AS we arrived in the tiny village of Linares de la Sierra, the rolling hillsides of cork oaks and scrub gave way to deciduous woodlands, oranges and lemons and a profusion of daffodils and other wild flowers.
Birds were singing and the sound of water from fountains and rivers clearly heralded the first sign of spring.
A delightful path cutting between the villages of Los Merines and Linares, in the heart of Aracena Natural Park, this was certainly the perfect way to enjoy an early spring break.
A walk, easy for all the family, we had set off mid-morning from the charming rural retreat, Buen Vino, where we had based ourselves for our short weekend break.
Little more than a three-hour round trip, best of all, there was a restaurant at Rainbow’s End, the sort of restaurant that any tourist to Andalucia dreams of.
An authentic, honest eaterie, where sourcing of ingredients trumps fancy sauces every day of the week, Arrieros sits in an ancient village house and is extremely hard to find, which makes it more worth the journey.
You enter through a heavy wooden door and are immediately charmed by the heavy beamed, stone wall interior, with its old fireplace, cork stools and simple furniture.
Run by Adela and Luismi, this is one of the true dining secrets of Andalucia.
A place for romance, but equally to experience the best pork you will eat anywhere in the world.
It is, after all, just a few miles from Jabugo, the home of jamon Iberico, and so no surprises there is pork in all its glorious forms; presa, secretos, pluma, even castanetas, or throat glands, which actually tasted great if a little crunchy.
An aperitif of pigs liver with foie and onions came out, and soon I was tucking into my starter of wild mushroom soup and delicious jamon, the little I could keep out of the clutches of my three-year-old son.
A carpaccio of presa Iberica with foie and a vinegar from nearby Huelva was also terrific.
Mains included an amazing pluma Iberica hamburger, which was tender and served with a slightly spicy tomato marmalade and some sliced and baked potatoes.
Now open for eight years it is little surprise that Arrieros has done well, being set in this charming village.
One of the few places left in Andalucia to have cobbled streets and almost unspoilt charm, it is no coincidence that a string of movies have been set in Linares over the last few years.
Nearby, Alajar and Castano de Robledo are also fabulous small villages to explore.
And both conveniently also have great restaurants.
In Alajar, El Padrino is atmospheric in the extreme and little-changed since the 18th century, with some wonderfully earthy and off-beat dishes, such as stuffed chard stalks, while its big bodega of wines is exciting to visit.
In Castano de Robledo, you must look out for Maricastana, where a charming local couple have turned this ancient townhouse into one of the most stylish dining retreats around.
It oozes charm, and even sets out a ‘declaration of intentions’ promising to ‘conquer the stomach’, not through over-eating, but through opening the senses and taste buds.
It didn’t do badly, with an interesting mix of dishes, well sourced and carefully cooked, in particular with a heavy emphasis on vegetables.
Sitting outside on a classic Andaluz veranda, the sunshine pouring through and views across pantile roofs to a distant horizon of oak trees, it felt great to be living in Andalucia.
And how nice to see spring finally returned.
FIVE SPRING BREAKS
SPRING is in the air and the sun is out – meaning it’s time to get out there and enjoy the weather with a nice walk followed by a bite to eat.
Here, The Olive Press’ sister website diningsecretsofandalucia.com has come up with five of the best for a great spring day out.
As rural idylls go, this takes some beating.
The converted mill, now a hotel, is in a delightful location next to a crystal clear mountain stream beside the Grazalema Natural Park.
The sound of water is ever present, as are huge banks of geraniums, while weeping willows bow down over shady tables on a long cobbled terrace.
Best of all, earn your lunch by taking a walk along the fabulous River Guadiaro, as British Prime Minister David Cameron did, perhaps even taking the train back.
Yerbaguena is run by Javier, a real Anglophile who learnt his trade in Brighton UK.
He has now returned to the very home where he grew up, allowing diners to eat in the corner where he used to have his bedroom and providing a real sense of place and belonging.
This is a place to hang out and relax, with a glass of sherry and some tapas before sitting down for a full meal.
Nearby you must take a visit to the famous castle in Teba or take a stroll around the charming lakes of El Chorro.
It is remarkable how much sophistication can be created from a municipal-built hotel.
As are the views, which stretch some 200km all the way to the Sierra Nevada on clear days.
Moreover the journey there is very much part of the fun, particularly if you arrive by bike from Ronda or on foot from Yunquera or Alozaina.
Sitting at 650 metres on the edge of the Sierra de las Nieves national park, this comfortable hotel is a truly wonderful spring escape.
Hiding in wonderful hiking terrain in a backwater of Granada province, Algarinejo is one place to track down.
And at Casa Piolas, food has never been this much fun.
Like a sorcerer, dressed in black, Jose welcomes you with a flaming plate of chorizo and a cheeky smile, setting the tone for one of the most entertaining meals you’ll find this side of the Pyrenees.
Lost in the olive belt of inland Andalucia, Casa Piolas is, quite simply, one of Andalucia’s true culinary gems.
This small cavernous restaurant is one of the big surprises hiding in the mountains near Ronda.
Run by an enthusiastic Spanish couple who use well-sourced local ingredients, the restaurant sits in the ancient cellar of this once-grand town house.
It is well restored, with vaulted ceilings, stone walls and old barro floors.
Right from the door are two or three wonderful walks around the nearby Genal Valley.
Ask the owners, who also conveniently run a hotel above the restaurant.
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