A vineyard in Júzcar
Andalucía is famous for its white villages nestled into the sides of mountains and the Serranía de Ronda is home to many of them. There is one exception, Júzcar, where the whole town (even the church) got painted blue in 2011 for a Smurf film. It was supposed to revert to white but the villagers rebelled, had a referendum, and it remains Aldea Azul to this day attracting a lot of visitors.
Júzcar is small and once you’ve walked around and had lunch (they do wonderful things with local chestnuts) there’s not much to do. We might have simply driven up on a day-trip but noticed there was a nearby bodega which offered rooms where (according to the website) “you can live the complete experience of wine, bed and breakfast”. We couldn’t say no to that, could we?
When making the booking, owner Enrique refused to take a deposit from us saying that he ‘trusted Llanitos’ and had hosted them in the past. As we drove down, down, down along a seemingly endless, very winding, narrow road with hairpin bends and no barriers, we wondered who those crazy fellow Llanitos might be. One minute there would be a sign pointing to a Bodega, the next a Fábrica, were we going to a vineyard or a factory? We finally hit the bottom, crossed over the River Genal then on, through a pair of stone gateposts bearing an ornate tiled crest, and rows of vines came into view and we knew we had arrived in the right place.
Antigua Real Fábrica de Hojalata San Miguel sits hidden in a basin shrouded by steep slopes of trees and there is a reason for this. In 1725 the land was chosen to house the first ever tin factory in Spain and the techniques for producing the sheet metal were top secret. Legend tells that two experts had to be smuggled out of Germany in barrels for fear that other countries would become competitors in this lucrative new industry.
The fábrica became a village, with its own unique Protestant church, housing over a hundred workers, stores, the huge industrial oven and stables for twenty camels, the only beasts strong enough to carry the produce down to the coast. By the late 1780s, business stopped (they’d burned too many trees so the way-ahead-of-their-time locals got angry) and the whole place lay deserted for centuries.
A single bell hung outside the entrance to the courtyard. I rattled the chain and a team of dogs appeared around our legs, we could hear voices hailing us to come inside. The remains of a hearty (and boozy) lunch lay on a large wooden table surrounded by smiling people who already knew our names; owner Enrique, his four guests/friends from Madrid, a beautiful woman from Nicaragua who was in her seventies and Juan, the oenologist, who lived in his own quarters with girlfriend Stephanie.
We were taken inside the main building to our room on the ground floor. Everything was antique/rustic Spanish with splashes of modern Latin American art on the walls and quaint English crocheted blankets on the beds. We instantly felt at ease and returned to the others who plied us with cake and gin.
The Madrid Four had driven down from the capital as they were prone to do twice a year and were staying for a few days. They were all professionals who were in varying stages of retirement and age. Mirenchu had known Enrique ‘años’ and never stopped talking unless it was to light up a thin, white cigarette. She was very knowledgeable about European history and could reel off the dates when Iberian Kings and Queens were on and off their thrones. Mirenchu knew that Ireland was not part of the UK and myriad other facts that many English people who voted for Brexit were unaware of.
Amparo, warm and delightful, spoke of adored grandchildren and terrible husbands and raised her eyebrows provocatively when starting interesting sentences.
Belen looked like a hippy with flowing clothes and long natural hair but she was apparently head-honcho of a big corporation but played it all down with the flick of a wrist.
Serafín, the brave male of the group, was a dentist and saxophone player. He told us he could have been a plastic surgeon ‘it’s all the same thing’ he said with a shrug of his shoulders.
Soon the other guests arrived; a couple from La Línea and a group from Los Barrios, all under the age of forty. There’s always that pause when you have to tell Spaniards you are from Gibraltar, you either look away quickly and wait for the bomb to drop or stare into the whites of their eyes to see if they flinch. What we each had in common was a love of good wine and the demeanor which allows a person to turn up in the middle of nowhere and spend the night with a group of strangers and eat whatever is put in front of you.
Enrique showed us before-and-after photos of the fábrica. He’d had a dream to buy a finca and produce organic wine so went in search of the perfect location. The previous owners were an eccentric, posh English couple who’d camped out in the only part which still had walls and windows. The rest of the ‘village’ was in ruins with trees growing out of roofs and everything else covered in years’ worth of undergrowth.
The painstaking and detailed restoration process has garnered many prestigious awards and you would never believe the buildings were anything but original. With all guests settled in, the tour began; first church, then oven, then into the ‘Room of Secrets’, ending up in the barrel house where Juan took charge with the wine-tasting. The wines are natural without added sulphites and produced on a very small scale. The whole place is run on renewable energy, the bottles are printed to avoid the use of paper labels and the necks of bottles sealed with beeswax. It goes without saying that the wines were unusual, interesting and ultimately delicious.
When we all ventured back to the main house the sun had set and the dark sky was illuminated by a wash of stars. Enrique had prepared a feast to complement the wines which he would serve. He would not allow us to sit where we wanted and instead placed us one-by-one on his chosen seat at the table. He was like a wine-wizard and you were completely under his spell. I was wedged in amongst the girls from Los Barrios (one of whom was called Nazareth; you can’t beat those Spanish girls’ names!) it turned out we shared mutual friends and had unwittingly worked together on the recent pro-choice campaign in Gibraltar. There, under the chestnut and pomegranate trees, we all came together animated by the gourmet delights and the raucous mischievous humour of bawdy Spanish jokes.
At 8am the following morning, Enrique was back beside the Aga rustling up bacon and eggs served with exquisite, velvety Nicaraguan coffee. After a bracing walk in the forest, we said goodbye to the others who were heading down to La Línea and Los Barrios with an open invite for all to come to our house when next in Gibraltar. We made towards our room to pack and were stopped in our tracks by Enrique and The Madrid Four who insisted we stay for lunch. A group from another winery in Ronda were coming for a tour, tasting and lunch, and the aubergines were already bubbling away on the stove (stirred by a barefoot Serafín clad only in short-shorts and an ‘Antigua Real Fábrica de Hojalata’ apron). We couldn’t say no could we?
The new arrivals numbered ten and were Spanish, German and Austrian; Araceli from Ronda went to a wine fair in the early nineties, met an Austrian, married him, and started a bodega. They’d brought along a visiting nephew from Vienna, a charming 14-year-old named Lucas who looked exactly like the blonde boy in the film Death In Venice. Enrique plonked him beside me at the lunch table where he declared he was a vegetarian ‘for climate-change reasons and not just because of the animals’, to which some older guests gasped in horror as a platter of slow-cooked pork was passed around. When asked where we were from one of the Germans barked out ‘Gibraltar Español!’ and laughed causing all Spaniards to either spit out their drinks or cover their open mouths with hands. Once the hullabaloo had quelled a very sensible conversation ensued, and I told them it was tantamount to saying ‘Austria is German’ to which Lucas nodded very sagely.
The lunch guests departed and we promised Araceli we’d visit her winery. We wanted to avoid driving up the hair-raising road before dark at all costs (Enrique had told us it was like an autopista now compared to when he first moved there) so readied to leave. We took cuttings from some of the plants and purchased an assortment of wines. We vowed to return in May when The Madrid Four were due to descend again. Mirenchu and Amparo were holding back the tears when they said goodbye (as was my husband), we had all connected so well in that quirky little place which was total paradise with a touch of Almodóvar.