Travels without a mule

Avis, we reckoned, might have been better off renting us a mule each, so high and tortuous is the C339 from Marbella to Ronda, the town that launched 1,000 postcards, and which, according to my flowery guidebook, "straddles a precipitous limestone cleft". But our Chrysler stuck admirably to the task, whisking us past Ronda without so much as a glimpse of the precipitous limestone cleft, and on towards the fabulous city of Seville.

Avis, we reckoned, might have been better off renting us a mule each, so high and tortuous is the C339 from Marbella to Ronda, the town that launched 1,000 postcards, and which, according to my flowery guidebook, "straddles a precipitous limestone cleft". But our Chrysler stuck admirably to the task, whisking us past Ronda without so much as a glimpse of the precipitous limestone cleft, and on towards the fabulous city of Seville.

Except that we bypassed Seville too, thus reducing not one but two of Spain's most deservedly cherished tourist destinations to a peremptory "look over there, children, oh you've missed it, never mind". When you're travelling with three hungry children under seven, beautiful gothic cathedrals with magnificent bell-towers sometimes have to go by the wayside. And so we pressed relentlessly on, towards the little-known Sierra de Aracena, a hilly region of Andalusia some 60 miles north-west of Seville, close to the Portuguese border.

It was late spring, but the hills were damp following weeks of unseasonal downpours; that old snob Henry Higgins got it wrong, the rain in Spain emphatically does not fall mainly on the plain. And thank goodness it doesn't, because the rain, and intermittent warm sunshine, had combined to produce a breathtaking profusion of wild flowers.

By now it was late afternoon, and there was not another car on the road, so it seemed as if Mother Nature had pushed the boat out just for us. Ever more startling reds, purples and yellows greeted us around every bend, inspiring my wife to mutter something about colour combinations, and how we should learn from the way nature does it. Then, just as I was entertaining alarming visions of her redecorating our inoffensive magnolia living-room in poppy red and cowslip yellow, we turned one more bend and the whitewashed town of Aracena came into view.

It is an engaging, beguiling place, dominated by the ruins, dramatically floodlit at night, of a Moorish hilltop fortress. The town below is typically Andalus, a town of cobbled streets and fragrant orange trees, of simple yet majestic churches, of terracotta pots and tumbling geraniums and ornate blue tiles, of occasional architectural flourishes, wonderful wrought-iron balconies and intense civic pride.

As for the sierra to which Aracena lends its name, I have seen grander landscapes but I have rarely been quite so captivated. The clichés were all firmly in place, right down to the wizened old goatherd atop an elderly donkey. But there was so much besides.

We took the road to Almonaster la Real, a village in the shadow of a 10th-century mosque. Inside the mosque, we admired 700-year-old frescoes, faded but still remarkable paintings, not even mentioned in my guidebook, of long-forgotten clerics. And we looked out from the mosque's ruined tower over countless miles of unspoilt hills, rendered blue in the hazy afternoon sunshine, many of them planted with the chestnut trees that were (said the guidebook) imported from Galicia in the 16th century.

We stayed in the area for five days, serenaded by nightingales in a pretty self-catering cottage at the Finca Valbono, a farm just outside Aracena with stables, a swimming pool and, to the squealing delight of the children, a resident wild boar. Actually, we all became rather fond of him, albeit from the safe side of some strong wire mesh. Mostly he snoozed, but occasionally he would heave himself up and charge to and fro. As my wife pointed out, we already know one or two crashing bores, so to encounter a crashing boar made a welcome change.

I suppose he was kept for breeding purposes. For in north-western Andalusia the pig is king and heaven help the vegetarian. Vast hams dangle from the ceiling of virtually every bar in Aracena. This is pata negra, ham from the black-trottered pig, enriched by the discerning creature's diet of acorns. And like Guinness, it does not travel too well. To appreciate it at its richest, the Sierra de Aracena is one of the best places to be.

At the Rincon de Juan, a bar just off the handsome town square, we had memorable tapas sessions, demolishing plates of pata negra but spurning dishes intended for the purist, or at any rate the pure porkist, among them careta de cerdo, the pig's ear, and castanetes, the pig's thyroid gland. Instead, we tucked into rinones plancha, grilled kidneys, and of course pimientos alinados, wonderful roasted red peppers, and raised a glass of Cruzcampo, the local beer, to the excellent tradition of tapas.

Cruzcampo, incidentally, is unmistakably the brew found in a well-known British supermarket chain, which sells it as its own-label Spanish beer "brewed in the hills of Andalusia". In fact, we were assured that it is brewed on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Seville, but who's quibbling? More to the point, who's driving? We made friends with a Spanish woman whose regular tipple was rebujito - a mixture of sherry and 7-Up, invented when the breathalyser, the reviled globo (balloon), was introduced. Not that there is ever much drunkenness in Aracena's bars, for which one can again credit the tradition of tapas - it's hard to get drunk if you're always eating.

After five days we felt we knew Aracena pretty well. And Aracena knew us pretty well too, because blond, blue-eyed children are rarities there. It goes without saying that the Spanish are fantastic with children, but let's say it anyway. I have warm memories of a restaurant on the Costa Brava where my wife was discreetly breast-feeding, and an elderly man came over to admire the baby, getting so close that I thought for a second he was going to latch on too. In Britain, his counterparts would, at best, have turned a blind eye.

There is a clever historian, whose name I forget, who once wrote a fascinating book arguing that the cultural and indeed temperamental differences between races are simply products of the weather. Thus it is with the Spanish and their attitude towards children, because the afternoon siesta means that children stay up late, and enjoy tapas or join the fiesta with everyone else. Our kids were delighted with this convention. And so we were able to sip sherry at a pavement café beside Aracena's square while they gallivanted around until all hours, occasionally running over to confirm that their friends at home in north London would be tucked up in bed. We assured them that this was so. "Hurrah!" they shouted, and skipped off again with new-found Spanish playmates.

For our kids, language barriers posed almost no problems at all. I was memorably wrong-footed, however, when a waitress hovered at the lunch table one day and enquired " para beber?" We had by then become so used to people prioritising the needs of our 20-month-old son, that I translated this as "for the baby?" In fact she was asking what we wanted to drink, so was understandably flummoxed when I ordered revuelta - scrambled eggs.

This encounter took place in the remarkable picture-postcard village of Valdelarco, which clings to a hillside at the very end of a long and winding road off the dual carriageway to Portugal. We had been told that there was a particularly fine restaurant there, and ever the gourmands - or should that be gluttons? - set off with enthusiasm.

Valdelarco is a maze of steep cobbled lanes, through which I skilfully steered the car until we met a tractor chugging the other way. Reversing uphill along a cobbled lane - which by my reckoning was roughly two inches narrower than the car - was an achievement for which Avis still owe me a medal. And after all that, we still couldn't find the top-notch restaurant, just a tumbledown barn with a licence to sell alcohol, some dangerous-looking agricultural implements on the wall, and some dangerous-looking agricultural workers at the bar.

Except that this, it bizarrely transpired, was indeed the particularly fine restaurant we had been told about. Once we had figured this out, we had amazing chorizo, of melting, almost paté-like consistency, and tender solomillo, steak, washed down with a suitably agricultural £2 bottle of rosado wine. Afterwards, we had delicious crema Catalana, a kind of runny creme brûlé flavoured with cinnamon. And then our middle child asked to go to the loo, which I'm ashamed to say I approached gingerly, only to find a loo of irreproachable cleanliness.

In fact, in our experience, the toilet facilities in the humblest bar of the most ramshackle Spanish village were a sight more pleasant than those in your average British caff. Don't ask me why that should not be the case, it's just that my wife was expecting the odd hole in the ground. In that respect, as in so many others, this little-known corner of Andalusia was full of delightful surprises.

Getting ThereFlights to Malaga with easyJet (tel: 0870 600 0000) from London, Luton and Liverpool cost from £70 return.

Where To StayMalaga: the local tourist office can offer help with accommodation (tel:0034 952 213445).

Aracena: Brian Viner stayed at the Finca Valbono. Cottages cost Pta10,000 to Pta12,000 per night (tel:0034 959 127711). He rented a car through Avis (tel:0870 606 0100), which offers weekly summer rates from £119. Also try the local tourist office (tel:0034 959 128206).

Trevelez: There is a daily bus service from Malaga to Trevelez, about 100km away.

For accommodation and guided walks to Mulhacen and other mountain areas contact L'Atelier in Mecina (tel/fax: 0034 958 857501; e-mail: Mecinillaatyahoo. com). In Trevelez try Hotel la Fragua (tel: 0034 958 858626) where basic double rooms start from £10.

Further InformationThe Spanish Tourist Office (tel: 020 7486 8077) 22-23 Manchester Square, London W1M 5AP.

Recommended Reading Andalucia (Rough Guide; £9.99).

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