Travel is tricky at the moment but I have been happily transported to the magical Matarranya area of Aragón today by watching this soothing and illuminating talk (in Spanish) between Jemma Markham of the gorgeous hotel La Torre del Visco and Bernd Knöller of the fabulous Michelin-starred restaurant RiFF in Valencia. It is part of a longer discussion on the El Puto Crack podcast, which Bernd hosts with Paco Cremades of La Fábrica de Radio and features interviews with all sorts of interesting people in the restaurant and hotel industry in Spain. You can also listen to it on Spotify.
I first met Jemma and her late partner Piers Dutton back in the 1980s through friends in Madrid. They were the founders of Turner’s English Bookshop and Gemma was also managing director of the Penguin Longman publishing group in Spain. In the early 1990s, they got it into their heads that they would like to embark on a new chapter in their lives and create a retreat in the countryside somewhere. But where? They didn’t really fancy the Andalucian finca idea and masias in Catalunya were already prohibitively expensive.
By pure chance, someone in Tarragona suggested that the nearby yet remote La Matarranya might be the sort of off-the-beaten-track area they were looking for. A convenient situation is usually regarded as an advantage but places that are not particularly handy for anything are invariably more interesting than those that are an easy drive from an airport or half an hour from a resort. Tucked away in the bottom right-hand corner of the Spanish region of Aragón, where inhabitants are pretty thin on the ground, let alone tourists, La Matarranya is only around around 80km from the Mediterranean but feels like a medieval kingdom. The area borders the regions of Catalunya and Valencia, but is not really near anywhere.
Piers and Gemma started exploring, driving through mesmeric landscapes of olive groves, vineyards and almond orchards, and eventually came upon La Torre del Visco. They had found their place. Dating back to the 15th century, the property is in an idyllic, secret spot by the Tastavins river, between Fuentespalda and Valderrobres, which happens to be one of the most beautiful villages in Spain, with a castle and a labyrinth of cobbled lanes flanked by elegant mansions in golden stone.
They opened as a hotel in 1994 and were really ahead of their time, growing organic vegetables, making their own olive oil and using local produce when these things weren’t the norm at all, let alone in a luxury establishment. The restaurant, where the menu changes every day, is excellent of course.
It’s one of those places where you feel you are entering another world as soon as you arrive. In fact, before you get there, as it is hidden away a few miles down a track. There is no reception desk as they really wanted it to feel as unlike a normal hotel as possible. No televisions either. For me, this is proper luxury. It’s not about having tons of facilities or fancy frills; the emphasis here is on making guests feel as comfortable and relaxed as possible. If you want a glass of wine, you can just help yourself. While there are loads of things you can do if you can be bothered – walking, riding, fishing, birdwatching, stargazing – this is a really a place to do nothing at all. Now part of Relais & Châteaux, it is widely regarded as one of the best hotels in Spain and is certainly one of my favourites.