She has swapped the sunny days and torrid heat of the south for the persistent chill and penetrating damp of Galicia; the blue sea of her native Malaga for the leafy valley of eucalyptus, chestnuts and pines of a hidden-away village in A Pontanova in Lugo; and the bustling towns and mass tourism of the Costa del Sol for the peace of woodland.
Milagros Ruiz has never been concerned about moving house or turning her life upside down to achieve her goals. She started at a young age, when she packed a bag and went off to be an au pair in the UK. She wanted to learn English and wasn't frightened at the thought of doing it on her own. Now aged 45, she has done it again, embarking on what many would consider a crazy scheme at her age, with family dependent on her (she and her husband have three children) and a stable and well-paid job in a bank. For Milagros, however, she is living the dream.
During regular holidays in northern Spain she fell in love with an area which gave relief from the suffocating summer heat in Archidona, where she currently lives, as well as the intensity and "dangers" of town life.
"The first year we visited the Rías Baixas area, I told my husband that one day we would buy a cottage and live in Galicia," she says. She only had to wait a few years, and then a TV programme gave her the opportunity. It was Saturday 10 October 2015, and she remembers it as if it were yesterday. That day marked the start of her new life.
"As soon as I had watched the report about depopulation in rural villages and that it was possible to buy them, I picked up the phone and rang the contact number they gave because I wanted one," she says. But Pepe, the salesman at the Aldeas Abandonadas estate agency who answered her call, tried to stop her being so impulsive. He suggested that she should visit the old houses which had been featured in the programme before deciding, but Milagros had made up her mind. "Give me the bank account number and I'll transfer the money right now," she insisted. The purchase price was 60,000 euros and she sent the deposit that night.
The following week, coinciding with the bank holiday on 12 October, they travelled to Vilaxe to look at what she had bought: 15,000 square metres of land with six old houses. That was all. Her husband, who runs a firm which sells building materials, was incensed: "Are you mad? It'll cost a fortune to do these up!" he said. "He even tried to get our money back, because he said what we had bought wasn't worth it," says Milagros.
The dangers of grants
The staff at Aldeas Abandonadas, an agency which has been selling depopulated villages in Spain for the past decade to stop them disappearing, suggested that the couple visit other houses in the area which had been restored, and that enabled Milagros to visualise her new way of life: she decided to create a new village, spend the rest of her days there with her family and run a rural tourism business.
"There are no disadvantages to this," she says, and far from being depressed by the climate, she loves it. "When you have to put up with 40 degrees all through the summer, there comes a time when you get fed up with the heat as well. Everyone thinks it must be very cold in Galicia, but it isn't, not everywhere," she insists.
Other factors also played a part in her decision, such as being able to bring her children up in the countryside and "being able to let them go out in the street without worrying that something would happen to them", job security, because Unicaja Banco (where she works now) had merged with Caja Duero and she would be able to transfer to Lugo and, finally, "the possibility of obtaining a grant to carry out the works".
Milagros always sees her glass as being half full and she was full of enthusiasm. "When we signed at the notary there were only 45,000 euros more to pay and we took out a mortgage for that," she says. In addition to the purchase price, she calculates that it will cost about 400,000 euros to do up the six houses and the streets. Things became more complicated at the end of last year, however, when they lost the first 120,000 euros of the total grant of 200,000 which they had been given by the Galician regional government to restore the village.
"In September they gave the go-ahead for the first payment, but we were supposed to have done 60 per cent of the works by December. At that time we had only spent 30,000 euros and they suggested paying us the difference between that and the 120,000 in advance so we didn't lose the grant, but on condition that we gave them a bank guarantee. Unfortunately no bank would give us one because we had a mortgage, so we lost that money," she explains.
Far from being downhearted, Milagros is more excited about her project than ever. She has started to do up one of the houses with her own money and has put their house in Archidona on the market so she can continue to finance her dream. "The aim is to have 60 per cent finished by December this year so we don't lose the remaining 80,000 euros of the grant the Xunta gave us," she says.
Advice from Gwyneth
Milagros has set herself the target of summer 2020 to start enjoying her new life in the heart of Galicia. Despite the setbacks, she has never regretted her decision and isn't at all worried about moving away from a busy town "because A Pontanova is only three kilometres away and we can find everything we need there," she says. Only one thing concerns her: leaving her parents and siblings behind in Malaga.
Like Milagros, more and more people are tempted by the idea of rural living and have taken the opportunity to buy an entire village, especially since actress Gwyneth Paltrow, on her lifestyle portal Goop, recommended buying one in Galicia as a Christmas present. It isn't always easy, because all the property owners have to agree, but many do manage to get the paperwork together to sell properties they have inherited.
"We list about seven or eight properties a day from people who no longer have any attachment to their family village," says Elvira Fafián, founder of Aldeas Abandonadas, which currently has about 250 on sale.
This type of business has grown in recent years and prices have continually increased. "Ten years ago a village might have cost 6,000 euros, but now it can be 60,000," says Elvira.
Pepe Rodríguez, who is 68 now, can vouch for that. He decided that when he retired he would venture into the rural tourism business in Taramundi, in Asturias, a municipality with 52 hamlets. He had lived in the one called Teixois until he was eight and already owned three properties there. In 2002 he bought another two "at a very good price" and now owns a large part of the hamlet.
"There are three other houses there, but for the moment the owners don't want to sell. If they did, I would buy the whole village," says Pepe, who travelled all over the world as an aircraft mechanic and with the merchant navy. For him, buying villages isn't just a business. "It's a way of maintaining our heritage," he says.