Travel: Andalucia without advice: a tale of two travel writers

A remote cottage with a swimming pool, high up in the hills of Andalucia, sounded an ideal escape from the word processor. Then reality set in.
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The Independent Culture
FRED WRITES travel articles for a living; I edit guidebooks. You might have thought that, between us, we could arrange a trouble-free self- catering holiday in southern Spain. If only. We arrived at Gatwick far too late to find the off-site car park we'd booked and ended up paying a fortune in the on-site NCP car park.

At Malaga airport, we couldn't locate the car-hire office. Nor the tour operator rep for directions to our cottage. Had I forgotten to tell the company what flight we were on? Tears and recriminations followed. Eventually, both car hire office and rep materialised. We drove into the night and the mountains behind the Costa del Sol.

Our destination was Finca Paquita, a small complex of cottages that shared a swimming pool below the remote hilltop pueblo blanco (white town) of Zahara de la Sierra. This had seemed an ideal rural retreat. It sounded basic, but was cheap and, in the words of the brochure, "the only sounds audible in the pure mountain air are the gushing waters of the stream and the bird chatter in apple trees". It was the early hours of the morning when, after driving down several dirt tracks in pitch darkness, we arrived at the finca.

In the darkness, we couldn't make out much of our immediate surroundings. In the morning, we raised the kitchen blind excitedly to reveal piles of sand and rubble, a cement mixer and workmen building a path just feet from the cottage's terrace. The pool was empty, and instead of the "lovely recliners" we'd been promised, it was surrounded by knee-high grass and weeds.

The situation was a red rag to Fred, who likes to think his middle names are Consumer Champion. He phoned the company and asked if it would be possible to move. That evening, we received a visit from Penny, the rep. She was fairly apologetic about the work (apparently, it had been been delayed by rain). And yes, they did have a free property we could move to - nothing less than a three-bedroom villa in seven acres of grounds with a private pool. It took us about 10 seconds to decide to take our free upgrade.

Once we'd found La Huerta, the villa surpassed our expectations. Though only a few miles inland from the Costa del Sol, it looked up towards the whitewashed cubes of the pueblo blanco of Casares. The meadows above it were yellow and pink carpets: I counted 20 types of wild flower in a single square yard.

The owners, Brian and Barbara, lived (in considerably less comfort) at the bottom of the garden. We didn't see much of them, but made friends with their menagerie of animals which included Ruth the donkey, whose whinnying served as our early morning call. Everything was blissful - except the weather. We hadn't bothered to read the "When to go" sections in our guidebooks. In our early May week, sometimes the skies were overcast; the rest of the time it bucketed down.

We were soon forced into sightseeing. We covered hundreds of miles of wiggily mountain roads, dodging thunder and lightning one day, in search of the perfect pueblo blanco. Fred began to fill notebooks, and we passed the time competing for the best similes and metaphors Evenings were too chilly to stay at home, but we found it surprisingly difficult to find appealing places to eat in and around Casares.Our only success was an hour's drive up in the mountains, a romantic restaurant in the hamlet of Benalauria, where we dined well on local produce. Since the weather was lousy and we pined for more good food, we decided to forgo our last night at La Huerta and head up to Seville.

Of course, hours before we left, the skies cleared and our pool actually looked inviting. It was in fact freezing, but we enjoyed drying off in the sun. Our arrival in Seville was embarrassing. Having circled the car-free alleys of the old quarter vainly trying to reach our hotel, I had to walk to it and ask the porter to come and park the car for us.

The city was heaven - a gastronomic idyll after our culinary wilderness. We spent our last two days testing its reputation as world capital of the tapas bar, discussing future holiday options over glasses of fino. A backpacking trip visiting one of my brothers in Madagascar had been long on the agenda but, by now, housesitting for another brother in Sheffield seemed more appropriate.