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Luxury Travel

Take a new look at Spain

Words by Fiona Dunlop

Hop on a train, hire an electric vehicle or take to two wheels and venture beyond the obvious to a land of ancient stories and dramatic landscapes

This is a feature from Issue 23 of Charitable Traveller Magazine.

Far from the famous costas and busy cities, an unparalleled choice of rural destinations awaits visitors to the Spanish peninsula. This mesmerising world of rugged mountains, of desert, of olive groves and vineyards just begs to be discovered. Apart from the landscapes, you’ll find delightful, well-appointed and affordable casas rurales, luxurious Paradors (hotels) occupying stunning historic monuments, as well as endless castles, churches and even Roman ruins. Not least, the route will be peppered with welcoming restaurants serving appetising regional specialities and local wines.

Beyond madrid

Madrid is the hub of the radiating AVE train network. One remarkable destination just an hour away is Cuenca, in Castilla-La Mancha. Set in spectacular mountains, this striking World Heritage Site offers medieval architecture including balconied houses clinging to a cliff-face, convents, and modern art collections as well as a trail through a surrealistic landscape of eroded rocks – the Ciudad Encantada. The Parador, converted from a late Gothic monastery, offers sublime views across a gorge to the ‘hanging houses’, where steep cobbled streets lead to Michelin-rated restaurants and lively bars (where you’ll find Cuenca’s potent tipple, Resoli, a coffee-, anise-and orange-flavoured liqueur). Winters can be cold due to the altitude, and at weekends the town fills up with Madrileños, so be prepared. From this remote setting you can continue by fast train to the coast at Valencia – Europe’s Green Capital 2024.

Beyond Barcelona

Starting from Barcelona, take a train to Tarragona to visit an outstanding cluster of Roman sights before heading inland by local train. Skirting the Prades mountains, it arrives within an hour at Montblanc, a beautiful, walled, medieval town packed with Gothic sights. Overnight there or take a taxi a few miles south to Vilaverd for warm hospitality at the 17th century Cal Maginet. Nearby, the Cistercian Monastery of Poblet plunges you back into the 12th century – and you can also have lunch there.

This entire region of vineyards and mountains is a delight which, if exploring by EV, you can penetrate further west to discover the source of luscious Priorat wine; book in advance to visit a bodega or stay at the luxury winery-hotel, Terra Dominicata. By train, finish the tour by continuing to Lleida, an ancient city with a towering cathedral, Moorish castle, Templar fortress and arboretum. Stay at the elegant Parador, converted from a 17th century convent, and enjoy sophisticated Catalan dishes at its lofty, domed restaurant. Then, in just over an hour, a train will whisk you back to Barcelona, or in two hours to Madrid.
Exploring the north

In the far north, the region of Asturias offers a triangle of complementary small cities that can easily be reached by local train, starting in the capital, Oviedo – just over three hours by fast train from Madrid, and celebrated this year as Spain’s gastronomic capital. In all three you won’t miss the theatrical pouring of Asturian cider, nor fabada, a sustaining pork and bean stew, nor the innovative dishes that the region has pioneered.

Oviedo, the capital of the first Christian kingdom of the Iberian Peninsula, is an architectural jewel. At its heart the sprawling Gothic cathedral towers over a labyrinth of narrow streets, but the most exceptional sights are on the outskirts.

Oviedo, Catholic Spain’s oldest city, is an architectural jewel. At its heart the sprawling Gothic cathedral towers over a labyrinth of narrow streets

Here, three pre-Romanesque churches, each unique in style, include San Julian displaying remarkable 9th century frescoes. Move into the 21st century in Aviles where, despite a stylish historical nucleus and later industrialisation, the outstanding sight is the sci-fi style Centro Niemeyer, a cultural showcase named after its Brazilian architect. Complete the triangle in Gijon, a breezy seaside town where you can stride along a lengthy beach then climb through the streets of the quaint fishermen’s quarter to a panoramic headland then down to the harbour. En route, there is no shortage of bars, cafés – or cider.

Inland Asturias is also about fresh air and green pasture, so hike the Senda del Oso, a Y-shaped trail southeast of Oviedo. In the same direction lies the large, recently renovated spa complex of Las Caldas – perfect to recover from sightseeing.

Beyond malaga

Down south, an EV is ideal for discovering a string of idyllic pueblos blancos sprinkling the Serrania de Ronda inland from Malaga. Head into the dizzying hills via Cartama to reach Ardales. Surrounded by lakes, reservoirs, rolling hills and outcrops, this is the perfect lunch-stop for sustaining mountain fare. From here, it is onwards to access the extraordinary Caminito del Rey, a vertiginous, 3km-long walkway attached to cliffs high above a gorge. A shuttle bus at the other end returns you to the car park. Then it’s west to Ronda through the wild Sierra de las Nieves – beware of goats! To avoid the throngs in Ronda, consider staying in peaceful Ardales, beautiful Carratraca (a spa town since the Romans) or El Burgo, surrounded by dramatic outcrops.

Just west of Ronda, beyond a forest where pigs snuffle among cork and holm oaks, another ring of pueblos blancos studs the Sierra de Grazalema, source of the highly rated Payoyo cheese, a mix of goat and ewe’s milk. Zahara de la Sierra, tumbling down a hillside above a reservoir, is a popular destination but surpassed by scenic Grazalema itself – the hikers’ favourite for accommodation and food. Visit an olive-oil mill or, nearer Ronda, tour a wine bodega – the entire south is a veritable land of plenty which has seduced so many invaders over the centuries, much like the rest of this bucolic peninsula.
Getting around

To access the interior, the most sustainable way is by train; Spain now has nearly 4,000km of high-speed lines (the AVE), second only to China. What was once an achingly slow journey by road can now be covered in just a few hours – or less. Added to this are the cercanias, or local train networks, which spirit travellers to country towns and little known destinations. In particularly mountainous areas, however, a car is the only option, so consider renting an electric vehicle, now widely available. Charging points in Spain total nearly 25,000 – find them via the app.

Energetic travellers should consider cycling or hiking along Spain’s ever-expanding network of vias verdes (greenways). These disused railway lines are a relaxing and healthy way to enjoy the countryside. Climatically, aim for low or mid season in the hotter regions of the south; Andalucia, for example, often has clear sunny days throughout the winter. The north is where to go during the warmer months.
Feeling inspired?

Book your Spain escape today by visiting the dedicated Spain page of our sister brand, Sustainable Journeys.

This is a feature from Issue 23 of Charitable Traveller.