As a result of several life events in rapid succession I bought a dilapidated rambling twelve roomed townhouse in Velez de Benaudalla, a small town a few miles inland of the Costa Tropical. For a while I ruefully called it my Elefante Blanco (not that I could, or for that matter can, speak fluent Spanish) but over the months of refurbishment, as more of its eccentricities appeared, it became the Casa Excéntrico. And yes I know that should be Excéntrica, but if I spelled it right people would think I spoke Spanish. That’s still a work in progress.
The house is long and thin, five rooms downstairs which lead into each other and form ‘my’ bit. There’s a tiny bolt-on loo and shower in the terrace, which is now potting shed / guest loo / First Aid box, and a smokehouse where hams were smoked a hundred years or more ago which has become the laundry.
Upstairs at the back, completely separate with its own little staircase and patio, is a large room currently doing sterling service as a storeroom but which probably started life as a goat shed – the house was built, or at least started, by a wealthy goat-owning family back when Velez was a bit more rural. If it wasn’t the milking shed, I’m not sure I want to know why there are iron rings embedded in the plaster. One day it will become a studio apartment and the jewel in the Casa crown but a ship or two will have to come in first.
Upstairs at the front has become a guest bedroom overlooking the narrow road, and a three-room guest suite. A bonus would be the potentially attractive solarium above the front bedroom, but I’ve only seen it from the house across the road – no way of reaching it from inside the house! (You’re getting the name now, right?)
The spontaneous dream, when I saw it in dilapidated glory for the first time, was to create a kind of writers guesthouse, a base for writing, exploring, recharging batteries, being inspired … I also saw it as somewhere guests could confidently come on their own. As a cash-strapped writer who had stayed in some fairly dodgy places (and had my passport stolen into the bargain) I was mentally creating a place for someone like me to go, and hoping there were others like me out there.
That was February 2017. My house in Scotland wouldn’t sell, Brexit kept making grumbling noises and, terrifyingly, the pound / euro exchange rate kept dropping, and when finally I sold my house, I could no longer afford this one. Yikes. I came to Spain anyway – I certainly couldn’t afford to buy again in Scotland, the pets had their passports, and I’d qualified as a TEFL teacher so that I could work anywhere, so why not? Since February a strong wind had been insistently at my back and in September we – dog, cat, me – arrived in a 15 year old converted camper van looking for somewhere to live. We took a leisurely week to cross Britain, France and Spain, then set up camp in Almuñecar to house-hunt.
Luckily I have a friend more or less in the area (in Spain, thirty miles is practically across the road) and we searched the length and breadth of the Lecrin valley looking at anything in my rather challenging price bracket. I pass lightly over the perfect little house in the scenic little town perched overlooking a valley with soaring eagles, but with streets so twisting and narrow that donkey stables are standard issue under every house. The rather lovely farmhouse with a gigantic goat barn across the road housing 200 goats on one of the most famous hiking routes in Europe: once the goats had been shifted, what a hiking hostel it could have made – but the house wasn’t actually legal, it was for, and only for, farm worker day-use. Two bedrooms, large sitting room, bathroom, kitchen, yes of course, workers need their siestas and comforts during the long working days. People do buy them, all the time. My lawyer shook his head worriedly. I could live there my whole life and never an eyebrow be raised – but if a complaint was ever made, I would be out of house and out of pocket. Pass.
I found a house in Lanjarón, perched high in the Alpujarras with views almost to Africa from the roof terrace: a lot of work needed to turn the next level down into a gigantic open-plan studio, but below that a recently-modernised granny-flat which would become an ideal rental property once I could move into the studio. I was exchanging messages with the agent, who’d confirmed my offer would be accepted, when a message came in from the agents who had shown me the Velez house. The price had come down by 8000 euros, was I still interested?
With all the work it needed, I knew I couldn’t afford it but – Velez is far more conveniently situated than Lanjarón. It isn’t a tourist town, but is friendly to visitors, and many Dutch, German, Scandinavian, British, even northern Spanish, people have holiday homes in the town. It’s a few minutes off the excellent motorways to Malaga, Granada and Almeria. Fifteen minutes from the beaches of the Costa Tropical. On the doorstep of the Lecrin valley. Half an hour from the Alhambra Palace – and, all through the winter, you can judge how good the skiing is on the Sierra Nevada from week to week just by looking up. If I wanted a steady flow of congenial visitors in the years to come …
My ex-husband, bless him, kicked in with a generous ‘loan’ – more accurately an investment in our daughter’s inheritance. A fantastic friend made an incredible life-changing “I-believe-in-you” donation and my birthday and Christmas gifts from my BFF and daughter were deposits into my bank account. I bought the place in October, and could finally, after 8 weeks in the crammed and very small camper van, start unpacking some boxes! My Spanish builder applied for the permit to start the basic renovations and work officially started, at last, in December.
Completion date for Phase One had been end January. Instead the builders were fired in shrieking hysterics (mine, not theirs) (having finished the structural stuff, they were putting unnecessary holes in walls and floors and generally extending the project because I was obviously mad and would never notice). OUT!
The much reduced team forged on slowly. Manolo the plumber finished the plumbing connections, Manuel the electrician put lights and plug sockets throughout the upstairs, and my local semi-retired buddy Nick plastered, damp-proofed, tiled, replaced doors, transformed the terrace, fitted the fake grass, restored wooden beams to their original beauty, and generally came up with solutions to every glitch that presented itself. I was teaching online for 3 hours a day, 6 days a week, tottering around carrying 25 kg bags of building materials from the car, painting walls and ceilings, even tiling floors (floors are easy, walls were left to Nick), and working on the last book in my Lawns series in the evenings – a very long way from my sedate life in Scotland.
Finally in early May Nick packed up all his tools and took them back home, I applied for my licence as a host, listed my guest rooms and – waited –
It has worked out really well, apart from two horrendous height-of-summer changeovers with one lot checking out in the morning with the next lot due at 4 that afternoon and temperatures nudging 40 degrees, but the last paying guest of 2018 was in October until the trickle began again in January. Writers, translators, teachers, cyclists, people looking for properties in the province, have stayed for a few days or a few weeks and embraced the house’s eccentricity as part of the fun – it is, after all, very cheap.
It will always be cheap. I don’t want to be offering a high-end guesthouse, with all the complications that brings: the guest rooms cover their own expenses and maintenance, contribute a little to the ongoing refurbishment, and provide occasional congenial visitors who don’t expect air-conditioning and hotel service. Renovations continue between guests and the list of Phase Two jobs is slowly being whittled down by the ever-patient Nick with his vast store of experience and well-worn tools. We squabble constantly, he drinks copious quantities of coffee and I buy the stuff he needs for his cars or his other ongoing projects and so far it has worked out pretty well. Phase Three will be predominantly winter jobs, some winter, sometime: things like re-tiling throughout the downstairs. For now the vivid fake grass conceals the patchwork quilt left by laying new pipes through the atrium.
Phase Four is in the realm of never-never land unless one of my books goes nova, or my last few uncashed premium bonds, my tiny emergency backup, blow off their dust and jump forward to win something, as both jobs need architect input and serious builder crews: reaching the solarium, and turning the upstairs back into a studio apartment. Neither are essential, the house operates without them, and if they never happen, they never happen. Que sera, sera.
Letting details are on the Casa Excéntrico tab with some photos and an album link, and I post intermittent snippets on the Facebook page, and may come back here occasionally to update. This is April – 2 years and 2 months since I first saw the house, nearly a year since it was ready for guests. Who knows what updates another year will see? I hope to be here permanently, which does mean much bureaucracy lies ahead, and my command of Spanish needs to shift up another gear or two. All good. I wouldn’t have missed this adventure for the world.
Updated February 2022 – a week before the 5th anniversary of walking into the house for the first time.
2019 was a busy summer with a trickle of out-of-season bookings, and then of course came 2020 and strict lockdown for 100 days, followed by yoyo restrictions for 2 years. You can have guests, you can’t, you can have 50% occupancy, you can’t have anyone from outside the province … eventually I switched to only one website (Airbnb was by far the best for what I was offering) to avoid the heart-stopping risk of two bookings coming in at the same time from two sources, and guaranteed I would only take one booking at a time while Covid ruled our lives. Inevitably it became a lot less hectic and yet luck has been with me – when guests were allowed, I had guests, summer, autumn, winter, spring – in fact I’ve been booked almost constantly since June 2020, with only occasional days here and there, even having one lot of guests leaving Christmas morning and the next couple arriving Boxing Day. And what, on the whole, a lovely bunch they have been, a fair sprinkling of eccentrics of all nationalities mixed in with the conventional, and even with the restrictions, still truly international. Egyptian, Vietnamese, American, Irish, German, French, Italian, French Canadian, South African, South American, Swiss, Czech, Roumanian, Dutch, and a sprinkling of English and Scottish, along with Spanish guests who took in their stride a hostess who could barely speak pidgin Spanish. I’ve been going to the free lessons offered by the municipality (one class, when Covid cropped up in the village, on an outside terrace, in December, in masks – we mainly sang Spanish Christmas carols) but am still a rabbit when it comes to conversations. The Spanish speak so fast and I think and translate in my head so slowly. If I try to speed up what comes out is as likely to be Afrikaans or French or German as Spanish. Getting there. One day.
So – five years. So far, so good, no regrets, although I’m five years older and those stairs get steeper and Phase Four is not a whit closer, but it has certainly been interesting