The caves in Spain [Granada province], once stigmatised are now sought after eco dwelling with many advantages.
So what was it that drew our attention to caves in Spain? Back in 2004 before the big move only Gayle had spent time in Spain before spending six months in Malaga as part of her Modern languages degree, I on the other hand had never been to Spain before and had been looking online every available minute at properties in other parts of the world such as Australia and New Zealand.
It was one day while scouring the internet looking for more unusual properties that we came across a small estate agent dealing in Spanish ‘cave houses’, intrigued, we delved further into what was going to be a life changing move for the whole family eventually but in the first few days caves in Spain quickly became the topic of conversation and plenty of bookmarking!
Making the decision to move abroad is not an easy one and one that should never be taken lightly, there are a mountain of things to consider from family and friends to basic logistics and how you envisage settling in to not just your new home but an entirely different culture. For us however the decision was easy, we’d had the ‘itch’ to move abroad for some time (nearly 2 years) and we soon realised that it was not going to go away.
So shortly after the discovery of caves in Spain and a few phone calls to the agent we had booked a last minute short break in rural Andalucia to discover what caves in Spain were all about – we were not disappointed.
Arriving at Malaga airport in mid April 2004 we set off on our journey to the village of Galera, we videoed everything, even parts of the car journey not just because the scenery was spectacular but also because we could not believe how quiet the main roads were, having been used to nose to tail traffic on the A1 past the Metro Center the dual carriageways from Malaga could not have been more different and actually a very enjoyable drive compared.
As you near the Altiplano region you begin to see the Spanish caves dotted around the landscape but it is not until you reach the small Andalucian whitewashed villages like Orce, Galera, Cullar and many others that you begin to realise what the caves in Spain are actually about. Shortly after arriving in Galera we walked through our first cave door and straight away the cool temperature inside hits you – especially when its 40 degrees outside but more on that later! The other thing you notice is that of no noise and an immediate sense of security, it is quite surprising initially and something that every cave owner will come to enjoy.
The first night in our first cave delivered a fantastic nights sleep, thoroughly rested the following morning we were eager to crack on and view some potential cave properties in the area, restricted by a somewhat limited budget part of our adventure in Andalucia was to reform a cave to our own ideas and standards thus offering the opportunity to create something very unique, as such there were only a handful of caves which were suitable but one did stand out which we visited several times over our 4 day stay at different times of day, it goes without saying that sampling the local tapas in various bars in the village was all part of the research!
“Making the decision to move abroad is not an easy one and one that should never be taken lightly, there are a mountain of things to consider from family and friends to basic logistics and how you envisage settling in.”
The cave in question which caught our eye was out in the campo (countryside) 7km outside the village of Orce and required extensive renovations. Previously the cave had been used just for animal housing like many other caves in area however at some point a chimney had been dug through suggesting perhaps that it had been a safe haven of some description for the odd shepherd or farm workers decades ago.
Again everything was on tape (ready to shock everyone at home!) but with a little vision and the fact that caves in Spain are completely different to one another we knew nothing had to perfect so essentially a big DIY job! Cave walls are never perfectly straight as in a conventional home and the sheer flexibility you have in a Spanish cave is tremendous down to even the small details such as shelving – you don’t put them up you dig them out!
Happy and ultimately confident with our decision to put in an offer we quickly returned home to the UK and got the ball rolling with our sale, in the meantime we showed friends and family the extensive video footage we had taken enthusiastically pointing out which room would be which as well as persuading them that the move to Spain was the ‘right move’.
Persuading friends and loved ones back in 2004 was no easy task however, in fact while most remained polite the majority were left in pure dismay after viewing our footage as they simply did not understand the whole concept of caves in Spain and how for years the Spaniards themselves had been renovating them to the highest standard and that the French had been snapping them up since the early 1970’s…
Time though, as they say is a great healer and in our case (as far as the rellies were concerned) a real eye opener as a few months down the line when friends and family began to visit, progress was being made, ideas were coming to fruition and the initial horror of ‘you are going to live in a cave’ began to dissipate.
Before, during and after all the shock horror and even before we left Newcastle the moving operation had to begin which if you have ever moved house you will understand, the problem we had was condensing all of our worldly goods into two cars and a caravan. Eventually though we were packed and ready for the off and one late afternoon we headed to Dover and three days later we pulled up outside our very own ‘hole in the ground’.
The next four months that followed saw some major renovations which had to be completed by ourselves to keep costs to a minimum, when it came to electrics and plumbing however we left that to the experts to ensure the job was done right – everything else was down to us and quickly became a sharp learning curve.
As the cave had been used primarly for animal housing the floors throughout were just earth which needed leveling before they could be concreted, this was also problematic from the cave bathroom as trenches had to be dug by hand to achieve the required gradient for the waste pipe.
Cave rock basically triples in bulk once it loses its compact form and even the smallest amount of digging produces a tremendous amount of rock, needless to say the first few months were spent digging and leveling with over 500 trips outside with the wheelbarrow, luckily being located in the Spanish campo we could simply tip the excess rock over the side of the hill.
The cave renovators best friend has to be yeso (plaster) and we used pallets of the stuff! Unprepared cave interior walls need plenty of plaster and in our cave the walls although compact were quite crumbly on the surface, the way to get around this was to mix up quite watery plaster and flick it on which once dried creates a thin shell on which to apply your thicker plaster without the wall crumbling away.
This technique is very effective but as you can imagine extremely messy, taking a shower in a caravan at the end of every day was also far from ideal but we looked at it as all part of the fun. Spanish caves are also extremely flexible as far as interior design is concerned, you can ‘pick out’ your shelves and the fact that nothing has to be perfect or straight means that you can keep a rustic edge to your design as well as being modern where you need to be.
Finishing of the main interior works took around three months and after that it was the finishing touches such as TV installation, putting a nice cap on the newly built chimney, buying all our white goods for the kitchen and having a constant clean up to keep on top of the dust after the renovations.
Finally, after nearly four months in a caravan on site we moved in, what we had in the beginning was basic but perfectly habitable and most importantly it was ours.
Its fair to say that the caves in Spain have had a revival over the past couple of decades, certainly in and around the Orce area including its hamlets of Fuente Nueva and Venta Micena the French first discovered the caves, this came about in the 1970’s when Spanish workers from the area went to France to find work which was usually in the form of grape picking, explaining the caves it was not long before the French came to the area and began to purchase these unique dwellings – it was not until the late 1990’s that the English began to arrive.
Decades ago not only were the caves very cheap but also free… Caves were won and lost in card games and in the early days if you bought one cave you were likely to have another one thrown in for free. The latter happened to one of the very first Frenchman who arrived in Fuente Nueva and subsequently went on to open what was then and for many years after Spain’s only ‘cave hotel’.
Spanish caves have long been associated with an element of poverty and to a degree the Spanish ‘gitano’ (gypsy), times however have changed and visitors can now see live flamenco dancing in the famous caves of Sacromonte in Granada. Further afield in more rural parts the caves have seen significant price rises as a result of foreigners catching on to this unique way of ‘eco living’ and with hundreds of caves now fully reformed they are beginning to shake off their negative reputation.
If, like us you have friends and family who have never heard of the caves in Spain then you can imagine how one would jump to the stereotypical vision of a dark damp hole in the ground, water teeming down the walls and perhaps a few bats taking a nap up in the ceiling. This picture of a cave could not be further away from the truth and while it may take some time to explain there is nothing quite like experiencing a Spanish cave home for yourself – most, if not all are pleasantly surprised.
There are a few myths around Spanish caves, the afore mentioned about deep dark holes in the ground is clearly one and another is that you are likely to hear that the caves in Spain maintain a constant temperature of 18 degrees all year round – this needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Caves are warmer than conventional houses due to their insulation properties that much is true and great to keep the heating bills down however to say they maintain a constant temperature could be regarded as misleading.
Each cave is different from their size, location and even the type of rock from which they have been hewn, temperature also depends on if the cave is lived in all year round or if for example it is a holiday home, if the latter then the first thing you will need to do arriving in any of the colder months is put the fire on!
Andalucian winters can be harsh with temperatures nose diving to below minus 15 degrees and while your cave remains warm there will still be the need to burn fuel which is usually either almond, olive or oak. Where the cave really comes into its own regarding temperature is during the summer months, keep the doors and windows closed and your home will remain pleasantly cool and even though inside it may be 25 degrees when you walk through the door from a 40 degree heat outside 25 degrees actually feels quite cool, the opposite also applies in the winter…
Sunny Spain? Not always! Many villages and hamlets lie well above 900 meters above sea level, this high up in the ‘sierras’ or mountains can produce some extreme conditions from time to time. Summers tend to be long and very hot with temperatures reaching as high as 46°C. The area can look quite barren with little rainfall and bleaching sun for weeks on end. Winters on the other hand can be very cold; our first winter saw temperatures dip to minus 18°C in February.
It is not uncommon for water pipes to remain frozen for days on end, depending on which way your cave faces will also have an effect on how quickly you get thawed out – if you’re in shadow most of the day then it will take a few days longer as opposed to a cave facing the sun. The rain in Spain, when it rains it rains a lot!
Electrical storms can be quite spectacular with lighting flashing across the sky turning clouds into shades of purple and red. Access to a rural cave can be difficult after a heavy rain storm, most villages will have tarmac or concrete roads to reformed caves but out in the campo (countryside) access in most cases is by dirt track.
The mud that is created after a rain storm is not pleasant, it has a strange consistency almost like glue and will stick to shoes, paws, tyres and anything else it comes in contact with. Plastic bags around your feet (if you have to go out) is the Andalucian defence against the dreaded “barro”. If you worship the sun then this is the place for you, villages can appear deserted between the hours of 2:00 pm and 6:00 pm with the locals retiring for lunch then a siesta.
Working outdoors can be tiring in the heat and it’s always advisable to drink plenty of water. July and August are the hottest months of the year and it stays light well into the late hours.
Living in a cave is without doubt unique, at the time of writing we have been enjoying our home for over 12 years and it is exactly that – a home, in fact now we don’t come back from work thinking we are back at the cave, we are back home. There are clearly positives and negatives about living in a Spanish cave compared to that of a conventional house, small things like lack of storage can be problematic especially when you have kids however instead of buying fitted wardrobes you can always dig…
Caves also need regular maintainence as they do move over time, unlike a house that sits on foundations a cave is surrounded by its own foundations so when Mother Nature decides that your hill needs to move a couple of millimeters there will be some minor jobs to do such as filling in a few hairline cracks or maybe adjusting the odd door hinge. Things like that though come with the territory and the relaxed Spanish lifestyle will leave you more than enough time to carry out such minor repairs!
Like many parents with young children, the idea of bringing up a child in the quiet, safe Andalucian countryside had huge appeal for us. In fact one of the main deciding factors of our move here was to give our son a different and in our opinion, better start in life than what he would have had if we had stayed in the North East of England.
Many people thought we were a little mad to bring our child to a new home which had no facilities at all at first. The area itself is out of the way with not even a local shop and there are very few full time residents and only two other children. However, children are very adaptable and our son thrives in his new environment without the need for the expensive distractions – you only need to look out of the window and you understand why.
Miles and miles of open countryside with woods within walking distance means both of our sons have their very own adventure playground on the doorstep. Long walks, nature trails, den building and making mud pies after the rain are part of his everyday experiences.
We still have regular trips to the swimming baths but in our case the local pool is a natural spring with fish and given the Andalucian sunshine and the free entry, it’s a perfect way to while away the hours which we often do especially between May and October.
It seems that children can do no harm, are never in the way and are always a pleasure to have around. That is why there are no ‘child friendly’ bars with their play areas safely out of the way of customers. Wherever you go in this area of Spain, you take your child with you and it’s absolutely fine.
Although we have people we can rely on should the need for a babysitter arise, more often than not it’s simply not necessary. The Spanish tend to eat later anyway, especially in the summer so it is not unusual to see whole generations of a family from baby to great grandpa having dinner in a restaurant at 11:00 pm.
If you want to experience a Spanish fiesta and you’ve got kids, then just take them with you, even if the party doesn’t start till 10:00 pm everyone is welcome young and old. It seems that, although ultimately the child is the parent’s responsibility, everybody looks out for everybody else’s child and if the kids are running round a restaurant late at night, somebody somewhere will know exactly what is going on. The fact they are running around in the first place doesn’t really matter.
“Young children up to the age of about seven or eight will pick up Spanish very easily and will be fluent in no time. Older children will have to work a little harder but they too will soon be able to communicate without any problem”.
Many parents worry that the difference in language will prove to be a barrier for learning and make it harder for children to adjust and settle in. Generally though, children really do not worry about this at all it is us as parents who worry the most! Young children up to the age of about seven or eight will pick up Spanish very easily and will be fluent in no time.
Older children will have to work a little harder but they too will soon be able to communicate without any problem. With young children and toddlers you may worry about their English as it often seems they have forgotten their own mother tongue. In our house we went through a stage where our son spoke mostly in Spanish, and while he could count in Spanish very easily he couldn’t get past four in English. In time however, things will even out.
Children will soon become aware of when to speak in which language and they will switch between the two with enviable ease as it will come so naturally. The important thing to remember however is even if you as a parent speak Spanish, at home speak in English and encourage your child to speak in English to you.
As they get older children may appear to have a low standard of English, but remember that they are studying English in school as a foreign language which is completely different to how it is learnt in the UK. There are plenty of resources available to ensure your child maintains a good level of their native language even though they use Spanish much more on an everyday basis.
The fact that your child will grow up speaking at least two languages fluently is fantastic for them and they will possess a skill which is invaluable in later life. The most amazing thing though is that they will have gained this skill without even realising.
The atmosphere, environment and culture of this part of rural Andalucia makes it, in my opinion the perfect place to bring up a young family. Not only are we fortunate enough to live in a beautiful part of the countryside, but life here is such that as a family you can spend more time together enjoying the surroundings and the weather.
We have given both our kids the chance to grow up bi-lingual with experiences and understanding of a different culture and lifestyle. Another important factor is that children here are brought up with strong family values and a sense of respect. Life for children and families is excellent here and as long as you know a little of what to expect and are prepared to adjust, then moving to this part of Andalucia will be a fantastic experience for you, your children and family.
All in all we thoroughly enjoy living in a cave, having taken the plunge to leave the UK and begin a new life in Spain our choice of home may not be conventional and even be a complete mystery to some back in Newcastle but we love it, the Andalucian lifestyle that goes with it, the people and everything in general.
[This article has been updated for 2021 – original piece researched and written by Iain Macdonald]