Off the beaten track: explore Andalucia's 'white towns'

With their cobbled streets and picturesque stone houses, the 'white towns' of Andalucia are a welcome antidote to the crowded Costa del Sol. Siobhan Mulholland heads for the hills

The remit for the family summer holiday initially sounded vague: a villa or house with swimming pool somewhere hot-ish - preferably France, Spain or Italy. Clearly we were keeping our options open with half a continent to look at. So: where to start?

When you begin listing specific requirements it's surprising how choice disappears. Type your criteria into various online booking sites, and the process of elimination is fast and brutal. In minutes whole swathes of landmass are eliminated. If you think you've got too much choice, try this: book late - around March - when the better organised have grabbed the best places. Type in school-holiday dates and watch properties get wiped off your screen. Then search for swimming pools which are gated, to prevent unsupervised dips by those who have yet to learn to swim. Include the specification that the villa has to be in walking distance of a village or town, and finally keep within your budget. Now see what you're left with: not a lot.

However, we did manage to find somewhere that ticked all our boxes. It was a town house with gated pool, in the most southern region of Spain - Andalucia - in a picturesque town called Gaucin. Restaurants, shops and tapas bars were all within walking distance, and the beach was just a 35-minute drive away.

We flew to Malaga airport, a one-and-a-half-hour drive from Gaucin. From here, we drove along the "superhighway" which runs parallel to the Costa del Sol - zipping by those well-known resorts: Torremolinos, Fuengirola, Marbella and Estepona.

I was last here more than 20 years ago. What a change. If ever a part of the globe had undergone a concrete makeover, it's this coast - apartment block after holiday-let apartment block. Clearly building restrictions don't feature much round here; on every horizon a crane or digger toiled away in an attempt to satisfy sun-seekers, both indigenous and Northern European.

But then we turned off the superhighway and headed for the hills and mountains, up a windy road that brought us to Andalucia's hillside "white towns" and a very different vista. The province boasts many pueblos blancos, towns and villages with stark, whitewashed buildings painted a shade of bright, bleached, white that you can see from miles away. Close up you realise how ingeniously created these monochrome clusters of buildings are as they seemingly grip on to the sides of steep hills and mountains. This is Spain's Cotswolds: lots of little towns and villages, distinctive because of the homogenous colour of their buildings, charming in an old-world sort of way, and increasingly well preserved by those who can afford the property prices.

In the Andalucian hinterland these Moorish fortress towns, with their castles and churches, have altered little in appearance over the centuries. Gaucin is a classic of its kind: perched on a hillside with the Castillo del Aguila at its eastern edge, the town fans out beside it. From this castle, and the balconies of many of the town's houses, there are awesome views across the countryside to Gibraltar and the North African coast.

Gaucin has curling, cobbled streets just wide enough for cars to squeeze down in single file, and for donkeys to travel in both directions with ease. There's a church, a main square with a very good tapas bar (Bar Paco Pepe), a couple of grocery shops, and a butcher's shop in someone's front room.

There's also quite a lot of gentrification going on in Gaucin. As you wander around you notice the number of derelict properties being renovated and the new ones being built. Once more, the northern tribes are encroaching, though in a much more tasteful manner than on the coast. Expatriates began settling in Gaucin more than 20 years ago - many of them artists seeking the "real" Spain. Now it's more second-property seekers looking for a Tuscan-style bolt-hole, which is reflected in the prices of property and in restaurants. Despite this, Gaucin retains a certain authenticity.

There's a pecking order to these white towns, the most famous being Ronda, a 45-minute drive from Gaucin. Ronda is stunning: best appreciated early before the sun is too hot and the tourist hordes too dense. The town has a dramatic centrepiece - a huge great gorge, El Tojo, which splits Ronda in two. A dark stone stairway will take you down the 60 metres to the river below, the Guadalevin. The stairs were carved under the Casa del Rey Moro (the house of the Moorish king) by Christian slaves.

From the bottom you can look up at this awe-inspiring gorge and see huge white town-houses gripping the sides of it. The two parts of Ronda are linked by a striking 18th-century arched bridge over the gorge. On one side it leads to La Ciudad, the old Moorish part of the town with characteristic cobbled streets, this time lined with mansions. On the other side is Plaza de Toros, the oldest bullring in Spain, where the rules of "modern" bullfighting were fleshed out. There's a museum attached with photos of two regular visitors from a different era: Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles.

Scattered around this countryside are other, smaller, towns - lower-key than Ronda but gratifyingly much less crowded. Each has a very different character and feel. Jimena de la Frontera is a hill-town on the road to Ronda, with a Moorish castle at its pinnacle and the Los Alcornocales Natural Park, popular with walkers and birdwatchers, on its borders. The town's cobbled streets are so steep and narrow that walking up to the castle is easier than driving. Then there's Ubrique, an authentic white town, but one with a much more businesslike and contemporary feel than the others. Ubrique has a thriving leather industry, but its working nature means that it is not every holidaymaker's favourite.

The "prettiest white town" award probably goes to Grazalema - high in the mountains in the middle of the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park. It's very neat, gleaming white, and well-kept. There are lots of immaculate houses with window boxes and shiny wrought-iron railings, a plaza with a church, shops and reasonably priced restaurants and tapas bars. It's surprisingly lush; we were told by the locals that this is the part of Spain that gets the highest rainfall each year.

The coast is very different. The sea is clean, the beaches well kept, and on a weekday morning it's not too busy. The big drawback, though, is the scenery. It's more built-up than Canary Wharf. It was because of this that we headed to Tarifa, strictly speaking on Spain's Costa de la Luz rather than Sol. Tarifa, where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean, is just 11km from Africa. It's wild and windy. It's also surfer-central, the location and climate providing perfect conditions for both wind- and kite-surfing.

We headed for one of the town's beaches - the Playa de los Lances - and were sandblasted. The wind blew the sand with such ferocity that it stung. We zigzagged across the beach to the shoreline and, in that slightly unhinged Northern European way, decided that we'd started so we'd finish. Cowering behind a beach-hut we changed, and ventured into the aquamarine sea. Our dip didn't last long - the sandstorm was no less forgiving just because we were in the sea. Relief was found in Tarifa's old town - twisty lanes, some very good restaurants and a café on almost every corner.

Gaucin and its surrounds worked for us, eventually, not only because we were selective in what we wanted but because the area lends itself well to family holidays.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Malaga airport is served by GB Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), Monarch (08700 405040; www.flymonarch.com), easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com), Bmibaby (0871 224 0224; www.bmibaby.com), Thomsonfly (0870 190 0737; www.thomsonfly.com), XL.com (0870 320 7777; www.xl.com), Flyglobespan (0870 556 1522; www.flyglobespan.com), FlyBe (0871 700 0123; www.flybe.com), Jet2.com (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com); and by charters such as First Choice Airways (0870 850 3999; www.firstchoice.co.uk) and Fly Thomas Cook (08707 520 918; www.flythomascook.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).

Gaucin/El Colmenar is on the Algericas-Bobadilla railway line (Rail Europe: 08708 371 371; www.raileurope.co.uk).

GETTING AROUND

Hertz (08708 44 88 44; www.hertz.co.uk) offers a week's car rental from £120 in south Spain.

STAYING THERE

The writer stayed in the three-bedroomed Sculptor's House in Gaucin, booked through Owners Direct (01372 229330; www.ownersdirect.co.uk/gaucin.htm). Rental starts at £650 per week.

MORE INFORMATION

Andalucia Tourism: 00 34 951 29 93 00; www.andalucia.org.

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