Beat the crowds in Catalonia

Rupert Wright, Sunday Times, March 2004

Rupert Wright reveals the secret of property in Southern Catalonia

It is a familiar lament of the British house buyer abroad. You see them in cafés, shaking their heads and muttering into their beer: “If only I had been here five years ago. Things were affordable then. Now it is too late.” But what if there were a place in the sun, an hour away from Europe’s most fashionable city Barcelona, and just 40 minutes away from the beach, where you can pick up a ruin for less than £50,000?
For some reason, the wine regions of Southern Catalonia have been overlooked by house buyers. Perhaps it is because they have been too busy colonising the coast to notice that the real bargains are just inland. Even the rich Barcelonese – known locally as pijos – tend to ignore the area, preferring to head up to the Costa Brava. It is a question of fashion, explains local property expert Maria Cinnamond, consultant to YHIS, a property company.

“We Spanish love to be in a crowd,” she says. “You will see us huddled together in one corner of a beach, while the rest of it is deserted. The same mentality determines where we choose to spend our weekends and holidays. Because many fashionable Barcelonese have a place up north near the Costa Brava, none of them think of driving south from Barcelona for the weekend, at least not the pijos.”

But head south from Barcelona, or fly direct to Reus, a small city close to Tarragona on the Costa Dorada, spend a day or two driving around the vineyards of the Penedès, Priorat and Monsant – some of Spain’s most exciting new wine regions – and you can’t help asking yourself: Is Southern Catalonia the new Provence?

It seems to have everything, except the celebrities that you see on the television who all have homes in St Rémy or St Paul de Vence. No London media folk, but if your ideal home is a rustic village perched on a mountain, then look no further than Siurana, with its Romanesque church, 25 houses and wild views down lake and valley. Unfortunately for buyers, houses in Siurana rarely come on the market, and when they do they are far from cheap given the extraordinary beauty of the place. However just ten minutes away is the small hamlet of Albarca where there are still properties to be had and at reasonable prices. Its position is perhaps less stunning than Siurana’s – though on the positive side it is easier to reach – and it also has great views, wild rosemary all around and house prices that will delight any buyer in this day and age. According to Luis Figueras of Catalan Country Life – a property company specialising in refurbishing properties in the area, village houses in Albarca start at around 100,000 Euros.. However most of these properties will be semi-ruins in need of investment to bring them up to inhabitable standards. Just like Siurana 10 years ago, and despite its beautiful surroundings, Albarca is still a partially abandoned village. It’s only a matter of time before its properties are snapped up and refurbished, and prices go the way of Siurana.

Luis is a former property consultant of Ernst & Young, turned developer. “I could see the potential in this landscape, and being Catalan and proud of my country, I wanted to share it with other people and bring life back into the countryside” he says. A bit further inland and closer to Barcelona, and you come to a totally deserted village that he is working on restoring. The inhabitants left in the course of the 20th Century to work in the factories that sprung up around Barcelona at a time when Spain was still a relatively backward country and farming was a backbreaking job. This migration to the city has left behind country properties ripe to be turned into beautiful holiday homes.

“We have a mandate to develop this village into a select holiday home destination,” says Luis. “People could choose to live here full time, but I think it is more likely that they will want to come here for months at a time.” Though a relatively small project the village will be developed in two or three phases, and the best places are likely to go first. There are plans to put in a communal swimming pool and tennis courts. But what else can one do there?

The area is popular with walkers. The landscape is hilly, with magnificent sweeping views and fields full of vineyards, olive groves and wildlife. There is horse riding, truffles and mushrooms to hunt in season, golf courses and the seaside within driving distance,- and of course, Barcelona for shopping and nights of revelry.

As you drive even closer to Barcelona you reach the heart of the Penedès wine region. Around the market town of Vilafranca de Penedès, the dry landscape looks green in the summer because of the leaves of the vines. Mark Cowling, 46, a musician turned translator, moved here with his wife Min, 42 and his daughter Alice, who is just 10, just after the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.

“We did not want to be in the city, but we wanted to be close,” explains Mark. “Eventually we found this masia, or farmhouse. It was in a terrible state. There were only two rooms, the rest were for the animals.”

One of the walls dates from the 17th century, while the rest was probably built about two hundred years ago. The walls are made of mud, there is no damp course and, given the era in which the house was built, no foundations.

“We got local people to help us with the construction work,” says Mark. “But we did all the decorating.” In the kitchen – which was once a stable – still stands the stone cup, where the grapes were put and pressed by local feet.

The Cowlings paid  75,000 for their masia and another  75,000 turning it into the house they wanted. Prices in this area closer to Barcelona have risen markedly. One sold recently nearby for  300,000, still in need of considerable work.

“Apart from the normal problems you encounter when you do up a house, everything went pretty well,” says Mark. “We had to leave the façade as it was because it is listed, and all the plans had to be approved by the local council. But we did not have any problem with them.”

One of the reasons that the Cowlings found it relatively easy to proceed with the work is that they both speak Spanish. However, since they moved to the region the regional government has taken steps to protect Catalonia’s cultural identity. Post-Franco one of the first decrees of the regional government was to promote the Catalan language, making it compulsory in schools. Alice, their 10-year old daughter, speaks three languages impeccably, however Catalan is the language she is taught in and Spanish is taught almost as an extra language like English. This downgrading of Castilian Spanish puts some Spaniards off moving to the region, but it should not deter holidaymakers, nor foreigners who plan to live there full-time, provided they are prepared to learn a few words of Catalan.

“I think we would have found it much more difficult if we had not been able to speak the language,” says Mark. For the moment, there is no problem in Catalonia if you only speak Spanish, but there is a sense that if you want to really integrate with the locals, you should speak Catalan. Mark has learnt Catalan and now plays in a local band. Min is refusing to learn Catalan, and finds the locals a bit aloof. “They are a bit closed,” she says. “I long to move further south, where the people are warmer.”

For Jane Spear and her husband Sebastian, the move to Catalonia could not have worked out better. Sebastian runs a storage company called Multistore near Guildford in Surrey. Two years ago they decided to move to Barcelona to open a similar business. They started by renting a property, but when Jane was looking for somewhere to go on holiday, she stumbled across an advert on the Internet for a masia for sale. They ended up buying Can Pau Olivella, which is more like a hamlet than a house, close to the town of Olivella and Parc de Garraf, a national park. It includes four houses, a stable complex and a small building that they plan to turn into a bar. They spent  830,000 on the land and buildings, and expect the renovations to cost a similar amount. “It is beautiful, stunning, I adore it,” says Jane. “And it will be wonderful when it’s finished in 10 years time.”

They have hired a Uruguayan architect, who also has a building company and an energetic staff who are brought in from Montevideo on short-term contracts. The plan is to convert three of the houses into holiday lets, the first of which should be open for business at the beginning of 2005.

Their three children, Felix, nine, Lewis, eight and Oscar who is three, have settled in happily to the International School in Castelldefels. “We thought about putting them into the local schools, but felt a bit guilty that we had brought them away from all their friends,” says Jane. “Putting them into a class where they spoke not a word might have been the last straw. But they are settling in well, and are beginning to speak Spanish and Catalan.”

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About Mark Stücklin

Mark Stücklin is a Barcelona-based property market analyst and consultant, and author of the 'Spanish Property Doctor' column in the Sunday Times (2005 - 2008). He can be reached by email on ms@spanishpropertyinsight.com.