cowboys and Andalusia may not seem like a perfect match. But as I saddle up in the Sierra Norte de Sevilla, a protected wilderness of rolling green hills, I begin to feel like one of the celebrated bandits to once roam the region.
Inland Andalusia is a long way from the Costa del Sol, with dozens of immense mountain ranges running through its eight provinces. With some 34,000 square kilometers of countryside (making it Spain’s second largest region), it has many highlights, including Jaen’s Cazorla Mountains, Granada’s Sierra Nevada and Malaga’s Serrania de Ronda.
But the 280-mile Sierra Morena that runs through four provinces, from Huelva to Jaen, takes a beating. A lost sack in rural Europe, dozens of golden eagles and Imperial eagles patrol the skies, while a growing number of wolves and Iberian lynx – the world’s rarest wild cat – prowl the forest.
Saddle up: George Scott Rides’ three- and five-day wilderness escapes (pictured, file photo) promise rides “through thorny forests, as well as open meadows thick with wildflowers, before sleeping under the stars”
Jon’s odyssey takes him to the 280-mile Sierra Morena, a ‘lost bag of rural Europe’. Pictured is the Cascada de la Cimbarra waterfall in the region
The Sierra Morena (or ‘Dark Range’) probably gets its name from the heavy carpet of oak and chestnut trees and from the distinctive black rocks… although some say the name comes from the legendary bandits of the region.
My adventure in these dark hills begins at the front gate of Trasierra, a historic 3,000-acre olive grove, in Cazalla de la Sierra, that has catered to everyone from royalty to supermodels in recent years.
My guide, George Scott, is the owner’s son, and his three- and five-day wilderness escapes promise rides “through thorny forests, as well as open meadows thickly covered with wildflowers, before they go to sleep under the stars.”
While I’m anything but a camping fan, George says I shouldn’t worry. “These are beautiful Rajasthani tents, with decent beds, cotton sheets and more,” he promises.
They must, I tell him, be used to enjoying his beautiful stack of dozens of rooms, with its high white walls, vaulted ceilings and patchwork of tiled roofs.
“The Sierra Morena (or ‘Dark Range’) probably gets its name from the heavy carpet of oak and chestnut trees and the distinctive black rocks,” writes Jon. Pictured above is a view of the region’s hills
With its all-pervading scent of jasmine and orange blossom and hundreds of climbing roses, it’s easy to imagine George’s aunt, celebrated actress Dame Harriet Walter, walking around inspecting the gardens after her role as Winston Churchill’s wife, Clementine, in The Crown.
Just as I’m about to settle into a third café con leche, George’s mother, Charlotte – this Xanadu’s Clementine – suddenly appears in front of me wearing a pair of leggings. ‘Your horse is waiting’ she trembles rather cheerfully.
It’s immediately apparent that this isn’t your usual holiday hack. For starters, George’s horses, a mixture of Spanish Arabian and Anglo-Arabic, are as responsive as a race car and itching out.
According to Jon, the interior of Andalusia has dozens of immense mountain ranges that run through the eight provinces – such as the Sierra Nevada in Granada (pictured)
LEFT: An Iberian lynx – the world’s rarest wild cat – stalks the forests of the Sierra Morena. RIGHT: One of the ‘beautiful Rajasthani tents’ on the George Scott Rides wilderness escape, featuring ‘real beds, cotton sheets and more’
Born into this equestrian world and trained locally, he knows the region well and has long fought to keep the old drover trails open, as well as making many deals with fellow landowners in order to move across their land.
We are on winding dirt roads through quiet and rolling forest that is as wild and beautiful as anywhere I’ve been in Europe.
It is incredibly peaceful and I quickly get lost in my thoughts as the hours go by. ‘Rather than reading a book’, as George poetically puts it.
But the rides are definitely not predictable, he insists, referring to a “sudden flight of a partridge or the slithering of a snake,” so I can’t shut it down completely.
And of course my moment comes when I’m suddenly confronted by a few loose foals who, somewhat bizarrely, try to squeeze my horse from behind.
My horse turns and nearly throws me into a tree, leading to a ten-minute descent as I gather my thoughts and George wraps up the delinquents with a few well-aimed pinecones.
Luckily we’re only a few minutes from lunch and we turn a corner to find a ruin that has been transformed into the most welcoming place on a hot Spanish day: a shaded picnic table full of organic treats from the local region.
This is an extraordinary stirrup cup as a member of Trasierra’s team comes to greet us with a choice of ice cold fino, a local sparkling wine or a chilled Alhambra lager.
Jon begins and ends his journey in Trasierra, a historic 3,000-acre olive grove in the town of Cazalla de la Sierra (pictured above)
To eat there is a warm Spanish tortilla, fresh asparagus and two kinds of salad. A plate of cold cuts and cheeses brings out the back.
The afternoon drive is just a drive, no more than an hour, to the remarkable tented camp set in a shady clearing surrounded by oak forest.
The tents are equipped with crisp sheets, hot water bottles, beautiful dressing tables with mirrors and washbasins, handmade soap, fresh cologne and tea and coffee are delivered every morning.
In addition, there is a well-stocked bar and a selection of board games.
That evening, after the obligatory campfire, buckets of vino and delicious jamon Iberico, I sit outside gazing at the stars and listening to nightingales.
I can get the hang of this I think and am quite disappointed to go back to Trasierra terra firma.
The last night at the ranch turns into a great party: an outdoor barbecue by Gioconda, a true culinary star, who learned to ‘cook on fire’ in Argentina and helped launch the Slow Food movement in Spain.
The table is so perfectly set with flowers and linen that it could be a dinner party in North London. . . apart from the warm spring temperature and the occasional whinny of a horse somewhere in the dark.