When Alex Polizzi was in her 20s, she decided that what she really wanted to do in life was run a guesthouse somewhere on a beach in Europe.
“I took my car and my mum and we spent nine weeks doing the whole coastline, from the top of France, all the way down to Spain and Portugal and back up through France and Italy. I didn’t find my hotel but I got a taste for Spain – I got very excited about the food in particular.”
She’s especially fond of their tapas habit. “In Italy, if you walk into a restaurant and ask to eat at seven, they look at you as if you’ve lost your mind. In Spain everyone was eating and drinking all day long, which was lovely. Somehow we’ve become so prudish in this country about what you can and can’t eat and drink, and when you should do it.
“I was in a jamón shop and the owner said to me, ‘Oh no, you can’t have ham without a glass of wine. You must have a glass, you must!’ And I found that so refreshing. This guy was 70 and he looked 40. I’m sure that enjoying the ordinary things in life must be good for you.”
In Spectacular Spain, Polizzi travels the length and breadth of the country, from the verdant peaks of Galicia in the northwest to the southeastern Tabernas Desert; from the tourist coastal hotspot of Benidorm to the often overlooked interior.
“It was as much a voyage across the landscape as it was into a fascinating nation. It’s a very forward-thinking country compared to Italy, which is much more about protecting the patrimony, and more convention-bound. Spain is pretty iconoclastic: it really celebrates diversity, difference and people following their dreams. In the town of Elciego in the Basque Country, for example, there’s a stunning titanium and stainless steel hotel by the architect Frank Gehry in the middle of this ancient winery, and somehow it works. They can do both.”
In front of Frank Gehry’s hotel in Elciego: Marqués de Riscal
Next week she’s in Spain’s southernmost region, Andalusia, which boasts a popular swathe of the Mediterranean coast, rugged Atlantic beaches, two mountain ranges, desert and the cities of Seville and Granada. The latter is home to one of Polizzi’s favourite places in the world: the Alhambra, an ornate palace-fort constructed by the Moors in the 13th century.
“Everybody in the whole world should go to Granada. This was my third visit and the Alhambra was still astonishing. And the Albayzín, the medieval, whitewashed village that sits on the hill opposite the palace is beautiful too – incredibly steep, winding and cobbled. I ran out of adjectives making this series. Everything was wonderful or beautiful or stunning.”
The Alhambra palace in Granada
Polizzi also pays a visit to the Fort Bravo movie set, where spaghetti westerns were made in the 1960s. “The landscape was surreal. Tabernas is one of Europe’s only true deserts and it just didn’t feel like Spain. It was very odd but the most stunning place. I’m longing to take my daughters there. It feels exactly like you’re in a western and there are all these actors walking around impersonating cowboys.”
In Fort Bravo
She was less thrilled about visiting Marbella, which has a reputation for hard partying, but was pleasantly surprised. “I saw another side to it that I wasn’t expecting – just how beautiful it is as soon as you get away from the main strip. And it was interesting to learn how Marbella has become such an important tourist destination largely because of one hotel, the Marbella Club, which is still going.”
So if Polizzi were to join the hordes of Brits who move to Spain every year, where would she go? “I’d live internally rather than on the beach. I really liked Jerez and that area, although that was partly because of the sherry drinking I did there!”
Halfway between the Atlantic Ocean and the Sierra de Cádiz region, the chic city of Jerez de la Frontera is famous as the capital of Andalusian horse culture, flamenco and sherry.
“I’d never drunk sherry, but I’m now on a crusade to get it into mother’s hotels. Because now I know how to drink it, which is more like wine – open a bottle and consume it over a few days as an aperitif. I’m not a big fan of the sweet sherries but I love a dry fino.”