Friday, 19 September 2014

A truly disgusting smell

--> Antonio (owner of the Palacio de Prelo) it turns out, is a master story-teller. How he found and bought the Palacio, and all the attendant tales, would fill a book - and we were only there for one evening.

He is, for a start, the professor of economic history at the university of Madrid - tall, bespectacled, alert, quiet, funny, Anglophile.  He has visited and lived in England many times… did his PhD at Oxford.  He said, he was looking for a cottage in Asturia  -  this was about 15 years ago. A friend told him about the palacio - he saw the view and was smitten. The house was totally ruinous. It took him years to buy it and a further nearly five years to get it done up (and how).

He told us that one of the reasons - a secret, he said - one of the reasons he wanted to make the palacio into an hotel was that he always wanted to be Basil Fawlty. He has failed.

When he first saw it, it housed the remnants of a family, three people. They were not the ancestral owners. They had real problems of their own. The oldest was a woman of nearly 70 called Gertrude, with no brain ('like a lamp, or a chair'), and she was looked after by her niece and a sister-in-law. However, these two and other siblings also had progeny with rights of ownership, and trying to track them all down took years.  The old lady, who was sometimes in a primitive wheelchair, was, he said,  completely brain-less. However, she did respond if someone rubbed their fingers - indicating money -  to her.  When they told her that someone wanted to buy the house, and they rubbed their fingers to her, she cackled and cackled with glee.  That was after the sister-in-law had fallen through the rotten floorboards and into the stables beneath. The stables is now a fine library.

The family used to lie Gertrude down in a sunny spot in the house, and give her a needle and some thread. It would take her all day to get one needle threaded, which pleased everyone.  They regularly took her to the annual village fete. They would leave in her wheelchair in a field while they gallivanted. This was fine until one day some youngsters kicked away the stone which held her chair safely parked, and she started to roll away.   (What happened? I don't know).   

Her father had left a stipulation in his will that whoever looked after her should be her next-of-kin, and that was deemed to be her niece.  They knew the house did have value, even if it was totally dilapidated.  

When the old lady died, the notary rang Antonio to say 'Disaster'! Now we must start with getting permissions all over again.'   The whole situation had changed with her death.

So, eventually, he bought the house and started to bring it back to life. Everything had to be done - new roof, new windows, walls, doors, floors, stairs....  There is a range of opinion on its age - but certainly some parts are late-medieval, and some are 18th century. In the chapel he found the two altarpieces I described before. The figures (the Holy Family, St Benedict of Palermo, and the lesser saints) were all stored inside the house itself. How and why the decrepit family had not sold them to give themselves and their tragically handicapped aunt/sister-in-law some sort of life is a miracle in itself. He has created new rooms, floors, roofwork, new roofs, the tower, the chapel, all inserted and looking both antique and modern. It is all fully furnished and gleaming.

We had not booked supper. He offered quiche and salad, and with wine and delicious bread, and fresh fruits, this cost us €7.50 each + €10 for the wine, served in a splendid baronial-style dining room which used to be part of the stables.   

In the morning, he took us on a little tour, got the spring/fountain to work, showed off the amazing huge stone heraldic shield which decorates the doorway, talked about his visits to England, how he wanted to be English, helped us plan our route, explained lots of local history, and so much more. He says he was the first man in Europe to send back the grant (€125,000) which he was entitled to for restoring this historic building, because the various layers of local government were so demanding and expected to control exactly how all the money was spent (fair enough) but also how all his own money (four times more than the grant) was spent….   This act of rebellion and refusal aroused the interest of the TV companies and they came to interview him, and Brussels took a view, and said the local authorities had exceeded their rights…..   So he proceeded with his passionate, detailed scholarly restoration and the Palacio de Prelo is the result.

He is a delightful, clever, funny, self-deprecating, focussed man. He has lavished time and money and thought on the building. He has five rooms or suites, all immaculately furnished and shining.  The place is absolutely silent and quiet.  The views are superb. He is hoping to lure the King and Queen of Spain for tea next month when they come to present a prize to Boal for being the best Asturian village….   Go there, as soon as you can, before anyone hears about it. 


Today we had breakfast, and more talk, and took photos. We set off to see the local waterfall, wandered about in the mountains, and finally got on track for the east of northern Spain. It has been a long day in the car, passing mountainous marvels all the way.

One point of interest down towards the coast was the regional paper plant, where all the now-local and ubiquitous eucalyptus trees are mashed up to make Hola! magazine, or Vogue, or the Sun newspaper. The stink is COLOSSAL, a vile stench which spreads for miles, reminiscent of methane, poo, slurry and sulphur.   (Antonio had told us, an Australian professor of botany had been visiting…. had said, 'You know, cobber, there are 700 varieties of eucalyptus and you have got the worst one…..').

We had lunch on a remote beach - gleefully served and expensive but still atmospheric. We gawked at the colossal rock-faces all around - granite, sandstone, marble, all awesome. 

We explored Castro-Urdialis (looking for an hotel for tonight) but there was NOWHERE to park and so despite the very attractive castle+cathedral duo on the cliff top (very reminiscent of Rochester in Kent, to be honest, and probably of the same vintage), we went on.

The tunnels which bring you into Basque country are stupendous and very cheap, but what you first see when you get here (apart from hilarious undecipherable road signs) is an impressive and depressing range of stinking, extensive chemical and petroleum plants. Whereas a few miles to the west, the valleys are beautiful, green, cultivated and picturesque, here they are like some vision from hell. What on earth has happened? Did someone offer 'jobs' to the Basquais in return for no more bombs? Or was it 'fine large commodious tunnels'?

We needed somewhere to sleep.  We searched around.  Finally we decided on the Ibis Budget hotel south of Bilbao, mercifully got a room, are doing nothing. Above us, the mountain is on fire.  A few flickering fire-engine lights show that someone is struggling up there to extinguish the flames. I don't think we are in any danger, but it seems fitting somehow that this tortuous peaky landscape is able to set itself ablaze, to remind us of its ancient igneous past... fire and rock, wind and sea... all elemental.  The eucalyptus trees are invaders and unwelcome, and they are very flammable which is risky all round, however profitable they may be for the corporates who have brought them here.   

Today we learned that yesterday the Scots voted by 56% not to seek independence. Antonio told us this at breakfast and was glad, as we were. We have enough problems on this planet. Splitting into fewer and fewer groups won't help. We need to gang up a bit. 

1 comment:

  1. Dear Griz, I disagree. "We" (?) do NOT need to "gang up a bit- being part of a bigger "gang" only makes us stronger, or more effective, or wealthier, or ... if we are all agreed on doing the same thing - like shifting a big rock, or fighting a war. I try to avoid doing such things. Being BIG, and strong, and "kicking ass" - it is all so very, well - American ? - in the nastiest possible way. I will admit that there are many nice people, and things, in the USA, but being proud about being the biggest ("and best" - "therefore", unsaid but understood?) is not one of them. Westminster mandarins are bad enough for the English, why must the Scots be made to suffer too? Your loving Uncle, as "Anon"