Years ago, I made a television series about the last part of Ffyona Campbell's epic walk around the world, filming from Algeciras in Spain to John
Janet Street Porter
O'Groats. It was fraught with problems, she was moody, and often hard to track down. But when I joined her to walk through the edge of the vast, bleak, underpopulated area known as the Extremadura which dominates south-west Spain, I forgot about Ffyona and fell in love with the empty space, the cork and oak trees dotted along the plateau, the black pigs, and birds of prey circling above. I was determined to go back and explore properly, and decided to base my route around the Rusticae group of independent hotels: I'd heard they were small, chic, and in interesting locations - all of which turned out to be true.
As it happened, I was extremely pleased I'd chosen this August for the trip - I had a hassle-free holiday with no queues and no airport dramas. I didn't see another English car for five days at a time - no one asked me about Paul Burrell in supermarkets and I found my schoolgirl Spanish rapidly cranking back into gear. Best of all, we ate really well, staying in idiosyncratic owner-run inns, mostly fashioned out of historic houses. I slept in silence, occasionally woken by church bells or owls - not lager louts or hen parties. Bliss.
My journey started with a Brittany Ferries crossing from Plymouth to Santander, cutting out days of motorway tolls, and ensuring we arrived refreshed after a decent night's sleep. The boat was modern, and there were two restaurants and plenty of deck space for sunbathing - we spotted a school of dolphins in the late afternoon sun, following us as we left England. Our cabin had a shower and a TV/DVD player, and after dinner I fell asleep watching The Aviator over a glass of white wine from my free minibar. The next day I had continental breakfast in bed. I could get to like this cruising lark.
We berthed at Santander around 11.30am and headed out towards the edge of the majestic Picos de Europa mountain range, gradually climbing to a pass. Leaving the coastal development far behind, a series of tunnels took us to a high plateau. The dry soil became an empty, gold, undulating ocean of corn fields, in which churches could be seen from miles away, each surrounded by clusters of terracotta-coloured houses with tiled roofs. Occasionally we'd spot a ruined castle on top of a hill, and we stopped to admire the particularly beautiful Church of St Martin in Fromista, built in 1066 and a favourite stopping point for pilgrims on their journey to Santiago de Compostela. On empty roads we skirted Palencia and turned on to a narrow road heading south-west, through an austere landscape that seemed like a backdrop for a spaghetti western. We passed through small settlements of a dozen or so houses surrounded by fertile pastureland and wheat fields, each dominated by a vast church. I tried to imagine how many people would constitute a congregation - surely not more than 50.
Ampudia was in the same mould - with a main street formed of wooden and stone columns supporting overhanging first-floor living rooms, and a shady wide stone pavement to sit out on. The houses had imposing wooden doors, which remained open in the late afternoon heat as clusters of old ladies in flowery overalls sat sewing, passing the time of day. I fully expected Clint Eastwood or Lee Van Cleef to turn the corner and confront us, guns at the ready. A former monastery was now a museum of sacred art, next to an imposing church. There was the obligatory castle (still inhabited, with cannons on the terrace and a dry moat).
At 7.30pm on a weekday evening, the small population (elderly men in clean white short-sleeved shirts and women in smart blouses with young children - no teenagers or 30-somethings) made its way along the silent streets to mass.
Ampudia is on the way to absolutely nowhere and it reminded me straightaway why I love rural Spain. It is empty - even though over the next couple of weeks I was to see plenty of new roads and new factories and housing estates being constructed using EU grants in order to try to resuscitate some of the more deprived rural areas - which means it's a fabulous place for tourists. There are no irritating kids on noisy motorbikes, they've all moved to the towns to find work, and few want to follow their families into the hard life of farming. So this is a way of life, slow cooking, slow shopping, strong local traditions and fiestas, that hasn't changed much in years.
Our hotel, the Posada de la Casa del Abad, was owned by architects and created out of a series of 17th-century houses. There were several staircases, and simple, but luxurious rooms, where the plaster had been treated to a series of red, orange and terracotta washes, with old rugs on the floor and dark wooden furniture. Antique shop display cases held old books, bottles and dolls, and ancient cast iron sewing machine bases supported oak tabletops. Every room was different, with old bowls, quilts and dolls - and the net result was like stepping into a mad museum - totally enchanting. The restaurant had a Michelin star and the room had been the former wine cellar, with massive beams I had to stoop to get under.
Chick pea soup was delicious, and then I feasted on a slow pot roast of local beef, followed by raspberry purée with home-made ice cream. Local - very drinkable - rosé was just €7 (£5) a bottle, and I couldn't imagine a Michelin-starred restaurant in this country coming up with a meal like this for around £45 for two. We breakfasted in a brand new extension, with floor to ceiling glass, opening on to a narrow grassed area with a bandstand - great for parties and weddings. I couldn't believe I could manage to eat a tortilla as well as scrambled eggs with ham, a local speciality.
Shopping for our picnic took ages in the village shop, which was cavernous and full of old ladies ready to spend the whole morning buying a packet of Daz. After buying manchego, perfumed peaches and ham, I followed another couple of old ladies in flowered overalls around the corner to the panaderia, and bought a flat, crusty loaf. Dieting wasn't going to be on the agenda.
Reluctantly bidding goodbye to the village time forgot, we continued our drive south through small hamlets like tiny islands in this sea of gold, skirting Salamanca (well worth a visit). Now we were entering the Extremadura, large areas of which have been turned into a national park. Dozens of rare birds migrate here and farmers drive the cattle hundreds of miles to higher summer pastures in the mountains, leaving behind the dusty plain with its forests. Rocky outcrops surrounded newly constructed dams, and an irrigation system allows more fruits and a wider variety of crops, including tobacco, to be grown in this bleak area with its baking summers and cold windy winters.
Around busy Plasencia I could see huge stork nests on top of all the phone and electricity poles. We ate by a deserted railway station - it was really hard to find any shade - surrounded by a herd of black bulls. Heading west towards Badajoz, through irrigated fields of corn and sugar beet, we then cut south on a dead-straight narrow road from Talavera la Real to La Albuera, avoiding the city and the motorway.
We had decided to bypass the big towns this trip - the point was to stay as rustic as possible, after all it was August, the heat was intense, historic city centres are better visited in the autumn or spring when the climate is more bearable. Travelling deeper into the Extremadura, we wound up from the plateau through foothills with impressive outcrops of giant boulders and hawks circling overhead. The earth was bright red. Taking a dirt track along a ridge we arrived at our next Rusticae hotel, Monasterio de Rocamador, a restored stone Franciscan building dating from the 16th century with shady grassed terraces overlooking the plateau below, and a gorgeous bright blue swimming pool fed by a cool fountain. The rooms had huge beds, expensive sheets and waffle towels. The dining room is in the former chapel, complete with high altar and statuary. It was 4.45pm and 37C, and the last of the lunch guests were leaving the terrace when we arrived. I found a wooden lounger to flop out on and read in the breeze before leaping into the pool.
At dinner the other guests seemed to feel that eating in a deconsecrated place of worship meant they had to whisper over the tinkling baroque background music. The food was excellent, gazpacho with raw fish and local truffles, finely sliced sashimi of sardines, pigeon with braised carrots and red grapes and stuffed wild rabbit wrapped in ham and fennel. The young chef toured the room, making sure everyone was happy and explaining he used as much local produce as possible. There was a wine list featuring 200 Spanish wines, many less than €20.
Next morning I awoke before dawn to a pinky grey sky and a chorus of birdsong, with smoke rising straight up in wisps from the farms dotted over the plateau below. We breakfasted on a shady terrace overlooked by a statue of the Virgin. Freshly squeezed orange juice, fried eggs with local ham. White linen curtains shaded all the doors.
Our next stop was further south, the small town of Jerez de los Caballeros, which dates from the early 13th century. Once an important religious centre, it boasts six monasteries and convents (of which only one remains) and half a dozen churches, one of which was studded with bright blue tile-work, shimmering in the midday sun, and the other of richly decorated red brick. A warren of low whitewashed houses on narrow tiled streets fanned out from the market square where locals sat drinking coffee and beer in two packed cafés. Not another British person in sight.
Then it was back to the road, with a picnic by a reservoir, before joining our friends at the Finca Bueno, a short drive from Aracena, in the lovely wooded hills on the south of the Sierra Morena. Although this charming house is rented out in July and August it operates as a hotel the rest of the year, and there are cottages in the grounds to rent as well. This is a great centre for walking, following a network of centuries-old cobbled mule paths linking hill villages. August is really too hot for that - you have to be prepared to get up at 7am and stroll in the cool morning air until 10am at the latest. One expedition took us north to Cortelazor, and another south to Linares, where the circular open space in the middle of the village doubles up as a bullring, and there is an excellent restaurant. My top holiday activity was fishing the local reservoirs, and I managed to land a two-pound golden carp with just a piece of cheese as bait.
Ten days later, we were back on the road driving north-east towards Badajoz and Merida through the Sierra Morena and the National Park (loads of walks to be had here - leaflets from local tourist offices). Pink flowers lined the roadside as we climbed steadily back on to the plateau signalling the start of the Extremadura, with oak and olive groves. Near Fregenal, a boy pulled two white mules, laden with baskets, and there were vineyards and wheat fields in every direction. On the higher ground the grass was bare in the arid heat, with outcrops of jagged rock. A short motorway stretch after Zafra, then we headed up through the magnificent Mountains of Guadalupe on a winding road past the huge monastery dominating the town, crowned with a host of tiled spires shining brightly in the midday sun. The scale of the scenery in rural Spain is what takes your breath away - mile after mile of undeveloped plains, barren mountains, azure man-made lakes and windswept prairie. El Real de San Vicente sat like a frontier town in amongst the rocks, followed by a lovely drive across the undulating plain.
We stopped for a picnic near some Roman ruins at the Azutan reservoir where a couple of men were fishing for catfish. We crossed over the road to Madrid heading north in a dead straight line, then into the heavily wooded mountains of the Sierra Gredos to the pretty village of San Esteban del Valle, full of solidly built stone houses, some with dates from 1620 carved over the front doors. As I sipped a drink in a leafy square, men in dark blue cotton work trousers were making their way home from their allotments, carrying plastic buckets full of onions, figs, leeks and potatoes. We were staying at another Rusticae hotel, the charming Posada de Esquiladores, made from three old shops. The owners had kept the window displays intact. Our room overlooked the square, with its strange-shaped fountain, like a giant cast-iron ball, and a beautiful clock above the council offices opposite. There was a large cast iron bed, a vast dark wood wardrobe, and a Jacuzzi in the bathroom. We woke to the sounds of hammering as the town prepared for their annual fiesta, and a stage was being constructed down below, accompanied by a lot of yammering as the old biddies discussed forthcoming events.
Back on the road our route took us out of the mountains, around Avila, across a hot, dusty plain, following the Sierra de Guadarrama to the south. North-east of Segovia Ayllon was a pretty collection of pink-washed houses with the river running through it. We passed abandoned villages, windfarms on the distant horizon, skirting Zaragoza and heading for Huesca through a desert interspersed with irrigated zones of fruit trees. The southern ranges of the Pyrenees - our goal - were clearly visible in the distance, pink in the late afternoon sun. North of Huesca we took a narrow mountain road eastwards through the tiny settlement of Laguarta, a sensational route full of visual treats, climbing all the time. Boltaña was a busy tourist town full of holidaymakers, but we turned off the main road and drove through a jaw-dropping gorge. This Pyrennean valley is virtually uninhabited, because Franco's regime had planned to build a dam there, and bought most of the property with compulsory purchase orders, only to abandon the plans. Finally a winding dirt forestry road brought us to the wonderfully situated Casa de San Martin, sitting on a grassy promontory overlooking the valley below.
This former farm has been lovingly restored and our vaulted room with exposed beams had the best views of the whole trip. Dinner was delicious - tuna pâté, salad of dried cod, shoulder of local baby lamb with cous cous. I was depressed to discover the place was fully booked the next night and so we had to tear ourselves away - but we promised the charming owners that we'd be back - apart from anything else, this is fabulous walking country and far less crowded than other resorts in the Pyrenees.
Next we meandered through the mountains, spending a week with friends in the Aveyron valley north-east of Toulouse, before heading back to gorgeous San Sebastian with its fabulous food and blissful beaches. A popular resort for Spaniards, it was packed to bursting with families celebrating the annual fiesta, a week of concerts, live music, firework displays and dancing. We stayed in the palatial Hotel Maria Christina in a suite with a roof terrace and ate monkfish with clams in the elegant restaurant Ouendo, the walls of which were crammed with photos of stars from the annual film festival. Finally, a hair-raising drive west through the mountains back to Santander and the ferry home. This time we saw whales - and I don't mean the sight of my much-increased backside in the mirror.
Brittany Ferries (08709 076 103; www.brittany-ferries.com) sails between Plymouth and Santander in 201/2 hours. Returns from £160 per person with a vehicle, including two-berth cabin.
La Casa del Abad, Plaza Francisco Martin Gromaz 12, Ampudia (00 34 979 768 008; www.casadelabad.com). Doubles start at €113 (£81), room only.
Monasterio de Rocamador, Carretera Nacional Badajoz-Huelva Km 41,100, Almendral (00 34 924 489 000; www.rocamador.com). Doubles start at €150 (£107), room only.
Posada de Esquiladores, Esquiladores 1, San Esteban Del Valle, Avila (00 34 920 383 498; www.esquiladores.com). Doubles from €80 (£57), with breakfast.
Casa de San Martin, San Martin de la Solana, Huesca (00 34 974 503 105; www.casadesanmartin.com). Doubles from €120 (£86), including breakfast.
All four properties can be booked through Rusticae (00 34 902 103 892; www.rusticae.es
Finca Buenvino, Los Marines, near Aracena, Huelva (00 34 959 124 034; www.fincabuenvino.com). Doubles start at €120 (£86), including breakfast.
Hotel Maria Cristina, Calle Oquendo 1, San Sebastian (00 34 943 437 600; www.starwoodhotels.com/luxury). Doubles from €155 (£111), room only.
Spanish Tourist Office: 08459 400180; www.tourspain.co.uk