Andalucia, Spain, July 2012
Halfway up a winding pass across the Sierra de Grazalema mountains is a stretch of straight road where you can stop for a minute.
Get out of the car and stand on one of the white blocks that act as a safety barrier. You are about to see one of the most breathtaking visions in Spain.
Below you, the road back to the hilltop town on Zahara de la Sierra winds down into the valley, its hairpin bends snaking like a looped strand of rope.
In the middle distance the turquoise waters of Zahara lake shimmer in the hot sun.
Beyond are the twin peaks of El Lagarín y Las Graja. And far to your left is the ruined fortress of Nazarit Castle, still standing sentinel over the landscape a thousand years after it was built by Moorish invaders.
Take some pictures then linger a moment more. Raise your eyes and you might see a griffon vulture, easily mistaken for an eagle, hovering high above. If there’s no traffic, all you will hear is the murmur of cicadas.
It’s hard to believe that all this natural splendour is only one hour away from the packed resorts and abandoned building sites of the Costa del Sol. Even harder to believe that these scenic mountains and their pretty white-painted towns don’t get crowded even at the height of summer.
All you’ll need to enjoy them is a cheap flight, a hire car, and somewhere to stay. And holiday lets don’t come much nicer than Villa Madreselva. Set in a beautiful unspoilt valley about 20 minutes’ drive north of Zahara lake, it sleeps up to eight and has a large pool just for guests.
The nearest town is 10 minutes in the car… a charming little place called Algodonales. The nearest larger town is Ronda, 45 minutes away and best known for its bullfighting ring and the deep gorge that cleaves right through it.
An hour to the west is stylish Jerez, worth visiting for its daily food market and tours of the grand old bodegas where they make famous sherries such as Domecq, Sandeman, Harveys and Tio Pepe. Have lunch at at El Gallo Azul, the landmark round building like a wedding cake in the middle of town. Their top-notch tapas costs from just £1.60 per item.
Carry on past Jerez and you’re in Cadiz on the Costa De La Luz. It’s the capital of the region and can get very busy in summer. But it does have a magnificent Atlantic beach with sand-coloured sand, as opposed to the grey shale of the Costa Del Sol.
Back at Lake Zahara, there’s a pleasant recreation area close to the south shore with a mountain stream, gardens, artificial beach, leisure facilities and restaurant. La Playita is open from June to late September except on some Mondays. Admission is only £2 per person.
But you can have a magnificent holiday at Villa Madreselva without straying very far at all. It’s such a relaxing place that after more than 30 years of NOT sitting by the pool on holiday it helped me to discover the joy of lazing around.
In the past this always seemed such a waste when there were new sights to see and new cultures to soak up. But the view and the comfort and the laid-back ambience of the villa’s poolside are so bewitching it can seem more of a sin to go out.
The property is owned and run by Bill and Eva, who ran a highly-rated restaurant back in Britain before retiring to Spain four years ago. They now take self-catering guests in a holiday villa in the grounds of their property. Doing most of the cooking for yourself is a good idea because the immediate locality is not known for the excellence of its restaurants.
Most places serve the same variants of pork and beef with chips, or tapas of variable quality, and you need to adapt to Spanish meal-times too. Don’t even think of trying to eat out before 9pm… after 10 is a safer bet in most places.
One restaurant worth a visit in the daytime is Meson Los Estribos, just across from the church in Zahara. From its vantage point high on a cliff overlooking the lake there’s a magnificent view from a big panoramic window. The food is fine (main courses from around £6) but the service was slow and haphazard when we visited.
But by far the best meal of your holiday will be if you accept the invitation to have chef Eva prepare your evening meal. For an extra £25 per person you’ll enjoy a gourmet feast that never fails to attract superlatives from guests. Eva runs a cooking school from her kitchen and you can arrange group lessons in advance with options including tasty and traditional Spanish dishes you’ll struggle to find in the local restaurants.
Who knows.. pick up a little of Eva’s expertise and you can summon up the taste of this idyllic holiday in your own kitchen when you get home.
WHAT’S THE DEAL
A week at Villa Madreselva costs from £750 in low season to £1,300 in summer (www.villa-madreselva.com).
Ryanair flies to Jerez and Seville (both an hour away) and to Malaga (1hr 45mins away). Easyjet fly to Seville and Malaga, which is also served by many other airlines.
Car hire in the area costs from less than £200 a week in early September booked with Holiday Autos (www.holidayautos.co.uk). For tourist information see www.andalucia.com
This article was published in the Sunday Mirror’s Homes & Holidays section on July 15, 2012.