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Inland retreats

Beyond the beaches: the hidden, bewitching Spain

Oliver Mann, a regular visitor to Spain, describes the best destinations, far away from the costas and an alternative in the hills

Sunday January 4, 2004
The Observer

Spain receives about 12.5 million visitors a year. More than half of these come through only four airports: Palma de Mallorca, Malaga, Alicante and Reina Sofia on Tenerife - the gateways to the beaches. But, as true adventurers know, these areas have much more to offer than the average package tours to overcrowded beaches and high-rise apart-hotels. If you book a low-cost airline flight and hire a car, you can have a totally different experience to that of the package holidaymaker, often for less than the price of a package.


Where the masses go: Benidorm.

Where to escape them: If you want a proper Spanish city close to the Costa Blanca, you won't be disappointed. About an hour's drive south-west of Alicante, you'll find the ancient town of Murcia, founded in 831 by the Emir of Córdoba. There is architecture worth seeing dotted around the streets and squares, two of the main sights being the Episcopal Palace from the eighteenth century with a rococo facade, and the cathedral from the fifteenth century with its distinctive baroque sculptures. There are enough bars and cafés to keep even the most ardent coffee and beer-lover busy. A short drive from the city you can visit the spas in Archena or Leana.


Where the masses go: Torremolinos, Fuengirola and Marbella.

Where to escape them: If you fancy getting away from the commercial coastal tourism, stay in a finca - a Spanish farmhouse - called HumbleBee (00 34 952 11 18 69), about 60km (37m) north-west of Malaga . The closest village, Valle de Abdalajís, is 3.5km (2m) away, so don't worry about the neighbours. The house, run by two Norwegians, is in a valley full of lemons, oranges and almonds, and within easy driving distance of the Garganta del Chorro, a deep gorge popular among rock-climbers. The mountain of El Torcal is also nearby, where you'll find some amazing limestone formations. There's a marked trail starting and ending at the visitors' centre; if you want to step outside it you'll need to hire a guide. Prices at HumbleBee are €30 (£21) per person, per night, including breakfast.

Around 3km (1.8m) outside of Ronda, you can stay in the Villa Arancha, with its pool, almond and olive trees, and a little underground bodega. The house sleeps six, and costs £1,171 for one week, property only, or £328 per person based on six shar ing, including flights from Gatwick to Malaga and car hire. Contact Spanish Affair (020 7385 8127).

For those wishing to venture further afield, 60km (37m) east of Granada you'll find the city of Guadix, which has an amazing cave settlement of about 10,000 people. You can stay in a studio flat in Albaicín with The Individual Travellers (08700 780 194) from £402 per week. It is part of a converted sixteenth-century house which now contains seven flats. The flat sleeps two people and has a view of the Alhambra Palace. The price includes car hire, but not flights.


Where the masses go: The honeypots of the island are mostly clustered around the southern part, Playa de las Americas and Los Cristianos.

Where to escape them: The city of San Cristóbal de la Laguna is a Unesco registered world heritage site. And for good reason: its sixteenth-century architecture is well worth a visit. The city, now the second largest on the island, was founded in 1496 by the conquistador Alonso Fernández de Lugo. San Cristóbal de la Laguna is only a short drive from the island's capital, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, where you can stay at the sumptuous five-star Hotel Mencey. The Real Spain (020 8686 3638) offers seven nights from £799 per person, including return flights and transfers from London Gatwick to Tenerife North. The price is based on two sharing, and is valid between 1 January and 12 February.


Where the masses go: Magaluf.

Where to escape them: Drive 42km (26m) outside of Palma and stay at the finca Es Figueral (00 34 971 65 16 41) a restored farmhouse dating from 1900. It has enough room for 16 guests. As well as the proprietors, Maria and Miguel, a few animals live there, including dogs, cats, a horse, peacocks, parrots and even a toucan. Around the finca there are 12 hectares of fields with orange trees and a big garden with a swimming pool surrounded by palm trees. If you get bored of the farm itself, you're not far from the city of Campos or the beaches Ses Covetes, Sa Rápita and Es Trenc. Double rooms start at €55 (£39), including breakfast, which when the weather permits can be eaten on the patio.

Soak up the sun on an inland island

The arrival at Alicante airport is not the best introduction to one of the most popular parts of Spain.

Poster after poster advertises the coastal cancer: cheap, mass produced, featureless housing estates. Images with garish colours and badly drawn houses with as much charm as a camper van are everywhere.

As the portal to the resorts, however, Alicante is also the gateway to the Spanish interior

If you thought only the off-the-beaten-track tourists noticed the pressure on areas such as the Costa Blanca, think again. The Spanish have not only noticed it, they are actively exploiting it.

Not far from the coast, a group of 10 councils around the Sierra de Crevillente mountain range has come together to form an area called La Isla de Interior, The Inland Island, with 'the best alternative to the coast' as its catchphrase.

One of the 10 towns is Hond¿n de Las Nieves, a little gem for those who want to get away from the suntan lotion and buckets and spades. If you don't know what you're looking for, though, you're likely to drive straight past it. Many of the towns around here are easy to miss, with the main roads whisking past the outskirts.

Hondón de Las Nieves is the southernmost town of La Isla de Interior. Even a short visit to the town pays dividends. The small baroque church, dating from 1685, does its best to make up for the lack of grand cathedrals.

When I spent Christmas at Hondón de Las Nieves with my expat Norwegian parents, who live there, I found it a low-key event. The villagers were scattered about the town square, sitting on benches soaking up some of the winter sun.

In a side street a large group of older men, all dressed in black, were standing around four gentlemen playing cards. A CD with Christmas carols was playing on a loop from a building down the street. The building, which also happens to be home of the Pensioners' Club and the Housewives' Club, contained the traditional Spanish belén , an elaborate Nativity scene with figures and buildings depicting everything from the arrival of the three kings to the farmers in the fields and the carpenters in their workshops, not just a baby in a manger.

Small towns such as Hondón de Las Nieves have much to gain from more tourism, and recent figures from the Association of British Travel Agents show that independent travel is on the increase - just the kind of tourism the area needs.

In a way, the group's geographical position gives it a great advantage. Only 20km (12.5m) from Europe's palm tree garden, Elche, and 35km (21.8m) from Alicante, there is easy access to a major tourist airport. The lack of beaches and resorts filters out the more alcohol-fuelled kind of tourism, hopefully attracting a more discerning visitor.

But it's not only tourism that is moving away from the coast. More and more expats are seeing the paradox of the coastal ghettos. 'A new building has just popped up next to us,' says Karin, a Norwegian woman who has lived on the Costa Blanca for four years. 'And it's 75 per cent Scandinavian. That's exactly what we moved away from.'

Karin and her husband are now looking for a house in the region around Aspe, another of the 10 members of La Isla de Interior.

Back in Hondón de Las Nieves, the realisation that almost everything is closed on Christmas Day left us wondering whether we would have to leave the town feeling thirsty. But our search for a bar ended successfully. Sitting outside and enjoying the view makes you realise that the exchange of a seascape for a mountain-scape might be radical, but it is no less picturesque.

The La Isla de Interior website has information about all the towns.


Balearic Islands:

Hotels: or

Flights: EasyJet (0871 7500 100) flies from Gatwick to Alicante, Malaga and Mallorca from £40.98 return. Ryanair (0871 246 0000) flies from Stansted to Murcia from £39.99 return.

Car hire: Lead-in prices for seven-day, pre-paid, including unlimited mileage, collision damage waiver, theft protection and tax: Avis (00 34 96 568 27 79 /08700 100 287) - Palma: £124.22;Tenerife: £157.62; Malaga: £121.22; Alicante: £121.22. Hertz (0870 844 88 44) - Palma: £126; Tenerife: £127; Malaga: £150; Alicante: £151.


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