Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong
Huge tracts of the European countryside resemble scenes from a science fiction movie in which a killer virus has emptied the landscape of people, their homes deserted and their once immaculately manicured farms gradually being reclaimed by wild nature. It is a story of a mass migration to the cities in search of a better life, although the dichotomy is that the wide-scale abandonment of farmland during the past half century has reopened the door to wildlife that was hunted to the brink of extinction. Iconic species like wolves, bears and lammergeiers are staging a remarkable comeback. And for a growing handful of humans who have felt impoverished by city life and disenchanted with a world in which they never knew their neighbours, it is a chance to move to the country in search of a simpler and more sustainable way of living that can offer a strong sense of community and connection with others.
While walking the Trail to Salamanca I'm meeting many who have taken a bold leap of faith and chosen to return to village life and traditional values, rather than the quest for ever more money and possessions which ultimately left them feeling poorer. They're discovering the joy of community and feeling their connection with the land while harvesting their own fruit and vegetables, or collecting eggs from chickens rather than a supermarket.
In northern Spain's Duero Natural Park I'm almost overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of strangers. Antonio Campesinos and Sonia Alvarez take John, Amala and I on an exploration of the Duero River in kayaks. The canyon is arguably the most spectacular on the Iberian Peninsula and it's beauty is both inspiring and deeply relaxing. They introduce us to their brand of sustainable eco-tourism through the business Zamora Natural, which specialises in kayaking and hiking expeditions.
During the paddle we meet big city refugee Delfin Martin and I'm touched by his family's story. He tells me that when his son Diego was just five, and at school in Madrid, he was invited to create a drawing depicting his family life. Diego then painstakingly drew his mother, baby brother and a jet aircraft streaking through the sky. "But where's your Daddy?" his puzzled teacher demanded. "He's there. He's flying to Barcelona," the youngster innocently insisted. Warning bells sounded and the teacher convened a meeting with Diego's parents, Delfin recalling: "It was a wake-up call and perhaps the moment I began to question my stressed big city lifestyle. I was the executive creative director of an advertising agency and had a team of 24 people working under me. I worked long hours, travelled a lot and wasn't around much for our children, Diego and Hector. I wasn't happy!"
Fast forward more than a decade and I'm welcomed to lunch in their magnificently renovated farmhouse in Gamones, an ancient and picturesque farming village. "There is a strong sense of community and we help each other here. It is the only way." he says. Delfin now works from home as a 'rural freelancer' while his wife Nuria has created the Numa Ceramica pottery studio where she gives art classes to adults and children and creates magnificent ceramic artworks that mostly feature recycled glass.
After a long and leisurely lunch prepared by all the family from mostly local and homegrown ingredients, we are invited into the art studio and provided with modelling clay and some gentle coaxing. With the help of soothing classical music playing in the background, I begin to totally relax and enjoy a childlike sense of fun and curiosity.
When we decide to head for some cheap accommodation, Delfin insists: "We have a better plan. We think you'll approve." It turns out to be a free stay at La Quincalla, a charmingly renovated farmhouse turned guesthouse owned by prominent local sheep and cattle farmer Cesar Luengo and his wife Marcelina. When we ask where we might find a shop to buy ingredients for supper and breakfast, she smiles and points at her vegetable garden. We are provided with a feast of delicious organically grown vegetables and freshly laid eggs.
The next morning Delfin appears on his bicycle with bread and some other ingredients for breakfast. He and his wife then insist on taking us for a tour of historic and scenic highlights of the area, including a meeting with a beekeeper and viewing the age-old process of wheat threshing using donkeys and a sled.
Eventually we have no more excuses to stay in the area and they volunteer to help us find the start of the hiking trail we'll follow through the Duero Valley and into Portugal. Once again there is a sense of synchronicity and everything happening in perfect timing: when we stop in a village to establish where the trail begins, there is only one person in sight and he turns out to be the person who placed the direction signs along the trail – the best person to ask!
Country roads and paths are taking me home to the heart of what really matters …