Text & photos by Christine Potter
My place in the sun is a beautifully restored old mill nestled among olive groves. It’s an hour’s drive northeast of Malaga in Spain’s Andalucia region and where Canadian-based, gourmet cuisine duo Mike and Hilary (Lari) Powell host art groups, retreats and cooking courses each spring and fall.
Their enthusiasm for entertaining guests and for Andalucian culture, history and food is contagious, making El Molino Viejo (The Old Mill) an idyllic getaway.
There’s no trouble finding instructors, says Lari, there are so many possible subjects in the area. Some teachers return each year, like Nick Bantock (known for his Griffin and Sabine books among others) and Suzanne Northcott (who offers yoga classes as well as art workshops).
I was there last October as part of a watercolour group. I don’t paint but my spouse does and while he was happily ensconced learning new techniques and sharing old ones with hitherto strangers (who fast became friends) I enjoyed lazing by the pool with a book from El Molino’s library and visiting the little town of Tapia nearby. (The Powells will arrange rides to various places for different activities, including golf.) I also indulged in massages from the visiting practitioner and joined the excursions to Cordoba and Ronda.
This was our second time to El Molino and we met other repeat guests. They come as much for the ambience and for Mike’s cooking (as well as Lari’s decadent desserts) as for the instructors who, in this session, were Vancouver-based Leslie Redhead and Winnipeg-based Leona Brown.
“I’ve never picked up a paintbrush in my life,” said BC resident Michelle Bamcroft. “And look what I’ve made!” She beamed with justifiable pride at the results of Leslie’s teachings. (Students ranged from those who had never put brush to paper and those whose talents were well established.)
According to Leslie “there’s a warmer, more intense light here than at home. It’s a different palette and this is something I love to share.”
And the food! Mike has been a passionate chef for some 50 years and he and Lari have owned restaurants in Spain and Portugal. Meals and unlimited wine are included in the cost and ingredients are local, organic and personally picked by Mike.
Lunch and dinner become social events, with participants (sometimes as many as 18, sometimes as few as 12) sitting in the shady, open courtyard or on the poolside, shaded patio at a huge harvest-style table. It’s like having a dinner party with friends every day.
So what about El Molino itself?
“It’s believed a mill existed centuries before Tapia was formally founded in 1604,” says owner Nick Moody who, with his wife Amanda, fell in love with the 1.2-hectare estate and moved the whole family there (including then toddlers Jasmine and Josh, and Bosco the dog) in 2002 to restore and rebuild the complex.
“When we moved in, there were just a couple of goat-wool mattresses on the floor and only chicken wire at the windows, no bathroom and an outside toilet!” Hard to imagine, given today’s comfortable environment of seven modern bathrooms shared between nine bedrooms. My favourite is the mill’s two-bedroom upper floor with a slope-ceiling blue-tiled bathroom. It was the old Salting Room where Serrano hams were preserved.
The adjoining four-bedroom Casita was once the old mule stables. It’s here that guests make their own breakfasts from a variety of supplies in the cosy kitchen, watched eagerly from outside by the kittens (supposedly feral but nonetheless adorable). And Bosco.
Two day-long excursions (locations vary) plus a couple of half-day outings to local towns or villages are included in the cost.
My October trip took us to Cordoba, Ronda and a colourful agricultural fair where mothers and daughters dressed in flouncy Andalucian costumes, glorious Arabian horses were put through their paces before being sold, and food and wine stands appeared in abundance.
Cordoba, an Islamic centre until the ninth century “reconquest” was Europe’s largest city. In the 10th century it boasted some 500,000 people, 700 mosques, 300 public baths, paved and lit streets, bookshops and more than 70 libraries, one of them the largest in the known world.
A stately Roman bridge leads to the ancient walls and the atmospheric Old City. The artists, armed with sketchbooks and paints, found any number of subjects among the narrow, winding streets with flower-filled balconies. Most striking is the Mezquita, an 11th-century place of worship that began life as a mosque. It’s so large and beautiful that the Christians built a cathedral inside the complex rather than tear it down. (Locals still talk about going to the mosque when they attend masses there.)
It was in Cordoba at El Cardinal that I saw one of the best Flamenco shows ever, where the dancers included national champions.
The second excursion took us to Ronda, an artist’s dream built either side of El Tajo, a precipitous gorge. This is where Nick Bantock set his beautifully illustrated novel The Forgetting Room. Old Town (dating to the Islamic occupation) and New Town (built in the 18th century) are joined by three bridges (Puente Nuevo being the grandest) and the energetic can hike the path down the gorge’s 100-metre walls to see the remains of Roman waterworks and Arab baths.
Here, too, is one of Spain’s oldest bull rings, well worth a visit for its display of magnificent matador suits, saddles and other bullfight artefacts. And Ronda is a great place to shop.
You can find out more about the courses, the Powells, the instructors and El Molino Viejo from www.flavourofspain.net.
Malaga: The Meeting Point
The transfer point for guests at El Molino Viejo is Malaga International Airport, where thousands arrive to sun themselves in resorts along the Costa del Sol, but few stop to enjoy the city itself. And that’s a pity. A two- or three-day pre- or post-El Molino stay is time well spent.
Malaga has managed to keep its character while tasteful development has given the town an inviting stretch of waterfront boulevard hemmed with restaurants and a large, palm-studded park area.
Don’t Miss …
• The Picasso Museum, dedicated to Malaga’s famous native son with a fine collection of the artist’s work. (Closed Mondays.)
• The many pedestrian streets with a variety of stores, little cafes and restaurants. Try the fish and seafood. Fresh and delicious.
• The Atarazanas, Malaga’s colourful central market dating to the 14th century. A great place to find all kinds of local produce. (Closed Sundays and after 2 p.m. daily.)
• Centre for Contemporary Art (CAC) with its collection of 20th and 21st-century works. Admission is free.
• The Alcazaba-Gibralfaro castle high on the hill overlooking the city. Walk among the eucalyptus trees and the gardens. The city and ocean views are amazing. And if you want the view without the walk, visit the Parador hotel to enjoy a drink on the terrace and soak up the sights.
• The beaches. Malaga’s coastline has 16, from huge curving bays to secluded coves. More information from www.malagaturismo.com and www.spain.info.
Vinicius Tupinamba / Shutterstock.com
Madrid: Capital Sights To See
While in Spain it would be a shame to miss Madrid, the vibrant capital in the heart of the country.
Leave your Canadian lifestyle in the suitcase and think siesta in the afternoon. Almost everything closes for a few hours anyway and you’ll need time to recover from the large lunches. By 11 p.m. when most of us are thinking about our beds, Madrilenos are ready to go out to eat and party. And not just on weekends.
Tapas bars are the best places to start the evening. From about 10:30 onwards the selection of small dishes – squid, sausage, veal, vegetables and so on – are best sampled by bar hopping in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor with its lovely 17th-century buildings. But it’s crowded, so be prepared to eat your tapas while standing. It’s also a great spot for lunch and people watching.
Madrid’s world-renowned art galleries include the famous El Prado, where you can spend hours with the masterpieces of Goya, Velasquez, Picasso, Bosch, et al.
The Royal Palace is Madrid’s largest building (and largest royal palace in Western Europe) and has splendid collections of clocks and tapestries. No ruler, I learned, has ever defiled the imposing, symbolic throne by actually sitting on it. In fact the palace – now used only for state occasions – has not been lived in since 1931.
If you happen to be in town when Real Madrid enjoys a soccer win, head to Plaza de Cibeles. Its iconic fountain has been adopted by fans and players as a place to celebrate.
More from www.gomadrid.com and www.spain.info.