Where the scenery is matched by the history Into the heart of Spain’s most captivating region

 
Timothy Barber
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YOU don’t have to head far out of Malaga airport to see the pernicious influence of British tourism on the Spanish coastal landscape, where the piled-up encrustations of holiday homes, apartment blocks and bargain hotels cling to the coastline like guano on a cliff face.

Head past Marbella and turn inland, however, and it’s a different story. The road carves upwards into the Andalucian hills and the landscape suddenly sheds such encroachments, replacing them with lonely, sweeping vistas running down to lush green valleys. This is one of southern Europe’s great backcountries: Tuscany and the Pyrenees rolled into one, the terrain craggy and unfettered but splashed with the colour and abundance of a Mediterranean climate.

There is, as it happens, one corner of this foreign landscape that is forever England – thankfully, a rather more sympathetic supplanting of English sensibility than what’s found on the coast.

After an hour or so weaving ever higher into the hills, a turning brings you to Almuna, a farmstead overlooking the long valley of the Rio Genal. It was here, in the mid-1980s, that Jane and Hugh Arbuthnott moved from Battersea and built a house. They raised their children here, became embedded in local life, took on the heavily glottal Andalucian accent when speaking Spanish, and founded a business having house party groups to stay and guiding them on walking tours across the region.

INSPIRING
It’s an endeavour they’ve now been joined in by their son Hughie and his wife Clare, and it offers an unusual and inspiring way of experiencing southern Spain. Full of ebullience and warm welcomes – Hugh is a natural raconteur with the air of a country squire, Jane is a born hostess – they will ply you with tremendous food, wine and good cheer as they go about instilling their passion for their adopted homeland. Then they’ll lead you off over the landscape to prove it.

The Arbuthnotts’ house may be have been built less than 30 years ago, but it feels centuries older. A whitewashed affair facing onto a cobbled courtyard, it has seven tranquil guest rooms (all en-suite) and a large living room that could as easily be in a Shropshire country house as a Spanish one. The adjoining dining room, with its long single table, hosts lively dinners that inevitably give way to lively, sherry-fuelled nights.

Outside, there’s a large terrace that’s thick with the perfume of the jasmine flowers surrounding it, pretty gardens that slope away towards the valley far below, and a pool.

It’s a wonderful spot for whiling away sunny days, even though doing so exclusively would be to miss the point of being here. It’s good to do so a bit though, and if you want to do so a lot you’ll be made to feel most welcome.

However, there’s Andalucia to discover, and you can do that on foot or on horseback, in several-day hikes (you stay at hotels organised by the Arbuthnotts and take in a couple of nights at Almuna), or in shorter outings each day from the house.

Whether your interest is historical, botanical, ornithological, topographical or, as it should be, all of those and more, there are options.

RUINED CASTLE
You don’t even have to go that far a field. On my visit, a walk from the local hillside village of Gaucin back to Almuna, following old smugglers’ trails, included a clamber up to the bewitching wreck of a castle, overlooking the village from its mountain perch. Throughout this region you see peaks topped off with such battlements, remnants of a bloody history that takes in the Moorish occupation, the Inquisition, the Peninsula War against Napoleon, and the Spanish Civil War. From the top of the ruins we were able to see right to the coast, where the Rock of Gibraltar juts out of the mist. The Moroccan coastline was visible beyond it – simple evidence of how easy it was for the Moors to invade, and why this part has so often been fought over in history.

More mesmerising still was a trek from the sleepy village of Cortes de la Frontera – a 6am rise to reach it was leavened by a traditional shot of breakfast brandy in a local café – to the cliff-top citadel of Ronda. The tremendous variations in landscape – from limestone crags to verdant, mist-coloured hills to plunging ravines – was astonishing in just eight miles; emerging from trees to gawp across a valley at the extraordinary edifice of Ronda was unforgettable. Built at the edge of a sheer precipice, the town is dominated by a colossal stone bridge towering over a canyon that slices through the rock 390 feet below. Pity the nationalist prisoners who were thrown to their deaths from here in the Civil War.

LOCAL KNOWLEDGE
Experiencing such a sight with the aid of a guidebook is one thing, but the strength of the Arbuthnotts’ tours is the personal knowledge and colour the hosts bring. This convivial family seems as English as high tea with scones, but their immersion in local life is both admirable and inspiring. The bell that still hangs at the top of the ruined castle was rung for the celebration of their daughter’s wedding, which took place just below; Paco, the handyman who helps them manage their estate – and who, by the way, makes a sensational paella – is running for mayor of Gaucin, and has asked Hughie Arbuthnott, a red-haired, 29-year-old former army officer, to be his running mate.

Just as they know its people, the Arbuthnotts know the region’s stories, customs, history, food and drink and wildlife intimately, and it’s a knowledge they love sharing with their visitors. Here at least, one can be proud of the British in Spain.

ANDALUCIA FACTS
The name Andalucia is derived from “Al-Andalus”, the Moorish name for the Iberian peninsula.

Of the 17 “autonomous communities” that make up Spain, Andalucia is the second largest in land area.

The region is home to Spain’s highest mountains, and nearly 15 per cent of its terrain is over 1,000 meters high.

The region was conquered by the Romans in 206BC. The emperors Trajan and Hadrian came from Andalucia.

During the Moorish occupation in the Middle Ages, the Andalucian town of Cordoba became the centre of power, when the Great Mosque of Cordoba was built. Granada’s Alhambra palace is another great remnant of the Moorish era.

Many towns in southern Andalucia bear the words “de la Frontera” in their names, reflecting their one-time status on the border of the Moorish occupation as it was pushed back.

The town of Ronda is host to Spain’s oldest still-running bullfighting ring, built in 1784. It is open to tourists. Andalucia is considered the home of bullfighting and flamenco.