Follow me to Simple Living in Spain!

Dear all,

I’ve been neglecting this blog for the past few months, and the reason for it is clear – it’s my new(er) blog, Simple Living in Spain.

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Simple Living in Spain was first started as an outlet for everything I didn’t want to bother you with here on the Mas del Encanto blog – but it’s growing into something bigger. On Simple Living in Spain, I want to inspire people to start living a simpler life, being more self-sufficient, making time for what’s important. I want people to learn from our mistakes and successes, to join us on new adventures and projects, and to be able to share theirs with us as well.

Mas del Encanto (as in, our home and bed & breakfast) still exists – you can read all about it on the website. From now on though, updates on Mas del Encanto will be shared with you either on the Facebook page or in the newsletter (which I send out every two months or so). And there will be the occasional pretty picture on Instagram. If you’re not getting it yet, please do subscribe to the newsletter! If Spanish is your preferred language, we are even planning to start sending out a monthly newsletter in Castellano. Subscribe here!

Stories from our daily life will be on Simple Living in Spain from now on though. From the chickens who are getting BIG to the alpacas that have finally arrived in Spain; from our small and big projects to the volunteers who are helping us with those; from our farm dogs to the birds and the bees; from the food forest to the vegetable garden, from my baking experiments to delicious farm-to-table cooking.

From a mere hobby on the side, writing about all those topics and helping people on their own journey has become a passion of mine.

You can follow Simple Living in Spain in so many ways:

Thank you for supporting us so far and cheering us on at every step of our adventure – I truly hope you’ll follow me to Simple Living in Spain and enjoy the rest of the journey with me!

One last thing before I leave you – if you’re anywhere local, I’d love for you to come and join our Coffee & Cake Thursdays this summer. Check our Facebook page (or check with me directly) to be certain it’s on (as we might skip an edition here and there in high season). We’d love to welcome everyone and anyone who happens to be in the neighbourhood to Mas del Encanto on Thursday mornings though!

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After the rain come sunshine & hard work

After the rain come sunshine & hard work

You might have heard it – we had quite a wet and foggy winter. Which meant that despite our best efforts, work wasn’t really progressing well… For every day we were out and about making things happen, there were at least two or three days when our (clay) soil was too compacted, the weather too rainy or just too plain cold to do what we had planned.

However, that all changed in the middle of February… Since almost ten days we have volunteers staying with us and neighbours helping us out, and things are going so fast that it makes my heart leap with joy. We have about two more weeks of work in front of us, and then it’s time to clean up and get everything ready for our first bed & breakfast guests to arrive; we’ve already got a few bookings between March and October and we’re very much looking forward to it.
In the mean time, I thought I’d share a few pictures of what’s going on here…

At the back of the house

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Last year, a lot of earth was dumped at the back of the house. Nothing much grows there at the moment and it gets muddy all the time – so we’re doing some landscaping…
First, we poured a 1m60 border of concrete along the back wall. Not only can this serve as a base for a recycling unit, a wood storage, gas storage, gardening / working station and chicken coop – it’s also much easier to walk on when the weather isn’t perfect.
The wood storage was built in one day by our volunteers Laura & Pietz – and the day after, they tackled the recycling tower (done in just a few hours!) and now they’re working on stone stairs towards the solar system shed.
Our friend Katrien is working at a brand new (and super fancy) chicken coop, with the help of our Belgian volunteer Brecht. It started out as a coop, then became a chicken house, the idea of building a castle came and went and now it looks like it’s going to be a chicken cathedral. Guess we’ll have to call our next rooster “Cardinal”.
In the next few weeks hopefully we’ll be able to continue on the chicken coop, finish the stone stairs and maybe start on preparing the back yard and setting up fencing for the chicken run. It’s going to be bigger than before!

Around the house

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You might have seen that we’ve been working on a terrace wall in front of / around the house since May (2016). I’m very proud to announce that it’s almost done now; it only needs some finishing touches, and it does need to be filled with a lot more soil. Which should happen on Wednesday, with the help of our friend George. Once the soil is in place, we’ll add on manure, planting soil and mulch – and we’ll be all ready to start sowing and planting! I’m very much looking forward to that part.

The side entrance to the guest rooms has been tiled (thank you Dan!), and Axel has been doing a few repairs and improvements to the guest balconies. As we speak, Axel and Brecht have started on the front yard; we’ve been discussing the design for weeks and hope it will be both convenient for me to work in, and beautiful to look at. We’re loosening the earth first, but we’re building raised beds on top of it anyway. The garden beds will be filled with herbs and edible flowers (or just vegetables with beautiful blossoms), and maybe some berry bushes.

The vegetable garden

The vegetable garden is a work in progress – but work is progressing, for once. After the last two seasons, we decided on building hexagonal raised beds – only time will tell if this is the right decision, but so far we think it’s going to look fabulous. The idea is to make a few raised beds every now and then, so in the end it will be all raised beds – and paths in between. So far the fig, kaki, plum and two apple trees have gotten their own raised beds – so we can plant a “guild” of other plants around them. We also bought all the accessories for a watering system… now only to install it before the heath of summer.

This year, we’ve sown the seeds for the vegetables inside… in the living room… Axel made me an extra big table that will hold four of those big polystyrene seed trays. I’ve got plenty of seedlings now: corn, tomato, kale, cabbage, onions, lettuce, more tomato and cauliflower… more to be sown next week. And soon we’ll have to plant out a few of them at least. So much to look forward to!

The chickens

Ah, the chickens… there’s highs and lows there.

First, there’s the incubating. I did a lot of that; I had an incubator with our own eggs + one of Kurkum Farm hatch in January, four little brown-layers-with-feathered-feet (chicks of Fatima & Ramon) and one little peeping Tom are now hopping around happily, they’re about four weeks old now.
After this, I borrowed our friends Dan & Mell’s big incubator and put in another batch – this time it contained our own eggs, Dan & Mell’s Brahma eggs, some eggs from Kurkum Farm and some eggs from Tierruca (the place we’re buying our alpacas at). There were 25 eggs in total… However, due to several different reasons, only 7 hatched. It’s a pretty diverse little group of Brahma, bantam and feathered-feet-layers though, and I hope they’ll be everything I’m hoping for.
At this moment, I’ve got seven Silver Brahma eggs in my small incubator (due around the 11th of March), and 15 more Brahma eggs + a few of our own in the big incubator (due about 5 days later). Fingers crossed for a bunch of healthy and happy chicks!

The adult chickens have been on rotating pastures since the beginning of the new year, with the help of an electric fence (which is super easy to move) and the chickshaw (moveable chicken coop). I love this setup, and am definitely going to write a review on the chickshaw soon… we’ve had it almost a year now. The chickens seem to love it as well; they’re safely inside the fence, and they get a new bit of land to scratch up and explore every few weeks. What’s not to like? They’re getting lots of kitchen scraps, 99% organic food and of course bugs and weeds from out there. Our eggs are now bright orange and very, very tasty.
On the bad news side, there’s something wrong with Tita. She’s been in quarantine for a week now, but we can’t seem to figure out what her problem is… she’s not really weak, but has trouble walking (or flying) straight and falls over at times. She’s getting some supplements and we still have some hope left… not much though, as she doesn’t seem to be getting better (not getting worse either, but she’s not fit enough to join the rest in the run). Fingers crossed for her!
Last but not least, we’ve said goodbye to our very beautiful but very useless Brahma rooster Ramon a few days ago now, I’m writing a separate post about this (and about the uses and uselessness of roosters). Tito is now head honcho but he’s not sure how to handle that – he’s always been a bit insecure and being left with two older hens (Fatima and Ramona) doesn’t do much for his self-esteem… as long as he behaves, he can stay though – or until one of the little chicks steps up and becomes big boss. We still have several months before that.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this small update – it’s so nice to get feedback and hear how so many of you are following our adventures here in Spain. There will be many more to follow!

Living off the grid at Mas del Encanto

Living off the grid at Mas del Encanto

Mas del Encanto is 100% of the grid. This means we are not connected to mains power (the electricity grid), mains water (the water grid) or other networks like gas or sewer. This was a conscious choice; we didn’t want to depend on other people for our comfort and we were tired of all the monthly bills… So when we started looking for a property to buy, we knew we wanted one far enough from villages to not be connected to the grid.

However, we didn’t want to change our lifestyle too much – we certainly didn’t want to lose any of the comfort we were so used to. This page is about how we set up the house and its systems – it’s a work in progress and we might want to change certain details in the future. If you’re contemplating doing something similar or if you’re just curious, don’t hesitate to contact us!

ELECTRICITY

We live on solar electricity. We have twelve solar panels (polycrystalline) that are connected to a charge controler; this makes sure the energy collected by the solar panels is stored into the batteries. We have 24 2-volts batteries, which makes for a total of 48 volts. Our (8kVA) inverter converts what’s coming out of the batteries into a voltage suitable for use (230 volt, in our case).
The whole system is hooked up to a generator (9kW continuous power / 12kW peak power), that will take over automatically in case the batteries are running low – it also charges the batteries if possible.

If this sounds like Gobbledegook to you, don’t worry, you’re not alone. The main thing is that we’ve got plenty of power to go around; and if we don’t, the generator will make sure we don’t have anything to worry about. In theory, the batteries are big enough to provide us with electricity for three days when it’s too cloudy for the solar panels to collect sunlight.
When we moved from the city to our little corner of paradise, we made a list of all the appliances we had or we wanted to get once we lived here. We make sure we get energy-efficient appliances (for instance, we sold our old fridge in Amsterdam and got an A+++ fridge here in Spain) and that way, we didn’t have to make big lifestyle changes when we moved here; although we sold the dryer in the Netherlands and didn’t get one here in Spain… things dry much better outside on the line on sunny, windy days (we get those year round).

Before the big house was finished, we lived in the maset (the renovated donkey stable a few terraces down), which is off the grid as well. It has its separate solar system, which is not as big as the one up here; it’s tiny, but still plenty to work a fridge, laptops and phones, light and sometimes an incubator 🙂

On the whole, we didn’t make big changes when we moved off the grid. Although I have to say we were always a bit conscious of our electricity bill, so we were never big consumers. Now we don’t get any bills anymore, and that feels great.

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WATER

When we moved here, we a diviner came to our land and indicated the best spot to dig a borehole – which we did, and it’s fantastic. That being said, we were never presented with other options, and knowing what I know now, we might not do the borehole again; some of our friends and neighbours have had bad experiences with them (getting salty / silty water, the borehole collapsing, water being struck 100 meter lower than predicted which cost thousands of extra euros,…) and it’s a lot of hassle to get approved for running a bed & breakfast on. In this area, we get more than enough annual rainfall to live off – and since we’ve got a big roof over our heads, a few gigantic tanks might have been all it takes. Now, the rainwater will go to a natural swimming pool / water catchment pond / irrigation (work in progress, planned for the winter of 2017-2018). A third option would have been to get water delivered to our house – not the most ecological solution, but probably the cheapest and the least complicated now we’re running a B&B.

Ah well, back to the borehole. We’ve got a 4500 liter tank, which is the big blue thing on the picture above… since taking that photo, we’ve hid the tank inside a stone building, to protect it from the sun. A level control checks on the water level in the tank continuously; it will make sure that the tank is always full. It’s on a time switch, so it makes sure the water only gets pumped up between 11 and 14h, to make the most use of the sun.
We have several filters before and after the tank; we also have a pressure pump between the tank and the house, to make sure we get a good stream of water instead of just a drizzle.
We’ve had the water tested multiple times already (in different seasons, from different places) and mostly it’s just great. It is certainly potable, and it’s full of minerals; we get a bit of extra limescale which is annoying (but nothing a lemon scrub can’t fix) but apart from that, we love having water from our own borehole. It’s 140m deep, which means the water comes from an underground stream that is unaffected by chemicals used in local agriculture (it also helps that we’re a bit higher up, not many chemicals being used there).

 

However, we still provide our guests with bottled water – drinking water from our borehole is our choice, but we understand not everybody likes that idea.

HEATING & HOT WATER

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The inertia tank that will soon heat our whole house

At the moment I’m writing this, our hot water still gets heated by a gas boiler. However, this is a temporary measure; in February 2017, our wood stove was installed… as soon as everything is connected (we’re currently waiting for the chimney to be delivered), we’ll be able to heat the house on wood alone.

 

The wood stove is connected to a 500L water tank downstairs – which means the fire heats the water in the tank. This hot water goes to the radiators, and a heat coil in the tank makes sure we get hot water for the tap and showers. We’re still keeping the gas boiler for backup though – and to use in summer. Our experience is that we use a lot less hot water in summer though; for a while we were contemplating the acquisition of a solar boiler to heat water in summer – but we soon realised this would not be worth the investment for now.

GREY WATER

It’s such a waste when water just goes down the drain after use and doesn’t get used again… which is why we really wanted a grey / black water system. We’ve had to make a lot of concessions there, mostly for financial reasons; having a fully functional grey water system (where water from the shower is used for the toilet, and water from said toilet is used to water the plants with) would require so many more pipes, a few pumps and a lot of paperwork… So we settled for a simplified version: water from the upstairs bathroom gets reused in the big planter downstairs. Which at this time is not operational yet, as we don’t have any trees in the planter yet… Hopefully in the spring of 2017.

SEWAGE

This is another concession we had to make.
In the maset (the tiny house we lived in before the big house was finished), we had a composting toilet; it felt great to know that our body waste would be used (in a few years) to fertilise our trees with. Even more, we never had to flush it.
However, we decided not to do this in the big house; partly for financial reasons (our first composting toilet was DIY, but a “real” composting toilet is not cheap), partly to simplify things when it came to permits and stuff. After having lived with a composting toilet for a little while, I still feel a little pang inside every time I flush my real toilet.
Waste from our toilets goes into two different septic tanks with overflow.

INTERNET

The internet is the only thing we kind of cheat with – we’re online, so we’re technically on a network. We get our internet with radio waves, the antenna is in Horta de Sant Joan (which is the village we have the best line of sight to… but there’s other villages with antennae). It’s fantastic; most of the time our internet is faster than what we were used to in Amsterdam. Sometimes however (usually on Sundays or holidays), too many tourists in the area try to post the pictures of their fantastic weekend in Matarraña, and the network gets a bit too crowded and slow… Everything goes back to normal on Monday mornings though.

Road trip to Cantabria – visit to an Alpaca farm

Road trip to Cantabria – visit to an Alpaca farm

Soon, very soon, I will post more about the “why” – why did we drive all the way to the other side of the country just to look at some alpacas? For now though, these are just some pictures I took on our way there…

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On our way there, early in the morning & terrible weather: Zaragoza.

 

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The Rioja region is just FULL of bodegas and wine fields

 

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Bilbao in Bask country. No good pictures of the city itself, but you can see weather is clearing up & Euskera (the Bask language) is not like Spanish at all.

 

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The gulf of Biskaia – the ocean at the other side of the country. It’s a funny feeling to know we live quite close to the mediterranean sea, and in just a few hours we’re looking at the Atlantic Ocean.

 

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Cantabria is breathtaking.

 

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A bit wetter than Matarraña where we live… (see the rain coming)

 

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but very very beautiful and green.

 

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Ten little alpacas from Alpacas de la Tierruca & Alto Paso Alpacas, standing in the field outside the brand new (almost-finished) alpaca visitors & education center.

 

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The girls of Alpacas de la Tierruca. I was spit at by a very pregnant female, she didn’t like how I was taking close-up pictures 🙂

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Everything a farm needs – a barn cat, a dog and pretty stables – now converted and holding an artisanal alpaca fleece processing workshop.

 

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We took a special interest in this gentleman… He’s three years old and might end up on our finca some day soon.

 

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The one thing we’re missing on our finca – a river right outside the door

 

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Goodbye Cantabria… see you again soon!

Mas del Encanto: Past, Present & Future.

Mas del Encanto: Past, Present & Future.

Thankfully, no scary ghosts visited us over the holidays. However, we’re in the middle of a winter break, and that is giving us ample time to think.

We’re on a break from the B&B, but that doesn’t mean we’re lazying about: we’ve got plenty of winter projects going on.

Making it pretty

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Jabba’s guests Tilly and Tuppence are helping him inspecting the progress on the terrace wall (november 2016)

First and foremost, we needed to make things prettier. Although the guest rooms have been finished since May 2016, the surroundings of the house still looked like a bulldozer went through (which it actually did, it was a construction site after all). In november and december we’ve had a group of volunteers over to help us build a terrace wall in front of the house; next month, we’ll be planting plants, herbs, flowers and shrubs on the new terrace so the view from the guest rooms will be even better than before.

Making it comfortable

Since this winter, we’ve got central heating. Currently it works on a gas boiler, which is a good back-up but we don’t want to depend on fossil fuels forever; in a few weeks, we’re having a wood burner installed which will not only heat the radiator water, but provide for hot showers in winter as well. Bye bye gas bills, hello heating our house with wood from olive & almond pruning!

Making it practical

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Foggy weather & a cold sun

In the first part of the winter, we had a good group of volunteers at the farm to help us work on the terrace wall – however, it rained for most of the time – which meant they spent a lot of time inside. Worse: they spent most of that time in the “cave”, digging it out until it started resembling a normal cellar, more or less… It just needs a bit of finishing and a floor, and then we’ll be able to use it for (wine?) storage.

We still have a few things to finish this winter – building wood storage, building storage for the gas bottles, tiling a few bits that get too muddy in the winter and too dusty in the summer… Hopefully by half March, it will all be perfect.

Expanding the chicken project

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Fatima, who is faithfully laying us one egg a day. She only stopped for two days around New Year’s, it was just too cold and dark and foggy. 

I’m really full of ideas for my chicken project!

First, the chickens already had a fixed run since last spring – they will get a fixed coop now as well. That way, they’ll be completely safe from predators and still have space to run around.
I will be separating the roosters from the laying hens; the roosters will be kept inside a moveable electric fence, and move around on the land while keeping the grass short, fertilising the ground and doing some bug control. It’s an experiment (some people say it’s possible to keep several roosters peacefully if there are no hens about – others have bad experiences with it), but we really need chickens to clean up the land and I would rather keep my best layers close to the house.

I am also doubling up on the incubating efforts; I now have the first (small) batch of eggs in, but in a few weeks our friends Dan & Mellissa are kindly lending me their (bigger) incubator and I will hopefully be hatching chicks until May or so. I will incubate my own eggs (of course), but will also order fertile eggs from other places for a bit of variation. I have plans to get some Barnevelders, Araucanas (which lay eggs with blue coloured shells), Marans (dark brown eggs) and of course more Brahmas. Some of these will be up for sale; as small chicks (4-6 weeks old, if you want to see your chickens grow up), pullets (4-6 months old, if you want egg-laying chickens) or for chicken dinner, if we end up having too many. Contact me if you’re interested!

If all goes well, we hope to have eggs for sale by summertime. They will be organic and free range.

Preparing for Spring season in the garden

The most fun part at the moment, is preparing the garden for spring. Thankfully after a few foggy and rainy months, the sun is back (and it looks like it’s here to stay… at least for the next few days). Axel has built me a few raised beds (he’ll make more!) and I’ve been filling them up with compost, manure and organic material. I’ll be sowing ground cover in them first, and plant out seedlings as soon as I can… Hopefully resulting in an abundant harvest this spring.

The trees have been well taken care of too; most almonds have been pruned, and many of the trees got a protective circle around them, clearing the grass and making a small trench that will catch some extra water. A layer of mulch will be applied around them (next week!), for fertilising and protection.

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Ramon crowing his lungs out

Preparing for Spring season at the B&B

We’ve learned so much from last year’s trial season – and now we’re taking these lessons and planning for next year’s first real bed & breakfast season. Getting the paperwork done (soon! I hope), installing a small kitchen in the breakfast room, buying little things our guests missed in their rooms last season, and deciding on pricing. Unfortunately we had to slightly raise the rates for next season, to account for the share agents like booking.com or airbnb.com are getting; however we’re doing an “early bird” promotion before we go public, so people can book at lower prices if they book in time.
More on that later this week!

Splitting up the blog…

Splitting up the blog…

This little blog has taught me so many things. It has taught me that it’s ok to open up: I can write about our mistakes and our bad days, and it’s ok to share our successes and our good days with the world as well. It has taught me that although most people think we’re crazy for moving to Spain and starting a new life here, they also think it’s bold and courageous and they like following our adventures here. But most of all, it has taught me that I love to write about those adventures – and that I love to share everything I’m learning here.

The adventure started years ago, when we first started dreaming about an Earthship somewhere on grassy meadows in the south of France – and it took a leap when we bought our land in Matarraña (Spain turned out to be quite a bit sunnier and just as pretty as France). There were other milestones – the day I got my (online) Permaculture Design Certificate with Geoff Lawton, the day we moved to Spain, the day we moved to our little maset (the little donkey shed Axel rebuilt for us), and finally the day we moved into our new house.

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Our “maset” – the converted stable we lived in before the big house was finished.

I now felt like it was time for another milestone… this week, I split up my blog. I will continue to post personal updates, news on the bed & breakfast, the adventures of our volunteers and some chicken stories on this blog – but I’ve also started a new blog. I’m looking forward to using that blog as my big outlet: I can’t wait to share information about permaculture, homesteading, small scale farming and keeping animals. I will post my favourite recipes, share tips on how to go back to basics (even if it’s just a tiny bit) – and as a sociologist I would love to write about the social aspects of permaculture, gender roles on a homestead or the importance of an utopia in the modern world (fans of Jurgen Habermas, hold on to your hats). Of course there will be chickens as well, and volunteers, and everyday observations about life in Spain.

I would like to invite you all to take a look at my new blog on www.simplelivingspain.com (yes, it’s basically about Simple Living in Spain). And maybe you’d like to subscribe to my newsletter, and get a weekly overview of cool things I’ve read, interesting videos I’ve watched and news from the farm? If you have any suggestions on what you’d like to read there, please go ahead and contact me – in the comments, on my (new!) Facebook page, on Twitter, Instagram or good old-fashioned e-mail. My (digital) door is always open, and I’m always looking for more inspiration – or interesting subjects to stick my nose in.

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Stuff I’m going to be writing about on my SimpleLivingSpain.com blog: chickens, living off the grid, growing our own food and cooking / baking it, gardening, living in Spain and much much more… 

Simple Living Holidays: from idea to reality

A rather short post today… I am very proud to pitch to you my next “baby”: Simple Living Holidays.
Many of our guests, visitors and Facebook-followers told us they’d like to know more or even experience our way of life. We call this lifestyle “Simple Living”: it’s all about making things less complicated and making time for what’s really important. For us, it’s a way of taking back control of our lives.

Around here, we’re meeting more and more people who set out to do the same. They come from all over the world (although most come from other places in Spain and Europe), and they all converged here, in Matarraña. All of us have slightly different ideas and priorities; some keep farm animals, others work relentlessly on the vegetable garden, others take better care of their inner self and for some, the technical aspects of off-grid living are the big challenge. Most of us do a mix of everything.

As a first step, guests at Mas del Encanto will be able to attend workshops next season – from animal husbandry to vegetable gardening, from harvesting almonds to cooking and baking with produce off the land. Our guests will be able to include some unforgettable experiences in their holiday.

 

You’ll be pampered and well taken care off: staying either at Mas Katmandu (outside of Cretas) or at Mas del Encanto (between Cretas and Lledo), food and drinks will be included. Most workshops and visits to local projects and farms are included in the price, but you can choose to attend them or not; if you want to skip a workshop (or a meal) and go out to town or stay in for a change, it’s your vacation!
Some (more specialised or intensive) workshops might be offered for an added fee.

This is a very tiny and newborn baby still – our heads are full of ideas and we’ve created a list of over 50 workshops we could offer around here… now it’s a matter of selecting the workshops people want to attend, talking with the people that can host those workshops, and put a price tag on everything. To help us in the process, I’ve set up a survey. It would help tremendously if you could take a few minutes to answer a few questions!

Edit, December 2016: there is more information now on this page. You can now help us by pre-registering (it’s quick and easy and doesn’t mean you actually have to participate in the end); this will also give you a discount if you actually decide to attend a holiday or some of the workshops. Click here for more information!

Last summer, some of our guests made marzipan with almonds from our trees