Murder, mystery and a Spanish villa

It’s the scenario straight out of an Agatha Christie novel: I was among a group of 30 relatives from the UK, America and South Africa meeting in a magnificent Spanish villa near Barcelona to celebrate the 85th birthday of the family matriarch when unexpectedly we heard about a murder most foul.

It all started innocently enough. We were walking around the Hotel Banyeres del Penedes with an art historian describing the history of the most important paintings in the 25 bedrooms and numerous sitting rooms, when we stopped before a large portrait of a beautiful aristocratic blonde painted in 1944. “That,” said our guide dramatically, “is the grandmother of the current owner, Myriam de la Sierra Urquijo.

“Her noble Spanish parents, Manuel de la Sierra Marquis de Urquijo, 55, and his wife were shot dead on August 1, 1980 while sleeping in their palace near Madrid.

“Their son-in law, Rafael Escobedo, was arrested, tried and, though insisting he was innocent, was sentenced in 1983 to 53 years in prison. There he hanged himself in 1988.

“His friend and co-accused, Javier Anastasio de Espona, was detained, but before his trial, escaped via Portugal to Brazil. Seven years later, he was spotted being interviewed on TV.”

After such a dramatic story, we were almost afraid to ask questions about the art – an eclectic mix of reproductions of Dutch masterpieces, portraits, sketches, a valuable limited print by Goya and more things.
and multiple collections of snuff boxes, hunting dogs and lions.

However, someone piped up timidly. “Why did he kill them?”

“Money,” our guide responded, suggestively rubbing her fingers together in a manner similar to Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot twisting his famous moustache.

“The young couple (Escobedo and his wife) had married in June 1978, but their relationship deteriorated, and a year later, his wife was rumoured to be having an affair with Richard Dennis Rew, known as ‘Dick the American’.
She was the owner of a bank whose shares were plummeting. Probably her husband hoped that the death of his wealthy in-laws would save them…”

A puzzling feature of the case was that the .22 gun, which was a collector’s item, was never found.
When the case was closed in 2012, 30 years after the murder, the story had attracted more newspaper articles than any other Spanish murder and had also been the subject of two books and a movie.

Barcelona beauty

With time, the villa changed from being the private home of a noble family to the Hotel Banyeres del Penedes and though it has retained that name, the 25 bedrooms with bathrooms and beautifully furnished public rooms are now let out to private individuals for functions and special occasions.

The kitchen boasted more knives and forks, plates and glasses than I have ever seen in my life but only two drying up cloths! We were lucky with the weather. The terrible heat and humidity of July and early August had passed, and the temperature was ideal for those wanting to relax by the pool, read, tackle 1 000-piece complex jigsaws or improve their tans.
Our one-day outing to the centre of Barcelona had to include two “must sees” – Gaudi’s world-famous Basilica La Sagrada Familia, a large, highly-ornate Roman Catholic church.

The other less-publicised attraction was visiting the permanent exhibition of famous Catalan artist Antoni Tapies (1923 -2012) who, through his art, somehow managed to express his disapproval of 
Franco’s fascist regime at a time when such criticism was systematically repressed.

The 55 works on show covered the post-war period from Franco’s dictatorship to the beginning of Spain’s transition to democracy. Explanations printed on the walls of the abstract and avant-garde works were most helpful as Tapies 
sometimes added clay and marble dust to his paint and waste paper, string and rags to the canvas.

One particular painting In memory of Salvador Puig Antich 1974 made me shiver. On a large canvas, a big black reversed “L” on a grey background was the artist’s expression of 
grief at the execution of Antich, a young anarchist and anti-fascist, who, on March 2, 1974, was the last person to be executed “by the vile method of garrotting”.

I’ll spare you the definition of this brutal Spanish-originated method of capital punishment but you can read and see on Google what happened to Antich.

End in sight

On a more cheerful note, La Sagrada Familia, which was started in 1882 and feared would never be finished, is scheduled to be completed by 2026, to mark the centenary of the architect’s death after he was struck by a tram at the age of 73.
When I was last in Barcelona and saw the church, two sides were open to the elements.

This time round, the completed interior was filled with tourists admiring the stunning stained glass windows, multiple statues of Biblical characters and other beautiful 
features inspired by the architect’s love of nature and Christianity.
Originally the building was financed solely by private donations and progress was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War and intermittent building in the 1950s. However, advancement in 
technologies – such as computer-aided design and computerised numerical construction(CNC) – has enabled faster progress and in 2010 the 
halfway mark was joyfully celebrated. Now it’s all stationssystems go to complete the basilica in eight years.

This will be a challenge as the construction ahead includes 
building 10 more spires each 
symbolising an important biblical figure in the New Testament.

Better with time

It’s a known fact that wine does improve with age – the older I get, the better I like it.

fionachisholm@iafrica.com