You may remember that a few months ago we had a short (overnight) visit to a small hilltown in Cadiz – Cortes de la Frontera. We stayed in a cosy little town house, and went for some excellent family walks, which took us close to nature and also to local industry – cork oak trees.
Recently, we had another Saturday night away – on this occasion, we stayed closer to home and went to Alajar, a small pueblo near Aracena. This town is to the north-west of Seville, in Huelva province, about 45 minutes’ drive away. I love the journey with its rolling hills dotted with trees – long, meandering dry-stone walls, fields with clumps of grey rocks reminiscent of those seen on Scottish hillsides, black bulls and pigs roaming happily, ignorant of the fate that awaits them, either in the bullring, or on the chopping block. (Sorry, veggie alert: I don’t do jamon, but I’ll have to mention that the area is famous for its pata negra).
We headed into Aracena town centre, past the famous pedestrianised street full of restaurants, with the little stream running down the middle, which leads to the caves, turned left and headed up towards Alajar. This town, as well as its ham, is also famous for its cork, with one bar, El Corcho, decorated entirely with the stuff.
The place where we stayed in Alajar was a guesthouse called the Posada de San Marcos, a refurbished 19th-century village house. But this is no ordinary posada – the owners, Lucy (English) and Angel (Spanish) have installed a ground-source heat pump system, which consists of four bore holes going 140 metres down into the earth, from where the heat is pumped up. The system provides heating, cooling and hot water, making the posada exceptionally environmentally friendly – and it has other eco features, which I’ll explain later rather swamping you with green geek stuff.
The view from the bedrooms is a simple and glorious one – terrace, garden, pool, densely-tree-covered slope. Even better, there’s a trampoline, a sight guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of any child.
After our now-customary picnic lunch, we headed off for a family ramble, leaving the town over a beautiful old stone bridge and following a sendero (footpath, or hiking trail if you want to be posh) called Ribera de Alajar. This cobbled path wound between more of those fabulous old stone walls, looking out over woodlands, and with winter afternoon sunshine gently dappling the cobblestones.
All this was made even more perfect by the presence of both pigs and donkeys. Very friendly, they came up to the fence to greet us – the pigs were snorting and running excitedly, and sounded convincingly like Peppa Pig, to my daughter’s delight.
My daughter was smitten with one of the donkeys, and wanted to take it home with her in the car.
After such an event-filled afternoon walk, children need rapid refuelling, so I provided rice cakes. But by the time the restaurant which we were recommended opened (9.45pm), one child was away with the fairies, tucked up under a blanket in the pushchair, and the other went the same way half way through my delicious but somewhat pricey pistou.
We relished our cosy table by the open fire of El Padrino, not having our own chimenea at home. Like many local restaurants, this place has its own pigs, and its speciality dish, obviously, is pork: presa with a garnish of… jamon. (First-rate, I was assured by my carnivore husband.)
Back at the posada, the rooms were toasty warm, thanks to underfloor heating provided by the aforementioned innovative eco-friendly system. In the bedrooms, flatscreen TVs are hung on the wall next to Angel’s photos of local scenes. As well as taking up no space, they are high up enough to be out of reach of small, smeary fingers (our TV at home is regularly doodled on, thanks to its resemblance to a large board placed at ideal child height).
So with dinner-less children, it was a good thing that breakfast was of the slap-up variety: as well as cereal, we had walnuts from a friend’s orchard, locally made organic wholemeal bread from another friend’s bakery, Lucy’s home-made lemon marmalade and meat spreads (yes, you guessed it – of the piggy variety), and organic honey made by yet another friend – this is a small pueblo and by staying here, you’re helping to support several families.
A new Mercadona supermarket up the road in Aracena is threatening local businesses, Lucy and Angel told us, as is happening across much of rural Andalucia. So her message is buy local – she can tell you where to buy the delicious honey she serves, and where to see a secadero, where the ham is hung to dry.
The posada was (re)built using local cork and sheep’s wool as insulation, and rainwater is collected and used for loo flushes and watering the garden; old doors, beams and tiles from the pre-refurbishment house have been restored and reused – impressive, since it was a wreck when they bought it. Each room is furnished with a quirky, eclectic mix of English antiques and reconditioned local pieces, often rescued from people’s attics – now that’s what I call recycling. Not a hint of IKEA in the place – how refreshing.
This area is very popular with senderistas (hikers), and is criss-crossed with hiking routes. Lucy and Angel have a number of walking maps and guides, as well as their own notes which you can borrow. Being more of the gentle stroll persuasion, we didn’t sample them, but an English couple staying at the posada reported that they were useful and accurate.
This is a great place to go for a hill-town weekend escape – a cosy hostel with a strong eco-edge, home-cooked food (Lucy serves dinner in the posada – meals outside on the terrace when weather permits – and afternoon cakes in their other guest house, Posada de Alajar, just off the main square, on weekends), unspoiled countryside on your doorstep, and pigs galore – in the field and on the plate; live, dried and fried.
My favourite aspect: the wonderfully warm rooms – bliss for those used to a draughty casa de campo with icy-cold marble floor. (Note to self: knock down house and build new one with cork insulation and underfloor heating, then throw away furry slippers, fan heaters and gas-filled radiators.)