A converted monastery-turned-hotel and the unspoiled landscape of a nature park make for an original holiday in western Cordoba.
Following Andalusias main river, the Guadalquivir, as it meanders though gently rolling farmland you arrive at Palma del Rio in Cordoba, a quiet, sun-kissed village devoted to agriculture and crafts. Many know it as the birthplace of one of Spains most famous bullfighters, Manuel Benitez El Cordobes, whose unorthodox style and extravagant antics earned him the nickname, Beatle of the Bullring.
Centuries earlier life in the town centered around its important Franciscan monastery. It was established in a former hospice built in 1492, the year of Columbuss famous voyage, but that is not its only connection to America. One of those who came through here was Fray Junipero Serra, who later would go on to found numerous missions in California, and aside from spreading the Word, he also introduced oranges to America, from seedlings which came from Palma del Rio.
Some years ago the monastery was restored and converted into one of Spains most original hotels, the 22-room Hospederia de San Francisco. Accommodation is in the actual monks cells, although they are now far from frugal, and todays guests enjoy those creature comforts one expects of a high-class hotel. The project was the brainchild of an extrovert Basque chef, Iñaki Martinez, who also turned the hotel into a centre of fine cuisine. This spring management of the hotel was taken over by the Intergroup SL hotel group, which runs several equally charming establishments in southern Spain. Good food is still high on the menu, but award-winning head chef Javier Pelaez from Granada is complementing some of the Basque inspired all-time favourites with new dishes based on Andalusias abundance of superb fresh ingredients.
The Hospederias success has drawn increasing numbers of visitors to the town, and new hotel projects are now in the pipeline. Aside from the town itself, with its interesting walled old quarter, this is the perfect base for exploring one of Andalusias picturesque wilderness parks, the Sierra de Hornachuelos.
Stretching north of the village of Hornachuelos in the Sierra Morena, the 165,000 acre park is one of the biggest hunting centres in Spain, while nature lovers will find a varied wildlife including one of the largest colonies of the rare black vulture. First stop should be the visitors centre, which is an excellent introduction to life in the park. Here you can listen to the recorded calls of the hoopoe, the owl, the bee-eater and others of the parks denizens, and sign up for a tour. Hornachuelos unspoiled landscape of holm oaks and secluded valleys is perfect for strolling, and there are six different waymarked routes. The parks offer is being complemented with new features, such as mountain biking tours and horse back riding excursions, in addition to self-catered accommodation in a growing number of rural guest houses - including a restored 5-bedroom country mansion - to complement the three designated camping areas.
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Copyright © 2000 An Andalusian Experience. Text by Mark Little. Photography by J. D. Dallet - A Freelance Spain production
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Copyright © 2000-2006 Mark and David Little & J.D. Dallet