Break for the border
Rhiannon Batten takes a walking tour of the Sierra Aracena, the remote mountain range on Spain's wild frontier with Portugal
Saturday 12 February 2005
I first-geared the car through Castano del Robledo's narrow cobbled streets, beneath the geranium-filled balconies of its whitewashed houses. A firework fizzed overhead and salsa music shimmied out from the village square. All this Hispanic idyll needed was for someone to lead a horse over the cobbles and I'd have thought I'd stepped,
Truman Show-style, into an advert for the Spanish tourist board. But the guest house I was heading for in this overlooked but picturesque corner of Spain, near the Portuguese border, was run by a blue-eyed Scot.
I first-geared the car through Castano del Robledo's narrow cobbled streets, beneath the geranium-filled balconies of its whitewashed houses. A firework fizzed overhead and salsa music shimmied out from the village square. All this Hispanic idyll needed was for someone to lead a horse over the cobbles and I'd have thought I'd stepped, Truman Show-style, into an advert for the Spanish tourist board. But the guest house I was heading for in this overlooked but picturesque corner of Spain, near the Portuguese border, was run by a blue-eyed Scot.
Posada del Castaño, or "Chestnut House", was bought by Craig Balmain and his partner Sasha McFadyean three years ago. Viewers of the Channel 4 series No Going Back might remember the couple, who featured in an early programme. Like the rest of the people in the series, the idea was that they would swap office tedium in the UK for the chance to renovate a tumbledown house in the sun. The difference in Sasha and Craig's case was that they had a head start. Having previously worked in Andalucia as tour guides, they already knew the Sierra Aracena well and both spoke fluent Spanish. Now that the house has been restored, the couple are putting this previous experience into practice; as well as converting the building into a guest house they are also using it as a base for small group tours.
When I arrived, Craig was busy leading a group of fit and friendly American professors on a walking tour. Having been encouraged to join the party, the following day I found myself puffing along at the back of the group. Tripping down winding mule tracks, stomping through white-washed villages and skipping over dehydrated river beds, I willed the generous breakfast I'd been given by Sasha to work itself off.
The pathways we followed may have been well marked but they were certainly not crowded. Well away from Andalucia's more heavily trodden routes, the Sierra Aracena is one of the most rugged parts of the Spanish countryside. Declared a Natural Park 16 years ago, today it boasts an appealing collection of wild flower fields, weed-ravaged walls and ancient chestnut woods. Look closely and you might even see the odd wild boar knocking around.
Among all of this, there is plenty worth trekking out to, from a 10th-century Moorish mosque in Almonaster de la Real to Aracena's Templar church and the huge, cool lakes hidden away underground in the town's "Cave of Marvels". The highlight of our hike was the village of Alajar, a few kilometres outside Castaño del Robledo.
Here, set on an outcrop high above the village, is the pretty sanctuary of Nuestra Señora de los Angeles, and a shrine dedicated to the 16th-century scholar Arias Montano. Each autumn the hilltop becomes the focus of a massive local pilgrimage, with thousands of people riding up on horseback, in decorated carts or, if they're unlucky, just on foot, to celebrate. Andalucia is famous for these romerias. Taking their name from the romeros, or pilgrims, who walked to Rome, they start with everyone leaving the village in a procession. They head up to the relevant shrine or sanctuary carrying flags, decked out in local costume and accompanied by a village band.
Though not the most famous romeria (that honour goes to El Rocio, which takes place in the Guadalquivir delta in May), the one at Alajar is one of the most spirited. And even outside festival time, the setting is spectacular enough to warrant a visit. Wander over to the edge of the hill and you're rewarded with a vast panorama over scrubby hills, shadowy valleys and remote villages - and a total escape from any lingering urban angst.
That our group was equally taken by the landscape can probably be credited to Craig's enthusiasm. As we picked our way along the old drovers' tracks, he cheerfully explained everything we passed, from the traditional cobbled doormats fixed outside people's front doors and the famous local ham we had stuffed into our sandwiches for lunch, to the history of fountain in one of the villages. Even when one of the professors pulled a bottle of wine out of his rucksack, Craig managed to offer us an impromptu analysis of the local cork industry as we stopped to drink it under the shade of ancient cork trees.
Later that evening, back in Castaño del Robledo, there was little need for explanation when we all rolled out to enjoy the local fiesta. Taking our places around the village square, we shared our business between the two small bars that sit on either side and sat down to watch at least four generations bopping away on stage to the fanfare of the local band. Like the romerias, these fiestas are a mainstay of the local summer scene and this one was the highlight of Castaño del Robledo's calendar. As the evening chugged happily by and more of the villagers moved onto the dance floor, we gradually left them to it, ebbing slowly back to the guest house for some well-earned rest.
Which is where I discovered the one chink in the idyll. While Sasha has done a great job with the decoration, providing rooms that are definitely on the chic side of rustic with their simple white bedspreads, bright pea-green shutters and pots of well cared-for geraniums balancing on the window-sills, the couple don't have their own living space as yet. As such their two young children, Gordon and Gala, currently have the rather raucous run of the place and it's the not the most peaceful of environments. However, this is all set to change when they move into their own place in April.
Not that it seems to have put the other guests off. Apart from the American professors, one other couple was there during my visit. The reason why they hadn't joined the walk was that, having visited the posada several times, they had so fallen in love with the Sierra Aracena that they were back out to buy this time. Determined not to go back empty-handed, they were spending their days avidly hunting out "for sale" signs and plotting their own escape to the sun.
Rhiannon Batten flew with Globespan (08705 561522; www.flyglobespan.com), which flies from Edinburgh and Glasgow to Faro and Malaga.
Faro, Jerez and Malaga airports are all within easy reach of the village, but closest is Seville, 75 minutes' drive away. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies to Seville from Gatwick; Iberia (0845 850 9000; www.iberia.com) flies from Heathrow; and from 25 February, Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) wll fly from Stansted.
The writer hired a car through Hertz (08708 484848, www.hertz.co.uk), which charges £93 for a seven-day rental. If you'd rather travel as part of an organised tour, Inntravel (01653 617723; www.inntravel.com) runs seven-night walking trips taking in Posada del Castaño from £798 per person, including flights, transfers, accommodation and most meals.
Explore Worldwide offers eight-day Active Aracena trips that take in Posada del Castaño. They cost from £425 per person with flights, transport and accommodation (0870 333 4001; www.exploreworldwide.com)
The Posada del Castaño (00 34 959 465502; www.posadadelcastano.com) has doubles from €38 (£27), with breakfast.
The next Romeria Nuestra Señora de los Angeles takes place from 7-8 September in Alajar.
Andalucia Tourism (00 34 952 12 93 00; www.andalucia.org)
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