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Driving over Lemons: An Optimist in Spain

Driving over Lemons: An Optimist in Spain

3.9 10
by Chris Stewart

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  No sooner had Chris Stewart set eyes on El Valero than he handed over a check.  Now all he had to do was explain to Ana, his wife that they were the proud owners of an isolated sheep farm in the Alpujarra Mountains in Southern Spain.  That was the easy part.

Lush with olive, lemon, and almond groves, the farm lacks a few essentials—running


  No sooner had Chris Stewart set eyes on El Valero than he handed over a check.  Now all he had to do was explain to Ana, his wife that they were the proud owners of an isolated sheep farm in the Alpujarra Mountains in Southern Spain.  That was the easy part.

Lush with olive, lemon, and almond groves, the farm lacks a few essentials—running water, electricity, an access road.  And then there's the problem of rapacious Pedro Romero, the previous owner who refuses to leave.  A perpetual optimist, whose skill as a sheepshearer provides an ideal entrée into his new community, Stewart also possesses an unflappable spirit that, we soon learn, nothing can diminish.  Wholly enchanted by the rugged terrain of the hillside and the people they meet along the way—among them farmers, including the ever-resourceful Domingo, other expatriates and artists—Chris and Ana Stewart build an enviable life, complete with a child and dogs, in a country far from home.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

  "Take half a cup of Bill Bryson, mix with three tablespoons of Peter Mayle, then add just a pinch of Monty Python, and what you get is Driving Over Lemons."- Chicago Tribune 

“A wonderful antidote to…modern electronic life. I love this book.”–Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence

"This funny book is required reading for anyone who has ever dreamed of taking up the pastoral life in a foreign country."- Travel & Leisure

"The ability to write hilarious travelogues... may well be a national characteristic [of the English].  It's certainly possessed by Chris Stewart."- The New York Times Book Review

Already a bestselling smash in England, Chris Stewart's Driving Over Lemons incorporates all the well-loved and familiar elements of the tales of Mayes and Mayle, while providing a refreshingly unique perspective on the experience of becoming a local in a strange land. Driving Over Lemons is a breezy pleasure to read and to lose yourself in.

Stewart and his wife Ana took up residency in El Valero, a ramshackle farm in the Las Alpujarras region south of Granada, because they wanted to be farmers living in the hills that time forgot, rather than because they were escaping the madness of big city living, or because they wanted a more laid-back existence (which is often the case in similar books). Stewart and Ana aren't fazed by the lack of electricity or plumbing in their new abode. They accept these factors in stride, rather than bemoan them, and take pride in their accomplishments when they do turn El Valero into a quasi-20th-century domicile.

Although Stewart is more accomplished at roughing it than most, he's still amusingly baffled by some of the customs and styles of his new home. His attempt to introduce electricity to the art of sheep shearing to a highly critical audience is laugh-out-loud funny, as is the chapter on the birth of his daughter, which highlights how poorly he fares in the more modernized corridors of the Hospital of the Immaculate Conception in Granada. Stewart's fondness for, and commitment to, his family's life in Las Alpujarras is consistent throughout Driving Over Lemons. And his attachments show in his narrative, so much so that the reader feels as intimately connected to the characters of Las Alpujarras, and even to the animals of El Valero, as Stewart does. You also can't help but respect and admire Stewart for his temerity in choosing to live such a difficult life. But Stewart makes it clear that the rewards of life at El Valero far outweigh the hassles, hardships, and heartaches that he sometimes faced.

—Freelancer Emily Burg is based in New York.

When an author is as modest and humorous as this, it is a story that cannot be told too often...a quiet, sincere narration of putting his money where his mouth is.
A book that is bound to become a literary hit.
Sunday Times
A lyrical portrait of a couple integrating themselves in a traditional community in the Alpujarra mountains of Andalucia, one of Europe's most beautiful regions. Stewart's writing conveys his amiability...He has a particularly good ear for dialogue.
Daily Telegraph
Exquisite...Driving Over Lemons, is so darn good that he is already being talked of within the publishing industry as the new Peter Mayle.
A wonderful book: funny, affectionate, no hint of patronage, a true portrait of place and people, reaching deep into the flesh and bones beneath the skin. Tuck it into your holiday luggage and dream.
Daily Mail
Funny, affectionate, no hint of patronage, a true portrait of people and place.... Tuck it into your holiday luggage and dream.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Stewart, a former drummer in Genesis, middle-aged travel writer and professional sheepshearer, never quite explains why he and his wife, Ana, decided to quit England 11 years ago for a dilapidated farm without electricity, water or even a road in Andaluc a, Spain. Perhaps the olives, almonds and rosemary had something to do with it. Stewart clearly has found contentment in his good place among a lovingly described collection of local farmers, New Age travelers, artists and the occasional Buddhist. His hilly farm is a harsher place than Peter Mayle's Provence or Frances Mayes's Tuscany, and the local cuisine far less appetizing, yet his unfailing good humor and invincible optimism carry him past obstacles that would send most readers scurrying for home. More than a travel book, this is a record of Stewart's slowly flourishing friendship with his neighbor, Domingo, and of how Stewart gradually sank roots deep into his beautiful Andaluc an hillside. A bestseller in England, this enchanting memoir is likely to prove popular in North America with both armchair travelers and readers who, while curious about the odd life choices others make, would just as soon give scorpions and clouds of flies a miss. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
More of a travel memoir than a guide, this is the story of one family's life in an extremely remote and primitive area of southern Spain. Author and narrator Stewart, one of the founders and the first drummer of the rock band Genesis (who was replaced by none other than Phil Collins), sets out for Spain from England. He buys a sheep farm in the Alpujarra Mountains in Andaluc a, and, accompanied by wife Ana and his young daughter, learns to survive without running water, electricity, or roads. Along the way, Stewart forges some solid friendships with neighboring peasants and farmers, travelers, and expatriates as each day brings a new adventure or disaster. His descriptions of the land, animals, and human relationships are awe-inspiring and make the reader want to set off immediately for southern Spain. Recommended for all public libraries, especially those with larger travel collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/00.]--Melinda Stivers Leach, Wondervu, CO Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Departures Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

El Valero

'Well, this is no good, I don't want to live here!' I

said as we drove along yet another tarmac road behind a row

of whitewashed houses. 'I want to live in the mountains, for heaven's sake, not in the suburbs of some town in a valley.'

'Shut up and keep driving,' ordered Georgina, the woman sitting beside me. She lit another cigarette of strong black tobacco and bathed me in a cloud of smoke.

I'd only met Georgina that afternoon but it hadn't taken her long to put me in my place. She was a confident young Englishwoman with a peculiarly Mediterranean way of seeming at ease with her surroundings. For the last ten years she had been living in the Alpujarras, the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, south of Granada, and she had carved out a niche for herself acting as an intermediary between the farmers who wanted to sell their cortijos in the hills and move to town, and the foreigners who wanted to buy them. It was a tough job but no one who saw her ironing out deals with the coarsest peasant or arguing water rights with the most stubborn bureaucrat could doubt she was the woman for it. If she had a weakness at all it was in her refusal to suffer fools and ditherers.

'Do you bully all your clients like this?' I protested.

'No, just you. Left here.'

Obediently I turned the wheel and we shrugged off the last houses of Órgiva, the market town where I'd been adopted by my agent. We bumped onto a dirt track and headed downhill towards the river.

'Where are the mountains?' I whined.

Georgina ignored me and looked at the groves of oranges and olives on either side of the track. There were white houses covered in the scrags of last year's vines and decked with bright geraniums and bougainvillea; mules were ploughing; boiler-suited growers were bent bum-up amid perfect lines of vegetables; a palm tree shaded the road where hens were swimming in the dust. Dogs slept in the road in the shade; cats slept in the road in the sun. The creature with lowest priority on the road was the car. I stopped and backed up a bit to go round a lemon.

'Drive over lemons,' ordered Georgina.

There were, it was true, a hell of a lot of lemons. They hurtled past, borne on a stream of water that bubbled nearby; in places the road was a mat of mashed fruit, and the earth beneath the trees was bright with fallen yellow orbs. I remembered a half-forgotten snatch of song, something about a lovelorn gypsy throwing lemons into the Great River until it turned to gold.

The lemons, the creatures and the flowers warmed my heart a little. We drove on through a flat plain quilted with cabbages and beans, at the end of which loomed a little mountain. After dipping a banana grove, we turned sharp right up a steep hill with deep cuttings in the red rock.

'This looks more like it.'

'Just wait, we're not there yet.'

Up and up we went, bend after bend, the river valley spread below us like an aerial print. On through a gorge and suddenly we burst into a new valley. The plain we had crossed disappeared utterly, hidden from sight by the mass of mountain, and drowned by the roaring of the river in the gorge below.

Far below, beside the river, I caught sight of a little farm in a horseshoe-shaped valley, a derelict house on a cactus-covered crag, surrounded by unkempt fields and terraces of ancient olive trees.

'La Herradura,' Georgina announced. 'What about that, then?'

'Well, it's nice to dream but the pittance we've got to spend is hardly going to buy us a place like that.'

'With the money you've got to spend you could afford that place and have some left over to do it up.'

'I don't believe you. You can't possibly be serious.'

I was incredulous because this was so far beyond my wildest hopes. I had come to Spain with a sum of money that would barely stretch to a garden shed in the south of England, expecting to buy at best a ruined house with perhaps a little patch of land.

'Well, there's no point in going any further. I'll have that one. Let's go down and see it.'

We pulled the car off the road and tripped down a path. I was so overwhelmed with excitement and delight that I felt sick. I picked an orange from a tree, the first time I'd ever done that. It was quite the most disgusting orange I'd ever eaten.

'Sweet oranges,' said Georgina. 'They're mostly sweet oranges here - good for juice. And the old men with no teeth like them.'

'This is it, Georgina. It's paradise. I want it. I mean, I'll buy it now.'

'It's not a good idea to be too hasty in these matters. Let's go and have a look at some other places.'

'I don't want to see anywhere else. I want to live here, and anyway I'm your client. Surely we do what I want, not what you want!'

We drove off, further into the valley, and Georgina took me to see a stone ruin that was slowly slithering down a hill towards a precipice. It was surrounded by rotting cactus, and groves of dead trees covered the dismal hill around it. A poisonous spring oozed from a clump of thorns at the bottom of the property.

'Hell no, what did you want me to see that place for?'

'It has its good points.'

'It has the advantage of being a long way from the nearest golf course, but more than that I cannot see.'

We moved on to look at a concrete blockhouse, a battery

chicken shed, a filthy hovel infested with bats, and a sort of cave littered with turds and old bits of newspaper.

'I don't want to see any more of this sort of thing. Let's go back to La Herradura.'

So we did, and I sat on a warm stone in the riverbed, dreaming one of those rare dreams that suddenly start to materialise around you, until Georgina intruded.

'I know it's very nice, Chris, but there are problems with La Herradura. It's owned by a number of people, and they don't all want to sell - and one of those who doesn't want to sell has access to a room he owns right plumb in the middle of the house. That could be inconvenient if not downright disagreeable. And then there's the matter of the water . . . '

Her words faded as we both turned our heads to catch a snatch of song rolling towards us along the riverbed. I made out the words 'frog' and 'crystal glasses' but the rest was lost in a gruff baritone. From behind a rock came a red goat with only one horn. It eyed us up for a moment, then performed that trick that has so endeared the goat to mankind since the beginnings of time, the simultaneous belch and fart.

'Clever the way they do that, isn't it?'

Georgina ignored this observation. 'The man you see approaching us now,' she announced in an urgent whisper, 'is the owner of the place across the river - and I think that he may want to sell it.'

Following the one-horned goat came a huge man with a red bristly face, sitting astride a horse. He was doing the singing, presumably to amuse himself while he supervised the goat and its several companions, who included a couple of cows, a kid, a grubby sheep and a pair of dogs. He stopped, lurched forward in his saddle and surveyed us from beneath a filthy cotton beach-hat. With an oath he halted his entourage.

'Hola, buenas tardes. Would you be Pedro Romero, he who owns the farm across the river?' began Georgina.

The man grunted.

'I've heard you may want to sell it.'

'Maybe I do.'

'Then we want to come and see it.'


'Tomorrow morning.'

'I'll be there.'

'How do we get there?'

There followed a long-winded explanation of which I could only catch the odd reference to trees, brambles and stones. All rather unnecessary, I thought, as we were looking at the farm not half a mile away.

'This foreigner wants to buy the place?' He leered at me, assessing my worth.

'Maybe he does, maybe he doesn't.'

'Till tomorrow, then.'

'Till tomorrow.'

With which the little procession jangled its way back down the river. Romero had stopped singing and appeared lost in thought. I watched entranced as the lowering sun lit the little clouds of golden dust raised by the animals' feet.

'I know a thing or two about this business,' Georgina said, 'and that farm is definitely worth a look. It's called El Valero.'


Georgina considered me thoughtfully as we drank a morning coffee together before setting out for the valley.

'Listen, you're to keep quiet unless I prompt you. Leave the talking to me.'

'Alright. But hang on. Have we actually established that I want to buy El Valero? I was under the impression, if you'll forgive me, that I wanted La Herradura.'

Georgina looked me squarely in the eye. 'I've given the matter some thought, and I've decided that El Valero and you are well suited. You'll see when we get there.'

We drove to the valley in warm January sunshine. The farmers were working their fields of vegetables, the dogs and cats had returned to their allotted places in the road. It looked familiar this time. As we passed La Herradura, I looked down at it wistfully, and then with some misgivings at the place across the river.

After a while the road gave out completely, and we took our shoes off and waded through the river, which was knee-deep and fast-running in places, not to say cold. 'This is a hell of a way to get to a place,' I shouted, 'if you'll excuse my saying so.'

We climbed up a bank by eucalyptus trees and across a field, and from there followed a narrow path through terraces shot with flowers and shaded by oranges, lemons and olives. Clear runnels of water flowed here and there, tumbling down stony falls and spreading to water terraces of fruit trees and vegetables. The path stepped across a stream and curled up through a grove of blossoming almonds. Georgina turned and smiled at me.

'What do you think?'

'You know what I think - I've never seen anything like it!'

'Here's the house.'

'House?! It looks like a whole village. I can't buy a village.'

A couple of houses with some stables and goat-pens, chicken-runs and store-rooms, were spread at different levels on a great steep rock. Beneath this complex a hose dribbled feebly into a rusty oil-drum by a pomegranate tree.

Pedro Romero stood beside what was either a house or a stable, rubbing his hands and grinning.

'Ha! You've come. Sit down and drink wine, eat meat!'

We sat on low chairs with our knees up by our ears, and enjoyed the spectacle of two dogs copulating enthusiastically in the centre of the circle made by the seats. I didn't know whether it would be appropriate to offer some ribald comment upon this activity, or to pretend that it was not happening. Georgina glowered at me and I kept quiet as agreed.

A wizened wisp of a woman appeared, Romero's wife, Maria, and at an imperious gesture from the man of the house dispensed brown wine from a plastic Coca-Cola bottle and thumped a fatty lump of ham down on the box that served for a table. The sun shone down, flies buzzed. We drank the wine and ate the ham and considered the amorous activities of the dogs in an increasingly vinous stupor.

Georgina and Romero talked animatedly about neighbours and boundaries and water and rates and rights while I rocked back and forth on my chair and grinned vacuously. The dogs were quiet now as a result of being stuck together, looking bashfully in opposite directions, wishing perhaps that they'd never started the whole wretched business. The wine and the ham came and went, and I nodded off, then opened a heavy-lidded eye as Georgina poked me in the ribs.

'Slap this into his hand as if you mean it.'

She passed me a fat wad of peseta notes of large denomination.

'You're now the happy owner of El Valero and that's the señal - the deposit.'

It really was no use arguing with Georgina so I did as she said and bought the place. There was a deal of backslapping, handshaking and grinning all round.

'It was a gift at that price,' lamented Romero and his wife. 'We're ruined, really we've given our home away . . . you've bought a paradise for pennies, but what could we do?'

I almost began to offer them more money but Georgina shot me a silencing look, and so, for a little under five million pesetas (£25,000, more or less), I had bought a farm that I would have hardly dared look at over the fence before. In a matter of minutes I was transformed from an itinerant sheep-shearer and tenant of a tied cottage beneath an airport landing path in Sussex, into the owner of a mountain farm in Andaluc�a. This would take some getting used to.


Barely able to contain my excitement I drove to the nearest bar to phone Ana, my wife, in England - and there pulled up short. How exactly was I going to explain to her what I had just done? I shuffled the coins about on the table and looked for inspiration at the dregs in my wineglass. Strictly speaking, my brief had been to check out certain places in AndalucÃ?a and look at the possibility of buying a house and plot of land where together we could carve out a future. I couldn't help but feel that I had somewhat overstepped the mark. There comes a tide in the affairs of men, of course . . . but would Ana see it in quite that light?

She didn't. But then, in her position, neither probably would I. However, fortunately for us both, Ana has never been one for recriminations, and she soon shifted into that cautious line of enquiry that doctors employ after arriving at the scene of an accident.

'How far is it from the nearest road?' was her first question. It was a relief to be dealing with the practicalities.

'Oh, it's just about the distance from the cottage to the piggery.' I tried to imagine Ana looking across the Sussex farmyard. 'And that's not far, is it? I mean it's not very far to the piggery . . . No, there's no running water . . . wait, I tell a lie - there's a babbling hosepipe tied to an oil-drum about twenty metres below the house.'

I talked at length of the scarlet geranium petals floating on the water of the drum, of the gentle beasts stooping to drink, and of the bright flowers that carpeted the ground around this lovely pool. But Ana was not to be side-tracked.

What People are Saying About This

Peter Mayle
A wonderful antidote to...modern electronic life. I love this book.

Meet the Author

Chris Stewart lives in Spain with his wife, Ana, and daughter, Chloë.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Driving over Lemons: An Optimist in Spain 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
2BinEurope More than 1 year ago
I read this book for my book club, and every single one of us loved it. Chris Stewart has very dry, subtle British humor, which is right up my alley. His stories are filled with oddball characters, some of whom you instantly love, some of whom you cannot stand. You'll be left applauding his--and his wife's--ability to move from England to rural Andalucia in Spain, to a house that is practically falling apart, with no plumbing, no heat, no electricity, and definitely no a/c for those brutally hot summer days. But they approach everything with a good sense of humor and adventure and make the best of it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
goodnsimple More than 1 year ago
Not my favorite in the "pick up and go live in a foreign country" genre; However, definitely worth the time and money spent. Would have liked a little more character development, especially for Ana...although he did a good job with Domingo; but I would have to reread to figure out who Domingo ends up with...I was too lazy to go back and determine it. Also, some more background would have been nice- how do you learn to shear a sheep and what exactly do you make as an itinerant sheep shearer in Sweden? Much less Spain? But the discriptions of Spain and the farm were wonderfully evocative and I laughed out loud when he was chasing the ewe.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Unfortunately, not my type of humor. Nevertheless, this book was an intriguing glimpse of a totally different life than I'll ever experience. While I would not call this book a riveting page-turner, it was well-written and informative. For 200 pages I lived vicariously on the mountainside of rural Spain.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Very funny
Guest More than 1 year ago
Six months after having read Driving Over Lemons, I am still delighted and enriched by the book. What fun it was to travel to Spain and live through the author's experiences by discovering this jewel.