Travellers' Guide: How to explore wild Andalucia

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In the second instalment of our series on Spain, produced in association with Lonely Planet, Brendan Sainsbury explores the tranquil interior of this diverse region

In a land so bountiful in history, music, gastronomy and beaches, Andalucia's wild regions often get overlooked. But, with the financial crisis deflating the Costa del Sol property bubble and dark recession clouds still hanging ominously over Spain's historic cities, now's a great time for curious travellers to escape to the region's last bastion of tranquillity – the countryside.

Andalucia's extensive wilderness is studded with noble natural landmarks that rival its architectural heirlooms in Granada and Seville. Perched spectacularly above the Alhambra in the lofty Sierra Nevada sits mainland Spain's highest mountain, the easily scalable Mulhacén, while closer to sea level in the Guadalquivir river delta, near a site touted in 2011 as a possible location of the mythical Atlantis, lies Doñana – arguably Europe's most important wetlands.

The Sierra Nevada (sierranevadanatural.com) and Doñana ( reddeparquesnacionales.mma.es) are precious ecosystems, which serve as Andalucia's two national parks, backed up by a supporting cast of at least 80 protected areas that, when combined, comprise nearly 20 per cent of the region's total land area.

It's a strangely underappreciated line-up. Missed by most travellers heading to Marbella's golf courses or Cordoba's Mezquita mosque is Spain's largest protected area, the Sierras de Cazorla Segura y Las Villas, which is something of a free-roaming zoo for deer, ibex, mouflon and wild boar. To the south, sandwiched between the built-up Costa del Sol and the equally clamorous Costa Blanca in Alicante, lies desert-like Cabo de Gata, a delightful portion of craggy coastline crisscrossed by footpaths that the property magnates somehow forgot to colonise.

Unlike Europe's less benign wildernesses, Andalucia's countryside is readily accessible even without a car. Both the Doñana and the Sierra Nevada national parks, are within striking distance of big cities such as Seville and Granada, and excellent train and bus services reach into smaller parks and reserves.

Trail access for walkers and cyclists has improved significantly in the past few years thanks to an ongoing environmental initiative hatched in 1993 that has transformed more than 1,800km of old, disused railway lines into traffic-free greenways. There are now more than a dozen well signed-posted "vías verdes" ( viasverdes.com) in Andalucia, with more in the pipeline. Many are imbued with local history and all offer candid glimpses of a charming bucolic world whose essence hasn't changed much since playwright Federico García Lorca wrote his seminal Rural Trilogy in the 1930s.

The best season for walking is during April and May when the wild flowers are in bloom and the fields are spinach green. This is also a good time to indulge in another of Andalucia's classic activities – birdwatching, with migratory birds from Africa swelling the species count considerably.

Getting to Andalucia from the UK poses few difficulties. The region's most convenient hubs are Malaga and Seville, whose international airports are served daily by a host of airlines, including Ryanair, easyJet, British Airways, Monarch, Jet2 and FlyBe. British Airways launches flights to Granada in July. On the ground, Spain's trains, run by state-owned Renfe ( renfe.com), are fast and efficient. Bus services are shared between various private companies and serve smaller towns not on the rail network.

A number of travel operators focus on Andalucia's wild side. Exodus (0845 863 9600; exodus.co.uk) has been running activity trips to the region for well over a decade. Its eight-day "Walking in Andalucia" excursion is run out of a beautifully renovated farmhouse in the white village of Algámitas and costs from £899 per person including flights, accommodation and most meals. Inntravel (01653 617001; inntravel.co.uk) also operates walking holidays in Andalucia's interior. For something more esoteric, try a rural art holiday with Paint Andalucia (020-8385 2024; paint-andalucia.com) from £799 per person for eight days with meals, tuition and accommodation.

Pastoral pathway

The GR7 is a quieter alternative to Spain's legendary Camino de Santiago. The long-distance footpath runs from Tarifa, near Gibraltar, up the east coast to the French border. The Andalucian section follows old trade routes through the region's dramatic scenery, dipping into small villages for hostales or rural homestays. One section bisects the cork oak groves of Los Alcornocales Natural Park; another links the high valleys and villages of Las Alpujarras.

Walking the GR7 in Andalucia (Cicerone; 2010) is an indispensable guide. Frontier Holidays (0141 956 1569; frontierholidays.net) offers a week's group tour from Tarifa to Ronda from £690pp with luggage transfers and half board; flights are extra.

Biodiverse Doñana

Bulldozers have eaten away at Andalucia's prized coastline since the 1960s, but the Unesco-protected Doñana National Park sits out of their reach in Huelva province. These biodiverse wetlands are one of the last refuges of the endangered Iberian lynx, and offer fine birdwatching opportunities, via the new Francisco Bernis Birdwatching Centre (00 34 959 44 23 72; seo.org; 9am-2pm and 4-6pm Tuesday-Sunday). There are high-powered binoculars and helpful onsite experts, and it's a top viewing spot for flamingos, ibis, spoonbills and more. For an even closer look, Discovering Doñana (00 34 620 964 369; discoveringdonana.com) runs five-hour bird-biased forays into the park from €35pp.

Nature haven

The isolated province of Jaén hosts the Sierras de Cazorla Segura y Las Villas Natural Park (00 34 953 248 000; sierrasdecazorlaseguraylasvillas.es). This vast protected area, with karst topography and dense pine forest, is the best place to see Andalucia's wild fauna. The fringes can be navigated in short hikes out of Cazorla. The Parador Cazorla (00 34 953 72 70 75; paradores-spain.com) offers rural luxury in an old mansion high in the park's peaks. Doubles start at €102, room only.

Vías verdes

Often called the jewel in the crown of Andalucia's burgeoning greenway network, the Vía Verde de la Sierra (00 34 956 136 372; www.fundacionviaverdedelasierra.com) is a scenic well-maintained pathway, pictured, that stretches for 36km between the traditional white villages of Olvera and Puerto Serrano in north-eastern Cadiz province. It is surrounded by ancient olive groves and overlooked by a ring of even older Moorish castles. The spectacular but mercifully flat route – which utilises four elegant viaducts and 30 tunnels – was voted Europe's best greenway in 2009. Bizarrely, the former railway line along which the vía verde runs was never used commercially as the company that built it went bankrupt during the Great Depression. Fortunately, three of the original stations have been salvaged and today serve as rural hotels with restaurants and bike hire outlets. The vía verde is open to cyclists, walkers and wheelchair users year round. Olvera's Estación Verde (00 34 661 463 207) has doubles from €40.

White-town bases

Several towns make convenient bases for fast, easy sorties into wild Andalucia. Ronda, pictured, surrounded by the brawny Serranía de Ronda, is a good nexus for half a dozen shorter walks, or a stash of wilder ones that pierce the nearby Sierra de las Nieves (00 34 952 48 28 21; sierranieves.com), a natural park known for its potholes and caves. Pampaneira, Bubión and Capileira are white villages that perch on the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada in an area known as Las Alpujarras. Linked by footpaths, they offer instant access to Spain's highest mountain range and have managed to retain many of their feisty traditions. Grazalema, an almost perfect white village set in a natural park, is a crossroads for key footpaths and acts as base for Horizon (00 34 956 13 23 63; horizonaventura.com), a local tour agency that focuses on white-knuckle adventures such as canyoning and caving.

On the rocks

Millions of tourists pass through Malaga every year, but only a handful take the 40-minute train ride north to El Chorro, a deep, steep-sided natural canyon in the Guadalhorce Mountains with 700 climbing routes. The gorge is best known for the vertigo-inducing and extremely dangerous Camino del Rey, pictured, a man-made walkway cut into the rock-wall 100m above the Guadalhorce River. "The King's Path", which was built for hydroelectric workers back in 1905, had fallen into disrepair and was declared unsafe but is now undergoing a €9m restoration. For now, there are safer trails in the Desfiladero de los Gaitanes protected area. The easy 5km Sendero Gaitanejo forges through woods and along the shores of a reservoir. El Chorro's centre of operations is Finca La Campana (00 34 626 963 942; el-chorro.com), a basic lodge with dorms or cottages from €12 and €42 respectively. Activities on offer include mountain biking, hiking, and climbing courses for experts and neophytes.

The new edition of Lonely Planet's 'Andalucia' guidebook is out now, priced £13.99. See shop.lonelyplanet.com

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