IN ASSOCIATION WITH BRITISH AIRWAYS

Andalucia: On a rural retreat

Cortijos - rural country houses - are a great accommodation option, says Cathy Packe

The sound of a cockerel crowing is a sure sign of being in the country, so I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised to be woken early after my first night in the Cortijo Mesa de la Plata. But apart from the rather rude awakening, I had had a very comfortable night, although the room I was staying in was simple: two single beds, an alcove hidden by a curtain which passed as a wardrobe, and an upright chair.

It was part of what looked, when I arrived at the cortijo, like a rustic semi-detached bungalow. My front door opened into a living room, with a sofa bed, television, dining table and four chairs. There was a fireplace built into one wall and, had I needed it, wood would have been supplied so that I could light a fire for myself. At one end of the room was a kitchen area, equipped with a fridge, sink and microwave, and there was a supply of basic china and cutlery. A bathroom opened off at one side, and at the far end was the bedroom. The windows all had curtains, but were covered on the outside, in typical Andalucian style, by Venetian blinds, to keep out the summer sun. Outside, there was a veranda and a space to park a car, and, not far away, my own barbecue for a bit of outdoor self-catering.

The bungalow, officially described as an apartment, was part of a larger complex known as a cortijo. These are old-style country houses, found only in Andalucia; other regions have farmhouses, too, of course, but they are not known by the same name. Typically, the houses were built around a central courtyard, with a main entrance from an external yard, and they would usually have been the main building in an extensive estate. Smaller buildings, like the little house I was staying in, would be scattered around the grounds not far from the main house, and these would have been used originally for the farm workers and their families to live in. There was always a well somewhere nearby, the only source of water on the property. The well remains in most cortijos, although it is some time since any would have been used as the main water supply.

Over a simple breakfast I chatted to Maria Luisa Guerrero, owner of the Cortijo Mesa de la Plata. She admitted that this cortijo, though identical in style to the more traditional properties, was a modern replica, built 10 years ago when she and her partner, Miguel Orellana, decided they'd like to run a hotel. "The idea just came to us," she told me. "We decided to do something completely different."

The main building contains the reception area, the bar and restaurant, a sitting room for visitors with a computer for those who can't bear to be cut off from the rest of the world, and some of the bedrooms. There are pots of flowers everywhere, and benches dotted around where people can sit and relax in the shade. The house is surrounded by grounds were visitors can stroll, and there is a large swimming pool. Down a gentle slope are the stables - Maria Luisa keeps three horses - and the hen houses, which contain the noisy cockerel as well as chickens, geese and turkeys.

The cortijo is in the countryside a couple of miles outside Arcos de la Frontera, where there is no shortage of hotel accommodation. I asked Anna, who was staffing reception, why people would choose to stay here rather than up in the village, with its restaurants and tourist attractions.

"We find that people now are looking for something different from a normal hotel," she replied. "Some people are put off because we are 50 minutes from the beach, but others love it here. It's handy for sightseeing, and then they can come back and enjoy the pool and the space we have here."

Some people turn up by chance, she told me, their attention caught by the signpost on the main road. "And they often like it so much that they stay longer than they intended to," she added.

Anna mentioned that there was another cortijo a couple of kilometres away. While the Mesa de la Plata is a convincing imitation, the Cortijo Barranco is the real thing. Built in 1754, it is set in 450 hectares of land, an area so large that the drive from the main entrance gate to the front door is some 3km long. The cortijo functioned as an olive mill until 10 years ago, at which point it became more economical to harvest the olives and send them to a co-operative in Seville for processing. It has been occupied by the same family for more than 100 years. The present owner, Consuelo Amian, decided to convert it into a hotel as a way of being able to keep the building in the family at the same time as earning some money. Consuelo's daughter, Maria Jose, admitted to me that life is becoming increasingly difficult for everyone in the Spanish countryside these days, and that more and more cortijo owners are providing accommodation as a means of making a living.

Consuelo has built up her business gradually, and in the 10 years since she began welcoming visitors she has seen an increase in the popularity of accommodation like hers. The house is gorgeous, and has been carefully restored, so it is not surprising that she has many repeat visitors. Some first heard of the place through word of mouth but, increasingly, the cortijo is becoming known through guidebooks, the internet, and a number of associations that have been set up to foster the growing rural accommodation movement.

Consuelo Amian believes that she is offering an experience that is more natural, and certainly more personal, than anything that would be available in a conventional hotel. The rooms are simple - monastic might be a better description, although they are spotlessly clean and have everything that anyone might need for a comfortable stay, including full ensuite facilities. Outside their own room, the guests have space - extensive grounds, a lovely swimming pool with views across the sierra, a shady courtyard covered with vines. Meals are served in what was once the old mill; the original grinding stone has been incorporated into the fireplace. Breakfast features rosemary honey from the estate's hives, and preserves made from home-grown fruit. Dinner is also available on request to anyone staying at the cortijo.

In former times horses would have been kept on many estates, and many cortijos continue the tradition. There is an extensive stable block, the Hipica El Granero, in the grounds of the Cortijo Barranco, and although it is run separately from the hotel itself, it is a major attraction for many guests. It has 15 horses, and they can be taken out for short treks or all-day rides across the miles of tracks nearby; you can also arrange lessons.

Back in my more modern cortijo, I relaxed beside the pool, sipping a beer and chatting to other guests. We had lovely views of Arcos, perched on its hilltop a few kilometres to the west. But with open countryside all around us, and only the gentle noise of the resident birds and animals to break the peace and quiet, it was easy to see why more and more people have been abandoning urban hotels in favour of a night or two in more rural surroundings.

British Airways, operated by GB Airways, flies to Gibraltar from London Gatwick and Heathrow and to Seville from London Gatwick. For more details visit www.ba.com

OFFBEAT ACCOMMODATION

CAVES OF THE ALTIPLANO

"If you can't stand the heat..." may be an old saying, but it could have been written as an advertising slogan for anyone trying to promote the benefits of cave-dwelling. In terms of accommodation, caves are cool.

Protected from the intense summer heat, but insulated in winter, caves have been popular places to live in parts of Andalucia for years. In Almeria there are a number of troglodyte communities - as cave-dwellers are known - the largest of which is in Guadix. At first sight, it is a typical Moorish town, with an ancient fortress and cathedral dominating the horizon, but continue up the hill past the church and the town suddenly disappears into the rocks. Nothing is visible except the small chimneys that provide ventilation for a succession of underground homes, housing around 12,000 people.

Caves are fast becoming popular with visitors attracted by a novel form of lodgings. But although you will be sleeping below ground level, don't expect your night underground to be lacking in creature comforts: caves are fitted with electricity and running water.

Some have been turned into hotels, like the Cuevas Pedro Antonio de Alarcon, a complex of 23 caves on the outskirts of Guadix. Each room has a bedroom, bathroom, sitting area and kitchen, although the complex does have a restaurant. More authentic is to rent a self-catering cave, like the three owned by the Cuevas de Maria in Guadix itself.

Natural rock walls divide up the space, and the rooms are separated from each other with curtains. The kitchen, located nearest to the front door, has every modern convenience, and each cave will sleep six people.

Hotel Cuevas Pedro Antonio de Alarcon: Barriada de San Torcuato (00 34 958 664 986; www.cuevaspedroantonio.com). Caves that will accommodate two people are available from €59 (£42), with breakfast from €5.50 (£4).

Cuevas de Maria: Calle Ermita Nueva 52 (00 34 958 660 716; www.guadixvisitar.com/cuevasdemaria). Six people will pay €100 (£71) per night, although the caves are available for couples for €45 (£32).

RURAL TOURISM

Rural accommodation - anything from bed and breakfast in a private home to a stay on a farm - is an increasingly popular way of spending a holiday in Spain.

Todo Turismo Rural is a nationwide organisation offering a variety of accommodation; in Andalucia it ranges from a small house for two people in the village of Montejaque near Ronda to a villa that sleeps 10 between Cordoba and Malaga.

Each property has to be inspected, first by the local administration and then by the tourist authorities. There are different categories, according to whether what is on offer is a room in someone's house or a whole property.

The RAAR - the Andalucian Network of Rural Accommodation - represents the owners of farms, country homes and even camping facilities in the region. All are classified according to what is on offer. Rates for the properties vary, but bed and breakfast, in a room with shared facilities, could cost €15 (£11), while a modest house with several bedrooms is likely to be €300 (£210) for a week.

Todo Turismo Rural: 00 34 914 659 567; www.todoturismorural.com.

RAAR: 00 34 902 442 233

CONTACTS

Cortijo Mesa de la Plata (00 34 956 704 774; www.cortijomesadelaplata.com) is on the Arcos-El Bosque road at km 4.5. Double rooms cost €77 (£55), singles €64 (£46), including breakfast. Apartments that sleep two people cost €96 (£69).

Cortijo Barranco is on the Arcos-El Bosque road at km 5.7 (00 34 956 231 402; www.cortijobarranco.com). Double rooms start at €72 (£51), singles at €53.50 (£38).

Hipica El Granero: 00 34 607 374 160; www.caballosandaluces.net

ECO-TOURISM IN THE MOUNTAINS

If you want a Spanish holiday that doesn't do much harm to the physical or social environment, you could try Benamonarda ( www.benamonarda.com). This is an Andalucian co-operative in Jubrique, a village of 950 people in the Serrania de Ronda (not to be confused with the similarly named leather-working town further north). Visitors carry small gifts for their host families. Evening meals are alongside the relatives of the village publican.

Benamonarda specialises in walking and cultural holidays. Other activities are available, such as mountain biking, mule treks, learning local crafts and nature rambles, making the holidays suitable for couples or families with diverse interests. Few people speak English so it's ideal for language work.

Breakfasts are certainly hearty - local bread and cheese, and salami, home-made from the small black pigs which roam freely in the cork oak forests.

Cars have to park outside the village and mules carry loads to the upper lanes. Children can play safely in the squares. Water is kept in tanks under the courtyards of the older houses.

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