Pay a Visit to Spain’s Rustic Off-the-Grid Eco Village
Before congratulating yourself on that weekend you spent totally unplugged at that cabin in the mountains, check out Kevin Faingnaert’s series Matavenero. The people in his photos share a single computer, live way off the grid, and must hike 30 minutes uphill to get cell reception. They are completely isolated—except for Facebook and Twitter, because everyone is on Facebook and Twitter—until a stranger like Faingnaert shows up.
Faingnaert spent three weeks last spring in Matavenero, one of Spain’s biggest “eco-villages.” It is one of hundreds of former ghost towns throughout Europe repopulated by people who shun many modern conveniences. Matavenero was first settled by miners, who abandoned it after a forest fire in the late 1960s. A back-nature group of Germans arrived in 1989 to spruce things up. They raised tents and teepees, cleared paths, and even dug a canal to bring in water. Word spread as the years went on, drawing more like-minded souls. Today, it is home to around 60 people.
“I was extremely curious to see who they are, how they live, what they do, and why they abandoned their old life,” he says.
While Faingnaert generally found people open and friendly, some older folks shied away from the newcomer and his Canon 5D Mark II. To earn their trust, he volunteered to do odd jobs—mopping the village bar, feeding the donkeys, helping dig a canal. There was no end to the chores. “My magnum opus was cleaning out and organizing the community library. The place was a real mess,” he says.
Faingnaert gradually learned more about why people left the modern world behind. Jürn, a grizzled 56-year-old German, wanted to live closer to the land. Dani, a 28-year-old illustrator, sought a peaceful place in which to practice his art. Some moved to the village to escape personal problems. Others, like 26-year-old Leoni, were born there. She once left Matavenero for a short trip to Berlin and returned with a new love. “They built a new house together and had their first child a couple months before I arrived,” Faingnaert says.
Matavenero does keep in touch with the world beyond. There is one desktop computer, used mostly for teaching, and some cell phones, but no reception until you climb a nearby mountain. The town has Facebook and Twitter accounts run by one person so the village might share its vision and way of life with others. “They hope to inspire more people to live independently and ecological,” Faingnaert says. They do not mind the occasional tourists, provided they are courteous.
Though well removed from the pressures of modern life, people are industrious. A few live off money earned from the sale of the homes they left, and many work seasonally as builders in nearby towns or sell chestnuts and handicrafts. They tend to their homes—whimsically shaped “fairy” cabins built from scraps of wood, metal, and bricks—and to gardens, selling the extra produce. Each Thursday, everyone came together to work on a communal project and attend a council meeting in the yellow geodesic dome that served as town hall.
Faingnaert couldn’t help but admire their dedication to living simply and sustainably. Waste was recycled or carried away downhill. The same plastic bags appeared again and again, the same euros went round and round. People who wanted electricity used solar panels. “They want to live self-sufficiently and ecologically, in harmony with their environment and with respect for each other at their core,” Faingnaert says. “These are people who transform their ideals into deeds and hard work.”
Yet they also knew how to kick back and relax. Faingnaert attended cheerful birthday celebrations, weekly pizza parties, camp fire sing-a-longs, and “rainbow gatherings” where participants practiced “the ideals of peace, love, respect, and freedom.” There was a communal sauna, a swimming hole, and a bar where everyone smoked weed. “It felt good staying there, being completely shut out of the world,” Faingnaert says. “It creates a strong bond between the inhabitants that I, after a while, also felt.”
In the end, though, Faingnaert was happy to return home. Unlike Matavenero’s inhabitants, he finds cities inspiring, exciting, and pulsing with life. He plans to continue photographing off-the-grid communities in Spain—like El Fonoll, a nudist village in Catalonia he’s visiting next month. “Maybe I’ll return to Matavenero one day, but I don’t know yet,” he says. “I definitely like to keep in touch with my subjects, so I hope to see them again.”
Read this article: