La Almoraima Estate
By Chris Chaplow
The La Almoraima estate in Castellar de la Frontera occupies 14.000 hectares and is one of the largest estates in Spain. Agriculture, Forestry, Cork, Hunting, Tourism are main industries in the estate. A vast quantity of cork is produced from the cork oak trees, quercus suber which are stripped of bark each summer on a seven year rotation. The estate lies within the Parque Natural Los Acornocales.
VISITING LA ALMORAIMA
The estate is open to the public and it is well worth visiting. However you must be acompanied by an acredited guide. You can visit the La almoraima estate by a 4x4 tour, stopping to see the wildlife and other points of interest such as the star shaped lake. The tracks are a little rough in places so be prepared. Horseback tours or mountain bike tour can also be arranged. As you drive deep into the estate you will be most impressed with its seemingly never ending size and total absence of any modern development. This is probably an unique opportunity not to be missed.
We have enjoyed several visits to the La Almoraima estate with guide David Ledesma. In the summer a specialised tour with David was to observer the skilled cork harvest. Since the pandemic the Hotel Casa Convento Almoraima has been refurbished and has become the main starting pooint for tours in the estate. Ask for details of guides at Hotel Castellar or Almoraima Hotel.
It is also posible just to drive into the estate from the entrance to the Casa Convento Hotel (at the junction of A-405 and CA-P-5131) at the end of the drive is a car park and a notice board indicates a series of public footpatsh in the forest.
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La Almoraima village
La Almoraima is also the name of a small village of about one hundred inhabitants located in the municipal district of Castellar de la Frontera. It dates back to Moorish times and there used to be a watchtower located here. It is located next to the A-405 (San Roque to Gaucin) and there is a railway station on the ‘Hendersons railway’ from Algeciras to Ronda and Bobadilla. The patron saint of the village is Virgin de Almoraima and a festival takes place in her honour on the last weekend in August.
Path of the Monarch Butterflies
Just outside the entrance to the estate is the starting point for the path of the Monarch Butterflies. A beautiful trail, easy enough for children. Mostly following the river Guadarangue and being followed by playful butterflies males. Wear proper hiking shoes, as the trail can be slightly challenging in places. Five km long. Best months July to September. Deatiled account by a naturalist in Spansh.
History of La Almoraima convent and estate
In 1603 Fray Juan Bautista del Santísimo Sacramento with the help of the Countess of Castellar, Doña Beatriz Ramírez de Mendoza, initiated the Orden Mercedaria Descalza (Barefoot Mercedarian Order) and founded two convents in Andalucia, El Viso del Alcor (east of Sevilla) and Almoraima. In the following years other was founded at Fuentes de Andalucía, Écija, Osuna, Marchena, San José de Sevilla, Arcos de la Frontera, Miguelturra (Ciudad Real), Góngora (Madrid), Toro (Zamora) and Santiago de Compostela.
By October 1603 the Convent of San Miguel de La Almoraima was built near the village. The estate in which they were located belonged to the Dukes of Medinaceli.
In Spain, between 1835 and 1837, a series of decrees from Juan Álvarez Mendizábal (Economist and politician and Prime Minister 1835-6) were published, which confiscated, without compensation, monastic land estates.
In 1839 La Almoraima estate was confiscated by the state. Unlike most of the confiscated properties La Almoraima was not put up for auction. There are documents in the Ducal Archives of Medinaceli which show that the La Almoraima estate continued to be farmed by Marquises of Moscoso until 1852, when the Supreme Court ruled in that La Almoraima should be passed back to the Ducal House of Medinaceli.
The Dukes of Medinaceli transformed the historic monastery into their residence for the spring and summer months, they carried out a series of architectural alterations that turned the former convent into a luxurious palace. This included the addition of the porticoed gallery supported by Tuscan-style columns that today forms its main façade, The Dukes constructed the tower-fortress, attached to the eastern corner of the gallery with neo-Gothic and eclectic elements and topped by a kind of orientalist spire.
On the lower floor there is an inscription on four tiles "In 1865 this building was rebuilt by His Excellency Luis Tomás Fernández de Córdoba, Duke of Medinaceli and in 1889 it was restored and enlarged by Her Excellency Casilda Salabert y Arteaga, Countess of Ofalia y de Estrada, Duchess of Santo Mauro".
The palace was frequently visited by Spanish and English aristocrats especially those form Gibraltar who came every spring to the Casa-Convento at the invitation of its owners. The Duke of Medinaceli turned the Almoraima estate into one of the most select big game hunting grounds in the country. Nobles, wealthy financiers and prestigious military men gathered in the halls of the Convent-House to take part in the hunting parties in the forests of the estate and enjoyed the lavish parties held at the palace.
La Almoraima was always the favourite estate of the Counts of Castellar due to the abundance of game and its accessibility since the Algeciras to Bobadilla Henderson’s railway built in the 1890s had a private halt built for the Dukes.
Thanks to a boom in the cork industry, the Almoraima estate became the economic centre of Castellar. Many of the town's inhabitants depended on the temporary work provided by the Duke's administrator and the contractors who monopolised the forestry and livestock resources.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was common to see in the Almoraima a pack of hunting dogs running alongside the riders of the "Royal Calpe Hunt" of Gibraltarian ed in 1813, of which the Duke of Medinaceli was a prominent member. The red-coated English horsemen would appear in the vicinity of the Convent-House, astonishing the locals with their striking uniforms.
In 1906, the Algeciras International Conference on Morocco took place in the Hotel Reina Cristina, it was attended by representatives from thirteen countries. Among the events held in honour of the diplomats and press (including young Winston Churchill) was an excursion to La Almoraima Convent on 2 February 1906. The Algeciras Town Council and its mayor, Emilio Santacana, arranged for a luxuriously decorated train to take the guests to the estate. "There they were treated to a lunch served in the countryside".
In 1922, Her Majesty Queen Victoria Eugenia was invited to Almoraima by the Duchess of Medinaceli, her majesty at La Almoraima station by train. She travelled first to the Convent by horse drawn carriage and from there visited the Castellar fortress village. She returned to the Convent for a few hours. In the evening the large entourage departed by train for Algeciras.
On 13th September 1923, the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera began with the acquiescence of King Alfonso XIII. The regime of the former Captain General of Catalonia placated the revolutionary fury of anarchists and socialists, and initiated a vast programme of public works. In 1924, construction began on the local road that would improve the link between the fortress village of Castellar with the railway station.
In 1923, some labourers and small farmers had been occupying land in the ‘Boyal meadow’ located just to the south of the Castellar fortress. The Duke considered this land to be his exclusive property. When the farmers started to build houses on Boyal meadows the Duke, citing his ancestral rights over the pasture, demanded that the houses be demolished. The feud continued on and off until 1980 when it was finally solved with the help of then prime minister Filipe González. The Boyal meadows were handed over to the Town Council to administer. More than this the meadows had became a symbol of peoples rights in the new democratic Spain.
The Casa-Convento de la Almoraima continued to be the residence of the Duke or his family and the land was used by the cork harvest contractors until the estate was sold in 1973 to the RUMASA company of the Ruiz-Mateos family of Jerez. It still had a surface area of 16,000 hectares, making it the largest private estate in Spain.
The early 1980s were reported to be the best economic years for the estate until La Almoraima was expropriated from José María Ruiz-Mateos and the RAMASA group in 1983 by the state government lead by Felipe González (who was given Medalla de Oro (Golden Medal) and designated Hijo Adoptivo (Adopted Son) of Castellar de la Frontera). In June 2013 the Government (Comisión para la Reforma de las Administraciones Públicas - CORA) announced the intended sale of the estate. In January 2014 Arias Cañete, the environment minister, suggested an 50% increased price of 300 million euro and mentioned that a number of unnamed foreign investors were interested.
The estate was firmly in the media spotlight a month later when Mexican actress Salma Hayek and husband François-Henri Pinault, visited by helicopter. The Government confirmed in March that they were preparing documents for a sale by public auction. They faced much local opposition lead by Castellar Town Hall and the Junta de Andalucia who expediently increased the size of the Parque Natural Los Acornocales to 100% of the estate in order to block any construction of luxury hotels or golf courses or anything for that matter. Others argued that with carefully crafted obligations and duties the estate would benefit from the investment that it had lacked for decades and that 100 persons presently employed was not many considering the size and the potential.
Perhaps because the environment minister changed in April the Government never published any sale details. In May 2015 the government announced that it had told the 12 interested buyers that the La Almoraima estate was now not for sale because the 'interests in privatization had disappeared' It later eloborated that with efficient farm management the estate was now returning a profit. Perhaps it was more the need to demonstrate to the EU Central Bank that funds would be raised during the economic crisis had changed.
The full details for the extention to the Parque Natural Los Acornocales were published in the BOJA as decree 150/2017 and not only included the remaining 10% of La Almoraima but also an extention down to the coast at Finca Guadalquiton between the residential La Alcaidesa and Sotogrande. The La Almoraima estate objected to this classification but were not sucessful in an April 2020 Andalucia Supreme court ruling.
In 2021/2 a much needed investment of 25m € was made in the estate. The Casa Convent Hotel La Almoraima has been refurbished and upgraded and adjacent facilities constructed for horse riding displays and to stables accomodate horse riding tours of the estate. The Casa Convent Hotel La Almoraima is becoming the formal entry point into the estate.