Andalucia: Keep the children happy by using the local livestock as a diversion
Andalucía is stuffed full of quintessentially Spanish things. It has big set-piece cultural attractions: Granada's Moorish Alhambra, exotic Cadiz, Ronda's precipice-defying architecture. It has low-cost, high-UV beaches on the Costa del Sol. It has flamenco, tapas, bull-fighting and Holy Week. There are any number of reasons why people should visit Andalucía. But we found a new one: pigs.
The problem with big set-piece cultural attractions is that they bore small children rigid. Our five-year-old and his two-year-old brother are no more able to appreciate the glory of Cordoba's Mezquita than a bull is likely to arrive at a thorough understanding of Hemingway's writings before being skewered by an impudent banderillero. Too much heat and our children go bright red and collapse; too much tapas achieves much the same result.
What they needed was some decent scenery to run around in, a relatively cool climate, and – ideally – a donkey to ride. Which is why we found ourselves an hour-and-a-half's drive north-west of Seville in a little-visited region called the Sierra de Aracena, which also happens to be revered throughout Spain for its pork products – in particular, ham.
The Sierra de Aracena, itself part of the larger Sierra Morena, is not the most spectacular mountain range in Spain, nor even in Andalucía (that prize goes to Sierra Nevada, which rises to the east of Granada), but it is a tranquil, rural haven, and the air is certainly fresh in comparison with the fizzing temperatures down on the coast. This is Andalucía's north-western limit: not much further and you arrive in Portugal (the border lies on the other side of the mountains, just 24km away).
The winding, looping A470 road, which runs west from the town of Aracena, the region's hub, proudly displays signs trumpeting the area as the Ruta del Jamó* – the ham route. It corkscrews past charming whitewashed villages, each with a church, a shop, narrow cobbled streets, the odd restaurant and (usually) a bullring. The surrounding hills are wooded with chestnut trees and cork oaks, their torsos stripped back to a stark, reddish skin. In summer, the ground is festooned with wild flowers – slender, elegant daisies, lavender and scabious – and the vivid green of the grass clashes with the more sober olive groves. As the landscape unfurled before us, we'd occasionally see the region's celebrated black pigs (known as pata negra, or "black hoof") snuffling and grubbing under the trees, growing fat off the land.
Our destination was the Old Mill near Alájar – one of those charming, whitewashed villages, although in this case one without a bullring. On our first pass we overshot the turning, and the occupants of the back seat of the car were growing increasingly restive by the time we saw a sign proclaiming "Casas Rurales", just at the point when an already dubious road grew increasingly crumbling and uncertain.
Rubble replaced Tarmac as we tipped off the A470 and down into a wooded valley, driving past ancient stone walls and tastefully derelict farm vehicles. Then, to our relief: a ford over a stream, and a rusting iron gate. We'd arrived.
In the grounds of Alájar's 16th-century mill, itself impressively renovated by the Dutch owners, Peter Jan and Monica Mulder, we discovered six self-catering holiday cottages built of rustic stone, with chunky terracotta roofs and small brown-framed windows, standing next to a large lawn. Ours was the one-storey La Tortuga (the tortoise), and as the boys set about making friends with the neighbours, we scoped out our new home. Inside, it managed to retain an air of comfortable rusticity while at the same time offering some satisfying modern touches: an open fire in the large living room, Spanish glazed tiles, austere yet comfortable furniture, a tiny fitted kitchen... and a TV and DVD player (for moments of parental exhaustion only).
Outside, we had our own terrace tucked back round a corner of the house, and a communal pool and barbecue area lay just down the hill. The view from our bay window was glorious: a mountain filled it right to the very top.
From then on, it was simply a matter of getting to grips with life in rural Andalucía. The children, still unencumbered by any urge to gawp at 13th-century Gothic-Mudéjar churches, were content to paddle in the stream and squeal at the local water snakes. For our part, we took up 1:40,000-scale map reading, trying to navigate the pathways to little avail. Even the short haul to the shop in Alájar defeated us at first. " Take a right over the river," said Peter. "In 20 minutes you will be there." It seemed simple enough, but we returned an hour later, our shopping bags empty. Clearly Alájar had disappeared. "No, no. Not that way," he laughed, when we explained our route. "That way is Portugal." Well, the walk had been reward enough for all of us, leading as it did along the banks of a gurgling river, over creaking wooden bridges, and with the scent of honey in the air.
But bucolic indolence goes only so far. Hunger would swiftly overcome us; we needed to meet the meat. The porcine capital of the region is Jabugo, where the largest jamó* producer, Sánchez Romero Carvajal, is based. However, it's not a particularly prepossessing place – little more than a dusty main street lined with restaurants basted in pork motifs, and shops selling nothing but legs of ham.
Instead, we risked our children's indifference by working up our appetites (both cultural and literal) in the ruined 10th-century mosque that looms above the pretty village of Almonaster La Real. Ancient Roman columns support the interior, and a staircase leads upwards to a crumbling bell tower, which in turn overlooks a tiny bullring. We were the only tourists for miles, and the boys clambered about the walls, relishing having the place all to themselves.
Lunch at the quiet El Rincó* de Curro, back down off the main road, consisted of chick pea soup with a side-order of ham (jamó* ibérico) and thick white bread, followed by grilled pork loin. The pork tasted good – tangy, yet delicate – but the ham was a delight. Served thin, it can be matured for up to two years and has a smoky taste that seems to suck the saliva straight from your mouth as you eat. Which just makes you want to eat more. The particular flavour is the result of the pigs' predilection for acorns: they are nuts about them. A lone pig can apparently gorge itself on up to 10kg of acorns in a single day, as it scampers about the Sierra.
Later, near the crumbling remains of Almonaster La Real's own abandoned mill, one of the Sierra's many well-marked hiking trails took us away from the river and into a wooded valley, where we gawped at vast cacti while raptors wheeled above our heads and a pen's worth of black piglets frolicked gamely – or should that be porkily? – nearby. However, as at least one member of our party was also encumbered by short, fat legs, we soon turned back down the cobbled path towards the road. I, for one, was ready for dinner.
There's a natural pace to life in the mountains: nobody runs anywhere; very old people sit on benches wearing black; the shops shut at 3pm for a siesta; and nobody eats dinner before 10pm. We grew very fond of sleepy Alájar, with its too-narrow-to-drive-down streets, its shuttered Baroque church and, rising high above on a cliff face, the shrine of the Peña de Arias Montano glinting whitely. We grew even fonder of El Corcho, the restaurant on the main square, converted from an old cinema and decorated with tiles, plates and other kitsch knick-knacks, many of which are made out of cork. During dinner, rustic fish dishes vied for our attention with the pork steak in mustard sauce, and as we carried our sleeping children home at night, the path back to the Old Mill was lit only by the stars.
We visited as many of the other nearby villages as we could. All shared Alájar's sense of slumber – it often felt almost rude to interrupt, as if by pricking this bubble of somnolence with our grumbling Vauxhall Vectra we were breaking some rural code of conduct. The hamlet of Fuenteheridos lies to the east of Jabugo, just off the N433: a hidden, whitewashed pearl. The tiny main square is in fact a tiny main circle, with cars parked askew on its circumference. Apart from a pair of hikers en route to the hills, we seemed to be the only tourists in town. The boys kicked their heels next to the meagre trickle provided by the Fuente de los Doce Caños (" Fountain of 12 Jets"), while we made for the tables outside the quiet Café Bar El Diablo – which served espresso for ¿0.90 a hit – and watched the village go slowly about its business. (Business appeared to consist of two old men in quiet conversation next to the local shop.)
Later, we continued on foot into Fuenteheridos, where red roofs and white walls extended up into the hillside, and the criss-cross of cobbled streets did its best to confuse us. In a place of this minute scale, however, it was nevertheless pretty simple to navigate towards the tall spire of the elegant Iglesia des Espíritu, which was unfortunately shuttered and closed.
This was no isolated case: all the churches we attempted to visit were shut, which pleased our children immeasurably. The village of Zufre, 25km south-east of Aracena, is perched on a cliff edge like an eagle's eyrie, its centrepiece a long rectangular garden with exquisite views of the Rivera de Huleva in the green valley far below. Terraces of alleys and lanes peel off downwards from the main road; almost all are no-go areas for cars. According to a sign outside it, the gracious 16th-century church in Zufre was cannibalised from the walls of a mosque. Set in a tiny square lined with orange trees, it looked impressive enough – square faced, with an imposing brick-built bell-tower – but it, too, was resolutely closed. Instead, we wandered back through the tiny village, past bright-red poppies growing at the sides of the roads, blue-and-white tiled walls, and the bullring. Eventually, we fetched up at the village playground (which, it was soon agreed, was a far more impressive tourist attraction than any old church, cannibalised or not).
Onwards: we managed to get thoroughly lost in Cortegana, to the west of Jabugo. The highlight is apparently a restored 13th-century castillo offering splendid views of the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately, at the moment of our arrival, a thick, white mist descended, rendering it invisible, and after a fruitless tour of the town's backstreets, we left without seeing the castle, let alone its splendid views.
The weather in the Sierra certainly seemed to be unpredictable: at one point, a massive rainstorm sent us tearing back to the Old Mill, where the gentle trickle of the stream had transformed into a foaming torrent laden with orange sediment. With the mountains concealed by storm clouds, we retreated indoors and threw a few logs on the fire (for effect more than warmth) as lightning stalked the land outside. Then, once the deluge had passed, we allowed ourselves a visit to just one proper set-piece tourist attraction: the Gruta de las Maravillas in Aracena.
Above ground, Aracena is dominated by the Iglesia del Castillo, a vast Gothic church plonked at the top of a hill. A plateau of more ancient ruins – the remains of a Moorish castle – lies alongside, abandoned to grass and the odd tourist. To the north is the prettily tiled main square: Plaza Marqués de Aracena, where the Café-Bar Manzano serves excellent tapas. Shops certainly sell ham in Aracena, and there's even a museum devoted to ham production, but for once pork isn't the main event. It's what lies below the surface of the town that really pulls in the crowds, which arrive by the coach-load.
At 2.5km long, the "Cave of Wonders" is the largest cave in Spain, a spectacular limestone fissure reportedly discovered by a local lad who'd lost one of his pigs. We signed up for the hour-long tour, which snaked past underground lakes and below vast stalactites; to caverns where twisted Mandelbrot shapes loomed from the walls and fingers of limestone reached up from below. Although the journey was conducted almost entirely in Spanish, the name of one the chambers was translated by our guide as "the room of buttocks". The description was unnervingly accurate.
All we needed now was that donkey ride. I've never ridden a donkey, and have never particularly wanted to. But José-Maria, the Old Mill's faithful retainer, had two of them, and the children weren't going to take no for an answer. So it was that in the half-light of our last evening in Andalucía, we found ourselves astride our chosen steeds, trotting gently along the back roads of the Sierra de Aracena, beside tumble-down stone walls, spectacular meadows riddled with pink flowers, and past those black pigs again, grubbing in the dirt. Pigs: just one more reason to visit Andalucía. And I'm not telling porkies.
The writer flew to Seville with Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com), which operates services from Stansted and Liverpool. Clickair (00 800 254 252 247; www.clickair.com) also flies to Seville from Gatwick.
Alternatively, there a wider range of carriers and UK departure points available if you fly to Faro in Portugal. Airlines serving Faro include easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com), British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com), Flyglobespan (0870 556 1522; www.flyglobespan.com), Flybe (0871 700 0123; www.flybe. com), Monarch (08700 40 50 40; www.flymonarch.com) and Thomsonfly (0870 1900 737; www.thomsonfly.com).
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).
Avis (0844 581 0147; www.avis.co.uk) offers a week's car hire in the region from around £80 in October.
EATING & DRINKING THERE
El Rincon de Curro, Almonaster La Real, Huelva (00 34 959 143 149; www.inicia.es/de/rincondecurro).
Ell Corcho, Plaza de España, Alájar, Huelva (00 34 959 125 779).
Inntravel (01653 617906; www.inntravel.co.uk) offers a week at the Old Mill in Alájar from £498 per person, based on two people sharing in a two-bedroom cottage sleeping four people, including seven days' car hire and a welcome hamper but excluding flights. Additional guests staying at the cottage are free of charge.
Gruta de las Maravillas, Pozo de la Nieve, Aracena (00 34 959 128 355); open daily 10.30am-1.30pm & 3-6pm. Entrance €7.70 (£5.20) per person for an hour-long guided tour, in Spanish only.
Andalucia Tourist Office: 00 34 959 257 403; www.andalucia.org
Spanish Tourist Office: 08459 400180; www.tourspain.co.uk
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