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Monday April 7, 2014

Should ambitious refurbishments be left to the private sector in Mallorca?

Twelve years ago, Raixa, a country estate nestling in the foothills of the Tramuntana mountains, was acquired as a cultural heritage site by the Mallorca Council and National Parks Foundation. The Spanish Ministry for the Environment was to oversee the project and an ambitious refurbishment programme was announced.

The recently restored Raixa country estate is a shadow of its former self
With much fanfare Raixa recently re-opened and in great anticipation I drove to the old possesió, a stone’s throw from the mountain town of Bunyola in the north-west of the island. Admittedly it was a bleak and rainy day and perhaps my expectations were running on overdrive but nothing could have prepared me for what I can only describe as the brutal disembowelling of a once historic and emblematic period property.

In Moorish times the 130 acre estate was known as Araixa and occupied a highly prized fertile strip of land, abundant with water. In a ravishingly beautiful and tranquil setting, the estate, since the time of the Christian conquest of 1229, remained in private hands until acquired by the government in 2002. Today the spectacular gardens are still a joy to behold and there is evidence of the old hermitage and loggia, arresting tank in the upper gardens and regal old gateway, but what of the house? Aye, there’s the rub.

Stepping into the barren, sanitised white interior of the Raixa mansion is an unsettling experience. It’s as though the very life blood of the place has been sucked out of it. Historical artefacts, furniture and furnishings have been studiously removed and in place the vacant rooms with shiny new tiles and white-washed walls display dull information boards and on the upper level – saints preserve us – there is a Disney style animated film of cartoon animals which when touched displays the name of each creature in three languages. The day I visited there was no evidence of staff and visitors wandered around the empty space in a state of ennui. Only two rooms still hold a smidgen of character – the master’s dining room and the kitchen but even that has been spruced to death. So I wondered, exactly where did the architects of this new attraction stash the original booty?

By contrast there are three examples of tastefully restored historic estates and houses on the island – all overseen by private families. The understated Alfabia on the main road to Soller is a celebration of Moorish design and splendour. Originally owned by Ben Abet, the former Moorish governor of Pollença, who was bequeathed the estate by King Jaime I, the house offers the visitor an authentic understanding of Moorish design, from the wide coffered pine and oak mudejar central ceiling created by Almohad craftsmen to the original coats of arms belong to resident Moorish families. Historic artefacts and furniture are littered around the mansion and the gardens are a paradise of water features, Mediterranean shrubs and trees with an impressive 72 columned pergola sporting 24 stone hydras taking central stage.
It’s the same story at Ca n’Alluny, meaning The Far House, in Deia village, erstwhile home to the prolific poet and writer, Robert Graves. Now a museum, the gentle renovations made to the house were carried out under the critical eye of William Graves, the poet’s eldest son and executor of his estate, who ensured that it remained totally true to his father’s memory. A treasure trove of original furniture, belongings, artefacts and letters pertaining to Robert Graves, the building itself remains in its original splendour with the same décor, tiles and furnishings and the dreamy gardens of olive, orange and lemon trees, vegetables and vines are just as they were when tended by the poet.

And last but not least is La Granja, a beautiful 17th century mansion and estate in Esporles, owned by the Seguí Colom family, and restored sensitively as a historical museum, with lush gardens, restaurant and shop.

So why was Raixa not restored in similar vein to its former glory? It seems inconceivable that even if original décor, furniture, furnishings and paintings were in a poor state of repair, replacements from other historic collections couldn’t have been used to lend authenticity to the house. For now the gutting of Raixa will remain a mystery but one can but hope that the architects whose apparent philosophy of ‘out with the old, in with the new’ imbued the project, will one day see the error of their ways.

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