We Bought a Museum by Auriel Roe
Updated: Mar 25, 2022
Seeking some respite from the hot summers of Jerez, we concluded that a cottage in Northern Spain would be a useful bolt hole. We were initially tempted by Arbo, famed for its lampreys and river beaches on the border of Portugal. Naturally, there would be an element of risk from the latching mouths whilst taking the waters and we certainly didn't feel like sampling the local delicacy of 'lampreys cooked in their own blood' but, putting that aside, the fact you could swim over to Portugal or, more realistically, walk there over a bridge, was tempting.
There were two houses of interest in Arbo, each came stuffed with dusty furniture, most of which was antique. One of these places, a mansion on the central plaza, led us to consider creating a boutique hotel. On mentioning this to the estate agent and having the information passed to the two elderly sisters who owned the house, the sale was suddenly off because a grandchild of one of the sisters thought our idea was good enough for him to try himself.
Deciding to keep our ideas to ourselves in future, we found another dwelling nearby. Less grand but with a valley view and a garden of pear trees. The pears were ripe at the time of our visit and those sweet juices persuaded us to up our offer to asking price. One of four elderly siblings who owned the house conducted the viewing and claimed I was the very image of a woman who had lived next door when he was a teenager. Apparently, she was so alluring that when she made her way down to the river for a swim, she was secretly followed by most of the boys in the village. Being this reincarnated goddess, I had expected the sale to sail through but, unfortunately, there was squabbling amongst the siblings. The asking price offer was accepted by two of them but the other two had decided they were being short-changed so they appointed a different estate agent and increased the price.
We waited to see if they could resolve their differences and, in the meantime, the lawyer we'd engaged to handle the sale - if and when it went through - had discovered an archaic rule that applied to non-EU nationalities interested in buying property on the Portugal-Spain border: we would need to get permission to buy from the Spanish military which would take around six months to process and had a 50-50 chance of being accepted. We withdrew the offer and decided to look in different regions far north of this troublesome border. Months later, we see the pear tree house is still for sale and there are still two different prices posted.
Houses further north in Asturias were half the price and there were no peculiar rules. We quickly settled on a typical house of the region, stone and wood construction with an open front of balconies. There were broad chestnut floorboards and chestnut dividing walls upstairs. Here and there, the woodwork was painted rojo inglés, the tomato red chalky paint popular in the region in the past. The house had been empty for ten years and virtually unchanged for a hundred with the little oil lamps still on the walls...a captivating time capsule which we immediately wanted to preserve.
The contents are usually thrown in as part of the sale in old abandoned houses in Spain, but when we asked about this, the estate agent said the owner, the granddaughter of the former owner, had become suspicious, believing there to be something of great value amongst the goods and chattels. A process of elimination then went back and forth with the estate agent as the middle man. 'I think I will retain the oil painting of the peasant girl...do they still want to buy the house?' We did. 'I'm considering removing the Medieval chestnut bench which is worth many thousands. Do they want to proceed?' Yep, all good.
And so it continued as she wracked her brain, peering through the contents in the estate agent's photographs. Finally, to put the granddaughter's mind at ease, we agreed to a slightly inflated contents fee. The granddaughter never understood our wish to be custodians of this mini museum that she hadn't visited for ten years and to keep it, more or less, as her grandmother left it.
We only know a few things about Paula Solis, the grandma who had lived in the house all her life, the house that had belonged to her parents before her. We first saw her name carved onto the front and back of a wooden mortar, thereafter on papers in the house.
Paula was involved in farming ...there was a branding iron with her initials amongst other metal impliments pertaining to animal 'maintenance'. There were some wooden mystery items: I called one a 'whey pig' because it has four legs and a sort of snout that looks like something that would drain a large round cheese, another item hanging on a wall has a cluster of sharp nails dangerously at eye level that could be something to do with carding wool.
Two pairs of wooden shoes that some country people still wear in Asturias are in the house. Paula's feet were small, as was her stature, at least in old age because the dresses left in the wardrobe would fit someone of around five feet.
Paula's kichen was very well-stocked with around thirty pans and numerous implements, many of mysterious function. About twenty wicker baskets of various shapes and sizes hang from the ceiling, at least some of them probably used for picking and then storing apples, one of the main crops in Asturias. The kitchen with its iron hearth, large table and seating for up to six was certainly the gathering place. Rustic ceramic pots stained with soot were put on the stove to keep food warm. Paula was gingham mad: curtains, cushion covers, tea towels, aprons, mainly in red and green gingham.
Best china, now yellowed and crumbling was displayed on the dresser. A surfeit of soap was stacked in a cupboard upstairs, either because she just liked it or, with its pungent odour, it was a moth deterent. She certainly liked perfume and talcum powder because there was a lot in the top drawer of her bedroom. She was religious: there was a prayer stool beside her bed by her wash stand, where she probably cleaned herself prior to praying. A wooden crib in its stand had been kept, perhaps where she had lain as a baby and her own babies thereafter.