Remember the gracious, old-world manner and deportment of Stevens, the butler in the film The Remains of the Day? The kind of man who would open a door for you and say, “Please,” gesturing with his free hand that you enter ahead of him?
Whenever I hear the word “Please” spoken in that context, I think of Javier Acillona, the man Magellan and I call “Mr. Please,” from the beautiful, ancient, walled town of Laguardia in the centre of Rioja (population 1,500). A man we almost didn’t meet.
Amor y Locura (Love and Madness.) La Fábula (The Fable). Los Navegantes (The Mariners).
Would you stay in a hotel with room names like this?
Unsure? We had the same reaction.
So I booked the Hotel Viura, an ultramodern cuboid.
Still unsure, I kept researching and found (thank you Google) Mirabel’s Guides to Spain and discovered the story behind those fanciful room names at Castillo El Collado. All 10 rooms are named after Laguardia’s versions of Aesop’s fables, and the story is explained in a framed poem in each room.
Literature won over architecture. Quirky outplayed fame.
I cancelled our Hotel Viura booking and reserved Doña Blanca (Mrs. White), the calmest looking of the 10 rooms at Castillo El Collado. And that’s how we met Javier, Mr. Please.
“Please,” said Javier, tall and thin in his dark navy suit, blue shirt and tie, as he picked up our suitcases and, defying his age, agilely climbed the wide-carpeted stairs to Doña Blanca on the second floor. “Please,” he said as he pulled out our chairs for breakfast. “Please,” as he placed on the table a bowl of his famous riojanas, a mixture of Álava potatoes, chorizo, piquillo peppers, fresh bay leaves, pork, paprika and olive oil, “enjoy.” “Please,” he beckoned us to sit while he showed us the easiest way to walk through the vineyards to the nearby town of Páganos for lunch at Hector Oribe’s. “Please,” he said, rising up from working at the computer on his antique desk and offering us a cello-wrapped candy when we left the hotel after breakfast. “Please, it is too far for madam to walk,” he said when we asked him if our planned route was the best way to the Bronze Age archaeological site and museum at La Hoya.
In addition to being the chef, booking agent, waiter, bellman and concierge, Javier is the owner of the hotel, which was built in the 1800s from the original stones of a 12th century castle for the illustrious Tapia family and known as the King’s Headquarters. For a time, the hotel was owned by the church and used by its bishops before Javier bought it in the 1990s and spent eight years refurbishing it.
Javier’s town, Laguardia, as its name implies, is well guarded with its hilltop location, rock foundation and limited access controlled through just four entrance gates. During the Middle Ages, residents dug into the rock below their homes to build wells, create places for food storage and hide during sieges. (There are so many tunnels—many of them now wine bodegas—that the ground has been deemed unstable for heavy traffic and cars are prohibited in the town, providing further pleasure for pedestrians to wander in this preserve of ancient architecture, small boutiques and narrow side streets brimming with life: flowers overflowing from residents’ balconies, kids playing kickball, gossiping jubilados…)
One of our favourite places was Casa Solariega, an 18th century ancestral home. On the corner of Plaza Mayor is another favourite place of ours, a winery, restaurant and purveyor of creative gin-and-tonics with outdoor tables overlooking Laguardia’s town hall with its legendary wall clock. It became our habit to arrive around 4:30, order a G&T and sit with tourists and villagers to wait for the clock’s doors to open, for its wooden figures to emerge and dance the passacalla, the traditional dance of Laguardia’s festivals.
Sad to leave Laguardia after four days, Magellan and I, on our last night, were sitting alone on the darkened patio at Castillo El Collado overlooking the Cantabrian Mountains. All of a sudden, Javier quietly appeared at our side. “Please,” he asked, “you would like to drink something?”
Our last memory of Javier is of him hurrying out to the gravelled area where we were packing our suitcases and backpacks into our rental car. “Please,” he said, handing over a bottle of Rioja red to Magellan.
Javier gave us a copy of “Memories in the History (Letter to my Patrons)” that I taped into my diary, a letter that now (because of our suggestion?) appears on the home page of Castillo El Collado’s website. Here are its last two paragraphs:
Once the Tapias have died this castle has passed to the hands of this modest hotelier from Laguardia, who will receive you with his best courtesy to make your stay grateful and peaceful.
Receive my sincere welcome to this yours another home.
How could the staff at a modern hotel compete with that?