A Fusion of Delights
It’s a natural sentiment of man, or woman, to wish to create a special name their home. I’m not sure if either Dunroamin or Alandnel, are particularly eloquent, but at least they meant something to their owners. When Sergio Manzanaro and Pilar Pomata opened their casa rural in Benilloba near Alcoy, they went for a very distinct name, paying homage to the village’s most famous son.
Just as the image of the young girl running while on fire became an icon of the Vietnam war, Robert Capa’s photo, The Falling Soldier, taken during the siege of Cordoba during the Spanish Civil War, became one of the most famous war photos of all time.
It is the image of a man thrown backwards, his arms outstretched as his rifle falls from his hand, on the point of impact of the bullet that killed him. His name was Frederico Borell Garcia, better known as Taino, a textile factory worker in Alcoy, although he was born in Benilloba. The truth is that Taino didn’t die at the time of the photo, and it was probably staged anyway, but who wants to spoil a good story.
In their early forties, five years ago, Pilar and Sergio decided that they’d quite like a country place for holidays and at weekends, an escape from their busy lives on the coast in San Juan de Alicante. They trudged around the Alicante mountains for six months looking for just the place, but either everything was to far from anywhere, in a ruinous state or….anyone who has ever house hunted will know the hundred-and-one reasons why they didn’t find somewhere. Eventually they came across a house that was far too big for them, still had soil floors, had a disaster zone for a kitchen – and immediately sensed the positive energy they had been looking for.
I arrived at Casa Taino just as dusk is falling on a late autumn evening. I’d had a long day driving and walking, gathering information to update my books Inland Trips from the Costa Blanca and Small Hotels and Inns of Eastern Spain. I was tired and just wanted to flop out on a bed for a while. But when Pilar opened the door with a wide smile and invited me into the house, I saw the fire glowing away in the corner and heard light jazz playing on a hi-fi system that made me feel as if I was actually part of the concert…and immediately collapsed onto the sofa.
“An old man called Ximo had been living here alone for years,” Sergio tells me, “and it was in a horrible condition. But we loved it, even though we knew it was much bigger than we needed just for a weekend cottage.”
Little had changed in the house for generations; animals lived on the ground floor and practically shared Ximo’s living space. On the first floor, the smoke-blackened walls and huge open fireplace told of many past mantanzas, the annual pig-killing when ‘everything but the squeal’ would become sausages, joints, innards and ears to feed the coming year. In the top floor were still the hooks for hanging the meats to dry and the holes in the wall to let the air waft through.
“Almost everything had to go,” chips in Pilar, “and we decided to use a young architect to help us with our ideas to create what had originally been thought of as a holiday home into a casa rural.” And what a splendid job the trio did!
What appears to be a narrow village house opens up to be a fusion of ancient stone walls, hand-stripped original beams, plywood panelling, polished cement floors, carefully restored antiques and modern rattan furniture – and it works brilliantly! The large photos of industrial ruins were all taken by Sergio, and he tells the story of each one with passion. A place like Casa Taino doesn’t come out of a catalogue. It comes from someone who has an eye for detail and a skill at combining the apparently unconbinable.
“When we began the restoration we realised that because of the size of the house we could create a casa rural and begin a whole new stage of our lives,” continues Pilar. “It was quite a major change, but despite being a village, Benilloba has all the services that you need; shops, a pharmacy, 24-hour emergency service, a regular bus service, so that we weren’t going to be totally isolated from life.” The village had always been more-or-less self sufficient, producing most of its own food and wine, and every house has its own bodga for storage and a pozo, a water tank, although seldom used now. These days it also has its own website and forum, which became particularly useful when the casa rural opened.
Sergio tells me about the stream of unexpected visitors they had after the announcement of their opening on the village forum. “The on-line forum is very active in the village, so we decided to use it to invite everyone to an exhibition of work by a young artist from Cocentaina that we hosted as part of our opening. It was just meant to be a party and then have the art on display for people who stayed at Casa Taino, but we didn’t take into account the locals, particularly the elderly ladies. For three months we became part of the tour of the village, and after mass we’d have loads of ladies turning up with their friends asking to have a look at the exhibition. Eventually we had to announce on the forum that the exhibition was over, but it was a wonderful way to get to know people from the village, and many times, if someone who’s staying can’t find the house, a villager will walk them to the door.”
Pilar and Sergio are an excellent example of a people who do the best they can to try and harmoniously develop their business and its locality for the benefit of everyone. Benilloba isn’t on the tip of anyone’s tongue as far as rural tourism is concerned, but it is the gateway to the Alicante mountains, and has some beautiful walking country. The Moli de Salt is a ruined watermill set alongside a delightful waterfall, and the locals had known about it for generations, but had never thought of it as anything but an old ruin. Sergio and Pilar convinced the villagers that the walks and narrow bridges could be brought up to scratch to create a pleasant walking route for themselves and also their visitors. Funds were found, and now El Moli del Salt has brought visitors and a small amount of extra income to the village.
I finally drag myself off the sofa, shower and change before sharing dinner with Sergio and Pilar, where he surprises me by offering a selection of locally produced wines. And they are surprisingly good, particularly coming from new bodegas with enthusiastic new producers. They complement splendidly Sergio’s diverse cooking style… a combination that soon has me stretched out on the sofa in front of the fire again for a local digestivo.
Casa Taino, Calle San Juan 4, Benilloba, Alicante.
Tel. 966 50 41 09. http://www.casataino.com.