Our Andalucian Journey… From Credit Crunch to COVID-19
In search of the good life in Spain / Lockdown at Casa Olea: Nature is happy / A view of Tourism post COVID-19.
At a time when we should be celebrating our 10 year anniversary with a house-full of guests, we are now “locked down” with no guests and no idea of when we´ll be open again. So, like many others right now, we are starting to reminisce about what has been before and what the future holds for travel and our little slice of paradise here in Spain…
Photo: Casa Olea B&B near Priego de Cordoba, Andalucia.
* In search of the good life in Spain - Crazy, inspired or a bit of both…
Almost exactly 16 years ago, in the summer of 2004, we fell in love with a peaceful back valley in the rural heart of Andalucia and had the crazy (or inspired) idea to buy a ruined cortijo farmhouse and olive grove, to turn it into a “boutique B&B”.
Photo: our renovation project took 5 years (see "after" photo below).
We hoped that future guests would also fall for the stunning location and see the appeal of the place as a kind of retreat - to take time out from their busy urban lives, to re-connect with nature, to go hiking or biking, to visit nearby sites (Granada, Cordoba etc), or just to sample a truly authentic corner of Spain and all it has to offer (local olive oils, food & wines). Having both worked in tourism & hospitality before, both speaking (some) Spanish; we thought it was the right time, before we started a family or had other responsibilities that might stop us!
Photo: the same front garden a few years on (see "before" above).
Crazy - because the house was a ruin and needed a huge renovation project to turn it into the luxury, eco-friendly B&B that we dreamed of. Because the local area, the Sierra Subbética, was completely “off the tourist map” then, so we were going to have to work extra hard to convince anybody to come and stay in a place they´d never heard of. Even the banks were telling us “if the project was in the town” they would finance us. That was a big risk, but that was the whole point - it wasn´t in a town!
Photo: "Equidistant between Granada & Cordoba, Casa Olea sits in splendid isolation" (The Guardian).
Inspired – because we feel that our “taking a punt” on this undiscovered region has been vindicated. This is such a lovely area and it retains all the same character and charm as when we first came here back in 2002. Our peaceful river valley still has to be one of the most beautiful, hidden corners of southern Spain. The positive feedback and kind comments of our guests ever since has given us renewed faith in why we did it in the first place.
Photo: we´re in lockdown, time to reflect on life in Andalucia.
* It´s been quite a journey…
After 5 years of bureaucratic, emotional and financial (Credit-crunch) meltdown, we finally opened our doors to the public at the end of 2009. Exhausted by the ordeal of getting open, but wide-eyed and enthusiastic to share this amazing region to others, we started Casa Olea as a boutique B&B.
As luck would have it, one of our first guests was the travel editor of The Guardian (UK) - we had emailed an invite, but didn´t expect to hear back - and it was her article about Casa Olea, the Subbética and its incredible olive oil, that really helped us launch properly in January 2010.
Photo: hiking up to a medieval Moorish watchtower in the Subbetica.
Then came the Icelandic Ash Cloud. And so, only a few months after opening, we were faced with stranded guests (a wonderful Dutch family with a taste for the local anis!) and wholesale cancellations for the weeks ahead. Thankfully, that episode only lasted a few weeks, but it showed just how precarious this existence and the whole tourism industry is with just one event causing so much havoc. A warning of things to come perhaps…
Since 2010, we have gone from strength to strength and have been very lucky to attract guests from all over the globe – many of whom have come back to stay with us on multiple occasions. Some have even stayed here in each of the 10 years we´ve been open, while others have now visited us several times from as far afield as Australia, Canada and the US! We felt happy, stable (financially) and with strong roots in the area. Then came COVID-19…
Photo: Max and Ruby exploring the Sierra Subbetica.
* Our 10 years at Casa Olea…
Our son, Max: born in Cordoba just before Christmas in 2012, he is a true “Guiri Andaluz” - blond hair and blue eyes, with a strong Andaluz accent, both English and Spanish, both local and foreign.
Our dog, Ruby: such a clever walking “guide” for so many of our guests over the years, she arrived as an abandoned stray just before we opened in 2009.
Our Olive Oil: producing our own limited-edition, 100% natural Extra Virgin Olive Oil from our own olive trees is a very uplifting experience.
Claire´s cooking: we opened the business virtually bankrupt, and couldn´t afford to take on a chef, so Claire got stuck in and has loved cooking for our guests ever since.
Your feedback: receiving your kind comments and reading your reviews means so much to us. We feel very proud to have been ranked in the Top 25 Best B&B´s/Inns in Spain for the past 9 years, in Tripadvisor´s Travellers Choice Awards.
Keeping it green: we have always tried to be as sustainable as possible – from the initial renovation project to running Casa Olea as a business. We are proud to have been recognized as one of Spain´s leading eco-B&Bs/Inns over the years and as The Independent wrote: Casa Olea is “proof that you can go green without sacrificing luxury”.
Photo: "Casa Olea is an outstanding, eco-conscious rural hideaway" (Daily Telegraph).
Permits & Delays: waiting 2 years for planning license, 18 months to have our electricity connected and 10 years (yes, 10 years!) to get our mains water connected!
The Credit crunch: in 2008, just when we were starting to realize our dream, the banks “turn off the tap” and the pound takes a pounding (as do our savings), and it looks like Casa Olea is never going to happen.
The Icelandic Ash Cloud: cancellations, no bookings & stranded guests only a few months after opening.
COVID-19: cancellations and more cancellations and no way of knowing when it will all end. We will be very happy to welcome you here when it is all over!
Photo: Casa Olea´s empty pool terrace is waiting for you..!
* Lockdown Life at Casa Olea
These are extraordinary times indeed – due to the COVID-19 pandemic the Spanish government declared a state of alarm on March 13th and closed all hotels and B&Bs indefinitely. All European governments enforced a “No Travel” ban and most airlines grounded all their planes. The whole thing is bizarre; and its effect on many sectors – particularly Tourism & Hospitality – will be horrendous. We have had 100% cancellations for the upcoming months and with no income at all for the foreseeable future, things are looking very bleak for small tourism businesses like ours, but…
Photos: We´ve seen lots of Hoopoes and Bee-eaters this week (Olive Press, FatBirder).
* Nature returns
“While we are all in isolation, the planet is healing…” is a claim that many have been posting on social media, with the cleaner canals in Venice being the most publicized example of COVID-19´s positive environmental impact. While it is sadly a bit far-fetched to say the planet is healing, or that this “pause” will have any long-term impact - as economies and factories will likely reopen in a frenzy once it´s over - it is no exaggeration that pollution has dropped in many of the world´s major cities and nature seems to be “returning”.
From our own personal experience, nature does seem happier than ever in our valley right now. This week we have had two different sightings of a comadreja, a type of weasel, just along the road from Casa Olea. This is the first time since 2008 we´ve seen them here! Other sightings here this week have been wild boar, terrapins (in the river), lots of hoopoes, bee-eaters, a little egret, two grey herons, a squacco heron, several griffon vultures, two eagles (booted and short-toed, we think!), plus owls, nightingales and frogs calling at night.
Photo: the Osprey population is now growing again in Andalucia.
First Osprey for 70 years
Plus, in the past few days, there have been a few recorded sightings of an Osprey here in the Subbética – the first since the 1950s! Ospreys became extinct in Andalucia by the mid-1980s, with only 30 left in all of Spain. But thanks to a major conservation programme set up by the Andalucia government, the population is slowly growing again. The young male spotted here is thought to be the offspring of a pair which was re-introduced to the Sierra de Cazorla (Jaén) over 10 years ago. The pair has now successfully bred four chicks since their release into the wild. So, this sighting marks both a wonderful addition to our local bird-list, as well as another successful milestone in nature conservation in Andalucia.
Photo: listen to the river and birdsong from the dining terrace (Casa Olea).
We are very conscious that we are extremely fortunate to be “self-isolated” in a place like Casa Olea – with the open space, fresh air, big views and nature all around us being so good for the mind, body and soul. And, despite the horrendous effects of COVID-19 on our business, we have reason to remain positive and hold fast in our values and what Casa Olea is all about…
* The future of tourism, post COVID-19?
After many weeks of confinement and more time than normal to reflect on so many issues, there are many travel experts starting to say that this current crisis may in fact call in a new era of tourism for the 21st century - a more sustainable vision of travel and tourism…
With our towns and cities in lockdown, we´ve seen for ourselves the impact we have had on the planet – the pollution, waste, traffic, noise, overcrowding – now that we´ve experienced it all “switched off”. Everyone seems to have a positive tale to tell about the clearer skies, the birdsong etc. If these are things we now value more than ever, then maybe once everyone´s busy “normal lives” return, then we may look for these experiences more when we travel…
Photo: rural chic - eco-friendly hotels can be comfortable too! (Casa Olea).
This could mean a move away from the bucket-list culture of “Instagramable” sites and over-touristy cities, to a culture of slowing down to see more. More authentic experiences in a local area, a greater enjoyment of open spaces surrounded by nature (not people), time to wander and really soak up the essence of a place, a re-awakening of the senses…
Staying in smaller hotels/B&Bs with less people, a more personalized service, a secure feeling of “home” and a stronger environmental focus could well now become more fashionable. Places where the owners/hosts can be “ambassadors” for their local area by sharing these authentic experiences and supporting local small businesses, suppliers and providers (Food KM0) etc. The Agriturismo and Slow Travel movements are now here to stay.
As the Spanish say “Lo pequeño cobra valor” (the small adds value), so maybe once this crisis has passed, there may yet be a place for the small guys like Casa Olea after all.
#When all this is over, we will be waiting for you! @CasaOlea
Photo: Big skies, clean air, open space and nature all around - Casa Olea.
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