Travel: Walks - The lane in Spain

Edward Blincoe steps out in pioneering spirit along the unmarked farm tracks and smugglers' trails of Andalucia, returning at night to a feast...and an electric blanket
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The Independent Culture
ELECTRIC BLANKETS are not what you expect in southern Spain. But they were very welcome. Ten of us, as yet unknown to each other, had landed at Seville in a thunderstorm and were taken to a farm in the Sierra de Aracena, 60 miles away, north-west towards Portugal. Nick, our host, told us that the farm had been without electricity for hours, due to the storm, and he didn't know if it would be restored that night.

We went on to a roadside bar where we were supposed to have a jolly get- together over drinks and tapas but arrived to find it lit by a few guttering candles. The owner insisted he was closed so our driver took us to a nearby village with power and we soon brightened up over beer and small dishes of fried kidneys in sherry.

By the time we got back to the farm, all was well: electricity had been restored and I snuggled into the comfortable bed in our cottage, thoughtfully warmed by Nick's wife Hermione with an electric blanket.

Nick and Hermione run riding and walking holidays from their working farm in the Aracena National Park, and we had booked a week's walking through Headwater Holidays.

Accommodation is in two roomy cottages, complete with kitchen and living room. Each bedroom has its own shower or bathroom. The immediate area is one of small farms growing cork, olives and chestnuts, and keeping goats, sheep and black Iberian pigs.

Hundreds of years ago, the farms were deliberately settled with people from the north to form a human barrier to the Moors in the south, and remain as small holdings, in contrast to the large estates common to the rest of Andalucia. The farmers tend to live not on their land, but in small white-washed villages, walking to their holdings through a maze of well-kept but unmarked paths, often fenced with lichen-clad stone walls. It is through these paths, augmented by pilgrim and smuggler trails, winding through chestnut groves and meadows, that Nick has put together a series of lovely walks varying between 10 and 20km.

You make your own breakfast. Fresh eggs, bread, home-made jams and fruit are provided in the cottage. You then assemble at the stables at 10.30am and Violetta the donkey is loaded with everyone's packs. There is usually a stop at a village bar, for beer, coffee or lemonade at midday, and lunch with tapas at another village at about 2pm.

The late General Franco wanted everyone in Spain to be able to eat fresh fish and set up a distribution system to make it possible. As a result, bars in tiny villages serve not only serrano ham, chorizo sausage and the fresh and smoked pork products for which the area is renowned, but also spicy fried squid, slivers of marinated whitebait and delicious tiny hake. Nick pre-orders the meals and, in the course of the week, we ate a fair range of the local specialities.

The area has many birds rarely seen in Britain. Every village church tower has its massive and untidy stork's nest perched on top. Hoopoes, bee eaters and golden orioles are common, as are nightingales and cuckoos, but they are easy to hear and hard to see. We also saw buzzards but not, unfortunately, any of the three types of eagle living in the area.

In autumn everyone goes to the fields, helped out by migrant workers, to strip the cork oaks and gather the olives and chestnuts. It is a hive of rural activity.

Although this is very much a country area, there are historic sights to see. We visited the oldest mosque in western Europe, its arches supported on yet older columns from a Roman temple which preceded it on the site. It is perched on a small hilltop, which it shares with a small bull-ring built in the last century. In the church at Cortelazor, we saw a sublime medieval fresco, recently discovered beneath whitewash. Its probable fate is to be hidden once more behind the village's beloved, but vastly ugly altar-piece.

We saw no other walkers and only a few Spaniards visiting a holy shrine to the Virgin at a church in the woods. We all saw ourselves as pioneers, enjoying a Spain as untouched by tourism as La Mancha was when Laurie Lee tramped south before the civil war. Of course he had to play his fiddle, to earn his Spartan supper. We went back to the farm for tea and home- baked cake, hot showers and, at 8.30pm, a superlative three-course supper.

The highlights of the week, for me, were asparagus, the lamb tagine, cubes of lamb cooked in the Moorish-Andalucian style with cumin, coriander and lemon, and a wonderful lemon cheesecake. Visually and literally, it was a feast of a trip.

Edward Blincoe paid pounds 718 for a week with Headwater Holidays (01606 813333). A week's walking costs from pounds 677 to pounds 797 depending on the time of year and includes flights, guides and most meals and wine (plus the occasional brandy). From next month, British Airways (0345 222111) begins flights from Gatwick to Seville, with a World Offer of pounds 109 return. Nick and Hermione Tudor can be contacted for self-catering accommodation and riding or walking holidays at Finca El Moro (00 34 959 501079).