Turtle Bunbury

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Majada del Lentiscus - The Melians of Sotogrande, Spain

Photographs by James Fennell.

Colonel Joseph McMicking had a dream. He wanted to build Paradise. The Philippines based entrepreneur and sometime ADC to Douglas MacArthur first proved his visionary prowess when, in the wake of World War II, he created "Makati", the world's first state-of-the-art satellite city for the affluent elite of Filipino society. In 1962 he initiated the search for a new location for a new Eden. He chose Franco's Spain, the poorest country in Western Europe.

And so it was to the parched, barren mountains of Andalusia that McMicking dispatched his cousin Alfredo Melian Zobel to find his paradise. Andalucia had always been poor. Romans, Moors, Visigoths and Christian fanatics were amongst the many unruly hoards who previously passed through the land, plundering any chance of prosperity. In the centuries before the rain-sodden British middle classes came hunting for fish and chips, the only real hope for Andalusia's inhabitants was to start anew in foreign lands; many who set sail for South America with the Conquistadors hailed from the fishing hamlets and mountain pueblos of the province.

Melian rode his motorbike through the narrow winding roads of the coastal sierra for several months with a blank check in his wallet. Eventually he secured three adjoining farms fronting the Mediterranean which, rapidly amalgamated, became the basis of Sotogrande, arguably the most exclusive, up-market golfing resort in Europe today. The 4000-acre estate lies along the south Andalusian coastline midway between Marbella and Gibraltar. When Melian arrived, there was nothing here save a few ramshackle cortijos (sheep farms) and shepherd boys snoozing under cork oak trees, dreaming of alchemists, watching the mighty freight ships plough through the Straits of Gibraltar, the mountains of Morocco shimmering beyond.

Melian was rewarded with a two-acre plot bordering what is now called Old Sotogrande Golf Course. And here he built his house, the first in Sotogrande, completed in 1966. Majada del Lentiscus derives its name from a Castillian word meaning "shelter for shepherds and their flock". It is a graceful house, replete with high ceilings, vertical windows and wrought iron balconies, expressive of the ambience of maritime Andalusia and not dissimilar to the colonial mansions in vogue in the late 19th century in Tangier, Havana and Manila. The Melian's maintain strong ties to their native Philippines. The interior indicates a well-travelled and creative family. Wall hangings include abstracts by Fernando Melian Zobel and sensual photographs taken by his brother Jaime Zobel (now President of the Ayala Corporation). Hong Kong tea chests, Pacific coral, Greek urns and antique oriental tapestries add an Asian twist to this Mediterranean home that sits well with visitors.

Having a golf course on the edge of your property is an effective way of increasing the apparent size of your plot, albeit allowing for the hazard of wayward golf balls plummeting unexpectedly from the sky. In the case of the Melian's house, the effect is further enhanced as the fairway wends its way through an ancient cork tree grove. These trees provide much needed shelter for the lovely gardens that Mary Melian Zobel, the lady of the house has created. Born a Randolph, one of the first families of Tennessee, Mary Melian had brought to this part of Spain the gracious touch of the American South. Her garden abounds with the colours and aromas of strawberry trees, myrtle, alder buckthorn, rosemary, Spanish lavender, heather, jasmine and rock rose. Lawns bordered with these plants lead the visitor through to a discreetly hidden open-air pool, complete with a small distinctly Philippine pavilion. The Casa de Nacar is named for the translucent chips of mother-of-pearl arranged like fish scales in panels framed by dark wood from which it is constructed. Farther on is a sloping garden enclosed by holly-oaks and cypresses and planted by landscape gardener Russell Page. Here in the month of May, the "Rose Beds for Mary", as Page called them, produce a mass of mainly white blossoms.

Two superbly beautiful and strikingly different patios created by Mary offer the Melians alternative areas to eat and repose. The larger, accessible by a wrought iron gate set in an arch, is a colonial affair, smothered in cascades of fragrant yellow roses and surrounded by votive pots filled with ginger lillies and white Dutchman's pipe. It is in this patio that one finds the best examples seen in any Spanish garden of the dahlia, which first flowered in Spain about 200 years ago, following its introduction from Mexico, in 1789. The smaller patio, at the heart of the house, is accessible only from Mary's bedroom. The blue of the azulejos attractively echoes the tiled floor of both patio and adjoining bathroom. Clay pots hold ferns and palms, while white doves perch upon bamboo poles laid crosswise on top of the white walls and covered in a blue trumpet vine whose flowers rain down into the patio below.

The Melian's home remains at a distance from the increasingly lively action of Sotogrande. The resort is inevitably expanding at a furious rate as more and more North Europeans pour south in pursuit of sunshine and golf. But at the Majada, one can only hear the Mediterranean breeze swirl amid the cork trees, the occasional clunk of a golf ball, the regular coo of a dove and just maybe the ancient bleat of a sheep from the days when this was the shelter of shepherds and their flock.