Iberian heaven is a case of parador regained
IT may only be an hour's drive from the hub of Malaga, but by the time you have wound your way up the ear-poppingly high and winding road to the bullfighting territory of Ronda in Andalusia, you certainly feel like you are off the beaten track.
It's still winter, but even off-season, Andalusia is an attractive tourist destination, with some of the warmest wintertime temperatures in Europe. And it's not just the big cities such as Seville and Granada that are good to visit all year round. Less-known areas such as Cadiz and Huelva are full of charming towns, villages, sights worth exploring and surprises.
But back to Ronda – a romantic town with stunning scenery and lots of history and character. As well as being the spiritual home of modern bullfighting, Ronda is home to Orson Welles's ashes and the Rondanians claim that Hemingway took geographical inspiration from their town when writing For Whom The Bell Tolls.
Random facts aside, Ronda is a sightseer's dream, with incredible views over the Serrania de Ronda mountains and along the vast ravine known as the Tajo.
We started with a very long lunch at the Parador de Ronda. The paradores are a network of hotels with unique properties dotted throughout Spain; this particular hotel building is a former town hall and enjoys a privileged view over the 18th-Century Puente Nuevo Bridge. The paradores are known for their dedication to championing local produce, and after an impressive lunch a walk through the cobblestone streets and the old Moorish quarter was welcome.
Ronda means 'round' and I felt a little rounder after leaving, as almost every corner has some foodie temptation. A trip to the Bodegas La Sangre de Ronda, where you can taste lots of local wines for just €4, is a great way to finish the day, but then I would say that.
After the heights of Ronda, we descend through the steep hills covered in Mediterranean pine trees to Antequera, less than 50km north of Malaga to our relaxing new lodgings in the Parador de Antequera.
Antequera is a city with a real mish-mash of styles, with its share of Moorish, Renaissance and Roman architecture, as well as geological wonders. The region is famous for its dolmens and strangely shaped rock formations known as El Torcal.
Dolmens aren't everyone's cup of tea, but one rock you won't be able to avoid wherever you are in Antequera is the 880 metre-high limestone mass called La Pena de los Enamorados, or Lovers' Leap. It takes its name from a local legend which I'm sure you can hazard a guess at, but let's just say that it doesn't end well.
Before leaving Antequera, the Alcazaba fortress is worth exploring, too. It offers spectacular views of the Sierra del Torcal, and the city itself, and if you time your trip to catch the sunset then you are in for a treat.
An alterative attraction in Antequera worth noting is Lobo Park, a wolf park that offers guided tours and even hosts 'howl nights' from May to October on every full moon.
While you can expect some rain in Spain travelling in the winter months, the biggest bonus of travelling off-peak is the lack of crowds. A day or two in Andalusia off-season and you really start to settle into a slower, more relaxed, way of life. Eating and drinking anywhere in southern Spain is like a ritual, and long lunches and dinners with favourite dishes such as gazpacho, delicious seasonal stews and tortilla, and oodles of fresh fish are all part of the Andalusian experience.
The latter part of our journey covered Arcos, an unspoiled cliffhanger of a mountain town, before we headed to the southernmost coastal province of Cadiz.
If you are after a bit of luxury, the parador in Cadiz has a seriously stylish set-up.
Situated a few steps from the sea front, it offers the most spectacular sea views, but the rooms look equally impressive when you shut the curtains. It's ultra modern, but doesn't ever compromise on style or comfort. Each double room has its own deck, rainfall shower and enormous bathtub to relax in before you fall asleep to the sound of the sea.
Cadiz is buzzy and worth a short stay, but if you want authentic Spanish seaside towns, head further south to the golden beaches of Zahara de los Atunes and at the furthest southern tip, Tarifa, a paradise for kite- and wind-surfing.
A short trip on a drive-on/drive-off ferry from Sanlucar de Barrameda in Cadiz brings you to Donana National Park in the Huelva province, which borders Portugal.
This was the highlight of the trip. Transported by jeep around the world heritage site which covers 1,000,000 hectares of protected land, you can take in wandering fallow and red deer, wild boar, flamingos and Spanish imperial eagles circling for prey (the nocturnal Iberian Lynx also lives here, but seeing one of them might be a bit trickier).
The landscape is the product of the four ecological systems that meet in Donana, so you have a mosaic of lagoons, beaches, forest, dunes and salt marshes all within a few miles of each other.
It's an extraordinary place, and full of surprises for those with sharp eyes, like the ominous site of the odd vulture perched in a tree.
For me, the Mazagon area was a revelation, with temperatures more spring-like than wintry, stunning long, sandy beaches and plenty to see, including San Jorge's Church in Palos de la Frontera and the waterfront museum Muelle de las Carabelas with replicas of Columbus's Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria.
Our last night was spent at the scenic Parador Magazon Hotel, which stands in front of the Atlantic Ocean.
It is here, in the middle of winter, that I savoured my last swim in the sea for what I imagined will be some time, but there is the option of a heated open-air pool all year round if the water's too chilly for your liking.
Watching the winter sun set from the fortress of Antequera, or swimming on the deserted beach of Mazagon, it's easy to forget that you are so close to the famous Costa del Sol and hugely developed Spanish hotspots like Marbella.
This doesn't just feel like another part of Andalusia, it feels like another world.