Eighteen Spanish monasteries that open their doors to guests are listed in Stafford Whiteaker's revised and expanded Good Retreat Guide. The accommodation and food are simple and the communities expect visitors to respect their religious way of life, which may include silence. Most make no charge, but voluntary donations are welcomed. Eight of the monasteries take both men and women with the latter sometimes accommodated in neighbouring guesthouses. The rest state "Men Only". Film director Luis Bunuel stayed in a strictly religious retreat in Las Batuecas valley near Salamanca and called it "paradise on earth".
The Good Retreat Guide (pounds 12.99 Rider Books), which also lists nearly 300 other retreats in the UK, Ireland and France, is on sale in bookshops or by mail order. Telephone 01279 427203.
Short breaks staying in tiny off-the-beaten-track posadas, the rural Spanish inns you wish you'd discovered for yourself, are perfect bases for walking holidays in the mountains or along the coast. They are offered by InnTravel which specialises in remote parts of Europe.
In the high Catalonian Pyrenees, the two-star Hotel Saurat is a family- run rustic refuge for those wanting to explore the Aiguestortes National Park (only walkers and licensed jeeps may enter); a three-night break with half-board costs pounds 99-pounds 113, or pounds 143-pounds 155 including car ferry for those who want to self-drive.
In the foothills of the Picos de Europa, another three-night break in Asturias at La Tahona de Besnes, converted from a village bakery, costs pounds 119-pounds 150, or pounds 163-pounds 218 for drivers. Tracks from the hamlet lead into the heart of the Picos, among the most dramatic and untouched mountains in Europe, with trout fishing and riding available locally.
As with all its offers on this programme, cooking is regional, which in the case of the Asturias means lots of game, goat, trout, cheeses, cider and fabada, the hefty northern Spanish bean stew. Telephone Inntravel: 01653 628811
Fears that their culture would be swamped when the country joined the EU have not only proved groundless but inspired a renewed passion for things Spanish among students and young people in particular, with Iberian dancing, folk music and even bullfighting enjoying a rebirth, particularly in Andalucia.
For those addicted to Spain and its culture, Spanish specialist Mundi Color offers special-interest courses (not in bullfighting!) including dancing, riding and cookery. Sevillana dancing, for example, a sensual but slightly easier version of the flamenco, is taught by Isabel Lagrilliere, daughter of one of the best-known flamenco guitarists in the Alpujarras mountains, in her dance studio in the village of Ferreirola. Course are offered two hours daily over six days or four hours over three and cost pounds 87. If you want to stay nearby, the company can organise a week's b&b in a comfortable three-star casita in the village of Bubion for pounds 477 including return flights and car hire, so you can explore in your free time. Alternatively you could stay in Granada or Nerja, the coastal resort that manages to retain an Andalucian character among the skyscrapers. Telephone Mundi Color: 0171-828 6021.
The Caves of Altamira with their breathtaking paintings have long been closed to the public but so far Andante Travel has always managed to gain access for holidaymakers on its cave-painting tour of northern Spain. Mountains and cliffs here are riddled with caves like a giant Swiss cheese.
Discovered by a local hunter in 1568 when his dogs chased a hare into them, the nine painted tunnels and caves at Altamira contain one of the most important prehistoric collections in the world. The most dramatic is a 16-metre frieze of a bison on the ceiling.
Spectacular reproductions of horses and reindeer decorate the walls of the Tito Bustillo caves farther along the coast; engravings of mammoths and tunny fish are the subjects at the cave in the cliffs of El Pindal; and red spotted deer lie in the mountain caves at Covalanas. Romanesque village churches and mountain picnics are also on the week's itinerary.
The tour is pricey at pounds 800, although this does include scheduled flights, full board including wine, entrance fees and a six-night stay in the 17th- century stone Antiguo Palacio, a former nobleman's house in the medieval gem of Santillana del Mar. The guide lecturer is Paul Bahn, author and specialist in prehistoric art. Telephone Andante Travel: 01980 610555.
PUEBLOS BLANCOS LIFE
In the Pueblos Blancos, the little white towns of Andalucia, you can rent village houses, fincas (old farms and cottages) and cortijos (ranches), many of them part of agro-tourism schemes to preserve old buildings and put money back into the local community. Spain at Heart caters to independent travellers who want to glimpse a rural life that seems miles and centuries away from the commercialised costas.
In the wild mountains of Serrania de Ronda between Gaucin and Ronda itself, whitewashed houses in tiny villages such as Benelauria, Benadalid, Alpandeire and dramatic little Gaucin itself are rustic. The upper floors, originally lofts, are now bedrooms reached by steep stairs, but they do have bathrooms and country-style kitchens. They are also remarkably cheap at pounds 50 a night for a house sleeping four (pounds 12.50 per person). There is a discount if you rent for a week or more.
Most villages have a bar and the odd shop, and all have opportunities for walking, river swimming, fishing and mountain riding in the surrounding hills. Telephone Spain at Heart: 01373 836070
A range of year-round naturist holidays is offered by Peng Travel, though in some of the hotels, guests are expected to be dressed for dinner and in the evenings.
The aptly named Costa Natura on the Costa del Sol was the first naturist resort on mainland Spain with self-catering apartments accommodating 2- 6 people. With a solar-heated pool, a beach (with a warning that it shelves steeply), sports facilities and an on-site restaurant and supermarket, an apartment for four costs pounds 268-pounds 381 per person including flights. Telephone Peng Travel: 01708 471832
WARS TO END WARS
For 21 years, Holts' Tours has been taking holidaymakers over the fields of battle, with accompanying experts to explain what happened. Its five- day peninsular walk covers the period 1810-12 and Wellington's campaign along the northern corridor of the Spanish-Portuguese frontier.
This new trip studies the cat-and-mouse game of 1810 around Almeida and along the river Coa, walking the ground of the Battle of Fuentes d'Onoro and eventually moving on to the wide horizons of Salamanca where "forty thousand French were beat in 40 minutes".
Departing on 18 August, the price per person is pounds 981 including flights and four nights' accommodation in both Spain and Portugal. Telephone Holts' Tours: 01304 612248
Christian and Moorish Spain are well known to most travellers but Jewish Spain is less so. Yet up to the end of the 15th century Sephardic communities had considerable influence on Spanish culture.
Unicorn offers a 10-night tour starting in Madrid with a visit to the National Archeological Museum with its Sephardic collection, continuing on to Toledo and the best-preserved Jewish quarter in the country where once there were 10 synagogues (though only two remain). Trips to Hervas and walled Caceres are included, as is Cordoba with its 14th-century synagogue in the Jewish quarter. The tour finishes in Seville, which has strong Jewish connections.
Accommodation is largely in paradors, many of then converted historic castles, palaces or monasteries, others built in local or modern style in places of special historic interest.
This is not an escorted tour. Once in the country, (air travel is included) holidaymakers drive along the suggested route which can be altered, lengthened or made shorter. Car hire is included in the price of pounds 950. Telephone Unicorn Holidays: 01582 634400.
NO ENGLISH SPOKEN
"It is the norm for our visitors to Spain (and Portugal) to spend their entire stay without hearing their native tongue," claims Individual Travellers. The firm provides simple but well-equipped accommodation in some of the least frequented areas. In Extremadura, an inland region of medieval villages, castles and churches, La Casita near Navaconcejo is a rebuilt stone cottage overlooking meadows with a backdrop of the Sierra de Tormantos. It can sleep up to three plus a baby and has a swimming pool shared with two other properties. Prices start at pounds 696 (pounds 232 per person) for two weeks.
In the varied Catalonian hinterland, Individual Travellers offers a "Gites of Catalonia" programme modelled on the French gites country houses and farms. Many offer home produce or even specially prepared Catalonian feasts. At a typical farm in Castelltallat, the upstairs barn has been converted into a self-catering apartment suitable for a family; it can sleep five plus a baby and shares a swimming pool with the owner. The farm has chickens, rabbits and geese and the owner specialises in her own wild mushrooms. She will also cook for you. The property costs from pounds 856 for two weeks (pounds 172 per person) including self-drive car hire but excluding flights which can be arranged, as can travel with your own car by ferry. Telephone Individual Travellers: 01795 860416
For similar low-cost properties in the Pyrenees, Andalucia and Aragon telephone: Eco-links 0171 732 1188
Walking, cycling and overland expeditions from adventure specialists enable you to get off the package beat into Andalucia, the Picos, Cantabrica and Asturias.
Highlight of Exodus Discovery Holidays' programme is a 15-day "pilgrim's route" for cyclists, following the route that pilgrims have taken since AD 813 from the foothills of the Pyrenees to the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela where those who have successfully completed the journey receive the pilgrim's "passport".
Cyclists should be reasonably fit and expect to average around 37 miles a day, much of it off-road. Overnight accommodation is in hotels, pensions and pilgrim's refuges which range from monasteries to dormitories. The cost is pounds 865 b&b including accommodation and flights plus a meal package charge of pounds 125, paid locally to include dinner each night and some lunches. Bikes can be hired locally for pounds 85. Those carrying their own may have to pay excess baggage of up to about pounds 20.
A shorter eight-day Picos de Europa expedition through the forests of Covadonga National Park and the Central Massif, travelling by bus, landcruiser and on foot and staying b&b in hostels, pensions and refuges costs pounds 440 including flights. The pounds 70 meal package includes lunch and evening meal. Telephone Exodus Discovery Holidays: 0181-673 0859. For Explore Worldwide telephone: 01252 319448Reuse content