Once a refuge for pilgrims, now holidaymakers are enjoying the tranquillity of this former monastery, says Robert Verkaik

Not everybody who books into La Cartuja de Cazalla stays the course. The day before I arrived at this former Carthusian monastery perched on a plateau deep in the Andalucian countryside, a young couple fled into the night complaining that the place was short on entertainment. Monastic life is not to everybody's taste.

Most hotel proprietors might be a little perturbed about the premature exit of two paying guests. But Carmen Ladron de Guevara y Bracho, the monastery's owner, who single-handedly saved it from ruin, has seen it all before. "I usually take one look at the guests and know whether the Cartuja is for them. Many turn up expecting a different kind of atmosphere or some excitement that simply isn't here. I knew this couple were leaving before they did," she says.

It is true that at La Cartuja de Cazalla there are no kids' clubs, discos or swanky restaurants. Such is the remoteness of the location that taxi drivers make a surcharge for the wear and tear to their vehicles for reaching the monastery. But the 60-mile journey from the dusty plains of Seville to the lush vegetation of the Sierra Norte is worth every click on the cabbie's meter.

Three miles from the white-faced-buildings of Cazalla de la Sierra, the nearest settlement to the monastery, a steep track bordered by olive orchards leads visitors to the Cartuja's gatehouse. Behind the dark metallic gates is a very special, tranquil place that has been sought out by pilgrims for centuries. Before the Carthusian monks consecrated this site in 1476, Celts, Romans and Moors came here to sample the natural springs that still provide water for the monastery and its estate.

Among the ruins of La Cartuja, set in an area of outstanding natural beauty - the Iberian lynx and Spanish wolf are still occasionally sighted in the surrounding cork and oak woods - my week rushes by.

Even today La Cartuja is still giving up the secrets of its pious founders' past. Recent finds include coins, medieval tiles and Carthusian cooking utensils. The monks themselves were forced out in 1834 during the dissolution of the Spanish monasteries. Soon afterwards the buildings fell into disrepair as local farmers stripped them of anything valuable. It wasn't until a former Battle of Britain spitfire pilot bought La Cartuja in 1973 that the reclamation could begin.

He used the monastery as a hideaway where he lived with his 17-year-old British girlfriend. When she tired of her much older lover and his reclusive lifestyle, he lost interest in the monastery. La Cartuja, one of only four of the region's surviving Carthusian monasteries, faced an uncertain future. Carmen, then a property developer, had fallen in love with the place and was determined to buy it. After a career spent helping the British build new homes on the Costa del Sol, she wanted to save La Cartuja for Spain. Carmen finally persuaded him to sell.

But her quest to restore it to its original glory continued to be frustrated as local politicians and businessmen did their best to thwart her. Her principal obstacle was the Catholic church, which had shown little interest in the survival of the break-away Carthusian movement. However, the church had also underestimated Carmen's determination. She finally managed to persuade a private investor to lend her the money and the result is a breathtaking example of a restoration project that has preserved the main church, its sanctuary, dome and belfry as well as La Cartuja's two chapels, cloisters, refectory and chapter house.

Today, these buildings, which in 1987 were finally recognised by the European Union as a national monument, function as a centre of contemporary art. The main church houses a gallery exhibiting the work of many of the artists who have visited the monastery over the past 25 years. There are three smaller galleries in the buildings set around the old cloisters where the monks used to eat and sleep. For guests who wish to pursue their own creative leanings the Cartuja's resident artist will supervise pottery, sculpture and painting classes. And, in the summer, there are a number of arts and music events.

The views from the church roof are spellbinding and beg visitors to explore the surrounding hills. A path sweeps down through the olive groves and passes two neighbouring farms where it picks up a river. Eagles swing up and down the valleys, while terrapins, direct descendants of the creatures kept in monks' fish ponds, sun themselves on the river banks. The trail leads to a road that takes you to the railway station at Constantina which has connections to Seville. The mountain railway journey is an excellent way to see the more inaccessible terrain.

At the end of a day's adventuring, guests can enjoy the food from the monastery kitchen. The pork comes from the monastery's own pig farm and the vegetables are grown in the monks' garden. La Cartuja even bottles its own wine.

It may not be to everyone's taste, but for each guest who leaves the monastery disappointed, many more will believe they have stumbled upon somewhere rather special.


How to get there

British Airways (0870-850 9 850; www.ba.com) and Ryanair (0906-270 5656; www.ryanair.com) both fly from London to Seville with fares starting at about £80 return.

La Cartuja de Cazalla is about 60 miles north of Seville airport. Taxis to the Cartuja cost about €110 (£78). There is also a mountain railway link which takes about two hours from Seville's Santa Justa station to Cazalla y Constantina, price €4.50 (£3.20). Go to www.renfe.com for details. Carmen can pick up from the station if given notice.

La Cartuja de Cazalla (00 34 954 884 516; www.cartujadecazalla.com) offers b&b in three kinds of accommodation. The Hospederia has six double rooms starting at €95 (£68) per night. The cloisters has four suites starting at €125 (£90) per night. The gardener's cottage has three bedrooms and costs €125 (£90) per night.