With doctors, teachers and even High Court judges buying here, Iznajar is fast becoming THE town for the discerning foreign buyer
Jon Clarke and Ursula Beal
I AM sitting on the beach watching my daughter play with a bucket and spade and looking out across the water at, well, row upon row of olive trees actually. For we are in Cordoba province beside Andalucia’s largest reservoir with the Mediterranean a good hour to the south. The place is Iznajar to be exact, and we are thankfully a long way removed from the fish and chip shop brigade of the Costa del Sol.
Without a doubt one of the true picture postcard towns of Andalucia – easily rivalling Ronda and Olvera for its scenery – Iznajar sits on a rocky outcrop that thrusts out of the lake. It is peace personified, sitting beside the reservoir, which is around 30 kilometres in length and crosses the three provinces of Córdoba, Málaga and Granada.
There is hardly a house, let alone a block of flats or golf course, to ruin the view in all directions. Fringed by pine plantations and oceans and oceans of olives, its backdrop is the distant Sierra Subbetica and resident birds such as hoopoes and bee eaters swoop across its surface for sustenance.
Known as the Mirador of the River Genil valley, it is hardly surprising that Iznajar is fast becoming one of the most desirable inland destinations in Andalucia.
“It is incredible how fashionable this place has now become,” says estate agent Vicente Quintana. “I have recently sold to basketball stars, businessmen and above all English judges and lawyers. While two years ago we were getting dozens of English turning up with 30,000 euros to spend, now they often come with 400,000 to 500,000 euros. It is quite a turn around.”
It is indeed the case, sitting down to a candlelit dinner in the pebbled courtyard of the atmospheric hotel Cortijo La Haza in the rolling hinterland near the town. But it is not the superb restoration of this 250-year-old farmhouse – nor the delicious fish stew cooked by chef and new owner Belgian Patriek Defauw – that comes as the biggest surprise.
The thing that really catches the eye is the clientèle, who include among the Monday night throng, two British judges from Leeds. Recently having bought in the area, they have become firm fans of the lake-side town, which serves as their escape from the Rat Race back home. “We love the countryside and peace,” explained one asking to remain anonymous. “We are slowly getting to know it and love what we have found.”
It does not take long to fall under the spell of the town. Originally a prehistoric settlement, its fortunes changed in the 7th century when Arab settlers built a castle on the promontory and named it Hins Ashar.
Iznajar Castle is one of the oldest Moorish fortresses in the region and the ruins are now undergoing full restoration. It stands on the highest point of the promontory, inside its own keep, and with the oldest part of the village alongside it.
It is a wonderful place to visit, particularly in the evening, as the hot Andaluz sun starts to drop, its last rays giving an ethereal light to the palm tree and the historic houses around the old castle.
The locals come and go, many dropping into the impressive Church of Santiago, which was built in the 17th century. It has a beautiful baroque chapel behind the altar, which guards the clay modelled statue of the patron saint, Santisma Virgin de la Piedad. It dates from 1460 and is the oldest in the town.
On leaving the church you stroll past a small square called the Patio de las Comedias which lends credence to the fact Iznajar once had a theatre culture despite its defensive position. A few steps down and you will come to a quirky and beautifully kept patio, bedecked with flower pots and a bit like a mini Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Just outside the castle walls is the old agricultural depository from the time of Carlos III, that great benefactor of Andalucía whose reign in the late 18th century signalled an upturn in the fortunes of the region.
It is now being used as the public municipal library.
Despite the former monarch helping to bring money and employment to the region, a century later the town was to become infamous when on June 29, 1861, the town backed an uprising against the monarchy led by Rafael Perez del Alamo.
Born in the nearby town of Lorca, he led the first rural movement against the monarchy in the contemporary history of Andalucía and ended up mobilizing 10,000 peasants and some merchants, artisans and small proprietors.
The rebellion was short lived but Perez de Alamo was able to escape to family in Madrid and was later granted a reprieve by Isobel II, who even allowed him to return home.
One has to wonder if Rafael was somehow influenced through the genetic bloodline of the Perez family name. A mere 25 years earlier, in June 1836, another member of his family successfully captured the Mission of the Alamo in Texas. And the name General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana Perez de Lebron is forever in US history.
The connections have so interested the Texan Society for the San Antonio Mission at the Alamo that they have been researching it and now plan to visit the town.
“There is a lot more history than meets the eye,” says Keith Tennyson, a former hotel manager in the UK, who moved here six years ago. “But best of all, unlike most of the towns to the south, you can still live a fairly traditional life here, but have excellent access to most of the big cities in Andalucía within an hour.”
Boss of estate agency Andalucia Property Direct, Hall is particularly impressed at how well the locals have dealt with the large influx of foreigners, mostly British, who are said to number around 300 in and around the town.
“They are very friendly and welcoming to the foreigners and are incredibly good tradesman and crafts people. You can get anything from doors to tables and chairs made in the town and there is no shortage of local shops.”
Hotelier Patriek Defauw agrees. “It has all the facilities apart from a supermarket, but there is a great local butcher, a first class baker and there is a good fruit and veg market on Tuesday.”
The former Eurostar boss, who took over the Cortijo La Haza six months ago with his wife Bernadette van der Heijden, fell in love with the area and hotel immediately. “Who couldn’t fall in love with this place, its cobbled patio, peace and quiet out of the Rat Race, it was exactly what we were looking for. And the town above the lake, it is stunning.”
The reservoir certainly rejuvenated the town when it was opened a decade ago. Containing 900 million cubic metres of water destined for domestic consumption, it is the largest in Andalucia.
It has served to give Iznajar a waterfront, with breathtaking views and, at weekends, the popular Media Luna beach bar and restaurant is packed. During the summer there are many types of water sports to enjoy, such as fishing, sailing, canoeing, and windsurfing.
Sadly though, there is a signal here of the huge threat to the region from a lack of rainfall and increasing development.
The water level is drastically depleted after three years of decreasing precipitation and increased consumption.
While it is alarming, if anything the level enhances the wonderful patchwork of coloured banks that lead down to the water. The sand is wonderfully fine, superb to walk on, unlike the grit of the Costa beaches, and great for making sandcastles.
While the town is getting increasingly popular, it is possible to find townhouses in need of reform for as little as 60,000 euros. Others in a better condition would cost from 100,000 euros.
As Tim Holt of Andalucian Property Direct explains: “There is something for everyone. If you want local neighbours, there are plenty of charming village houses; if you want to be isolated in the hills we have got lots of things. There are plots on the lake, ruined cortijos, we have got 180 properties for sale going from under 100,000 to 2.5million euros.”
Nearby, on the edge of town, Allied Developments are building a series of new spacious townhouses and apartments overlooking the lake.
It has been a battle to get planning permission with the town hall claiming to be extremely strict on new builds.
According to sales director Carole Giles, the houses are being built in keeping with the town. They are painted white with brown doors and windows and the apartments will be no more than two storeys high blending in with other buildings.
Prices range from 99,000 to 110,000 euros for the apartments and 199,000 for the town houses. Giles said: “People seem to be buying for the right reasons – they love the area and its unspoilt beauty. This is not an area for the fish and chips brigade and it is bringing much needed work to the town, which like many of the white villages, needs the income.”