I still squeeze myself daily, waking up in the beautiful villa we managed to rent for the next few years. I did a house tour on the blog last year of our first rental here in Valencia, a new built, not knowing that just six months later we’d be moving into something completely different. We are currently the caretakers – not just tenants, as I really feel privileged to hold the keys to this house – of a monumental villa from 1915, with 5 meter high ceilings, an abundance of original Spanish tiles and a view to die for. I am excited to show you around this amazing building.
The paella that changed our life
It was by accident we got it (or was it…? “…You manifested this place very well, Nien!” said my sister, who is a firm believer in creating your own reality). My husband and I had been looking around for a while, trying to find a more traditional house in the town centre, but they are hard to find on the rental market. The previous tenants of the villa, who we are friends with, invited us over for a paella one Sunday afternoon last summer. Having studied architecture history at uni, I had always been impressed by their house, one of the most characteristic mansions in the town we live in. I had just shown my husband around before dinner, pointing out all the incredible features, when back at the table our friends announced that they were moving out. I didn’t hesitate one second and blurted out: “Then we are moving in!”
An ideal summer house on the outskirts of Valencia
The changeover was quick, moving in hardly six weeks after we shared that paella. It was August, so it was a sweaty move. ‘Villa Maria’ however, was originally built on a hill, as a summer residence for a posh family from Valencia city back in the days, and its terrace enjoys a refreshing sea breeze. There is no air conditioning in the house, but when you open the tall windows, the wind just blows through and keeps it cool. We live here year-round though, and the winters are cold in this house with such high ceilings! I have now adapted the Spanish habit of throwing on my fleece bathrobe and cosy slippers as soon as I enter the house in the cooler months. Luckily winter doesn’t last long here.
The fact that it was built as a summer house for recreation and holidays is still visible in the decoration of the hallway. There is a decorative band at the top of the wall depicting many delightful chubby cherubs playing games. Chess, snooker, fencing, cards, dancing… If you didn’t look up, you’d miss it!
A fiesta of Spanish original tiles
The tiles are something else. In a way the combination of tiles is slightly hysterical and totally over the top, but what an abundance of pattern and colour! Every room has a different tile design and the living room even has very bold wall tiling. Most traditional Spanish townhouses in Valencia have incredibly wide hallways, all tiled in bold patterns, both floors and walls. Often they are even used as living spaces with seating. Bedrooms and bathrooms are situated on either side of the hall. It is peculiar to have such a lot of floor space dedicated to a hallway, but it sure gives a spacious feeling and these parts are the coolest areas in the house.
Spanish modernismo meets neo-baroque
It is interesting to see the mix of styles in the interior and exterior of this 1915 building. The beginning of the 20th century was after all a transitional period in architecture. The architect, or perhaps the family who had the house built, were clearly inspired by the most progressive style at the time: Spanish modernismo, similar to Art Nouveau in northern Europe around that time. A style recognisable by its floral details, decorative tiling and organic shapes. Barcelona architect Gaudí is by far the most famous ‘modernismo’ architect, whose style rubbed off on many Spanish contemporaries, albeit often in a less flamboyant, more toned-down version. Especially the living room tiles remind me of this style. For the outside of the building, the architect of Villa Maria seems to revert back to neo-baroque details, the going style during the late 19th century in Spain. The house, like some of its neighbouring properties, certainly looks like a delicious cream cake with curly icing on top. Lots of garlands and roses. Very kitsch, but very pretty.
Restoring its character
The current Spanish owners bought the villa around 12 years ago and found it in desperate need of restoration. Cobwebs hanging from the tall ceilings, many rooms unused and just one old age descendant from the original family still living in it. The buyers hired an architect, selecting the firm on the basis of a good understanding of the building and importance of respecting its original details. They gave the house a facelift without losing its character. Installed a new kitchen and bathrooms, but most of the original aspects kept intact and restored. I think they did an excellent job.
Hoisting up your dinner
The whole villa consists of an upstairs and downstairs – very ‘Downtown Abbey’ – with the upstairs part originally meant for the rich family back in the days, and a downstairs part where the maids and cooks stayed. A reminder of this history is the ‘dumb waiter’ that can still be found in our living room: a cupboard with a pulley, from where they used to hoist their dinner up. It is unfortunately no longer in use! The house is again separated into two apartments at the moment, with the upper part rented out to us and the downstairs part only used by the owners when they come back from abroad every now and then. In the future, it may become used as one villa again.
A lively plaza
The villa is situated on one of the old plazas of this town on the outskirts of Valencia, next to a 17th century ‘ermita’ or church. It is a lively square, with children playing, teenagers smooching, weddings held, religious processions taking place and there is the wonderful fresh organic market on Saturdays where we do our weekly vegetable shopping. I love living here, watching Spanish life happening right outside our front door.
Watching the sunrise
The back of the house is probably the best part of the property. A large terrace with a view onto both the sea and the mountains in the distance. I can just imagine the posh ladies in 1915 standing here in their long dresses and hats, overlooking the countryside while chatting in the breeze. Nowadays the surrounding countryside is nearly all built up with the ever-expanding towns and suburbs of Valencia, but it must have felt like you were far away from the city buzz 100 years ago. The view is still fantastic though and sometimes when I get woken up by our cat at 6am, I sit on the terrace, listen to the birds and watch the sunrise.
An eclectic mix of furniture
The only downside of the house is the fact that it is rented out semi-furnished. But hey, you can’t have it all. We just had to try and fit our own furniture around the pieces that came with the house. The interior is, therefore, a bit of an eclectic mix of their dark cabinets and tables, an old piano, and our own collection of mid-century vintage and Ikea pieces. Probably not my ideal decor, but really, who gives a hoot when you are living in a castle! The bold tiling in the living room also means it is tricky to hang your artworks and make it all look good.
I do love how our own large painting by a South American artist of a jazz band looks like it belongs in this house. I always found it looking slightly out of place in our Scottish home, it just lacked a more vibrant environment. What better house to be in than in a historic ‘summer residence’ with no doubt plenty of parties, now owned by a professional clarinet player (our landlord)?
A grand Spanish dame
We don’t know how long we are going to rent this house for, as the owners are planning to move back in the future, but for now I am very grateful for the opportunity to be the resident of such an interesting and beautiful house. We would never be able to afford to buy anything like this, and we wouldn’t want to either (imagine the cost of maintenance!). It will also be quite hard in the future to find another house as great as this one – we are now spoilt forever. But what a treat and honour it is to share a few years of our life with Villa Maria, this grand Spanish dame with her rich history, beauty and charm. I wish she could tell us all her secrets. Soulful living in practice.