High on the Hills

Mataven­ero, a re­mote vil­lage in Spain, is part fairy­tale, part eerie won­der­land, all beau­ti­fully cap­tured by Kevin Faing­naert.


When did you first learn about Mataven­ero? Last year a Span­ish friend of mine told me about Spain’s many aban­doned vil­lages and how they are be­ing pop­u­lated by groups of eco-friendly, in­de­pen­dently minded peo­ple. That’s when I first heard about eco-vil­lages – com­mu­ni­ties of peo­ple striv­ing to live sus­tain­ably. Af­ter some re­search I found out about Mataven­ero.

Why did you want to visit it? When I read about Mataven­ero and their in­de­pen­dent, eco­log­i­cal lifestyle, I was hooked im­me­di­ately. They turned away from the mod­ern way of life, based on ef­fi­ciency and con­sump­tion, to live ac­cord­ing to their be­liefs. They built their own vil­lage in the mid­dle of nowhere and are de­pen­dent only from their own gar­dens. I was ex­tremely cu­ri­ous to see how they live, who they are, what they do and why they aban­doned their old lifestyle.

How did you get there? It took me ages to get to the vil­lage. I had to take a se­ries of buses to get to the most nearby vil­lage. From there Mataven­ero is only ac­ces­si­ble by a three-hour walk on a beau­ti­ful moun­tain trail. There are no sign­posts to Mataven­ero, but once I found the right path, I had to fol­low painted rain­bow sym­bols.

How long did you stay for? I stayed for three weeks. I wish I could have stayed longer. By the time most of them opened up to me, I had to go again.

Were you wel­comed or were peo­ple wary? The first week I felt very un­com­fort­able. I had to adapt to their lifestyle. But most peo­ple are very open. When I ar­rived, I was im­me­di­ately in­vited to en­ter one of their houses and I got served with a fresh cup of tea and chest­nuts. Ev­ery­body’s

welcome to visit the vil­lage for a cou­ple of days, if they help out with com­mu­nal tasks.

Most peo­ple in Mataven­ero don’t like the idea of be­ing pho­tographed though. The first few days I didn’t even have the nerve to un­pack my cam­era and tell them about my plan to make a se­ries on Mataven­ero. Af­ter I got to know al­most ev­ery­one, I knew which peo­ple I could pho­to­graph. While some of the vil­lagers were happy to share their vi­sion with the world, and like to co­op­er­ate on projects like mine, most of them would rather stay iso­lated. Lately this is cre­at­ing an on­go­ing de­bate as to whether Mataven­ero should re­main closed to the world, so that they can con­sol­i­date their com­mu­nity and their shared vi­sion, or whether they should re­main open.

What struck you about the in­hab­i­tants of the vil­lage? I felt ad­mi­ra­tion for their per­sis­tence. They've made this place a fairy vil­lage, with ir­reg­u­lar shaped houses, wa­ter­ways, lit­tle paths through trees, the dome… There is a shared vi­sion to live as eco­log­i­cally as pos­si­ble. Ev­ery­thing brought in must be car­ried by don­key, horse, wheel­bar­row, or on your back on a three-hour trek. The only elec­tric­ity is from re­new­able sources. All waste must be re­cy­cled or car­ried away back up­hill. The same plas­tic bags ap­pear over and over again. Very lit­tle money is used, the same eu­ros go round and round. These are peo­ple who trans­form their ideals into deeds and hard work.

What did you learn while you were there? I learned about eco-vil­lages and com­mu­nity life in gen­eral. Most peo­ple in Mataven­ero have lived in other com­mu­ni­ties as well. So I got to know about a few dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties and their vi­sion for an al­ter­na­tive, eco­log­i­cal lifestyle. I didn’t know there were so many. In Europe we al­ready have 430 in­ten­tional eco-vil­lages. It’s re­ally a grow­ing thing. Prac­ti­cally, I learnt how to work the gar­den with some prin­ci­ples of per­ma­cul­ture, how to feed don­keys, how to dig a canal, how to play the sitar. I learnt a lot!

What’s the mood or feel­ing of the vil­lage? While lib­er­ated from the men­tal stress of the mod­ern world, life in Mataven­ero is not ex­actly easy. You need to be prac­ti­cal and you need to know how to work the land. Most of the in­hab­i­tants still have a small in­come. Some work as builders in nearby towns dur­ing one sea­son. Oth­ers sell chest­nuts or trade their hand­i­crafts with the out­side world. Oth­ers still have an in­come from the sale of the homes they had be­fore. There is a small school. There is a shop that sells

sta­ples such as rice, to­bacco, juice and fresh veg­eta­bles from the vil­lage gar­dens. Next door is the vil­lage bak­ery, and once a week, there is a big cheer­ful pizza event. Ev­ery Thurs­day there is com­mu­nal work and a coun­cil meet­ing that ev­ery­one can at­tend.

What was the most beau­ti­ful thing you saw? Ev­ery­day I woke up to this view of the big yel­low geo­met­ric dome down at the bot­tom of the vil­lage. It’s the place where cel­e­bra­tions are held. You see the dome from ev­ery­where. I could watch that dome for hours. It looks so beau­ti­ful and sur­real in the land­scape. I also liked all the houses and cab­ins they live in. Most houses are built with nat­u­ral or re­cy­cled ma­te­ri­als. Some are built from scratch and some are re­built from the ru­ins from the orig­i­nal vil­lage. They def­i­nitely were very cre­ative build­ing their houses.

What was the best story you heard while there? Hon­estly, ev­ery vil­lager had such a good story to tell. I liked how they all had dif­fer­ent rea­sons to come and live in Mataven­ero. There’s a guy who walked across Europe for al­most ten years and fi­nally set­tled in Mataven­ero. Another guy was a cos­metic sur­geon and earned more money than I can imag­ine, and de­cided to give it all away and come and live with noth­ing in Mataven­ero.

Was there any­one you met that par­tic­u­larly stood out? I think the ones who stand out for me are the Ger­man peo­ple who built the vil­lage back in 1989. They played a vi­tal role in the de­vel­op­ment of Mataven­ero. Some of them are quite old by now, but when there’s work to be done, they’re al­ways the first ones who show up to do it.

What do you love about pho­tog­ra­phy? I love the process of tak­ing pic­tures, wan­der­ing around find­ing things. It’s my cu­rios­ity to find new things that drives me to pho­to­graph. Be­cause of pho­tog­ra­phy I’ve been to places I never ex­pected I’d go. I end up in the weird­est cir­cum­stances. You’re from Bel­gium, what do you want the world to know about your coun­try? We un­leashed Jean-Claude Van Damme onto the world.

What are you work­ing on at the mo­ment? A pro­ject called 'Catch' about pro­fes­sional wrestling in Europe. I’m dodg­ing a lot of fly­ing wrestlers lately.

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