New House from Old Ruin – Cases Noves, Guadalest
Over the years I’ve lost count of the conversations I’ve had with people bemoaning the delays in having their house restored; deadlines over-run, budgets escalating out of hand and the thousand-and-one jobs that go into a major restoration project. But speak to builders nicely, get stuck in yourself, (and make sure everyone gets paid on time), and it’s amazing just how quickly a ruin can turn into your own little palace.
At least that’s the experience of Sophia Alonzo and Toni Serrano who, in their early- and mid-thirties respectively in 2005, bought an old family house in Guadalest in April of that year and opened it as Cases Noves, a delightful casa rural, only three months later, on 29th July.
“It was quite funny,” Sophia tells me, as the three of us sit chatting on their terrace overlooking the village, “because the elderly couple we bought the house from asked if they could keep it until Easter Monday because they wanted to have a last lunch there for the whole extended family, to say goodbye to the house. Of course, we said yes, but first thing on the Tuesday morning we went in in force because we had to have the casa rural open in time for the summer season or we would loose its value for a year.”
And it was a big job. The building was a semi-ruin and had stood empty for years, with no electricity or functioning toilets. Phase one was to rip everything out and start from scratch to create a professional kitchen, five bedrooms, four separate lounges and a dining room. The beautiful decorated floor tiles were carefully preserved and the original doors removed and cleaned, and put back in place when the work was finished.
Toni had spent fifteen years working in a hotel in Benidorm and six in a travel agency; Sophia, Guadalest born-and-bred, worked in the family bar, Bar Guadalest. Between them they had a pretty good idea about how to run a small hotel.
“We’d been looking for somewhere for about five years,” continues Sophia, “as much as anything because we hardly ever got to see each other and we wanted to do something together. This house had been empty for years but for some reason we’d never looked at it. One day my mum suggested she and I had a look at it, and I fell in love with it immediately. It was in a ruinous state, but I could see the possibilities. The elderly owners live in Alcoy and only occasionally come to Guadalest, but by chance they came the next Sunday. We agreed a price and within a week we had all the documents, licences and mortgage in place. It was quite amazing!”
The name Cases Noves, Valenciano for new houses, comes from the fact that when the house was built in 1932 it was one of the first houses built outside the historical old town of Guadalest. The small group of houses was always referred to by that name, even after almost a century, so Toni and Sophia decided to stick with it as the name for their casa rural.
“We didn’t have the money for an interior designer,” says Toni, “but fortunately Sophia knew exactly what she wanted and where each piece would go. We wanted somewhere where people could feel at home, without worrying about it if they broke anything, so we kept it simple in that respect, using things from Sophia’s grandparents and great-grandparents as decoration.”
While Toni was keeping an eye on the restoration, Sophia went on a furnishing shopping spree, buying beds, chairs, tables, chests of drawers and sofas – without the rooms even being finished. “We had so little time we couldn’t just wait until all the work was done and check measurements, and because some of the furnishings had to be specially ordered with quite long delivery dates we had to just trust to luck that everything turned out as we planned.” And it did, bang on schedule.
Cases Noves actually does feel like your own home – or more likely one you’d like to have. The decorative scheme is ‘elegantly rustic’; rich, dark woods contrasting with fabrics of browns, creams and beige; deep, soft sofas ideal for settling in to. There are as many salons as there are bedrooms, so you almost never need to cross paths with anyone else staying there. The TV room has a large selection of films on DVD, the music room has an even larger selection of CDs (which you can also take up to your room because each one has a DVD player and flat screen TV), if you just want to put your feet up and read a book you can do that in front of the fireplace, and if you want to check your email or plan something for the next day you can do it at the computer provided for guests (although it’s just as easy to ask the encyclopaedic Toni and Sophia about what’s going on). And at any time day or night you can help yourself to complimentary tea, coffee and infusions.
Sophia provides a large breakfast, including home-made cakes and jams, varying slightly each day so you never get bored. Her dinner menu changes constantly, so even if you stay there a whole week you will never eat the same meal twice.
And the contrast between the tourist hectic Guadalest during the day and the silent Guadalest at night is a total surprise.
“People think of Guadalest as just a tourist village,” says Toni, “and of course it is, but we always suggest to visitors that they take a stroll in the evening, to see just how different it is.” And he’s right. When I take a walk in the old town just before turning in, there are just me, three cats and a fat sapo (a big frog) in the mutely-lit street. (Sophia tells me that she always tells her visitors to say hello to the sapo for her, because he’s always there, on the steps up to the tunnel into the old town.)
Sophia is continuing the family history of providing a service to visitors that goes back four generations. Before the Bar Guardalest became established as a cafeteria her great-grandmother ran it as a fonda, a wayside inn that catered for travellers from the coast on their way to Alcoy on foot, on mule or in horse-drawn carriages. When the first British tourist ‘discovered’ Guadalest, when he puttered his way up the mountain in a Seat 600 in the 1970s, Sophia’s grandfather established a small kiosk in the village square selling orange juice and sangria, while her grandmother hand-crocheted doilies and mañanitas, the shawl women wore over their shoulders to protect them from the chill of a mountain morning.
And far from the hilltop town just being a day-trip out for the British holidaymaker on the coast, Guadalest has gone international. “It’s quite amazing where our guests have come from,” says Toni. “Last week we had a couple from Hong Kong, but we’ve also had people from Australia, Canada, Argentina, New Zealand, Israel, South Africa, the United States, and every European country apart from Iceland.”
“And we’ve met some very, very interesting people,” continues Sophia, “and quite a few of them we consider as friends.”
Cases Noves closed for three months early this year to complete Phase 2, a ‘superior’ bedroom, their own private accommodation and an extension to the restaurant. After five years almost without a break for a holiday, Toni and Sophia are still as enthusiastic as the day they opened. “Running a casa rural is not a hobby,” Toni says. “You work from sunup to sundown and beyond. You need to be there when the client wants you, and when they are partying you are still working. But it’s our life and we wouldn’t change it. I think it’s the best business we could have chosen, and certainly this is the best location for us.”
Derek Workman’s books, Inland Trips From the Costa Blanca and Small Hotels and Inns of Eastern Spain are published by Santana books