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Setenil de las Bodegas: Life “Under a Rock”

There are around 20 “Pueblos Blancos”, or White Villages, scattered about the hilltops in southern Spain. These towns were settled by the Moors during the late Middle Ages and are typically located at a high elevation so they could defend themselves against the conquering Christian Kings from the northern regions. These villages were painted white with lime wash both as an act of solidarity along the borderland, and as a way – they believed – to prevent the spread of plague and cholera. (Studies have actually found that slaked lime does kill bacteria that cause cholera, and the traditional production of this whitewash was given UNESCO status in 2011).

Today, these White Villages are quite popular with tourists. We were unable to visit them all,

but we did see a few and one of the more unusual and fascinating villages was Setenil de las Bodegas. The homes are white, like the other White Villages, but that’s where the similarities end. In Setenil, many of the original homes are literally built into the overhanging cliff faces, with just a front facade as an entryway and the rest of the house being actual rock. The town today has approximately 3,000 inhabitants and it’s fair to say that quite literally, they are “living under a rock”.

While the town and its dwellings are quite unusual, what I found most heartening about Setenil is that it is a beautiful – and very simple - reminder of how we can work in harmony with the natural world. Today, we often “do battle” with nature when it comes to building our homes… we clear the land, remove the trees, and rework the terrain… all to make it more suitable for our own architectural vision rather than working with nature and using the existing landscape and its trees and peculiarities as our starting point. We then tend to build larger homes that can further separate us from nature rather than dwellings and neighborhoods that encourage us to feel like we’re still a part of and connected to the natural world.

While living under outcroppings is obviously not really feasible in today’s world . . . do we really need 6,000+ square foot homes with bathrooms larger than most dwellings in the town of Setenil? Our visit to this little White Village reminds us that there is elegance and wisdom found in simplicity and that we may need it now more than ever. We cannot solve our climate crisis from the comfort of homes that keep us disconnected from the natural world. If we want to truly address the problem of climate change (one of the greatest challenges facing humankind right now) . . . we need to live with the natural world and feel a sense of respect and reverence for her beauty, magnificence, and wisdom.

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