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.