For fifteen years, every time Anna Ern and her husband Vicente Macías took the road to Teruel on their way to their summer holiday in northern Spain from their home in Altea, as they passed the Mudejar tower standing proudly above the town of Jérica, Anna thought, “Now I’m on holiday!”
in 2003 Anna and Vicente were taking a short holiday in the Ebro Delta, before going on to the birthday party of Vicente’s mum. They realised they’d made a mistake with the dates and had a day to spare, so they decided to spend a night in Segorbe and explore the area they’d passed through so many times but hadn’t stopped to have a look at. With Jérica, it was love at first sight, and at last they’d seen the village that was the starting point of their annual holiday.
Fate is a very funny thing, although it might not seem particularly amusing at the time. Two weeks after their visit to Jérica, Anna was made redundant, and began to think of what she’d like to do for the future. She’d always fancied the idea of a casa rural, but it’s not the easiest thing to do, and for Vicente, a schools administrator, moving wasn’t usually on the cards. But again, fate stepped in.
A few weeks later, and for the first time in twelve years, the local authority held a concurso, where selected government employees are offered the opportunity to choose a new posting. As rare as hen’s teeth, at that very moment there coincided the opportunity for a placement in Jérica. Vicente applied and was accepted. The couple’s fate was sealed.
I’m sitting with Anna in the garden of Shariqua, the delightful casa rural the couple built from scratch on a hillside overlooking the town. Despite being, quite literally, three minutes from the motorway, there’s nary a sound other than the birds chirruping and the breeze blowing through the olive trees.
“It all came as quite a shock, suddenly finding myself unemployed after fifteen years working for the same company,” says Anna, “but I can’t but feel that it’s just a bit more than serendipity that we finally got to visit Jérica only two weeks before it happened, after all those years of just passing by. And then, of course, the opportunity for Vicente to change his work coming so unexpectedly.”
Having made the decision of where they would live and what they would do, the next stage was to find somewhere suitable to do it. “I suppose like everyone we thought we’d find a romantic old country house to restore, but there’s a major difference between the coastal area and even only a forty minute drive inland from Valencia, as we are. Here the small, cosy little campo houses just don’t exist. The only rustic houses we found were enormous, far too big for what we wanted.” So the only other answer is to build it yourself.
“In many ways it’s actually more practical to have a new build, because you don’t have to worry about conforming to the structure of an old house, which can often be either inconvenient or cost a fortune to restore. We wanted a small place with a decent living area for ourselves, because it was going to be our home, not just a business.”
The going was slow; finding the land, getting the permissions, finding the builders and then eventually getting the work done, and even though the building is obviously new, it sits in the landscape as if the olive grove has grown up around it.
I ask Anna what the style they had in mind when the house was designed. “Relaxed is about the best word I can think of. Somewhere were people could come and simply sit if they wanted, or read, or do whatever they did that was relaxing for them.” And what style of decoration? Anna thinks for a moment. “I think about the only word I can use is ‘relaxed’ again. I think the temptation with an old house is to fill it full of antiques and bric-a-brac, which is fine in its own way, but sometimes I think too much clutter can be off-putting. I think the style we’ve chosen, soft colours, wooden furniture and soft chairs and sofas, is in keeping with the campo but still allows the house to feel quite open.” And I agree with her. You don’t feel as if you are in a museum or somewhere where you are frightened in case you knock over a precious vase. You can, in Anna’s words, relax.
I’m very amused by the garden though, with its air of semi-abandon. Scattered under the olive trees and on different levels are loads of brightly coloured old chairs and tables, many of them in a state of collapse – you wouldn’t even breathe on some of them, never mind sit on them! It strikes me as strange that such a well-ordered house can have such a lot of derelict old furniture in the garden. Anna laughs as she explains.
“I know it probably sounds a bit daft, but whenever I see an old chair or table lying around I bring it home, paint it a bright colour, and put it somewhere in the garden and just let the paint blister and the wood rot. It’s just a little bit of silliness that I like doing, and I think it makes the garden look nice.” Fortunately, there are plenty of comfortable chairs and deckchairs to put your bum on that will support your weight.
I’ve lost count of the hotels I’ve stayed in while researching articles and my guide books Small Hotels and Inns of Eastern Spain and Inland Trips from the Costa Blanca, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across such a large and varied menu as Anna offers her guests. Each morning over breakfast, those who wish to stay for dinner are shown Anna’s seasonal menu, so she can prepare everything for the evening. If I’d been staying for longer than the single night I was there I’d probably have worked through Malaysian style chicken with noodles and prawns, gnocchi with gorgonzola-shitake cream, chicken tandoori with red lentils, and scampi on black parmesan risotto. But there again, I might not because there are so many wonderful dishes to choose from that I would have changed my mind completely by the second day. And there are plenty of less exotic dishes to choose from, all made to order, fresh on the day, hence the need to order them in advance. But even over breakfast you will be drooling as you sample one of Anna’s home-made preserves, which also vary with the season. With over forty different recipes, depending on what’s available, I sample a few of the nine on offer for my breakfast, including figs with nuts and rum, rose flower, pineapple and chilli, blackberry with banana and cinnamon, and kiwi with lemon and parsley. Splendid stuff!
My mid-week visit seems to have been good timing, because like most casa rurales, Shauira is busiest at the weekend. “Sometimes people ask me why I don’t do some sort of course or promotion to bring people in during the week. I do like having guests during the week because it usually gives me more time to chat, but if I was full all of the time I wouldn’t have the time to make my jams, look after the garden, (they grow quite a bit of their own veg), and do the hundred-and-one things that always need doing around a house. This is our home, and I love being here and all the things that a casa rural involves, but if I were to become too stressed out it would show itself to the guests. People come here to relax, and if I can’t relax here how can they?”
No TV, no Wifi, no smoking, just peace and quiet, and a view of God’s spotlight as the morning sun hits Jérica when you open your curtains to the new day.
For further information: Casa Rural Shariqua