A busy week in Spain
Closed on the Cornudella de Montsant property, plus: Catalan bureaucracy, new friends, van life, and meeting Nate Murphy.
It’s been a busy week. I am tired and jetlagged, but now also the proud owner of a 250-year-old stone rowhouse nestled on a Spanish hilltop less than 15 minutes from some of the best climbing in the world.
Yes, I have closed on the Cornudella property.
Last week, in a somewhat hastily arranged trip, I boarded a plane to Barcelona to sign the papers and get work started on the renovation. I arrived on a Thursday morning, but the closing wasn’t until Monday. So I had some days to kill.
From the airport, I took a taxi to the Indie Campers depot outside the city to pick up a Mercedes Marco Polo van. I’ve never actually done the whole vanlife thing, except for 1-2 week road trips. My feeling is they’re hard to beat if the idea is to have maximum flexibility, be able to alter plans on a dime and save on costs. Anyway, I didn’t know who would be around or what they’d be doing, or even what I would be doing, or where, so a van seemed appropriate for this trip.
I’d rented from Indie Campers once before a few years back, driving a big behemoth of a van from Malaga west along the southern Spanish coast, into Portugal, and then up to Lisbon. This time, I wanted something much smaller and better able to navigate narrow Spanish hilltowns. The Marco Polo turned out to be a good choice. It’s a lot like the VW California camper pop-top, but drives better and gets slightly better gas mileage. On your average highway drive, it rides like a large minivan, but inside there is a cooktop, fridge, sink, and seating area that converts into a bed.
On my first night, I thought I might park outside Sharma Gavá, one of two climbing gyms in the city owned by the man, the legend, aforementioned in other posts. Lucas, a climber I’d met on my last trip to Spain, had told me he often stays there in his van whenever he’s in Barcelona. The gym has workspaces, wifi, showers, and of course climbing, so it seemed a good option to be able to work and chill for a while.
Only, when I landed, Lucas texted he was climbing with friends in Siurana, where I was buying the property. So after working for a few hours, I drove west from Barcelona along the coast, past Reus, then up the windy roads into the mountains, and over into Cornudella. It was getting dark and I was famished, so I beelined it to the climber’s bar in town to get a pizza and a beer.
A half-hour later, in walked Lucas. More beers were had, more pizza ordered. In the bar, Goma 2, it seems everyone has run into everyone else at least once, whether there or somewhere else in the world. For the thousandth time, I gave thanks for the strength, friendliness, and openness of the climbing community, and for places like this where it can gather.
The next two days, we climbed. Me, Lucas, and the young couple he was with, a German woman and a Spanish man. The weather was glorious for early February:
There was an extended group of climbers there, all loosely connected, more Spaniards, and Ben, a British doctor who had quit medicine to climb and vanlife full-time. Ben was also searching for property, and during the next few days, over a few coffees and beers, we exchanged stories about the process.
On Saturday, I drove two hours north to Organyá. I wanted to go meet Nate Murphy—a climber and YouTuber who also happened to have purchased a fixer-upper there a few years earlier. He had filmed the entire renovation for his channel.
I’d come across his stuff and then interviewed Nate back in 2019 for a nascent podcast I had started (and which I may yet resurrect). A few of his videos had made a huge impression on me—Nate seemed to be thinking through many of the big life questions that I was, only with more clarity and purpose than I’d yet been able to summon. Years later, this video he did about choosing a direction in life still resonates.
If you watch some of his more philosophical stuff, you’ll see that Nate is uber-practical, super straightforward, intelligent, and well-thought-through about many things. We had tried to connect a few years earlier while both of us were traveling through the Yucatan, but this time it looked to actually work out.
I arrived in Organyá early evening, parking the van in a little lot in a cluster of old stone homes on a hillside, stunningly gorgeous cliffs and valleys all around. I recognized Nate’s house from the videos on the renovation. As I walked over, an older Spanish gentleman leaned out his second-story window and asked, “Nate?”, and pointed over to a small metal door leading into his barn area.
That evening, Nate and his partner Dei were incredibly gracious hosts. We talked house-hunting, renovation, a little bit of climbing, and lots of politics. Dei cooked an amazing meal, wine was opened, and afterward, Dei made an equally amazing dessert from scratch. We talked about Nate’s new project on ideas and ideology, which actually maybe possibly could change the world—or at least how we think about the left, the right, and ideological battles in general. (in fact, Dei is also working on a completely unrelated biotech project that could also change the world… honestly keep an eye on these two).
The next day, Nate took me climbing to a local crag—there is unlimited rock to climb in and around Organyá, enough to last several lifetimes. It’s really quite stunning nearly everywhere you look:
The next morning, I drove two hours back south to Reus through open Catalonian farmland and countryside, contemplating all the things I didn’t yet know about this place. I wondered how much time would I be spending here in the near future, or perhaps in the years beyond. For some reason, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia popped into my mind, and I tried to remember everything I could from the book, but of course, it only proved how little I really knew about the area.
I met my real estate agent, Jordi, at his office in the center of town. Jordi is actually the father of a climber friend of mine (also named Jordi), and throughout the week it was clear he worked above and beyond on my behalf. In the end, I owe Jordi and his family (his wife and two sons) a ton of gratitude for all their encouragement and support, which went way beyond your standard real estate services. There was even a group WhatsApp formed the week prior for handling last-minute questions and concerns, and where younger Jordi could help translate the finer points of Catalan property transfers between my broken Spanish and older Jordi’s broken English.
And now, 15 minutes before we were due for our appointment at the notary, older Jordi had to explain one last hiccup.
In his office, he spread out a folder full of papers. The official description of the property in the notary was wrong, he said. It described my 250-year-old townhome as having a ground floor, one floor on top, and then an attic—the description was missing an entire floor, and quite an important one at that.
Of course, the reality of the townhome having four total levels was not in dispute, but as part of the closing, I would need to pay an extra €650 for the notary to make the update. I could do this later, Jordi explained, but later it would cost €2,000. Better to get it over with (P.S., I’ll do a full accounting of all the costs of buying the property in a later post).
It was one more expense after a long month of other expenses, including wire transfers, bank withdrawals, and visits to the Wells Fargo just before getting on the plane. At least I could use my credit card for this one.
From Jordi’s office, we walked the city blocks to the notary. Here we met the current owners, two older Catalan women. Pleasantries were exchanged, although after a brief introduction and a mucho gusto, everyone around me reverted to Catalan. It was one of more than a dozen times over the past few months I’d been frustrated to not understand practically anything that was being discussed right in front of me.
I do speak some Spanish—but the further from Barcelona one goes, the more likely you’re going to be overhearing Catalan spoken amongst locals, not Castillian. Even on a group call the week before with Jordi and his son, they were zipping through conversation in Catalan with me on the other line practically helpless to understand. It’s another country, older Jordi said to me later, when I asked him whether I should work on improving my Spanish or learning Catalan. You need to learn both.
From the lobby, the notary who was handling the sale brought us down the hallway and into one of a few small conference rooms, not unlike what you would find at your average title insurance company in the U.S., although this one was devoid of any kitschy artistic touches or wall hangings. The table was brown, the walls beige, and a small window let out into the busy streets of Reus. I had fully entered the Catalan bureaucracy, and frankly, it was not all that different from American capitalism.
The notary asked if I was more comfortable in Catalan or Spanish, and I gratefully requested Spanish. But there was not much to discuss. The notary handed each of the two women a check for their portions of the sale, then we walked through the major points of the contract: the purchase price, the location, my identity and profession, and current place of residence, and theirs. IDs were inspected, and then a second, older gentlemen came in and briefly went over everything again, apparently for good measure. Signatures were signed, copies made, and a single key handed over.
It was done. I now owned the property.
Later, Jordi and I took a selfie to commemorate:
After the closing, I drove back to Cornudella to my new house. The key opened the gigantic wood door from the street, and I walked in and flipped the breaker on the electricity. It was cold and dusty and bare, but my imagination was warm and excited, and it began to run.
Later that day, I met again with the architect who had walked the property with me back in November. I’d asked him to help me manage the structural parts of the renovation, and gratefully he spoke good English. Fortuitously, the architect, Albert, was also part of the family—my climbing friend’s cousin.
This time, Albert had brought two local builders, and the four of us went methodically through every part of the house to discuss what I wanted in detail. We called this Phase 1: reinforcing the slab floor, replacing part of the roof, widening a window out the back into a doorway to a future terrace, plus two or three other changes to the overall structure (I did a separate post with more pictures and renovation plans here).
Then, I spent one last night in Cornudella before driving to Barcelona the next morning. I finally owned a property in Europe, a life goal I’d had for years—and I was exhausted.
I celebrated with a bottle of wine in the van.
The next day, I took care of one last piece of business in Barcelona, then finally spent one last night at Sharma Gavá.
Note: this post was written half at the airport in Barcelona on my way back, half during a jetlagged haze when I got back. I’m sure I’ve missed much, but if there’s a question (or questions) you have about the process, what’s going on, or anything I breezed over, please don’t hesitate to write me and I’ll cover it in my next post.
Thanks to everyone and more to come!