Swellboy on… Mark Birley’s favourite Spanish getaway

An Andalucian idyll beckons irresistibly – when the ice is right

Alcuzcuz nestles in the hills overlooking Marbella
Alcuzcuz nestles in the hills overlooking Marbella

It is no secret that I was and remain an admirer of the great Mark Birley; his was a cult of personality that seemed, like the man himself, so elegantly effortless. I remember once we were playing a backgammon tournament at his house Thurloe Lodge, and the legendary Mohamed Ghannam, who could be found at Annabel’s bar when not officiating at backgammon tournaments, was there wearing a very natty pair of Cartier cufflinks. I complimented him on the way he was keeping his cuffs from flapping and his comment was typical: “When you work for Mr Birley, you don’t mess about.”

Certainly Mark liked to keep his staff and the staff of others on their toes. I was once told that the staff of Alcuzcuz, the house he used to rent in the hills overlooking Marbella, would grumble about changing the bedlinen twice a day. Come the evening, Mark was not a man to tolerate sleeping in the same creased sheets that he had occupied when enjoying his afternoon nap.

The hotel was the home of interior designer Jaime Parladé
The hotel was the home of interior designer Jaime Parladé

However, the staff should have been glad that he asked for nothing more complicated than a twice-daily change of sheets. Sensible man that he was, he took the precaution of travelling to southern Spain with Mohamed, who dealt with the really important stuff. For apparently one evening there was a question about the cream. Mohamed handled it with his usual aplomb, and before long there was a grand-luxe version of the Berlin Airlift taking place, as fresh cream was flown in fromLondon. However, even Mohamed was occasionally stumped.

On another summer evening at Alcuzcuz, Mark beckoned Mohamed to his side. The ice was not quite right. Maybe it was not melting at the correct speed, but whatever the problem was, Mark was not happy. “Where does the ice come from, Mohamed?” “It’s ice, Mr Birley. I am not sure that it comes from anywhere special”was Mohamed’s somewhat perplexed response. Mark pondered this and gave the perfect riposte. “Could you call the office in London and see what they can do about it?”

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I never did find out what Mark’s office behind Annabel’s managed to do about the ice in his drink in the hills of southern Spain, but these stories and others were running through my mind as I walked through the sun-dappled rooms of Alcuzcuz the other day.

Alcuzcuz is an enchanting refuge that was the home of the late Jaime Parladé, the great Iberian interior decorator. A man of considerable taste, he was once described by El Mundo as a “southern gentleman” who, “with the disdain of a Dandy, enslaves his clients like a gigolo. He is the person that gives splendour to the houses of the powerful.” His own rambling house was an engaging cocktail of stately home shabby chic and Andalucian sunlight and, since his death in 2015, it has been opened asa boutique hotel.

Alcuzcuz is an engaging cocktail of stately home shabby chic and Andalucian sunlight
Alcuzcuz is an engaging cocktail of stately home shabby chic and Andalucian sunlight

If you are looking for an Aman resort or a Four Seasons type of experience, then I suggest that you check into an Aman resort or a FourSeasons. However, if you want to experience douceur de vivre and have the Rif Mountains of Morocco on the horizon across the Mediterranean while lounging by the pool (and there are occasions I have been swimming in Marbella in December), or sip a cold drink (I think that the ice is under control) on a warm evening on the terrace watching the lights of Marbella twinkling below, then you might like it here.

There is a restaurant in the former gatehouse – and, as well as serving excellent Mediterranean food, it is a shop, so if you take a fancy to the chair you are sitting on, you can add it to the bill. I was rather taken with a wicker tub chair of a type that Jaime had used in some of his decorative schemes and slung it in the back of the Mini Moke after dinner. If you fall in love with the view, there is even an estate agent’s office, tucked away in this attractive warren of rooms and courtyards.

One of the pleasures at Alcuzcuz is sipping a cold drink on a warm evening on the terrace
One of the pleasures at Alcuzcuz is sipping a cold drink on a warm evening on the terrace

Gratifyingly, the house is much as I remember it being in the old days,and the gardens have a touch of England about them. I half expected to turn a corner and bump into Gertrude Jekyll, trug in hand.

If you wander around this hillside estate long enough, you will come to a charming little hamlet with houses and an enchanting whitewashed chapel that will become the headquarters of the Fabien Fryns Foundation for ChineseContemporary Art, with an artist-in-residence living on the estate and using the old chapel as a studio.

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And in a sense, this rebirth of a splendid private home as a bohemian hotel with a link to the arts is a back to the future moment. On the way into the courtyard, there are some tiles decorated by Jean Cocteau, dedicated to Jaime when he was his guest at a boutique hotel in Marbella called La Fonda, which during the 1960s was a popular artists’ hangout. Half a century later, history seems to be repeating itself.

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