My mother is vexed. Without so much as a palabra of Spanish herself, she has lost 3 of her 4 children to the charms of the Iberian Peninsula. My younger sister enjoys Madrid´s artistic scene to the full as an actor’s agent whilst my brother has become one of Europe´s most remote hoteliers.
In a bid to see the real Spain before enjoying the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992, my brother Alasdair and a fellow student friend did a grand tour of the country in his clapped out VW Golf. By night they slept rough under the stars, often next to the village municipal swimming pools where they would perform their daily ablutions and by day they would explore Spain’s interior provinces zig zagging from one to other. After two months of this nomadic existence, tales of cobalt blue reservoirs, almond and olive groves, dinosaur fossils and deserted dramatic countryside lured Alasdair into the remote area of Teruel. About 4 hours east of Madrid, this province is the subject of the “Teruel Existe”,the (Teruel Does Exist”) movement to promote the area and reduce its rural depopulation. Today, ironically, the result of this neglect is a beautiful, unspoilt evergreen area peppered with medieval fortified hilltop villages and lots of and lots of piggies. Teruel ham now graces tables all over the world.
Mesmerised by the dramatic countryside, the hospitality of the people and the beauty of the preserved villages and inheriting a not insignificant smattering of family eccentricity, Alasdair vowed to buy an almond farm as soon as he was “grown up”. In 2000, now a TV producer and camera man Alasdair had narrowed down his search, thanks to numerous visits with me (purely for culinary research purposes and my fluency in Aragonese) to the area of Matarraña in the eastern part of Teruel which enjoys a milder climate and boasts two of Spain´s most beautiful villages in the “Pueblos Más Bonitos de España” list, namely Valderrobres and Calaceite.
So, unfazed by his lack of building or hotelier experience Alasdair bought a masia (farmhouse) which could have been more aptly described as a skeletal heap of crumbling rocks and spent 3 years restoring it. In 2010 the building work was complete and whilst Alasdair hasn’t scrimped on the sanitaryware, providing both a sauna and outdoor hot tub there are a couple of second hand items that add to the quirky atmosphere. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher’s lavatory was requisitioned by my grandmother from a skip outside her Chelsea home. Realising it was incompatible with her Victorian house’s plumbing she converted it into a plant pot on a pedestal in her drawing room complete with the blue plaque “Margaret Thatcher sat here from 1967 – 1979” and it is now enjoying its retirement in the Masia alongside my grandmother’s enamel and iron bath.
Naturally, 4 hours is quite a long way to drive to view former politicians´ memorabilia but if you are interested in gorge walking, wild swimming in natural pools, kayaking, dinosaurs, ibex mountain goats, quaffing delicious truffles in heritage villages without any crowds, whilst you rest your action-weary limbs in a glass cube or in the same medieval watch tower hotel as the former King and Queen of Spain then stand by for a summary for the highlights of Matarraña next week and you too will be scouting high and low for a bargain mound of rocks…………..and maybe Aznar’s bathroom suite.