Olive Press Exclusive by Jon Clarke
AT around 15,000 hectares – or the size of a small English county – the private estate in the backwaters of rural Cordoba is one of the largest and most exclusive in Western Europe. Owned by Britain’s third-richest man, the Duke of Westminster, it has just one – practically impassable – public road, its very own petrol station, and a fleet of armed security guards to keep any undesirables at bay.
Feudal in character, the estate – which also boasts half a dozen large houses, a private train station and accommodation for nearly 100 staff – it is just the sort of venue a future king might use for a spot of secret courting.
It is little surprise then to learn that Princes William and Harry have become occasional visitors at Finca La Garganta, near the village of Conquista, on the border with Castilla La Mancha.
Under the guise of hunting – the estate is literally teeming with wildlife including wild boar, stag and partridge – the young princes have whisked girlfriends, including Kate Middleton, to the estate that the Duke bought on an initial ten-year lease for a reported £2million five years ago.
Staying in a stunning ten-bed villa – one of three the Duke has spent millions constructing in the heart of the estate – the eligible princes took girlfriends out shooting and even wined and dined them at a well-known local restaurant.
Enjoying the complete isolation on the idyllic estate, which has a perimeter of 40 miles, they even made a point of inviting their closest friends for a secret New Year’s Eve party in December two years ago.
Flying in to Sevilla airport on a private jet, the dozen or so friends were whisked to the estate in the private minibus of Manuel Ruiz de Lopera, the owner of the city’s top football side Real Betis.
According to the Dia de Cordoba newspaper, during the four-day visit that was masked in secrecy, Prince William with his brother Harry and seven friends went hunting and killed 740 partridges on their first day.
The following day, on New Year’ Eve, they had a wild boar and deer hunt, an expensive pursuit involving hundreds of local beaters and packs of dogs from miles around.
According to one local employee, who cannot be named for legal reasons, they killed dozens of animals that day also. “They were mostly very good shots,” said the estate employee, who signed a confidentiality agreement to work on the estate. “And they certainly made sure they celebrated that night.”
Indeed, according to well-placed sources, the future king has visited at least twice recently. Often flying in for just a couple of days, he hunts and then returns to Scotland, trying to keep as low a profile as possible. But that however, did not stop local hotel owner Antonio Alonso, from recognising him in his restaurant three times last year.
“William first came in May or June last year and ate with a big group of 26 people, including Austrians, Germans and French,” said the boss of the highly-rated game restaurant Sierra Madrona, which is a 15-minute drive from La Garganta.
“He was with a brunette girl, who seemed to be his girlfriend. I did not know who she was and I was too busy working to watch them closely, but they seemed quite intimate.”
The successful restauranteur, who includes the King of Spain on his list of patrons, added: “He was back again in October and another time after that and each time had his security people coming to check the place in advance. On the nights in question they sat at a nearby table closely observing the scene. I really do not remember if he was with his girlfriend or not those times, as we were so busy.”
In terms of food, he said the future King of England, had surprisingly varied tastes for a hunter. “We gave him a menu degustation of 18 plates, including wild boar, game pate and venison and he tried a bit of most of them, unlike most hunters, who famously favour just vegetable soup and lamb.
“William did not speak hardly any Spanish, apart from hello and goodbye, but he seemed like a nice chap and will do a good job when he finally becomes King.”
Alonso, who is close friends with the estate manager at La Garganta, Jose Maria Tercero, said William had apparently had “a wild time” during his stay over the New Year and had mostly eaten food provided by a fully-qualified chef who works as a housekeeper.
“They had their own private party on New Year’s Eve and drank mostly whisky and coke and had a stereo playing a series of mix tapes they had brought with them. I was told they had a wild time.”
These facts were confirmed with the few locals in the nearby village of Conquista, who were prepared to talk. One, whose son works on the estate, said: “I was told they were up till 4am on both December 29 and New Year’s Eve and drank a lot of whisky.”
It even appears at some point in the evening of December 31 two girls from the party came into the village on their own – where around 70 workers from the estate live – to buy cigarettes and then stopped for a couple of gin and tonics in a local bar.
While no-one in either of the three village bars could confirm this, the father of the estate worker, said: “They were two pretty English girls, one blonde and one dark, who came in that night. One of them was the Duke of Westminster’s daughter I think. I am not sure if the other was Kate Middleton or not. They had a few drinks with some of the workers from the estate and then went to the tobacconist to buy cigarettes before going back.
“No-one will confirm it as anyone who works in the estate has to sign a confidentiality agreement and they are too scared to lose their jobs. The Duke of Westminster is a very secretive and powerful man and no-body wants to get on the wrong side of him.”
As expected, neither estate manager Jose Maria Tercero nor local mayor Diego Buenestado would comment on the Prince’s visits. But the mayor did confirm the Duke is pouring millions of pounds into a huge renovation of the estate.
“It is a very significant estate and he is doing a lot of building work there. He must be spending millions of euros. It is good for the village and is bringing a lot of employment. The Duke might be a secretive person, but he is very interested in conserving the estate and shows a lot of consideration to his workers. Everyone says he is a nice person,” he said.
So what exactly is going on inside one of Spain’s biggest and most controversial estates?
Initially owned by Rio Tinto, the British mining company which extracted a series of raw materials from the surrounding hills, the finca was eventually bought by a series of powerful European landowners as a hunting ground in the early 20th century. Run by a company called Villamagna SA, the mostly aristocratic German owners – who for years have hunted there with Europe’s power base – decided to lease it to Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor, the sixth Duke of Westminster two years ago.
But locals complain that while the wealthy duke has spent considerable sums of money renovating and building properties for himself and his friends in the estate he had done nothing to open it up to public.
Critics claim over the last 30 years the place has begun to appear more and more feudal in character. Many Spanish outside of Conquista, including green group Ecologistas en Accion, are particularly angry at the way that the estate’s owners have gradually cut off the old public roads that crossed the estate.
It certainly looks that way with records showing that in 1978 13 public roads crossing the land, while today there is only one – a practically impassible dirt track, full of potholes, and taking over an hour to reach the hamlet of Minas de Horcajo the other side.
What is more, it takes a great deal of perseverance and nerve to use it, with countless signs warning one not to proceed.
As you cross a river into the estate from Conquista, a series of signs informs you that you are entering a ‘security zone,’ and then in big red letters that it is a ‘private road, only for La Garganta’ and it is ‘forbidden to stop by the side of the road.’
There are no signposts telling you which way to go and the track forks into three directions, all poorly maintained.
Critics claim the owners have built their own private tracks running alongside the old degraded public roads.
These roads, which have gates barring the way of public traffic, are clearly perfectly maintained.
But armed with a Spanish map – which still shows the B-road winding through the estate – it is worth persevering with the public road, which soon gives you the feel for days gone by.
The scale of the place is the first thing to become apparent. It takes a good five minutes of driving before you meet the first building, a converted railway station and then three large private villas nestling amid verdant woodland in the rugged Sierra Morena.
Each with their own pools, they have perfectly clipped gardens and appear distinctly more Provencal than Andaluz. While one is completed (the house where William stayed, which has its own jacuzzi and sauna) builders are working around the clock to get the other two finished.
“We have been here for months and there is no end of work,” said one. “This guy has certainly got money.”
Restauranteur Antonio Alonso confirmed the huge project. “The Duke is sparing no expense doing up and building these properties. It is like his mini empire and will be amazing when it is all finished.
“A carpenter, who has been working there for the last six months, says each will have around six to eight bedrooms as well as the most incredible specifications with marble floors and wooden beams.”
But it is the situation at the estate’s nearby HQ that is so worthy of note. The first thing you notice is the estate’s very own petrol station, and then when you go through the courtyard to enter the office you find out why, with the estate having a fleet of over 20 identical Toyota Hilera jeeps.
Each top of the range and fitted with walkie-talkies, it was little surprise within five minutes of entering the finca the Olive Press had a jeep pulling us over to ask what we were doing.
When we said we were just passing through, and pointed to the map, they shrugged and agreed we could continue, but insisted on escorting us all the way to the other side.
Later, when asked about the prince’s stay and the amazing building project, estate manager Jose Maria Tercero, said: “William has been here, but I cannot comment when or for how long. I cannot say anything about the finca or how it is run. I have been told to say nothing to the press. The Duke is a very private man and does not want any interference here. You will have to take it up with his office in London.”