When I walk through the grand double doors of El Capricho de la Portuguesa in Benialli, a tiny village in Alicante’s Val de Gallinera, I’m intrigued. By the time its proud owner, Juan José Jimeno, gives me the grand tour I’m stunned, envious, and rapidly taking photos to copy the sumptuous ideas, should I ever get a place of my own to decorate.
The house had originally been the village olive mill, but prior to Juan José and his wife Sylvia Da Silva Braga, buying it, it had been owned by a Dutch couple. “It looked very nice when we first saw it,” says Juan José, “but the style was more Colonial than we wanted, and Sylvia wanted to totally change the décor to make it very stylish but also acogedor, welcoming.” Something they have achieved with enormous panache.
As we walk around, I’m particularly taken with the stunning use of colour and texture; deep green, grey, and orange washes on the walls that contain a hint of gold that throws out a subdued sparkle as the light catches it; artfully chosen lamps and big gaudy paintings; beautiful antiques mixed with Ikea’s finest; rich striped and brocaded fabrics and delicious Moroccan rugs. Amongst her many abilities, Sylvia is a skilled upholsterer, and she carefully selected the frames and colours of sofas and chairs and, with equal deliberation, chose the fabrics to upholster them.
Each corner has a surprise tucked away; the inner courtyard with its shaded arbour; the tiny wooden door that leads into yet another exquisite bedroom; the tented roof terrace with views across the village to the mountains beyond; but I’m presented with the piece de resistance when we walk down a short cobbled path inside the house and I step into a hydro-jet spa, with a jacuzzi and a domed, circular underground swimming pool.
“When we bought the house we didn’t know what to do with the pozo, the stone storage tank for the oil, or the two rooms on a slightly higher level in which the animals were kept and the oil stored. Unfortunately there was a thick wall between them, but we didn’t know how thick it was until we started digging away with a jack-hammer.” It turned out to be almost three metres of solid rock and back-breaking toil, but the result is stunning as you look down the arched steps to the circular pool below and the glistening water changing from green to blue to red and back again.
I’m shown to the Al-Azraq room, the name taken from the infamous Moorish leader who hailed from the nearby Val de Alcalà, and who died under the walls of Xàtiva Castle. I’m spellbound by the rich purple/brown texture of the walls that set off the silver carved sofas with their deep aubergine cushions, above which is an ornately carved Moroccan mirror.
And the name, El Capricho de la Portuguesa, why? Juan José smiles as he explains.
“A capricho in Spanish is a whim, a caprice – sometimes a piece of jewellery or small decoration – and as Sylvia is Portuguese and has put all her ideas, heart and design into the house, it’s therefore Sylvia’s capricho, El Capricho de la Portuguesa.”
But some capricho! Even an untrained eye can tell that every single element of the design and decoration exudes quality and taste – two things that don’t come cheap. I discover that just the lamp in my bedroom at El Capricho cost more than everything put together in my bedroom at home. But that isn’t the point of the exercise.
“A lot of casa rural owners say that they want their visitors to feel at home, to feel comfortable with where they are staying, so make their places as cosy as possible. Of course we want our visitors to feel comfortable, but we also want them to feel as if they are staying somewhere just a little bit outrageous, somewhere totally different from their home, somewhere to look back on with fond memories of having been different from the every-day.”
And that’s certainly what Sylvia and Juan José have achieved; a little spot of romantic decadence tucked away from the world.