Not in the obvious places, that’s for sure. Us expats are cropping up in the most unlikely of locations…
For more than three millennia, Spain has been constantly invaded by settlers of all nationalities, so its cosmopolitan nature is nothing newsworthy. However, it may come as a surprise to find out where us foreigners actually live.
In Asturias, you are classed as a foreigner if you were born in Madrid, but those of us living in the Comunidad Valenciana are used to hearing a variety of languages and seeing faces from all five continents pass us in the street.
Except in many of the tiny, inland villages, of course. In the remote La Safor locality of La Font d’en Carrňs, those not born in its windy, narrow streets are known as 'forasteros' (outsiders), whilst people from beyond La Safor are referred to as 'castellans'. This will even apply if you are Lithuanian.
Yet the trend is changing, according to recent studies. In larger towns in the Valencia province such as Oliva, Alzira and Gandia, the population of forasteros makes up at least ten per cent, although the number of northern Europeans is not high. The most commonly-seen are Latin Americans, Moroccans and Romanians.
Deep inland in the south-west of the Valencia province, in a district known as La Canal de Navarrés – comprising the villages of Anna, Bicorp, Bolbaite, Chella, Enguera, Millares, Navarrés and Quesa – a whopping 70 per cent of inhabitants are Bulgarian.
Further north in the province of Castellón, the districts bordering Cataluńa – L’Alt Maestrat and Els Ports – are Romanian colonies (70 and 80 per cent of the population respectively) and most people living in the nearby Baix Maestrat area are Moroccan.The most surprising information to come to light, though, is where those migrating from the UK have chosen to settle.
Brits and where to find them
Traditionally, Spanish people keen to practice their English would hunt us out in the Vega Baixa, Marina Baixa and Marina Alta. Coastal towns such as Torrevieja, Benidorm, Altea, Calpe and Jávea have been a Mecca for folk fleeing the land of Marmite and miserable weather for 20 or 30 years and the trend shows no signs of changing. Nearly a third of inhabitants in these areas are people who have turned their backs on Typhoo and Tony Blair to embrace the Fallas and fideuŕ.
Yet the area with the highest ratio of Brits to any other nationality – Spanish included – is the little-known Valle de Ayora-Cofrentes (photo). Almost on the border of the Albacete province in neighbouring Castilla-La Mancha, so deep inland it takes half a day by minor roads to reach, UK citizens make up 60 per cent of residents in villages such as Jalance, Jarafuel, Cortés de Pallas and Zarra.
Over a hundred kilometres inland of Valencia city, this sparsely-populated area’s steppe-like landscape, flanked by five majestic, imposing mountain ranges of between 600 and 1,000 metres high and crossed by three rivers has more open countryside than almost anywhere else in the province.
Its seven municipalities have a headcount of between 470 and 1,000 each - the district capital, Ayora, is a booming metropolis in comparison with an overwhelming 5,500 inhabitants. Most live off the land or the textile trade, although a few casas rurales and small country restaurants ensure visitors seeking to escape civilisation – or travellers who have become hopelessly lost – have a bed for the night and food on the table.
This said, the local councils in the area are keen to promote the Valle de Ayora-Cofrentes as an idyllic location for rural tourism; which, in fact, it is. With its wetlands, castles, the San Benito lagoon in Ayora, the eerie-sounding Cueva Negra, the La Hunde nature reserve and the ruins of the Castellar de la Meca (an Iberian fortress dating back to the fourth century B.C.), its sightseeing opportunities more than make up for the lack of shops. Perhaps one of the province’s most beautiful regions, it is easy to see the attraction. The omnipresent cakes made according to typical local recipes using almonds and honey may also be an influential factor.
Northern Europeans setting up home in places like the Valle de Ayora-Cofrentes is no longer as atypical as it used to be. Compared to a decade or so ago when Brits moving to Spain were keen to be near beaches, swimming pools, golf courses and pubs serving Sunday roasts, there has been a phenomenal migration inland in recent years.
Four or five years ago, UK expats were attracted to towns like Xŕtiva and Ontinyent because houses were considerably cheaper than nearer the coast and, ironically, because they didn’t want to live in areas that were ‘full of Brits’. Now, though, these localities are indeed full of Brits – because so many of them had the same idea.
The downside is, of course, that in such a short period of time, the houses have passed from being very affordable to highly sought-after and expensive – great news for those who bought them back then, but not so for those now seeking to move there.
“Because it’s quiet,” says one British woman. “There’s no traffic noise, no drunken louts picking fights outside bars.”“Houses are getting so expensive near the coast, and in areas with good transport links and job opportunities.
What would have bought a brand-new villa with a pool five years ago is now barely enough for a small townhouse in need of extensive reform or, in some places, a two-bedroom flat,” said another expat who, although living in a coastal town in La Safor, bought hers at the right time. “If we had to buy our house now, we simply couldn’t afford it.”
Others chose to live in the heart of no-man’s-land because they were fed up with overdevelopment. One British lady who moved to a village near Utiel in the summer of 2004 after more than a decade living in the northern Marina Alta, says that in two years, her old town is barely recognisable. What used to be acres of countryside that went on forever is now a sea of identical duplexes and villas with hardly a blade of grass in sight.
“It’s such an eyesore. Where I live, the mountains don’t have houses on them and there are no forests of cranes,” she declares. “It would break my heart if they started building golf courses here. “The people are so friendly, too. I came to Spain because I wanted to experience a different culture, not to drink Tetley’s and watch Eastenders. That’s why I moved so far away.”
It didn’t work, though. Our tastes are changing – we want more out of life than sun, sea and sangría. And it seems that, however far off the beaten track we go, we will still come across colonies of our compatriots looking to get away from the madding crowds and lead a quiet life.