We spend the last fortnight of the summer holidays in the Cantabrian mountains, where dogs doze in the humid heat and plump figs drop from the tree outside our bedroom window. In the mornings, after the bread van has come, we pack a picnic and wander up steep, stony paths; through low mist and dappled woodland. Afternoons are spent in the garden reading in the shade or playing three-and-in with the children. Later, as the sun sets, we sit in the village bar eating tapas and getting pleasantly drunk on the cloudy local cider.
One of our morning walks brings us to the ghost village of Sebrango, high in the Picos de Europa, where griffon vultures circle overhead. The signs on the path read ‘Prohibido el paso’ but walkers have reclaimed the route and occasionally pass through. It’s a tiny cluster of four or five stone houses, with a few barns and outbuildings scattered around. There are no cars and most of the houses lie in ruins, their terracotta tiled roofs broken and open to the elements. Electricity pylons lean at a crazy forty-five degree angle, severed black cables draped around their metal skeletons.
Sebrango lies in the shadow of a mountain, and last year the village was all but obliterated by a massive landslide. A vengeful or indifferent god sent thousands of tonnes of rocks and rubble hurtling down the mountainside; the few remaining residents were evacuated just in time. Today, a slew of dust and debris remains cordoned off on the slopes above the village, where lemon balm and mint have taken root in the scrubby earth.
I enter one of the ruined houses, feeling like an intruder among reminders of the people who lived here: a pair of dusty walking boots, an empty egg box and a rusty fridge. Timbers jut through shattered ceilings. On the upper floor, a door leading off a hallway opens directly on to fresh air and a sheer drop. Downstairs, next to the kitchen, there’s a small single-storey bedroom containing a double bed. A huge boulder has smashed through the rear wall of this room and come to rest on the mattress, snapping the wooden bed frame in two and lifting its front feet off the ground.
In the middle of the village, a lone house is still carefully tended by its owner. Any structural damage has been made good and the woodwork is freshly painted. Geraniums bloom in window boxes, roses clamber around the front door and green shoots poke through in the neat vegetable garden. Is the owner still in residence, or does he come back to visit? Is it obstinacy or tenacity that prevents him from abandoning his home, as the others have done? Does he imagine that life can somehow be restored to Sebrango; that if he sits it out for long enough the rocks and debris will retreat up the mountainside and his neighbours will return?
Tourists like us, with our travel insurance and guide books and tidy stash of euros, could never understand what it’s like to live like this. Sebrango humbles and horrifies me. It makes me want to run home to the city, with its noisy bars and multiplex cinemas and twenty-four hour traffic, where my closest brush with nature is the urban fox who trots across the street, and the only intrusion of the elements is the minor irritation of a leaky skylight or a rattling window-frame.