A CATTERY IN SPAIN
(Sun, sand, sea? Not a lot of that!)
When we first retired in Spain, we never imagined being short of money or working seven days a week. Running a cattery, in any country, brings great rewards, but is very hard work. There is never a day off and especially not Christmas Day, the busiest time of the year. If you want to start a cattery, don't be daunted. It isn't that difficult and our story might inspire you. Unfortunately, we had to close down due to pressure from our bankers during the recession in Spain.
In this book, I will tell you how we built a cattery from scratch and all about the wonderful cats we had the pleasure to look after for five years. At the back of the book you will find the A to Z of cat breeds around the world, a useful read if you are toying with the idea of owning an unusual breed.
First, though, I will take you back to the time when we first fell in love with the magic of Spain and how we decided to spend more time on the Costa Blanca, eventually moving there permanently (or so we thought!)
The busiest times in any boarding cattery calendar are the times when everyone else is off on holiday! School holidays and Christmas are the peak periods and as a reputation is established, quiet times become increasingly scarce. The nicest part about cats staying over Christmas is when the owners collect them, relieved to find them safe and sound and, hopefully not too overweight, from too much Christmas fare! Although we were tempted, we didn’t vary their diet on Christmas Day, as we didn’t want them to get upset stomachs. Although, if any newcomers were pining for their owners, a little ham or cooked chicken offered by hand, helped the shyest cats to come out of their hiding place to eat.
A most enjoyable part of running a cattery is hearing the owners’ tales upon their return from far flung places. Many went to visit family in the UK, The Netherlands, Florida, Australia, India, Norway etc. Others went on cruises in Egypt, the Caribbean, returning tanned, relaxed and full of interesting stories to relate. Many travelled the autopista to spend a weekend in Marbella or Andalucia to visit the Moorish Palace. Another popular destination was Gibraltar for expats to stock up on all things British. Occasionally a group of friends would go to Portugal to play golf, or to France on a yacht, meaning all of them would bring their cats for a stay with us. They would regale us with stories of disastrous weather, recommended hotels, delayed flights etc., but without exception, they all said how much they longed to see their kitties.
Although running a boarding cattery is all about caring for cats, a great deal of time is spent reassuring owners and maintaining a high quality business image. No formal qualifications are needed to run a cattery at the present time, although it is a great advantage for any cattery proprietor to have training in cattery management and business administration. It is certainly necessary to be fit and active to run a cattery as daily tasks include cleaning of every occupied unit, preparation and delivery of at least two meals, administration of any medicines, grooming, scrubbing and disinfection of units between boarders, updating of daily records and business paperwork such as bookings and invoices, dealing with arrivals and departures, as well as cattery inspections to put future customers’ minds at rest, and general cattery cleaning such as removing hairs from the bedding before washing them, as well as washing and disinfecting the litter trays.
It is mainly an outdoor lifestyle, sometimes in bad weather conditions, even in Spain, although the cats were protected from the elements in their little houses. On one occasion, during an extremely heavy downpour, the drainage system couldn’t cope and we were thigh high in water. Whilst trying to decide whether to evacuate the house and cattery, several clients came knocking on the door with cats in baskets, telling us their homes were inhabitable due to the floods.
We made a swift decision to take in the cats, based solely on the fact that our villa was on higher ground than theirs. Luckily there was a gully at the end of the garden capable of diverting the bulk of the floods from the higher end of the garden out into the street, missing the cattery completely.
One client’s apartment took two days to dry out and as well as their own cat, they brought another cat from their friend’s villa, which was nearly washed away totally. Luckily we had room to accommodate both.
Where do I begin, to tell the story of how great a move can be? In the mid-eighties, close friends Juan and Jenny, bade goodbye to England and went to live in the village of Albir on the Costa Blanca in Spain. We kept in touch with letters, videos and telephone calls (pre world wide web). Eventually, they moved to the USA when Juan, a shoe designer, was offered a job he couldn’t refuse. They left their house in Albir unoccupied, having decided renting out could be too problematical. However, they had little objection to friends or relatives giving the house an airing, so one August in the mid 1980s we arrived at Alicante airport clutching a bunch of keys and directions. It was my husband Louie’s first visit to Spain and he fell in love with it instantly.
We collected a hire car from the airport and set off along the coastal road, taking in the fresh sea air by Alicante port, admiring the tall palm trees growing in beds amongst the marble promenades. We soon got in the holiday mood, smiling at other motorists as cars overtook us (we were in no hurry), loaded down with luggage on their roof racks. We passed the town of San Juan and the village of Villajoyosa (meaning jewelled town), a typical Spanish village, with a sandy beach and fishing port. Villajoyosa celebrates the "Fiesta de Moros y Cristianos" from the 24th to the 31st of July every year and the central act is orientated around the Moros unship. The town is famous for its colourful rows of houses facing the sea painted in brilliant colours of yellow ochre, indigo blue and red. It is thought they were painted in such gaudy colours to enable the fisherman to see clearly their way home while out at sea. There is a fish market in the harbour, supplying fresh fish to the local people and restaurants.
Villajoyosa is also known as the chocolate town because of its production of turron, (a nougat dessert), as well as chocolate at the Valor chocolate factory. The museum housed in the village tells the story of Don Valeriano Lopez Lloret, a Master Chocolatier in 1881 who began a career in chocolate making, setting off a chain of activity leading to the present day factory.
A few kilometres further north, we were impressed by the skyscrapers of bustling Benidorm. After a few wrong turns, we found ourselves at our destination, the small village of Albir, 5 kilometres north of Benidorm. We marvelled at the whiteness of the villas covered with purple and pink bougainvillea, the sea glinting in the distance and the warmth of the Mediterranean sun making the car quite stifling.
Mid afternoon found us climbing “The Hill” as it is known locally in Albir. We followed Juan’s directions, passing landmarks like the Ventorillo II restaurant on the way. We couldn’t wait to join the people sitting outside enjoying a late lunch, surrounded by cats and kittens looking for a morsel or two.
Soon we parked in the driveway of the house in a no-through road. Their townhouse (called bungalows in Spain) was in a block of 10 climbing progressively up the hill.
The property was on three floors, a garage and bedroom on the ground floor, kitchen and lounge on the first floor and two bedrooms on the top floor. The kitchen was at the front with a large terrace overlooking the Puig Campana mountain. This proved a favourite place to have a vodka and orange, watching the sun set behind the mountain, until the mountain appeared to be black. Off the main bedroom we were delighted to find a small balcony overlooking the communal pool, a field of pine trees and beyond them, the spectacular bay of Albir. In the distance we could easily see the Penon de Ifach, a massive rock, jutting out from the coastline in Calpe.
Tired from the journey, we unpacked and wandered down to the tiny supermarket in the village to stock up on the usual essentials. Trolleys were nowhere to be seen and passing another customer with the shopping basket was a tight fit. As well as all the basic foods, it doubled up as a souvenir shop and sold the usual brown ceramic bowls used to serve gambas al ajillo, patatas bravas and other such delights.
Opposite the supermarket we were tempted by the smells coming from the place selling rotisserie chickens and decided to buy one to take “home”. It was run by a wife and husband. Normally one says husband and wife, but in this marriage, the woman definitely seemed to take the lead, doing all the cooking, chatting and ordering about anyone who would listen. I asked her if they did any other food and her husband said he could rustle up a Spanish omelette, which he promptly did, amidst much muttering from his lady wife. A portion of ensaladilla rusa (Russian salad) was quickly found as a nice side dish. Needless to say, we became regular customers for around twenty years.
Next morning after a coffee on the back terrace overlooking the pool, we drove down to the village main street and decided to try the Bar Restaurante Miramar next to the supermarket, for another coffee. This soon became our favourite “regular,” due to the charm and friendliness of the owner Domingo and his superb waiter Pepe. They became friends within a short time. In the evenings they would play tricks on the customers, such as squirting them with tomato ketchup, using a plastic ketchup bottle which was empty except for a red piece of rope. The food was standard tourist stuff with photos on the wall and a “Menu del Dia” which is a set meal, usually of 3 courses and including wine, bread and alioli (the delicious garlic mayonnaise the Spanish are so fond of).
At fiesta time, we used to book a table almost in the road, and stayed all evening until throwing out time, watching the local people mingling with the tourists promenading. Almost in the middle of the road a band played on a makeshift stage and people danced along the street. At midnight, most people would amble down to the beach to watch the organised fireworks display.
Many of our holiday nights were spent in Benidorm as it was only 10 minutes drive away. We soon got into a routine of having cocktails in a bar opposite the beach followed by a meal in the countless restaurants. On our last evening, we didn’t want to leave and decided to return the following year.
In 1989 I gave birth to our son Leo and didn’t make it back to Spain that year. However, in 1990 we returned to our friend’s townhouse for a stay with our young son and a nanny, Siobhan. Sixteen year old Siobhan came to us after a series of au pairs. The first was a Spanish Goth who came to help me at the end of my pregnancy as I was running a dating agency from home.
One night we were awoken by sounds of her choking. She had embarked on a midnight raid of the biscuit tin. A sharp slap on the back from Louie soon put an end to what could have been a dramatic 999 call.
The next au pair was Fiorella from Italy. She was more interested in going out than babysitting. Once I made spaghetti bolognese and she was so overcome with delight, she moved me out of the way and took over the cooking of the spaghetti. Another time, my husband looked for an Arabic dinner I’d cooked specially for him, only to find Fiorella got there first. Being an au pair must be the job to work up an appetite!!
So along came Siobhan who seemed so young, but we were impressed by her dedication to studying childcare and, most of all, by the way she gently amused Leo for hours on end. He became so fond of her, calling her “Von” that we decided to take her with us on holiday to Spain.
At the end of the holiday, we found ourselves dreading returning home to the grey skies of England and started to consider making Spain our home.
After spending several relaxing holidays at our friends’ townhouse, we found ourselves falling in love with the village of Albir which is only 47 kilometres from Alicante airport, or 127 kilometres from Valencia airport. It has been popular as a holiday destination with the Spanish, Norwegians, Dutch and English for more than 40 years. The promenade in Albir is called Paseo de las Estrellas (Promenade of the Stars) due to the film festival held each year. On the south side of Albir is a headland from where the beach starts and extends to Altea, changing from sand to small pebbles the nearer you get to Altea, some five minutes away by car. The old town of Altea, a typical Spanish pueblo popular with artists and musicians, sits on top of a hill whose highest altitude is dominated by the blue domed church of Virgin del Consuelo. From here there are numerous cobbled streets, an old town square with several arty boutiques, craft workshops, selling unusual jewellery, restaurants, bars, and buzzing nightlife. The view of the bay stretching from Albir to Calpe can be enjoyed from the top of the village and is magnificent. The church can be reached by car but as parking space is limited, many like to walk up the cobbled steps.
Two of the most famous fiestas held in Altea are the festivities of Moors and Christians and the fireworks of Castell de Lolla.
The following year saw us take our car on the ferry from Plymouth to Santander for another stay in Juan and Jenny’s house. A neighbour told us about a Spanish lady, Concha, running a nursery a few yards further up the road. We went to see her and she looked after Leo whilst we did some serious househunting. We became firm friends with Concha and are still friends today. She closed down the nursery and worked as a radio DJ for a while. She is now a prolific artist having shown her work at many exhibitions.
Back to the househunting....we fell seriously in love with a villa built on 5,000 square metres, backing on to the Sierra Helada quite dramatically, in that the swimming pool was built directly next to the craggy wall of the mountain, offering complete privacy, but when we had the property surveyed, there were no guarantees the mountain wouldn’t slide into the pool after a severe storm. The bedrooms were on the top floor, facing the pool. From the bedrooms there was a Hollywood style stair case with a chaise longue half way down each side. The lounge was spectacular with a feature fireplace taking up the whole of a wall and a bar with built in fridge along another wall. The kitchen was enormous but needed modernising. All in all, it would have been a struggle to make the asking price, so we backed out as it could have been a high maintenance property especially as there were two further bedrooms on the ground floor suffering from dampness. The potential for renting them out separately was excellent but they would need renovating first.
We set our sights lower and the next door neighbours introduced us to a lady selling her villa in Alfaz del Pi. This was a little further off the beaten track, reached down a winding unmade road. The property consisted of two floors, with an office on the top floor. The swimming pool, unusually, was in the front garden, somewhat overlooked, but the owners promised to leave everything as it stood, the furniture, garden chairs and tables, crockery etc. However, yet again our finances were just short of the asking price. It would have meant selling our car to buy it.
An estate agent, Jacinto, took us to see several villas, none of which set our hearts on fire. We were about to give up when he promised to show us the cheapest villa in Albir, so what happened next?
The owners were in their late seventies and found the 1,000m2 garden too much to cope with. There were colourful trees and plants, not least of which was the beautiful blue Wisteria tree. Upon entering the property your eyes were drawn to the magnificent old palm tree providing shade over the red hibiscus to the left, closely followed by the pink bougainvillea clinging to the security bars of a window. Opposite was an array of margarita, its white and yellow flowers turned towards the sun. Directly outside the lounge was a very tall pine tree. Looking up to the top reminded me of trying to see the top of a skyscraper in Boston, USA. A few yards away a monkey tree stretched tall and slim towards the sky, full of cones and in between the two trees was an aviary filled with tweeting birds of all colours. In front of the monkey tree was the largest rubber tree I have ever seen. It would later result in my breaking my ankle but that is another story. Along the side facing the cul-de-sac pink and white oleander bushes had been grown to form a hedge. The garden was large, but tidy. At the bottom of the garden it was impossible to walk very far as it was covered with green and yellow striped giant cacti, yucca trees and oversized banana plants.
Having found an apartment in another village called Finestrat, the owners were eager to sell quickly.
If you wish to read Chapter Two, please let me know.