As I walked out one Christmas morning ...

An energetic break in Andalusia - what better way to heal a broken heart? But Louise Tickle never expected to enjoy it

LITTERING THE path, carob pods squirmed with maggots, and the avocados surprised us, hanging unassumingly in squelchy ripeness. Oranges sat on their branches, content with knowledge of their secret brilliance. To repeated calls of "Arriba!", we climbed past terraces of emptied walnut trees. December is harvest time for Andalusia's bitter purple-bruised olives, and several times along the way, invisible farmers, lost in the tortured landscape of their groves, called out a disembodied "Hola!" to the English party.

Assuring my friends that a Christmas walking holiday would be a refreshing change from frantic shopping, eating and partying was a monstrous fib. Spending Christmas marching up and down hillsides was intended to vanquish the aching loss of the no-longer boyfriend. And if I felt miserable, I could read a book instead. Proust, Lorca and Will Hutton were packed between layers of trendy new Gore-Tex kit - windproof, rainproof, ruinously expensive and clearly crucial to the whole relationship recovery process.

Arriving in the Andalusian mountain village of Competa, home to our host and guide, Peter Strange, Gustavo's minicab squeezed through windy streets to deposit me and my boots on to the village square. I didn't know it then, but Gustavo and his taxi would be a regular feature of my walks, whisking feeble city legs back to reviving cups of silky hot chocolate in the local bar.

Competa's tall white houses dazzled in the winter sunshine, crowding crookedly upon each other higher and higher, giving narrow glimpses of bright blue sky between. Entering Peter's house was to discover a magic land; room after room revealed itself, tucked into corners and secreted down corridors. A spiral staircase in my bedroom led to a mosaic bathroom lit by candles in antique candlesticks. I felt like a princess creeping about her castle. Fortunately, the castle had radiators and a roaring fire so tired princesses could curl up after a hard day's hike around the kingdom.

Peter's approach to the activity part of the holiday - regular refuelling stops and optional short cuts home - meant that walks could be adapted to suit all abilities. On the third day, legs trembling after relentless scrambling up goat-paths, the reward was a vast view of the jagged peaks of the Sierra de Almijara stretching deep in shadow to the sea.

Our walks took us through quiet villages, past scattered lemon groves and along hillsides dotted with flashy villas. Peter was an inspiring guide, vastly knowledgeable, and passionate about the landscape. Walking mostly upwards works up a voracious appetite, and eating lunch alfresco in December was an unexpected glory. Bar Antonio's endless supply of fried anchovies, battered squid, tortilla, paella and salty chips was followed by the region's ubiquitous sweet flan. And then Antonio would emerge from the kitchen to pour complimentary digestifs of hazelnut, almond, apple and peach.

Christmas Day arrived minus presents, but with the prospect of the "Five Villages Walk". Conquering the temptation to take the softies' route home after the fourth village, we waded through gushing streams towards the promised picnic of Kit Kats, cakes, crisps and champagne. Stuffed with everything that was deliciously not turkey or sprouts, and lazily anticipating a lift back in Peter's jeep, I peeled off sodden boots and socks and sunbathed on warm stones. No-longer boyfriend seemed a long way off.

That evening, high on the roof terrace, I watched as apricot skies, pale and soft as the lightest fruit fool, seeped gently into translucent creaminess across the bay. Shattering the calm, teenagers on screaming motorbikes careered around the steeply stepped streets, whooping in triumph.

But the night was far from over. The Christmas auction in Competa's neighbouring village of Canillas was getting underway. We bundled into Gustavo's taxi and swooped into the main square as the auctioneer kicked off proceedings with ceremonial swigs of whisky to roars of encouragement. Little girls in velvet dresses ran around excitedly, while mandolin-players slouched elegantly, finishing off the fiesta's traditional churros, warm sugary doughnuts, dipped in hot chocolate.

Later, I slipped away as the mandolins began their serenade again. Church bells rang through the cool air as I walked back to Competa. My thoughts drifted lightly in the darkness. I climbed the final steep street and, after a midnight bowl of cornflakes, washed my walking socks ready for the morning, and snuggled up in my castle.

FACT FILE

walking in andalusia

Getting there

Spanish Steps runs guided walking holidays in Andalusia from pounds 295 per person per week, including transfers and half-board, but excluding flights. Contact Peter Strange (tel: 01604 770012).

Flights to Malaga include Unijet from Gatwick (tel: 0990 114114) for pounds 89 return (up to pounds 250 over Christmas and New Year), and Iberia to Malaga (tel: 0171-830 0011) from pounds 158 plus pounds 14 tax for a two-week return (up to pounds 253 plus pounds 14 tax at Christmas).

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