By Ralph Robinson
It’s a real gem. Set in a Natural Park, the Sierra de Aracena has lain virtually untouched for centuries – a tranquil area of rolling hills, thickly wooded with cork oaks, sweet chestnut and dotted with picturesque white-washed villages.
It’s a deeply traditional area. Locals still get a living from the forest – harvesting the sweet chestnuts, stripping the bark off cork oaks to make wine stoppers and looking after the herds of snuffling black pigs which feed off the acorns and in turn yield the exquiste air-dired Iberian hams of the area
Under the forest canopy, paths and ancient roads – some with Roman paving, others tracking Moorish irrigataion channels – criss-cross the hills and lush valleys, making the area a paradise for walkers. The tracks were also a lifeline in the 1940s as smugglers brought back cheap food from Portugal in the hungry years after the Spanish Civil war.
Nowadays the gentle hills attract not only walkers but also mountain bikers as well as bird watchers who come to scan blue skies for eagles, black vultures and kites.
It’s against this traditional background, where village women can still be seen doing their laundry in the open-air public wash-houses, that Lucy and Angel set up their remarkable inns at Alajar, a charming village in the heart of the sierra.
Remarkable because although the inns nestle unobtrusively and unpretentiously among the white-washed houses and cobbled streets of Alajar, they are models of sustainable and eco-friendly design. Lucy and Angel have shaped and fashioned them in line with their ‘green’ principles
First they took over a former 18th century inn, installed solar panels and refurbished it largely with local materials and artefacts. It opened as the Posada de Alajar in 2004.
Then, to provide a garden and space for a swimming pool, they set about another old building which, a couple of years ago, became their flagship Posada de San Marcos. They re-used the ancient chestnut beams, the doors, the roof tiles -even the stone walls to build garden walls. To save water, a scarce resource in Spain, they use rain water and water from two wells for toilet flushes and irrigating gardens and plants.
But most impressive of all is the technology that taps into geo-thermal energy through boreholes driven down more than 500 feet under the hotel. The energy is retrieved at a steady temperature of 17 deg.C and helps heat the tap water and the swimming pool, and cool the place in summer. It cut their electricity bills substanially.
The same passion for the environment inspires the food . Lucy, who studied hotel catering management in Blackpool, UK, is a fabulous cook. She prefers the food to be locally sourced, organic and if possible, to have a pedigree. So the liver pate served at breakfast is home-made to a recipe of Angel’s mother and the organic wholemeal bread comes from a bakery using an Arabian wood-fired oven.
Lucy and Angel are a well matched pair, both dedicated to the environment and both sharing a love of walking and getting involved in village life. The light of their lives is their lovely six-year-old daughter, Sofia.
This family warmth, plus help and advice await travellers. The area is full of great walks and Lucy and Angel have notes and advice about these and other attractions, including the wonderful view point above Alájar with a 16th century chapel, the spectacular caverns at Aracena, the 9th century mosque at Almonaster, all accompanied by carpets of flowers in Spring and masses of wild mushrooms in Autumn. The advice comes in English or Spanish. Lucy and Angel (and Sofia) are equally at home in either language.
But don’t just take my word for it – British Ambassador to the Netherlands Paul Arkwright can vouch for the peace and tranquility having spent a relaxing week with his family in August at San Marcos, enjoying not just the sun, ham and local wine, but the chance to catch up with his younger sister – Lucy of course !
For further information and special offers go to www.posadasalajar.com
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