FOR many people a trip to Madrid or a week on the Algarve is an adventure now the pandemic is, hopefully, starting to ease.
And then there are those who want to stretch themselves and do something really out of the ordinary.
Well saddle up and head for a riding escape in the Sierra Morena, a rolling 450-km long wilderness that straddles the border of Andalucia and Extremadura.
There are green destinations… and then there are really green destinations, with the Sierra Norte de Sevilla natural park, in particular, about as wild as it gets in Spain.
This is a largely unknown expanse of rural Europe where wolves, Golden Eagles and the Iberian Lynx – the world’s rarest wildcat – are actually in the ascendance.
Named after its distinctive black rocks, the Sierra Morena was once known for a different sort of wildlife: its fabled bandits that prayed on travellers brave enough to take the journey south from Madrid.
So it felt exciting to be riding out from a 16th century trading post, to test out part of an overland journey that can be extended all the way to Portugal.
Guided by expat equestrian George Scott, guests opt for anything up to a five-day wilderness escape, following ancient bridleways and staying in rambling cortijos and even tents.
My stay began at George’s family’s 3000-acre Trasierra estate, near charming Cazalla de la Sierra, which has billeted everyone from royalty to pop stars and supermodels to politicians over the last few decades.
A great place to relax after a year of corona-stress, the high-walled palace is over 1000-metres square in size, with over a dozen distinct spots to luxuriate and only the same number of rooms.
The very definition of Andalucian vernacular architecture, its jigsaw puzzle of pantile roofs drop down to arched entrances and wisteria-laden pergolas. The all-pervading smell of jasmine and azahar follows you around the grounds.
So relaxing you’ll never want to leave, I jumped with a start when George’s mother Charlotte suddenly appeared as I was settling into my third cafe con leche, with a decent biography on the go.
“Your steed awaits,” she trilled joyfully, handing me some gaiters and leading me to the grand front gate, where my ride – a mixture of Spanish Arabian and Anglo-Arabian – was literally chomping at the bit.
We were soon heading off on a mixture of ancient drovers paths – known as vias pecuarias, cordeles and caminos reales depending on their importance – which George knows like the back of his hand, having grown up in the sierra.
A keen advocate of keeping the countryside open, he is also a fan of ‘rewilding’ and bans all use of pesticides from his estate. “The locals call our land sucio (or dirty) as we don’t clean it up and plough beneath the olive trees,” he explains. “The birds and animals certainly don’t mind.”
It took a full 30 minutes before we were even clear of Trasierra, riding along windy dirt tracks through woodland that’s as wild as it is beautiful.
When we did finally emerge from the forest, the landscape was gentle and rolling, not dramatic like the Sierra Nevada or the mountains around Ronda, where I live.
But you certainly have to keep your wits about you with lots of low-lying branches and the sudden startling of an escaping partridge or the swoosh of a snake.
My only real concern – apart from my aching thighs and a sore bum – came from a pair of delinquent foals running loose and inquisitive in the extreme.
My horse was, quite simply, not amused and spent the next ten minutes trying to send them packing, before rearing up and almost knocking me into a tree.
Thankfully, we were just a few minutes to lunch and suddenly emerged into a clearing with a ruined farmhouse and the wonderful sight of a shady picnic table brimming with goodies from around the region.
Classic Grand Cru Andaluz, one of George’s minions proffered me a glass of ice cold fino, while a separate ice bucket held lager and cava.
From here, we only had an hour or so to the tented camp, where most guests normally spend their first night.
It’s a remarkable place, carefully sited in a shady glade surrounded by oak woodland.
And forget the usual tents, this is glamping with a capital ‘G’. These are Rajasthani safari tents, in fact, with proper beds and linen, as well as dressing tables, sinks, soaps and fresh cologne.
To top it off there are hot water bottles and a well stocked bar and you get tea and coffee delivered to your bedside table every morning.
I, however, have been invited to spend my last night back at the ranch, where I am to be the guest of the Scott family, who are getting together for the first time since the pandemic began.
I am delighted to be trying out a ‘fire cooking’ show by George’s sister Gioconda, who has a roaring outdoor bbq on the go by the time we get back.
A true gourmet, Gioconda has long been an advocate of slow food and sources her ingredients as close to the ‘Km0’ ethos as possible and we eat amazing belly of free range pork from the nearby hills, as well as local lamb and much, much more.
It is a wonderful night, which rumbles on well into the night, a never-ending supply of local wine and plenty of banter to boot. I almost forget that my thighs have been bounced into oblivion and I can hardly feel my backside.
Thank the lords there is a really proper bed waiting for me when I finally flop.
TO ARRIVE: The Sierra Norte Natural Park is around an hour north of Sevilla.
TO STAY: Stunning Trasierra counts Bryan Ferry and Kate Moss as regular guests, while photographer Bruce Weber has been helping owner George Scott and his sister, chef Gioconda, produce a film series about the region. Another brother Jackson, a flamenco guitarist, who once dated actress Sadie Frost, is appropriately writing the soundtrack.
TO VISIT: The wonderful white village of Cazalla de la Sierra where dictator Franco’s granddaughter and fashion designers Victorio & Lucchino live.
TO EAT: at the restaurant Agustina which has a Bib Gourmand (red meals) award from Michelin.
TO DRINK: Bodega Tierra Savia is an organic vineyard in the town producing a range of interesting wines some fermented in Román amphoras