As I walked out one midsummer morning

Three kingdoms, two boots, one map, no luggage. Katy Guest takes to the hills and revels in solitude

The terrain around the three kingdoms of Valencia, Catalonia and Aragon could have been designed by a committee of benign mountain gods with walking holidays in mind. The hills are smooth, green and fertile, their slick orange clay fed by hidden reservoirs of water trapped in the rock.

The terrain around the three kingdoms of Valencia, Catalonia and Aragon could have been designed by a committee of benign mountain gods with walking holidays in mind. The hills are smooth, green and fertile, their slick orange clay fed by hidden reservoirs of water trapped in the rock.

Until the 1960s, when agriculture became untenable, the sides of the mountains were speckled with tiny masias, where olives would be farmed, goats herded and almond trees coaxed out of the sticky earth. Today, not a soul is to be seen for mile upon mile of sun-baked hillside. It wasn't until the third day of our walk that we encountered any other tourists. We found ourselves thinking, "People? What are they doing here?"

Inntravel's seven-night walking tour of the Three Kingdoms is like the Inca Trail with a five-star rating. For one thing, there is no dusty rucksack to carry: your luggage is taken on ahead and left waiting in your hotel room until you arrive, sweaty and clapped-out, to gratefully claim it. The hotels are the cosiest, most luxurious and most downright weird that you could ever want to wash your tired feet in. One is a 15th-century castle where the ladies of the house once used saucepans to fight off the Moors. Another is a converted railway station with sunken Roman baths. La Torre del Visco has swallows' nests hidden among its honeysuckled terraces and olive groves crawling down towards the river where the frogs sing you to sleep. And the coolest, sweetest and most welcoming little wine cellar you have ever clapped eyes on.

As you walk, the occasional village, seen across miles and miles of hazy valley, appears as if a giant arm had hurled a handful of mud at the steep side of the mountain, and it had stuck. Architectural features such as the enormous viaduct that walkers cross to reach the hotel La Parada del Compte look as if they have been dropped on to the landscape by a passing spaceship.

For anyone missing the throb of humanity and the smell of diesel, there are remedies. As an additional option, you can cycle around the Ebro Delta. A boat will take you through the bamboo and the orange groves to a bird sanctuary. Towns around the delta have strewn their streets with long, blue, knotted balloons - a plea to the government not to divert water from the river and the rice fields to feed the golf courses in the southern resorts.

It appears the birds are in on the act, too. As the boat chugs down the river, purple herons swoop and twirl across the bow, turning tricks for the binoculars. Fish pirouette out of the river. Flamingos preen on the bank. To get into the hide for a proper look at the lesser-spotted purple gallinule, you will have to shove aside a family of swallows that have been dancing around in the window, performing for their friends. It's as if the whole river is showing off.

The walking notes for the tour, as well as reassuring the nervous walker with their calm, mumsy tones, nudge you to look out for intriguing bits of flora and fill you in on the history of the area. One river is called the Tastavins ("Drink the wine"). The notes relate that the shepherds used to take their goats to drink there. One year, when the river dried up, the shepherds asked the villagers, "What shall we do?" The Marie-Antoinette-ish diktat came back: "Let them drink wine". Elsewhere, one instruction reads: "If there has been heavy rain within the last couple of days, the river may be too swollen to cross. In such circumstances, please call Jemma Markham at La Torre del Visco, who will send someone to pick you up." The one time they did, Jemma says, it was for two 70-year-old women who were stuck at the flooded crossing. The ride in the tractor turned out to be the highlight of their trip.

If, even with the extensive notes, you do not recognise the wild herbs and the almond trees and the olive groves glittering dry and silver in the sun, don't worry; you get a second chance when it all ends up on your plate. The cuisine is full of roast kid, rabbit stew, foie gras, mantequado (almond shortbread), almendrado (tiny little brittle meringues), cuajado (a sort of sheep's milk yoghurt), exotic flavours of ice-cream (such as pumpkin and honey or Parmesan) and just about every variety of cured red meat. The wild mountain thyme and rosemary flavour the honey. Aragon chefs compete like madmen over their Romescu sauce (with olive oil, garlic and sweet red peppers). The salty almonds are dished up with drinks. Olives, of course, get absolutely everywhere.

At La Torre del Visco, they will let you taste the many varieties of olive oil that are produced in the valley. By now you will have become such a sybarite that it will seem entirely reasonable to be sitting among the wild roses in the lovers' garden, sipping olive oil as if it were wine. But the contrasts you will notice between the flavours - apples, pepper, waxy lemons, fat, green grass - are extraordinary. The best olives come from trees that are about 800 years old - although the oldest in the valley is about 1,500. A new machine has been invented that shakes the trees until the olives drop. At least, that is the theory. Farmers of very old trees say they do not know whether to hang their nets beneath the trees, to catch the olives, or under the machine, to catch the nuts and bolts that are shaken out when it attempts to trouble the immovable roots.

Whereas La Torre del Visco was lovingly converted from an ancient farmhouse (the English owners had to buy the farm complete with 1,400 pigs), la Parada del Compte used to be a railway station. Each room is named after a Spanish station (with a couple of suites: New York and Istanbul) and designed to represent the local area. The sunken bath is in Merida. Atocha has bare brick walls and a warm, tiled floor. Outside, the owners chase the new puppy, the puppy chases the cats, and everyone chases the swallows that flit about the eaves catching flies.

As the sun goes down, you wander over to the old ticket office and let your eyes follow the train track that stretches out across the valley. You breathe in the local grenache and lazily survey the map for the next day's walk. Would you feel more virtuous if you were contemplating walking it with a leaden rucksack and a packet of Ryvita? Maybe a little. But I'd rather not.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

The author travelled as a guest of Inntravel (01653 617906; www.inntravel.co.uk). Its 'Three Kingdoms' walk in Catalonia, Aragon and Valencia costs from £839 per person, based on two sharing. This includes return flights from Heathrow to Barcelona, rail/taxi transfers, seven nights' B&B with six dinners and five picnics, luggage transfers, walking maps and notes. Departures are available from 1 April until 16 July and then 1 September until 31 October.

Further information

Spanish National Tourist Office (020-7486 8077; www.tourspain.info) and www.catalunyatourism.com.

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