Our first house in Spain had no central heating, and we arrived in December. No problem, we thought – Spain’s a hot country, isn’t it? And it has a wood burner –that’ll be all romantic and cosy and add to the sense of adventure, right?
Big mistake. I have been trying to research an original attribution for the phrase ‘Spain is a cold country with hot sun”, apparently a Victorian diplomat is thought to have first uttered these fateful words, repeated knowingly thereafter by every veteran expat to each newbie they meet. Spanish houses are built to dissipate heat fast, exactly as they need to be for at least two thirds of the year – but over a brief but intense winter the cold can be unbelievable. Coming from the UK where winter temperatures regularly get far lower, we were amazed how cold we would feel in Spain during the winter, in a place with no central heating, thermal insulation or fitted carpets. We have since encountered some amazingly efficient wood burners that really keep a home cosy and warm – but the one in that first house of ours definitely wasn’t a good example
So, after two winters of shivering, we moved – and our next place had central heating. Lovely radiators! In every room! Oh, they were so wonderful, and warmed the house through and through… warm as toast, until that is, the huge external gas tank behind the house ran empty, long before spring arrived – and many many months before we had budgeted on refilling it.
A certain chill returned in every sense as we learned a hard lesson in Spanish survival, and we realised why so few people heated their homes in this way. The lack of home insulation on modern villas built essentially for summer holiday lets made a staggering difference, especially in combination with an elderly boiler with no thermostat (heating was on or off, and only turned off if you remembered to turn it off) that looked very different to the energy-efficient one we vaguely remembered from the UK. So after a brief few months of having a warm centrally-heated house, we realised that wasn’t going to be the answer either, unless a major lottery win was forthcoming. It would have been cheaper to fuel the old woodburner with €50 notes, frankly
Staying warm in the winter in Spain we have finally learned is about keeping your immediate environment warm. Forget trying to heat the house, or even too many of the rooms – so many villas are built with large open-plan living spaces, deliciously cool in the summer when you want the breeze to circulate, but a nightmare when it’s freezing cold. We put warm rugs on the floor – especially by the beds or anywhere a bare foot might chance to touch down on the smooth marble tiles, guaranteed to suck every shred of warmth from your frozen toes in the winter.
Some people find inverting air conditioners a good source of heat and good value too, ours seem inefficient though they are older units than many. We’ve learned to section off areas – our current house has a removable curtain rail to close off the living room, so we can get at least one area properly warm in the evening. A fine voile curtain makes a dramatic difference. We have portable gas estufas, that can be moved from room to room and give off serious and visible firey-looking heat – but that run on butane canisters that we replace on a ‘pay as you go’ basis, no more nasty surprises, as utility costs in Spain and worldwide continue to soar.
In many ways it’s not cheap – I am sure wood works out cheapest, when you have an efficient fan-assisted burner, but paying for the bottles of gas as you go along is real help, and I know how many people in the UK are now scared to put the heating on for fear of a massive bill afterwards. With a system of 3 bottles and 2 stoves, the plan of ‘when you swap a new bottle in, put the old one in the back of the car to take to the garage next time’ works fairly well in the sense of never not having a full one to hand when the flame goes out.
We also use panel heaters on the bedroom walls, carefully chosen by checking the wattage and working out what we can afford to leave on – we also have to consider total output, and decide which won’t trip the feeble consumer unit by overloading any one spur – in our house we can’t boil the kettle to fill the hot water bottles whilst simultaneously using the hairdryer, not if there are several heaters running throughout the house! ‘How can you live like this!’ sigh relatives from the UK who are used to taking such home comforts rather more for granted. But, for a short time each year, you just do, and meantime if they most welcome to visit but we recommend warm layers of clothing and slippers. My Mum now keeps a pair here.
During the cold snap early in 2012 when the whole of Europe froze and we had ice on the terrace at sea level, the immediate environment we could realistically heat got smaller and smaller – wearing lots of layers was vital, and hot water bottles and electric blankets became essential! All you can do during times like this remind yourself that this is still Mediterranean Spain and such ridiculously cold conditions can only realistically last a few weeks at most – spring is on the way. And in the meantime, don’t forget to drink that cup of tea you made ten minutes ago, because it’s probably gone cold by now.
Incidentally I now find centrally heated homes that we visit in the UK can be stifling, and the contrast between freezing cold streets and overheated shops and homes I have always had a problem with. Anywhere I am staying whilst visiting I usually end up turning off the radiator in my room in the middle of winter, and piling on an extra blanket instead if I need it, it just seems more comfortable and normal than having hot dry air recirculating. I tend to wake in centrally heated insulated homes with horribly dry throat and sinuses! And I always seem to get a cold when I go back to the UK whatever the time of year – probably this is from the flight or a new set of bugs to challenge my immune system rather than the centrally heated homes of friends and family, but it always feels like the two are associated to me.
You need to get outside whenever you can on sunny winter days, because if you find a sheltered spot to soak up the rays it can still be wonderfully warm. You can have lunch in the sunshine in t-shirts when there is no wind – even if you do reach quickly for a woolly when the sun disappears behind the nearest mountain ridge.
Our current home in Spain has lots of windows, on three sides in the main living area – we leave these uncovered to trap the heat, greenhouse-like, all through the sunny days of winter. When it’s warmer outside – which it often is on bright sunny days in chilly springtime – then we open the doors and windows, let as much of the free natural warmth of the day in. Then immediately the sun goes down, down go the persiana blinds, to trap those rays inside where we want them to stay. If we forget or go out and come home late after dark, the living room can be freezing – but as soon as the estufa goes on, the warmth starts to spread through the place once more.
Not long till the warm sunshine returns, wafting in on the scent of the orange blossoms in the springtime. Till then we will just wrap up.