Peer to Pier Interview: Claudia Scholler, Owner Of Spanish Eco-Lodge Cortijo El Saltador
Could you live and work in a place with no cell phone reception that relies entirely on solar power?
In her series of interviews with eco-lodge owners, Meg Pier speaks with Claudia Scholler, a German transplant who runs a traditional Andalucian farmhouse, Cortijo El Saltador, in the Almería province of Spain.
Meg Pier: Tell me a little bit about your background.
Claudia Scholler: The start is Hamburg. I’m really a proper city girl, born and raised in the center of a big, big city with no nature at all…
When I was 11, we went on holiday to the North Frisian Islands, which are very close to Denmark. Next to the little hotel, there was an Icelandic horse-riding farm.
Back in Hamburg, it got more and more complicated with my parents, so they agreed that I would go on a holiday the following spring. I was 12 and I was going by myself. I guess a big part of my courage is because I was brought up so strangely, which you don’t realize as a child. But for me it was normal that at 12, I took my suitcase, took the bus to the train, took the train to the ferry, walked on the ferry. And then walking off the ferry, there was nobody to pick me up. I arrived on the island, and nobody expected me because they had forgotten about the booking.
Because it’s a tiny island, I was brought to the riding farm. There was only one boy looking after the horses and a cleaning woman that came every three days. I didn’t tell anybody at home what was happening and stayed 10 days on my own. Those 10 days were probably the luckiest days I remember in that period.
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Then the two brothers who owned the riding farm came back from Morocco where they had been traveling, and they couldn’t believe what they had done. So they sort of adopted me.
From then on I went to the riding farm every single holiday, working for free as a helper. When I finished school in Hamburg, I moved immediately to the North Frisian Islands, not really knowing what to do with my life. I knew I didn’t want to study, but I didn’t know much more.
By coincidence, somebody on the island offered me an education at a hotel—two years of practical learning, working in each sections of the hotel, restaurant, bar, kitchen, room service, and so forth. …
I fell in love with an art history student from Hamburg, and so I moved back there and I went to hotel management school. I worked in catering and posh hotels. [Then] I got into very, very posh catering and I got into private houses of very rich people. I saw a lot. I was very, very curious. I also went into every single Michelin-star restaurant and spent a lot of money. I was really like a puppy, being very excited about my profession.
Five years passed, and my boyfriend and I split. I did long, long travel: Thailand, Bali and six months in Australia. When I returned to Germany I met the second big love of my life. He had a big restaurant and also worked in advertising. We bought a big farm north of Hamburg. I started a little catering business and that got very successful very fast.
MP: What was the turning point?
CS: Hamburg, at that time, was very decadent. People ordered the Caspian Caviar, the lobster, and the hookahs. I saw events that got planned wrong and 50 lobsters got thrown away into the bin. I saw so much food disappearing into bins. Once I had a big insurance company as a client, and they had a special meal with chilled special-edition wine with the label done by Andy Warhol, and the bottle was $300, and nobody even looked at the label.
My boyfriend had a mid-life crisis, had affairs with all his waitresses, got deeply into cocaine, and lied to me. So although I felt something was going wrong, I sort of didn’t mistrust where I should have.
And so we lost it all because by the time he confessed, the bank was deep into that house. It was a real big, big disaster and it was three hard, hard years. I was left with a Jack Russell terrier, a little van, and no money.
Slowly, I decided everybody is living on too high speed and it’s not good. More and more I had an uncomfortable feeling. What if you take all of this away from the people? All the drugs, the unhappiness, the alcohol behind all that. I worked in real luxury and saw a lot and finally came to the decision I wanted to step out.
I made the decision to go to Majorca in 1994 and I immediately found an old house. Those were good, good years, it was a big success. I learned the language, flights were easy, it was all cheap.
That house was a dream–it was like a youth hostel but in a Fellini movie location.
But the house was hard to run. It still had lead plumbing from 1778, it had hardly any water, no heating, and the winters in Majorca are long and dark. Then Majorca got so popular, all these famous people moved there, from Boris Becker to Michael Douglas and prices went mad.
In 1998, a friend invited me to Mojacar, in Spain’s Almeria region, which is the nearest beach town north of here. I immediately fell in love with this area, thinking this is exactly what I am looking for.
And that’s how it all started. I wanted to create a safe place where people get high-class service combined with a simple lifestyle.
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MP: How would you characterize the landscape here?
CS: The first time I came here, it was winter, at sunset, I felt like I was in a western movie. I didn’t know anything like it existed in Europe. There are no fences here. There’s an unbelievable silence.
I like the desert because I really believe that places like this, where you can find silence, are necessary. You are immediately confronted with yourself once you are here because there is nothing that distracts you. And 99 percent of my clients feel like it’s really an advantage and they come back. The lack of mobile coverage, no computer, no TV, no nothing. I really felt that the place I wanted to create would be perfect in this surrounding.
MP: Tell me about buying the property for your guesthouse Cortijo El Saltador.
CS: It is an enormous amount of land here. I never thought in my life I would buy 56 hectares.
The property was called Cortijo Cortez. When I first saw the property it was completely in ruins with no water or electricity.
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I was, of course, still living in Majorca, and we decided to look for somewhere to live in the village.
We were at the end of the world, and we knew we would need a lot of volunteers. The first ones came from Australia, Argentina, England, and Germany. They were friends, friends of friends, people that somehow heard about the project. They liked the idea of living for a period in Spain and I provided room and board for their labor.
We found a house that was enormous, it had three different stories and nine rooms, and it was cheap. We ended up living in the center of the village for two years with all these foreign visitors. At that point, not a single foreigner was living in Lucainena, so we were the daily soap.
We were the first job for the local builders, so that they didn’t have to leave the village and go to Almeria. The young electrician from the village had his first job here. It was very innocent times, very, very beautiful times.
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The villagers found us completely bizarre, but they absolutely accepted us because at quarter to eight we were in the cars and went to the building site. Because the locals were building with us, I insisted every Friday we had a tapa and a beer before everybody could go home. It was a lot of fun, very chaotic.
I did the whole shopping for the building. I had to negotiate about the concrete and every nail, bought lorries and lorries of bricks. I was usually driving the workers over here.
I was always the only female in the industrial areas, and the only foreigner. Then at lunchtime I cooked a meal for the building site.
And if I had a little bit to spare, I was mixing cement in the afternoon.
MP: And throughout the whole two years, did you have moments where you really questioned whether you were doing the right thing, or did you have a conviction the whole way through?
CS: It wasn’t always easy with all these young workers. Two years of communal living wasn’t so easy sometimes. But I always loved this property, and I always felt supported.
Twice in these two years I took my sleeping bag, went into the mountains, made a fire and slept next to the fire. I wasn’t afraid about the wild boars or anything. Not thinking much, just saying to the property, “I need help. I need to be charged up.” And I really felt like I was charged up. And on it went.
MP: “Little Hollywood” is located here, and I read that Indiana Jones was filmed here. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
CS: All the Spaghetti Westerns were done here, Brigitte Bardot was here, and Faye Dunaway. There’s a very nice short film festival once a year, it’s international and really done well.
I do a four-hour desert walk with my clients and it leads us to abandoned scenery where we can take photos. It’s still very, very beautiful.
MP: Can you characterize your guests?
CS: A lot of people that are sick of the speed of their normal life, and they absolutely enjoy that fact that they say, “You can’t reach me,” or “I have to walk up to the mountain.” So it’s all people who say that they have all the luxury at home and that they enjoy the luxury of having nothing here.
There are people who love it. There are people who can see it as an adventure and you can see their progress.
There’s one guy who comes three times a year. And there are people who don’t want to face their problems and they are the most difficult, especially if they are couples.
It’s hard for couples who are not happy anymore because there’s no way to escape that here.
MP: Tell me about your interest in the environment.
CS: In my personal experience when I was unhappy, I could always feel much calmer in nature. If you are living like I do, you come back to very basics—good food, good company, a healthy environment. It’s the only thing in the long-term that makes you happy. It’s not the consuming.
I would like to try to offer people to find calm and healthy living on as normal basis as possible so that people can enjoy it without feeling guilty. It also feels so good that my place is only running on solar energy, and that it does function even if there are loads of people, a really great experience for me as a city person.
MP: If you had a wish or a hope for your guests’ experience and what they would leave here feeling or thinking, how would you describe that?
CS: I’m very proud if they trust. I offer all these little things. I say, shall we try this and this type of food? I think you could do with an osteopath treatment.
And if I see that people trust and just go for it and then every day are a little bit more loose and happy, that’s absolutely enough for me. These are also the people that repeat.
And it’s very lovely with all these people that repeat because it’s also very easy for me, because they have found what my concept is and consider it relaxing, healing.
And sometimes I get emails saying people do little steps in their life back in the cities: I did yoga for the first time; I had an osteopath treatment for the first time; I learned about that and that food. I really like that. That it has a tiny, tiny impact. It’s beautiful, I find.
Text and photos by Meg Pier. Meg Pier is a travel writer for the Boston Globe and other publications. Visit her on the Web atwww.viewfromthepier.com.
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