, a volunteer organisation which charts this movement’s growth, there are 90 such communities in Spain.

It is easy to see why.

The good weather, coupled with abundant space, has made Spain a mecca for those who want to find another way of life away from the daily grind of the capitalist system.

After decades of rural depopulation, in which millions of people left villages to move to cities, some 70 per cent of the land is home to just 10 per cent of the population, according to the Spanish National Statistics Institute.

Some 90 per cent of the population – about 42 million – are squeezed into 1,500 cities and towns which occupy 30 per cent of the land.

What is left is the so-called La España Vaciada – the emptied Spain.

Local attractions (Photo: Ecovila Amat)

In TierraLuz, Arbu said her fellow travellers are a curious mix. She works as a physiotherapist, there is an odd job man, a bricklayer and a music therapist.

“We work in our professions which brings money that also helps to buy food apart from the food we grow on the allotment,” says Arbu, 49, who left Barcelona for Montseny 12 years ago.

Alongside the permanent residents are families who stay for a while. Children are home schooled until 11 when they go to local schools.

Arbu has three daughters, aged 15, 13 and 11. What do they make of ecovillage life?

“I like it except for the people who keep coming and going,” says her eldest daughter, who did not want to be named.

An hour’s drive north towards the border with Spain, is the nascent community of Ecovila Amat.

There, Didac Costa lives alone with 35 goats, 10 cats and his faithful dog in La Garrotxa Volcanic Zone Natural Park, an area of extinct volcanoes near Girona in northeastern Spain. But he hopes to attract others to join him.

Costa bought 70 hectares of land and has set about rebuilding the ruins of several houses in the uninhabited hamlet of Ca l’Amat.

Didac Costa bought 70 hectares of land and has set about rebuilding the ruins of several houses in the uninhabited hamlet of Ca l’Amat (Photo: Ecovila Amat)

A veteran of similar communities, Costa describes himself as an anarchist. He gets by renting out a van and selling camping equipment and wood, but insists he lives outside the capitalist system.

When building work is over, Ecovila Amat will offer living space for five to 10 permanent inhabitants, who will work in co-operatives, forestry, free education and woodwork, and run artistic and eco-academic events and offer “ecologic hostelling”.

John Lennon, Gandhi, Bob Dylan and Leo Tolstoy are among Costa’s heroes.

“There is a difference between those who join a community but remain living off their capitalist jobs and those who leave that and want to go it alone,” he tells i.

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The initial enthusiasm to get away from it all might be tested by the difficulties of living off home-grown crops and doing without mains electricity, water or internet.

But Costa believes that the real problem can lie in the differing world views that emerge when people are living in such proximity.

“When I lived in another community, we had disagreements over whether we should get up at 8am, have a joint assembly and whether we were hippies or anarchists. I had burnout,” he says.

“You must agree on your vision. You don’t want dictators, but if you have people who are hippies or fascists or anarchists, sooner or later differences will emerge, and it will not work.”

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