It felt like we were having royalty come to visit. It was mid October 2009, although still warm and sunny the weather could change at any moment, so eating inside was the best idea. We cleaned the house from top to bottom, the outside patios, driveway and most importantly, the cocinon, our entertaining room where were planned to eat. Our menu had been planned days in advance along with all the shopping and on the day of the lunch we got out our best award winning wine from the vineyard of our local vintner Marcellino Serrano, put out flowers and lit candles and pretended we were always this tidy and organised. Exhausted, we anticipated their arrival and opened a bottle of Cava just as Fran and Jerome arrived, our very good friends and necessary translators.
Fina, Agust and Irish arrived soon after armed with bagfuls of presents, veggies from their huerta, chocolates, different wines, and a very old oil lamp which came from Las Salinas originally. Excitement levels grew as we all conversed and I walked Fina around the main casa pointing out different things and explaining how the house was configured before we started to reorganise the inside. Fina recalled that the small downstairs bedroom was where Dona Enriqueta had slept many years before and it felt quite strange discovering things about the life of the occupants before us. Dona Enriqueta was the bastard child of the master of the house, and as the owners and their children died, she inherited Cortijo Las Salinas and became the lady of the house. Fina told me she was feared by the olive workers because when it was olive picking season, if they missed even two olives, Dona Enriqueta would make the worker responsible leave what they were doing to go and pick up the two missed olives even if they were miles away and working on other olive trees.
Fina and I left the house and walked past the ‘Fireplace Room’. A room which makes up part of the original and oldest section of the house where Fina’s great grandmother had passed on stories of strange happenings.
‘One day my great-grandmother was making some gazpacho when someone knocked at the door. She put the gazpacho down to go answer the door but there was no one there, only mist, although she could hear someone calling her name. When she went back to the soup it had been moved and was not where she had left it. This was not the only thing that moved in that room as when she took her slippers off they would also move and usually end up on top of the window, in fact many things would find themselves on top of the window!’ Fina told me.
This room always felt cold and quite strange to me and I began to wonder what else may have happened there. A photograph taken on that day of myself, Fina, and the two grandmothers was sent to me by Irish. This photo was blurred and out of focus and looked very strange. In fact every photograph ever taken in the Fireplace Room with myself or Fina in has never been in focus.
We left the Fireplace Room and went to the cocinon to join the others who were already drinking and talking animatedly. We served our well chosen English meal of a Sunday roast including amazing roast potatoes, followed by a fully loaded Summer Pudding. I had printed off the sepia toned photograph and mentioned it during dinner and Irish told us all that the people in the photograph were Fina’s mother Nati, aged 12, her older sister Araceli, and mother and father, who would be Fina’s grandparents, or Irish’s great grandparents called Antonio and Maria.
Irish noticed the black and white cat in Nati’s arms and recognised the likeness to Picasso. As always Picasso was sitting only a few feet away listening to everything that was being said. We took the photo over to him to make a comparison. There could be no mistaking the markings were identical. ‘If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe it’ said Irish ‘The reincarnation of my great grandmothers cat!’
I picked up my coffee and headed towards my laptop, through bleary eyes I opened my mail and was excited to see an email from Irish. There was a photo attached which I hurriedly opened to see an old sepia brown/grey and white photograph. There were 4 people in the picture, 2 adults and 2 children. The adults looked quite serious and uncomfortable to be having their photo taken and were male and female. They were dressed very smartly with maybe their ‘Sunday best’ on, the lady was in a dark dress with a white bow at the neck and the gentleman had a suit with a shirt and tie on. There were 2 children standing behind them, both girls, and they both had one hand on the shoulder of the adult in front, and in the other hand one of the girls held a little black and white kitten and the other girl held a small bird.
Irish told me these were some of her ancestors and she would have more information for me about them, the next time we met. I took the opportunity to invite them for a lunch at the Cortijo and a date and time was arranged.
As I studied the photograph in more detail, I realised the black and white kitten in the photograph had exactly the same markings as our cat Picasso and was exactly the same size when he mysteriously arrived at the Cortijo as a kitten.
Ancestors with Nati holding a small black and white cat
– just like Picasso 80 years ago
The Log Store sits at the back of the cortijo, and is a very dusty old building, possibly with Roman origins and was full of logs when we bought the cortijo. The second delivery truck of our furniture had arrived while we were still in England and we had no knowledge what had become of our possessions until we saw everything piled from floor to ceiling (a very high ceiling at that) with our sofas, beds, boxes etc. etc. It was a mess and everything had just been thrown in without any regard to our possessions whatsoever. I was devastated to see such a careless and uncaring attitude to all our worldly goods, however at least it had arrived!
We were still flying backwards and forwards, to and from Spain about every 6 weeks and it was very tiring and stressful flying to and from Spain every 6 weeks. Every time we arrived at the cortijo we faced more problems. The builder we had chosen turned out to be a cowboy and not very trustworthy and the building work seemed to fall further behind schedule each time we arrived.
During one of our regular trips to the cortijo I had to keep going into the Log Store to retrieve box after box for unpacking. A black plastic sheet which covered a sofa moved slightly and made me jump. My imagination told me it was a huge lizard and I froze on the spot. The plastic moved again and this time I heard a delicate little ‘meow’. I bent down and lifted the plastic and there, hiding and scared was the cutest little black and white kitten. A tiny face with black ears, a pink nose surrounded with white fur which ended in a point on his forehead looked up at me and meeowed a few more times. He was so young and scared but came to me willingly and I picked him up – we were immediately friends.
I took him to meet Steven, ‘Meet Picasso’ I said, and we both stroked him. ‘I just found him in the Log Store’.
We welcomed him into our home, gave him food and water and from that day onwards he has been a large part of our life in Spain. Each time we had to return to the UK, we left him with lots of food and just prayed he would still be there when we next returned, and sure enough, every time we arrived he was there waiting for us, in his knowing way, sure of our return again and again.
Today Picasso is Lord of the Manor, he parades around Las Salinas wearing a red bandana, keeping the mice and lizards away – oh and the campo cats and dogs who try to muscle in on his terrotory. A campo cat made good, he listens to everything, checks out everything that is happening and everybody loves him.
Is this a cat coincidence that Picasso is identical to the one in the photo of 80 years ago or is he the reincarnation of the cat that lived here with Irish’s ancestors?
Irish had told me that she lived on the outskirts of Granada with her family. ‘You will never find us, I will meet you and you can follow me in your car’ she said.
So we met at the designated car park and followed her, she was right we would never have found it! Tucked away, through many windy roads, we eventually arrived at her beautiful family home, designed by her father Agustin and the interior design had been created by her mother, Fina, along with her stunning artwork hanging off every wall. They proudly showed us every inch of their living space and the piece de resistance was Fina’s art studio in the garage, filled with her amazing works in progress. We were then taken into the walled garden for lunch.
The food arrived continually by the plateful and the wine flowed generously, some made by Agust, the talk was about everyday trivia until Fina mentioned my art studio.
‘How much do you want to know about Cortijo Las Salinas?’ she asked.
‘I want to know everything’ I replied, and we held our eye contact for an extra second or so.
‘The body of a baby is buried under a stone, under the floor of your art studio’ Fina explained. ‘It was buried many many years ago. It was impossible for the mother to walk the 2 day journey on foot to Alcaudete to have the baby buried and out of necessity it was buried away from the house, which at the time was an old working nave for the tractors’.
I thought about this for a moment when she asked ‘do you ‘feel’ anything in your studio?’
‘I don’t ‘feel’ anything in the studio, only good positive feelings, but I feel ‘vibrations’ in the room next door and I have seen the image of a young girl or boy a few times in there. Not a child, but a teenager, dressed in very dark clothes’.
They all shared a ‘look’ at this revelation. ‘A young girl of 15 hung herself in that room, but she never died. She was found and saved, however she went on to fatally hang herself 30 years later’ Fina told me.
I had no way of knowing this information and was strangely pleased that what I had seen was possibly true, even though what I had seen was potentially a ‘ghost!’
Fina went on to explain that many of the 10 children went on to hang themselves at the Cortijo, after hearing ‘voices’ in their heads, a type of schizophrenia maybe?
I wanted to know more about the 10 children, who the parents were, were there any survivors today. Also who were Dona Enriqueta, Don Rafael, Dona Paloma? Names which are all around us. What part did they play at Las Salinas and timelines? I had so many questions which needed to be answered it was hard to know where to start. The long history of the house, which I knew to be fascinating, was turning out to be more interesting by the minute.
The conversation moved on to other things as amazing Spanish deserts were served, but my mind whirred around and around as I had so many questions to ask, but I knew I had to take this at a pace we could all cope with ! I brought the conversation back to the suicides and Fina mentioned the ‘suicide triangle’. I’d read about the triangle before and it is mentioned in the book written by Michael Jacobs called ‘Factory of Light’. It is a triangular area from Alcaudete (under which my village of Sabariego sits), Alcala la Real and Castillo de Locubin which has one of the highest suicide rates on record. Fina told me that legend states if you hear of one suicide you will hear of two more within 3 months. We had heard of at least 3 since our arrival in Sabariego and one hanging was in the olive groves behind us. A man had hung himself from an olive tree and was not found for 5 days, the heat and the flies had done their worst and he was unrecognisable, a 65 year old woman had drowned herself in her own swimming pool and a 35 year old English man had hung himself in Castillo de Locubin, only to be found by neighbours when the smell had become too bad.
It was time to go, but not before Agust proudly let off his ‘canon’. A beautiful piece of workmanship made by his own fair hand and with his last 2 packets of gunpowder he let the canon go with a bang! We all said our farewells, promising to meet again very soon.
The drive home was spent questioning everything we had talked about over lunch and we arrived home to a perfectly still evening. A day of stories, legends and new friends which we knew would stay with us for a long time.
This new information made our Cortijo seem different somehow, and I took a walk outside to see what vibrations I could feel, if any. It was dark by this time and I looked into my studio, all quiet and still. I looked into the cocinon, the room where I thought I had seen a vision of a young girl, again all quiet and still. As I walked across the patio, in front of the oldest part of the house, heading towards my own house a wind started to pick up from no where. I walked up the steps and past the window, where Fina had earlier told me about a legendary ghost that moved things, and went into my house. The wind had really started to pick up and thrash about, doors banged and shutters crashed. Mildly startled but not surprised I watched from the window as the biggest wind storm I had ever experienced raged around.
The wind carried on for some while and as I prepared to go to bed, I started to think about everything I had left outside. A book with loose pages, some lists with a pen and pencil, lilos and balls around the pool, plastic cups and bowls, I wondered where their whereabouts would be in the morning. Picasso scratched to come in and settled down on the bed with us and I fell into a strange sleep with many troubled dreams.
Now, as I sit here typing my blog, I can honestly say that the next day when I went to retrieve my lists and books, I was amazed to find that nothing had moved. Not one thing was out of place and everything was still where it had been left the day before.
Extraordinary !! – even my disbelieving partner had to agree this was a very strange phenomenon and his usual scientifc, logical, way of explaining everything, was unable to do so on this occasion.
The sound of a group of very loud Spanish people could be heard from the cortijo. I put down my glass of wine and the novel I was reading, and went to the balcony to see who was there. It was a Sunday afternoon, hot and sticky, and quite often walkers or nature lovers would pass by. The group were a blur to me through the olive trees however I waved and shouted a friendly Hola!, to which they all shouted enthusiastically with an unsynchronised Hola! in response. They walked on by and I went back to reading my book with my Sunday glass of red.
About an hour later I could hear the animated voices I had heard earlier but seemingly much closer this time and again went to the balcony to see what was happening. This time they were in the patio and shouting questions at me in Spanish! I decided to go down and see what all the excitement was about. There were seven of them altogether, and like all Spanish, spoke very loudly and all at the same time. When I responded in my not so fluent Spanish, an uninterrupted hush hung in the air until I had finished and then they all spoke at me together again. Silence fell as I answered and then they all spoke at once again. This was going to be difficult, I thought. The youngest of the group, a beautiful young 21 year old named Irish offered her pigeon English to compliment my pigeon Spanish and she introduced her family to me – her mother Fina and father Agustin, her father’s brother Francisco and his wife Mara, and the mother of her mother and the mother to her father. (I think !!) Making 3 generations of a family I later found out has over 500 people within it.
Irish told me her family had connections in the past with Cortijo Las Salinas. It was a very famous house and a landmark with a great history to go with it. I couldn’t believe they had just turned up this way as I had recently begun to do my own research of the house and its past occupants and believed that serendipity was afoot. I eagerly showed them around proudly showing off mine and Steven’s restoration achievements to which they approved, thankfully. When we came to my studio a great mutual appreciation society was born due to at least 75% of the party being artists or poets. I proudly showed off my paintings and explained the ones hanging around the studio again to the hushed group and a connection between us had been made.
After about an hour we finished the ‘tour’ at the threshing circle that we have, and Irish told me many weddings had been held there in the past. The older ladies of the group were getting tired and I could see I was reluctantly going to have to draw a close to the excited evening we were sharing. We exchanged names and email addresses and Irish and I promised to keep in touch, I wanted to know more about my house and Fina, Irish’s mother, I discovered had started to do her own research about 3 months ago, the time I began mine.
‘Are you scared here all by yourself?’ Fina asked, just before they left.
‘No’, I said, ‘should I be’? Fina smiled. ‘I do ‘feel’ things though’.
Just then, my cat Picasso appeared from nowhere. ‘Did you bring your cat from England?’
I shook my head. ‘No, he arrived here soon after we did’.
‘He will have been sent to protect you’ Fina said superstitiously as Picasso rubbed himself through my legs.
After lots of kisses and adios I waved them off with Picasso standing next to me watching everything knowingly. This encounter had left me with a strange feeling of excitement and anticipation of what I might find out about Cortijo Las Salinas and its past.
A few days later I was laying in the bath after a long day working on the cortijo and was disturbed by the telephone ringing. Normally I would not leap out of the bath just to answer the phone, preferring to check my messages later or press the missed calls button. However, this particular evening something made me leap out of the bath and actually run to the phone. It was Irish. I somehow knew it would be and between our smattering of each others language we arranged lunch with her family in Granada.
To say I felt excitement is an understatement and to make this meeting work I knew I had to enlist the translation services of my very good, multi linguistic friend, Fran.
‘Fran, I need your help’ I said and went on to explain what had happened. ‘So, can you telephone Irish and confirm I have the day and time correct. Oh, and can you tell her you will be coming too!’
Fran, always happy to help, and keen to know more about the secrets of the house telephoned Irish and then called me back to say I should have more confidence in my Spanish. The date and time was correct and that she would definitely have a place at the lunch table.
‘I know’, I said, ‘Let’s have an Open Weekend’, and so the madness began.
After completing a major, and I mean MAJOR, restoration project of Cortijo Las Salinas, it seemed only fitting to open our doors to everyone and anyone who wanted to come along and see what we had actually been doing for the past 4 years. The seed for ‘Puertas Abiertas’ had been sown and we could never have imagined how the idea would develop and grow. What had we done !
When I first saw Cortijo Las Salinas, I knew it was a magical place, my spiritual home and the place I want to be for a very long time and now after a lot of stress and hard work Steven and I decided it was time to put ourselves on the map and let the world in. The cortijo itself is full of history and stories’ being a very famous property in the local area and it has connected us with the locals who have accepted us fully and everyday we have a new and amazing experience.
On Saturday 11 September, the doors opened at 12 noon with a steady stream of people arriving by car, up the very bumpy track which leads to the cortijo. We had turned my studio into a gallery, as people arrived I was able to meet and greet them and introduce them to the other artists exhibiting with me: Fina Larom, a Spanish lady who has family connections to Las Salinas, an artist and a poet; Manolo Caba, a Forja, a sculptor who works in black metal; Bianca Gheoghe, my daughter in law, who was showing her work for the first time; Gaby Mariani, an amazing sculptor in bronze and wood; and the hand made jewellery of Ximena Walker.
People passed through my studio and the cocinon, through the patio, up past the swimming pool to the Caseta where Steven was in full control of the food and bar. As more people arrived and passed through, they naturally ended up in the bar area and so it continued, with very few people going home – we had advertised that food and drink, would be served along with live music, and this was what they wanted. In all over 300 people made their way up to the bar and expected food ! We had our neighbour, Domingo, cooking a paella for 150 people and Steven was cooking a Moroccan tagine for 100 or so. It was bedlam, and when food was announced to be served chaos erupted and it was every man for himself. A period of calm ensued as everyone sat down at the borrowed tables and chairs from our local bar owner, until Gotas Kaen picked up their guitars and began to play some heavy rock – I was expecting a nice gentle strum of the acoustic guitar, they were deafening.
I was called away from the craziness of the food and drink area, to the patio, where the setting up of the stage for Fina to recite her poetry and then Tom Hare and Countrymass to play their jazz was happening. As the light started to fade, and the people had eaten their food, they made their way to the patio, I made some announcements and the entertainment began. The emotion of the poetry brought the Spanish to tears and the excitement of the jazz brought everyone to their feet.
At last the evening was over – we saw the lights of the last cars to leave drive down the track and collapsed into bed, realising we had to do the same thing again the next day. An open weekend meant Saturday and Sunday, the Saturday was a great success, but could we do it all again on the Sunday?
Day 2 of the Open Weekend brought more surprises, along with hot sunshine, lots of people and a TV crew from Alcala la Real.
The day began at midday once again and a gentle stream of locals, friends and the curious started to arrive, the format being the same as the day before, starting at the gallery and ending at the bar, with more people using the pool – it was more of a family day.
Professional dancer, Janet Hare, arrived with her very large sound system and was all ready to take a jazz dance class, but it was hot, so very hot and there was hardly any shade at 3pm in the afternoon. The only shaded place was the Caseta where the bar was and food was being prepared. However the show must go on and there was no choice but to clear everything out of the Caseta and make space for the next event to take place. As the ladies practised their jazz dance, Domingo and the team cooked and prepared food around everyone with jamon passing through the dancers, potatoes being cooked to one side, drinks being served over the bar and general chaos commenced once again. I also had a raffle to draw, when the class had finished and whilst I had a captive audience, took the opportunity to call the winning names – the prizes, a piece of art all generously donated by the participating artists along with a weekend at our cortijo for 6 people.
Young Miguel put his hand into the ticket filled bucket as the crowd waited silently and patiently. The sculptor, Manolo Caba took the ticket from Miguel’s small hand and slowly unfolded it – he then handed it to me. I looked at the ticket and tried to read the small Spanish writing, whoever had bought this particular ticket had one first prize – a weekend at Cortijo Las Salinas for 6 people in the oldest and allegedly haunted, part of the cortijo – Villa Romana.
The ticket said ‘Jose from Cordoba’. My friend and fellow artist, Fina, jumped into the air shouting ‘José es mi primo’, or ‘José is my cousin’. Everyone clapped and cheered and Fina said she would tell him personally as José and his family had since gone home. The interesting twist to this is that José’s family have had previous connections with our cortijo, his parents had lived and worked here along with many other locals and family members.
It is quite extraordinary how fate brings one to a place or destiny is decided. I had only met Fina and her family just over a year ago and they have become quite central to many things that happen here at Cortijo Las Salinas, as well as having access to the most incredible history attached to our house.
Around 7pm it all started to calm down and we managed to sit down ourselves for half an hour and pat ourselves on the back for what we considered to be a very successful event. Sipping a glass of cava and looking out over the pool, down onto our track, a steady stream of cars coming our way came into focus. Just when we thought it was all over, another round of Spanish locals started to appear once again. Help ! I just wanted to sit down and put my feet up.
As it takes exactly 6 minutes to arrive at the cortijo from the beginning of the track, I savoured the precious minutes staying put until the final second when I was pulled out of my chair. I put on my biggest smile and it all began again, not finishing until around 11pm when the last visitors left and those remaining, the artists and the helpers, all collapsed into chairs in the Caseta and got drunk.
Cortijo Las Salinas first public event was a great success, and everyone has been asking if we can make it an annual event. We will definitely do it again next year, however maybe not for 2 days next time but just for one.