Updated: May 9
'Visitación is a splendid old house. Six bedrooms, a library and a superb view of the saints around the dome of Jerez Cathedral.' Manolo often told me this in the hope that I would be tempted to buy his family home which was, I told him, a tad overpriced. 'I know,' he would reply, 'but the family won't take a penny less.'
The house had been empty since his mother, Julia had died aged a hundred and one. In the ten years since her demise, it was used by family members on brief visits to the city. Manolo hoped it would sell so he could enjoy his share of the spoils before he left this world but, alas, it was not to be.
When Manolo died, the remaining siblings had quickly become daunted by the task of overseeing the maintainance of the empty property. This involved paying a menial salary to a part-time caretaker and covering basic repairs so the house's state of disrepair remained mild.
These expenses had come out of Manolo's pocket for the last two years of his life – any other way would not have been worth the hassle, he said. Soon after Manolo's death, his widow Pamela had been asked by one of his sisters, whom Manolo referred to as 'High and Mighty', to contribute to Visitación's expenses despite Pamela not being an heir to the house. I responded to this news with incredulity, but Pamela was nonplussed, nothing surprised her about this particular sister. So, three months after Manolo's death, his siblings promptly dropped the price of the house by a hundred thousand and it was snapped up by a German couple.
Pamela invited me to visit the house last week before the sale was finalised. I had never seen it inside so accepted immediately. It would be the last time the family would assemble there... a poigniant event, I thought, where Julia, the old matriach would be remembered by her sons and daughters, now elderly, and her grandchildren, now middle-aged. I looked forward to the stories they would tell and hoped to re-tell them here along with sharing some photographs of the singular edifice.
Arriving at Visitación, we were surprised to see dozens of people drinking beer, spilling out onto the street and music thudding out of large speakers. On entering the house, more revellers created a blockage in the central courtyard that we began to squeeze through.
Someone suddenly barked at Pamela 'Hey, this is a private party,' and Pamela, informing him that she was part of the family, then enquired why they were there. She was told that Julia's grandson was hosting a fiftieth birthday party for one of his colleagues. I felt disappointed. So much for the emotional final gathering at the family home and the hearing of recollections of life back in the day. Instead it was choc full of boozy strangers shouting over very loud music. What would Julia have thought?
We entered the library, the shelves now depleted of all but crumbling yellowed paperbacks because 'the expensive books had been sold', Pamela explained. Across the throng again and we entered a mini bodega of four large barrels, all full of aged sherry apparently. Manolo's family wealth had been founded on bodegas in a nearby town on the coast. Sherry labels from that bodega were scattered around making us think that Juan, the artist bachelor brother who had lived with and stayed close to his mother all his life, had a plan to extend the life of the family business albeit on a smaller scale.
A giant family tree painted by Juan took pride of place opposite the staircase. It included the family crest involving bears and medieval watchtowers. It was important you knew who you were dealing with as you waited to be received in the courtyard... they were family that could trace their ancestors way back and had adopted a double-barrel surname in an affectation of aristocracy.
After wading through the stupified masses again, we went upstairs where the noise was slightly muffled. In a sitting room, I came across a painting of Julia as a younger lady, her husband's portrait nearby. Not exactly her equal in looks with his pudgy face, he had been high up in the Spanish military suggesting a career far from the front lines of the civil war. On his retirement, he had helped organise the Easter processions in Jerez with those taking part wearing the slightly alarming inquisitor's conical hoods which, still today, fill all non-Catholics with dread.
I was taking some photographs when I came across High and Mighty and Pamela introduced us. The sister drew my attention to the labels she had stuck on much of the furniture with very large numbers hastily daubed. 'We have to
sell it all because the buyers want the house empty,' she proclaimed in what Pamela described as 'her attempt at posh English.' This is very unusual in Spain where old houses tend to come with most of the furniture as if the previous owners just walked out when the sale completed, with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. [Wardrobes are also often stuffed
full when you buy an old house.] My suspicion was that High and Mighty was trying to make as much money as possible at the eleventh hour and there was no such requirement from the new owners. I didn't need any more furniture but, to help her out, I took a closer look at a couple of okay pieces. The active wormholes I pointed out didn't persuade her to lower the price in the slightest because, as she professed, 'it can be repaired', so I passed.
We were pleased to come across an actual family member keen to reminisce at our request. She was one of Julia's grandchildren and had lived in the house thirty years ago whilst attending school in Jerez. Uncle Juan was often just coming home when she left for school at 8am. A party animal, he made frequent trips to nearby Seville where he had a 'lady-friend' whom no one had ever met. The lady-friend seemed to be something of a Bunbury, perhaps obscuring the true nature of this bachelor artist's nocturnal life away from his home city.
The top floor rooms with their sloped ceiling were where Juan carried out his artistic pursuits. As a talented artist and antiques expert, he was well known and well liked in Jerez. The studios hadn't been altered since his death due to hepatitus twenty years ago. Empty frames still waiting for his canvases, easels, a printing press, aged ceramic pots. There was the magnificent view of the dome of Jerez cathedral with its saints which I hoped Juan had painted.
As we left, the rain was starting again and Julia's grandson was pulling a tarpaulin across the top of the courtyard. The masses below gazed upwards and their faces were cast in a bluish hue.