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Cliff riches Head to the sierras of Andalucia for bloody history, Moorish beauty and the ultimate in chilling

THERE'S so much more to Andalucia than sun and sangria.

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The Moorish legacy, the lingering tragedy of the Spanish civil war, a generous share of the country's 38 world heritage sites (Spain has more such sites than any other country in the world, bar Italy), it's not hard to find a reason to venture away from the costas and seek out the treasures of Spain's most colourful province. But you need inside knowledge to discover the whitewashed village of Cartajima, a mountain jewel high up in the Alto Genal about 90 minutes' drive from Malaga.

Where to stay

Los Castanos is a beautiful small hotel with tastefully decorated rooms with balconies, a Moorish courtyard, well-stocked bar, restaurant and the most fantastic roof terrace offering spectacular views of the surrounding hills.

Owner Di Beach and her American husband Denny have made this hotel their life's work in progress, and their attention to detail and eagerness to help you enjoy your stay shine through.

Open all year round, there's a welcoming fireplace for chillier days. This is a place to relax or talk politics with your hosts over a glass of fino beside the trickling indoor fountain; a place to discuss art and Spanish history while planning your walk, or just play with the dog. It's the kind of place you leave having made friends with the owners. Homely yet chic, comfortable but opulent, it is hard to praise this place enough. More details from www. loscastanos. com

What to do

The seven hillside villages of the Alto Genal are worth exploring - Di has put together a booklet on the attractions of the region.

Walking here is a delight, and strolling along goat tracks in the shade of chestnut trees - chestnut co-operatives form the basis of the local economy - should not be missed. I will never forget climbing a hill behind Cartajima and seeing the distant mountains of North Africa picked out by the setting sun.

Birdwatching is a speciality: the Alto Genal is both an important breeding area and a feeding area for birds migrating across the Straits of Gibraltar. Four different species of eagle can be found here. Di or Denny can organise bird watching trips from the hotel with a local expert.

Explore the prehistoric caves at Cueva de la Pileta or take a jaunt to nearby Ronda, a historic town built on the edge of a gorge and regarded as the cradle of bullfighting. For longer stays, this is a good base from which to tour Andalucia's Moorish wonders: the Alhambra Palace in Granada, onetime centre of the Moorish kingdom of Al Andalus, and Cordoba's Mezquita, a magnificent, intricately decorated mosque so large that the reconquistadores opted not to erase it, but instead built a cathedral inside. The bustling city of Seville, with its Giralda cathedral and the orangescented gardens of the Alcazar, is a couple of hours' drive away. If all that fails, you are within easy access of the coast. The Costa de la Luz is exquisite, if windy.

Better to ease your weary bones on your balcony, however, uncork a bottle of Freixnet and unwind.

Eating and drinking

In this part of the world you can pretty much pick any village and find good hearty fare. Los Castanos has a great restaurant serving home-cooked Mediterranean cuisine, complemented by local wines. Simple but deliciously wholesome cuisine including squid, roasted peppers and albondigas or Spanish meatballs, is available in the local bar/ restaurant La Poza in Cartajima.

Best to give forewarning. There are rustic but authentic (and cheap) bar/restaurants in all seven villages of the Alto Genal, generally serving a fixed meal.

Local olives and pork are the specialities and worth trying.

Good for kids

Children are very welcome. Di and Denny even offered to look after our daughter Freya, who fell in love with their their little stray mountain dog Chatta. No clubbing here, though, so teenagers should bring a book or their hiking boots.

Shopping

Let's be clear, this is not a shopping holiday. Necessities can be picked up in nearby Ronda, while jars of local olives and chestnuts are worth bringing home. Moorish house furnishings are a speciality of Andalucia, especially decorative tiles, wrought iron work and, if you can arrange transportation home - and have a home big enough - the most magnificent hand carved wooden doors.

How to get there

Flyglobespan (www. flyglobespan.com; 0870 556 1522) flies from Edinburgh and Glasgow to Malaga. Denny will pick you up from the airport if necessary, although a hire car is highly recommended to explore the area.

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