Seeking a relaxing, self-catering holiday in authentic rural Spain that also offered entertainment for children, Brian and Carol headed off to a rustic alpaca farm in Andalusia with their daughter Gemma, four, and son, Herbie, six.
Parking on roundabouts
When Alan, the owner of the olive-mill-turned-alpaca-farm arranged that he would meet us at a roundabout just off the motorway, I was confused. How can you park on a roundabout? Why can’t he just add the directions to the property to the one’s he emailed leading us from Malaga airport to said roundabout? I imagined that either it was because the farm was remote and hard to find or that he was just extraordinarily helpful. In fact, it was both. And, yes, in this part of inland Andalusia, even in high season, there are few cars – you can park on roundabouts.
We’d had an easy, two-hour drive from Malaga, with the road emptying and the sky widening as we headed north, but it was late afternoon and the children were just approaching tetchy when we turned off the motorway, crossed over a wide green river shaded by eucalyptus trees and entered a wilderness of red hills covered in silvery olive trees stretching to the far horizon. The property website invited you to ‘step off the world for a while’ and we certainly felt we’d left civilisation way behind. It was stunning but we were travel-worn and needed home comforts, Gemma wanted a wee, Herbie was restless and Brian and I needed a beer. Thankfully the roundabout appeared, where Alan’s dusty landrover was parked and his beaming face was a welcome sight. He guided us through bumpy, windy roads that seemed to take us further into the heart of this wild, wild country, eventually arriving at his gorgeous converted mill, Alpacas El Sol. Gemma squealed with joy at the sight of two kittens sunbathing right in the middle of the road, obviously not expecting much in the way of traffic. Herbie was delighted to see the farm looked just like something out of a cowboy movie and as we got out of the car Brian started whistling the Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns theme tune.
Leading busy lives in London, we had been craving a quiet, out-of-the way retreat but we didn’t want the children to be bored. A place where they could be entertained by animals and a swimming pool seemed a good option, but this was… remote, like, as in the ends of the Earth remote. What if we suddenly needed supplies and the nearest shop was a bumpy, 20-minute drive? How would we cope stepping ‘off the world’ for a week? What were we all going to do?
We needn’t have worried. We weren’t stranded in the wilderness, not only do Lorna and Alan, the English owners, treat guests like family, making you feel at home the minute you arrive, but there is actually plenty to do. After helping us with our luggage up to our beautifully appointed three-bedroom apartment, they suggested we get settled, have a snack (they provide a generous welcome pack with fresh bread, cheese, delicious Spanish cured ham, eggs from their hens, a bowl of fresh fruit, and essentials like milk, tea and wine!) and then join them on the terrace for drinks and nibbles on the house, while the children splashed in the gorgeous pool.
There was none of that stress one usually has settling into self-catering property after a long day of travelling with youngsters, none of that bickering over oven instructions and lost corkscrews and having to find the nearest supermarket. If you stay for a week Lorna and Alan provide a free barbecue on one of the nights. We were so glad we’d booked to have it on our first night, as hitting the road again to find food was not what we needed. We couldn’t have got the kids out of the pool anyway, Lorna had filled it with various inflatable toys and when they weren’t splashing they were playing with two of the extremely friendly kittens who seem to have a hidey hole under the decking around the pool. The BBQ was delicious, Lorna had made a huge array of excellent salads, and, as we later noted from the good reviews in the visitors’ book, Alan’s home-made beefburgers are legendary. As are his delicious chips, home-made using their own olive oil.
Lorna and Alan have done a great job of renovating the property, which is entirely solar powered. The exterior stays true to its rustic, wild-west-style Spanish roots, while the interiors are decorated tastefully with fine antiques and furnishings but also mod-cons like Sky TV and dvd players. The accommodation comprises two rental units, the apartment comfortably sleeps six, plus there’s a romantic one-bed casita, away from the house near the pool, with a huge, sunken splash-pool type bath in the bedroom and a glam bathroom with a rainforest shower and ‘his and hers’ basins. A cot and highchair can also be provided. Both properties can be offered at a discount for large family groups. When we went, the casita was empty so we had exclusive use of the pool.
After a restful night on large comfy beds, we were woken by Gemma and Herbie bouncing around saying it was time for them to walk the alpacas. This is a very helpful activity for parents as it involves Lorna and Alan taking the children out for a walk around the property with these docile, fluffy-headed creatures, while the parents enjoy an extra hour in bed or a leisurely breakfast taken on the apartment’s own private dining terrace with views of the endless hills. The children can also join in evening alpaca fun by helping to feed them. Plus, they can help take the dogs out for walks if they like (there are five dogs, all well-trained and child-friendly). One afternoon was spent with me and Brian blissfully reading by the pool under the shade of the huge eucalyptus tree, while Lorna occupied Gemma and Herbie with her paint-a-pot project, in which visiting children get to decorate plant pots that are then used to adorn the traditional Andalusian, flower-filled patio.
We soon found the peace and the tranquillity of the surroundings had seeped into our bones and unravelled our city-dwellers’ knots of stress. We’d planned several day trips that never happened as the whole Spanish ‘manana’ (tomorrow) mentality set in, and as long as the children were happy we were happy. We’d planned to visit Seville or the coast (both a 2-hour drive away) or take a ‘safari’ in the huge natural park bordering the property, the Sierra Cardena-Montoro Natural Park, home to Iberian lynx, birds of prey and more. But in the end we found plenty to occupy us at Cordoba and Montoro, the nearest point of civilisation.
Montoro is a quaint little town with everything you need – banks, a huge supermarket, an English-speaking chemist, plus galleries, a museum and a magical house made out of shells that the children adored. There’s also a range of eateries, from very cheap tapas/pizza bars round the old square to a superb restaurant at the swanky Hotel Mirador de Montoro, a fantastic modernist building set on a hilltop overlooking the picturesque riverside area. The hotel has a super swish pool-with-a-view where you can have a dip, a drink at the poolside bar then dine on fine Spanish cuisine.
The best day trips were to Cordoba though, a bijou, manageable city packed with culture and fabulous attractions that’s just 25 easy minutes drive from the motorway turn-off at Montoro. It’s home to the Mezquita, said to be the most beautiful mosque ever created by the Moors, even the children were awe-struck by this mysterious, fabulously-decorated building and they happily wandered with us around the maze of winding lanes in the old Jewish/Moorish quarter surrounding the Mezquita. This is a great place for finding Aladdin’s-cave like boutiques, flower-strewn patios, child-friendly tapas bars, arty cafes and little squares with cooling fountains to sit by. One evening, having decided to do as the Spanish do and let the children stay up late, we returned to Cordoba to watch a real Flamenco show in the courtyard of a beautiful Renaissance building. Like the other children there, Gemma and Herbie were bewitched by the gorgeous dancers and their fabulous costumes. Castanets, mini Flamenco outfits and fans were purchased for Gemma the next day and Herbie is still stamping around saying he’s doing a matador dance. It was a magical evening that I’m sure they will never forget.
Other attractions at Cordoba include a water park, Aquasierra, equestrian shows and horseriding, the Alcazar Palace gardens, where they host fab light shows at night, and Cordoba Zoo, which is small but beautifully presented and boasts leopards, lions and tigers. Also at 4 euros a ticket it’s a bit of a steal. Alan and Lorna are a mine of information and will book tickets for you online, or let you browse their computer.
In fact Lorna and Alan kind of made our holiday, they are endlessly patient, kind and generous with their time. They’ve got medicine/provisions on hand if you’ve forgotten something and their large communal kitchen has a huge range of children’s (and grown-up’s) DVDs and books for borrowing. As hosts, they hit just the right note of not being intrusive and letting you have privacy while being on hand if you need them. The children adored them and there were tears when we left, particularly as they had to say goodbye to Miliko the floppy-eared dog, Pedro and Alejandro the adorable kittens and all the alpacas.
Brian and I missed the endless olive tree-dotted hills and memories of putting the children to bed, retiring to our private terrace with a bottle of Rioja, sitting back and watching shooting stars in a cloudless sky far from urban light pollution, far from the madding crowd.