The Truly Great Outdoors
The Andalusian countryside abounds in natural blessings, from snow-topped mountains to fertile plains, vast dune beaches to delta marshes teeming with birdlife. The region has the highest proportion of its territory dedicated to protected national and natural parks of any in Spain (numbering 26 in total) as well as the greatest biodiversity in fauna and flora, and a climate that surprises in its variety but where sunshine is seldom lacking. Inspired by these surroundings man has built here some of the most pleasing villages and small towns that you will find on any journey, such as Ronda, Vejer de la Frontera, Aracena, Úbeda, Cazorla, Alhama de Granada and countless others. The delight of these towns is augmented by the fact that, despite the advance of tourism in the past 25 years, they retain their independent spirit and traditions. Andalusia is also one of Europe’s least densely populated areas meaning that “getting off the beaten track” requires no great art and yields some rich rewards.
The region always has been and even today is still markedly agricultural. The great Roman estates (“latifundiae”) were based especially on areas of Andalusia and neighbouring Extremadura, a landowning system which left its stamp on the land and the people, being one of the primary causes of the widespread social injustice which looms large in Andalusia´s history. Today the vast plains of the Guadalquivir valley and the high plains of Granada and Almería provinces grow cereals and sunflowers and closer to the rivers maize, cotton and rice. The king of the Andalusian countryside, though, is Olea europaea: the olive tree. It is literally impossible to travel in rural Andalusia without seeing the serried groves stretching to the horizon and clinging to the steep slopes of improbable cultivations. If Andalusia were a country it alone would produce more olive oil than any other in the world, and the “liquid gold” of the south is nowadays one of Spain’s most prestigious and important exports, as well as a cornerstone of the cuisine. Indeed, our Gourmet itineraries all, in differing ways, get you closer to the culture and cultivation of olives and olive oil, a fascinating subject and a tasty and healthy product.
Much of Andalusia’s tourism is concentrated on its Mediterranean and, to a lesser extent, Atlantic shores, with the lure of over 300 days a year of sunshine remaining as magnetic as ever to Vitamin D-deficient visitors from northern climes. Flanking the Costa del Sol are two stretches of coastline that offer the same sands and waters but with a tenth of the people and a thousandth of the concrete and neon. Studded in the rugged coastline of Almería is the gem of Cabo de Gata, a Natural Park with restrictions on building and development that mean it is like stepping back in time by some 40 years compared with the rest of the Andalusian shoreline. Here one can walk along coastal paths, stroll alone on beaches on a sunny winter’s day, and take to the clear turquoise waters to snorkel, kayak or swim. At the western end of Andalusia, rubbing up against Portugal, is the Costa de la Luz, a string of (often windswept) Atlantic beaches where the pounding of breakers have fashioned some impressive sand dunes, such as those at Bolonia, surely one of the best “secret” beaches of Spain, with its Roman ruins and views of Africa. Even though these beaches are more developed, as with Cabo de Gata it is possible to avoid the crowds and immerse yourself in just the wonderful scenery – and the sunshine.
Spain is, after Switzerland, the second most mountainous country in Europe, and Andalusia includes a varied range of mountain scenery, from the highest peak of Mulhacén (standing at 3478m atop the Sierra Nevada) to the rolling hils of Jaén province. What were once hideouts for bandoleros and malcontents are now paradises for walkers, cyclists and naturalists. Our various Outdoors itineraries will take you to some of the best places, such as the Alpujarra – the delightful valleys that sit in the lee of the Sierra Nevada – the pine-clad mountains of the Sierra de Grazalema, near Ronda, or the weird and wonderful shapes wrought in the karst limestone of El Torcal de Antequera. Nor does one always have to ascend to get the best views – the wealth of Andalusia extends to plains, marshes, wetlands and desert among its scenic inventory. The National Park of Doñana in the province of Huelva barely rises above 40 m from sea level, consisting of a unique system of marshes, wetlands and sand dunes and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the importance of its ecosystems, flora and fauna. In eastern Andalusia, in the province of Almería, one finds the Desert of Tabernas, where summer temperatures can surpass 40ºC (104ºF) – in the shade! Due to its similarities of terrain with “the Wild West” the area has often been used for location filming in movies, boasting “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”, “Mad Max III” and “Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade” among its many credits.
Perhaps one of the greatest charms of Rural Andalusia are its innumerable villages and small towns, which combine beautiful settings with a quiet, sleepy atmosphere and a slower gentler way of life that is often rather enviable. Fiestas and celebrations are still an essential component of this life and to witness, say Semana Santa (Holy Week), in somewhere like Arcos de la Frontera (Cádiz province), is an unforgettable experience.