Building an international business in rural Spain is a reality for an increasing number of Europeans looking for their own personal paradise.
Richard Scott was born in Kent, England and Peter Szabo is from Kosice in Slovakia, and they have been living in the mountain village of Chulilla since August 2002. In January of 2003, they opened their house to paying guests and since then the world has been coming to them.
Ten years later they won the Trip Advisor Travel Award 2013, for being in the top 25 guest houses in the whole of Spain and are ranked as Number 1 for all the accommodation in Chulilla.
Richard moved to Valencia in 1998 to take up a teaching post in a privately run British school in the wealthy suburbs of the city. Having travelled extensively throughout Spain during his holidays, Richard chose to move to the Valencia region due to its unbeatable climate, neither too hot in summer nor too cold in winter, and its combination of mountain scenery and Mediterranean beaches. The Mediterranean lifestyle and open, friendly attitude of the Valencian people added to the attraction of this area of Spain.
Peter arrived in August 2000, coming here on holiday to take a break from the hard work of owning and running a successful bar in Prague- a holiday from which he never returned.
They met in the Silk Exchange, in Valencia in 2001 and have been together ever since. By this time, Richard had changed schools and was working in the city centre, while Peter had found work as a waiter in the city. With Peter working nights and Richard working days, neither was particularly satisfied with how their lives were panning out. In July 2006, they got married, taking advantage of the new equality laws passed by the Spanish government. The wedding was celebrated in the Spa Hotel, on the banks of the River Turia, in Chulilla, and many of their friends and neighbours from the village attended.
In March 2002, Peter saw an advert for a 6 bedroomed house in Chulilla, a village renowned within the area for its beauty, its dramatic countryside and its peaceful, traditional way of life. Reluctantly, Richard agreed to view the house, worried that if they loved it, they wouldn’t be able to buy it as it was just too far out of the city to commute to work each day.
As predicted, when they saw the house, they fell in love with it. Although it wasn’t finished, the major work on the house had been completed by the owners and the house exuded a warmth and homeliness they found irresistible. The extraordinary views from the terrace, its position in the quietest part of the village on the footpath which leads into the Turia Canyon and its sense of openness and welcome sold it to them on the spot. They returned to their flat in La Eliana, put it on the market and moved three months later.
On arrival in Chulilla, they immediately began to find out how to open the house as a guesthouse, “casa rural”. They also put in the fireplace, finished the garage, games room and utility room in the basement and decorated the house throughout. The name, “La Casa Serena” came naturally, as the house itself seemed to fill them with serenity.
As with many aspects of Spanish life, the paperwork involved in the opening of a business seemed daunting; however, Chulilla Town Hall was extremely helpful in finding a way through the maze and simplifying the legal language.
They obtained certificates testifying to the quality of the drinking water, the safety of the electrical installations and the efficiency of the waste removal. The next step was to employ a firm of architects to draw up detailed plans of the house to present to the authorities in order to receive the Opening Licence. Inspectors from the Valencia Tourist Board visited and agreed to list “La Casa Serena” on their books, including it on their websites and in the free annual guide they publish of rural accommodation. Within 3 months they had all the paperwork ready to present to Chulilla Town Hall and to the Valencian authorities.
With the submission of the application for the Opening License, they received verbal permission to open and the first guests arrived. Their arrival was completely unexpected. One of the bar owners in the village had told this young couple from Valencia about the new Casa Rural and they were keen to try it out. Looking back, Peter and Richard often laugh about how over-attentive they were, constantly checking if everything was OK and worrying constantly about being robbed! The couple, however, although they said they enjoyed their stay, never came back!
After waiting for nearly 2 years, the Opening Licence was finally granted in January 2005. On Peter’s birthday, they decided to invite all the owners of the bars, restaurants, shops and the small hostel in Chulilla, for drinks and snacks on the terrace, as a way to get to know them and to begin the process of integration into Chulilla’s community life.
This turned out to be a good move and firm friendships were established, which continue to flourish to this day.
Alfredo from a local hotel continues to send guests to “La Casa Serena” when he is full and now the process works in both directions, with him receiving the overflow from the guesthouse.
The restaurant owners continue to recommend “La Casa Serena” and Peter and Richard send their guests to the restaurants to sample the exquisite mountain gastronomy served in Chulilla. The bars and shops display leaflets and posters for the guesthouse and the guests buy their food and drink locally, often going home with bottles of locally produced wine and olive oil. Giving back to the local community has always been important to them both and serves to benefit all.
The neighbours were invited over to view the house, have a drink and get to know the foreigners who had arrived in their midst, a couple of weeks later. Now, oranges, onions, peaches and apricots, water melons and pumpkins arrive at the door; gifts from the neighbours’ fertile fields. During the summer months, the neighbours sit outside and gather together to chat about the weather, the economy, the latest gossip and political developments and Peter and Richard are often there, finally being able to hold their own in these lively conversations.
People from literally all over the world have visited “La Casa Serena”. Families from New Zealand, Australia and Canada, a TV documentary film crew from South Africa, climbers from Belgium, France, Germany and the Czech Republic, couples from Algeria, Chile, the USA and Colombia, and sun seekers from Sweden, Lithuania and Poland and, of course, many visitors from the UK and Spain.
To be chosen as the honeymoon destination by Scott and Rebecca, a young couple from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, was both a surprise and a source of satisfaction for Peter and Richard.
The vast majority of their guests are people seeking an escape from the rush and stress of 21st century life. Many of the guests have become firm friends and return frequently to repeat their visits. Laurent and Anne from Bordeaux, who revel in the climbing opportunities in Chulilla, Karin and Caroline from Stockholm, who love swimming in the hidden, natural lagoons here, Ruben and Teresa, a young couple from Valencia who escape here to be together, away from their parents, Karen, responsible for special education in Sheffield comes to escape the pressures of her job and to relax on the sunny terrace, and Peter and Helen, a retired British couple who live on the Costa Blanca and visit to leave behind the traffic and concrete jungles of the coast, are just a few of their guests whose repeated visits have made them close friends.
Having been there for more than 5 years, “La Casa Serena” is now an established, profitable business. However, it was never their intention to exploit its potential to the maximum, preferring to live a quieter life. Richard now gives English classes to primary children in the nearby town of Villar del Arzobispo, where he is employed by the Parents’ Association to run the after-school classes. There are now more than 130 children who come weekly to his classes.
Peter runs the house, keeping it clean, organising bookings and sorting out VAT and tax payments. He is employed by the house and is an active member of the Association to Develop Tourism in Chulilla, attending meetings at the Town Hall and regional offices. In November 2007, he accepted the prestigious “Marca de Calidad Territorial” (Quality Award for Rural Initiative) from the E.U. Inspectorate, making “La Casa Serena” one of only 14 businesses in the entire Valencia Region and 1,500 in Europe, to possess this accolade. It was awarded following a series of detailed inspections and the completion of client questionnaires along with, of course, a pile of paperwork. The Gala Presentation Ceremony took place in the exclusive Spa Hotel, on the banks of the River Turia, in Chulilla. The ceremony was attended by all the local mayors, the press and members of the Valencian Government. “La Casa Serena” is the only accommodation in Chulilla to receive the Quality Award.
With the world’s financial markets falling and the credit crunch biting ever deeper, Peter and Richard were obviously concerned about the possible affect this could have on their business. People across Spain have been cutting back on spending and trying to build up their savings to face the uncertainties of the future. However, it would appear that people are choosing not to splash out on holidays in expensive, exotic locations. Instead they are discovering the wealth of natural and architectural beauty to be found in rural Spain and choosing to stay in a ‘casa rural’, rather than in a costly hotel. So, in spite of the bleak news filling the papers and television screens, in the small world of Chulilla, the future’s looking brighter than ever.
La Casa Serena has the potential to be developed into a more profitable enterprise. A marketing strategy focussing on climbers, walkers and participants in outdoor pursuits, the conversion of the 3 room basement into accommodation or a centre for hiring mountain bikes and climbing equipment, the renting of the entire house, are just some of the options which they considered.
Its position in Chulilla, just off the new dual carriageway to Valencia, less than 1 hour’s drive from the city, 40 minutes from the International Airport and close to the beaches of the Costa Blanca and Costa Azahar, make Chulilla a haven of tranquillity, within easy reach of shops, cinemas, museums and internationally renowned concert halls. Valencia, having hosted the America’s Cup and being home to the newest urban circuit for Formula 1, is the fastest growing city in Spain. Nearby Cheste holds the Motorcycle Grand Prix every October, guaranteeing a full house. Within walking distance of some of Europe’s most challenging climbing routes, with miles of endless mountain footpaths and close to a reservoir, “La Casa Serena” is an ideal resting place for lovers of adventure sports, whilst the fishing opportunities provided by the 2 rivers in Chulilla draw anglers from across Europe. The National Angling Championships often take place in Chulilla, bringing in many guests, and the abundance of eagles, vultures, hoopoes and owls attract bird watchers.
Furthermore there are now two amazing suspensión bridges, crossing the Turia Canyon.
For anyone who enjoys walking amidst spectacular, mountain scenery, or exploring undiscovered corners of traditional Spain, Chulilla has so much to offer. Perched precariously below the remains of an ancient, Islamic castle, Chulilla controls the entrance to the deep Turia Canyon. The white houses, clinging to the mountainside, provide a dramatic backdrop for the flourishing vegetation in this truly green area of Valencia. Prehistoric cave paintings, the Baroque church and two hermitages add to Chulilla’s historical legacy, whilst its position in La Serrania del Turia makes it the perfect base to explore the mountains lying on Valencia’s doorstep.
Restaurants serving traditional mountain cuisine, such as roast venison, lamb cooked in rosemary and warming, winter stews make Chulilla a must-visit for the gastronomically inclined. The 2 rivers found here are wonderful for summer-time swimming whilst, for those chilly winter evenings, the fireplace at La Casa Serena is ideal to curl up beside with a good book and a glass of local wine.