Cowboys and Andalucia may not seem a perfect fit. But as I saddle up in the Sierra Norte de Sevilla, a protected wilderness of rolling green hills, I start to feel like one of the celebrated bandits who once roamed the region.
Inland Andalucia is far removed from the Costa del Sol, with dozens of immense mountain ranges running through its eight provinces. With some 34 ,000 square miles of countryside (making it Spain’s second biggest region), it has many highlights, including Jaen’s Cazorla mountains, Granada’s Sierra Nevada and Malaga’s Serrania de Ronda.
But the 280-mile-long Sierra Morena that cuts through four provinces from Huelva to Jaen takes some beating. A lost pocket of rural Europe, dozens of Golden and Imperial eagles patrol its skies, while growing numbers of wolves and Iberian lynxes — the world’s rarest wildcat — stalk its woodland.
Saddle up: George Scott Rides’ three and five-day wilderness escapes (pictured, file photo) promise rides ‘through spiky forests, as well as open meadows thickly clotted with wildflowers, before sleeping under the stars’
Jon’s odyssey takes him into the 280-mile-long Sierra Morena, a ‘lost pocket of rural Europe’. Pictured is the region’s Cascada de la Cimbarra waterfall
The Sierra Morena (or ‘Dark Range’) most likely got its name from its heavy carpet of oaks and chestnuts as well as its distinctive black rocks… although some say the name came from the region’s fabled bandits.
My adventure into these dark hills begins at the front gate of Trasierra, a historic 3,000-acre olive estate, in Cazalla de la Sierra, which has catered for everyone from royalty to supermodels over recent years.
My guide, George Scott, is the son of the owner and his three and five-day wilderness escapes promise rides ‘through spiky forests, as well as open meadows thickly clotted with wildflowers, before sleeping under the stars’.
While I’m anything but a fan of camping, George says I need not worry. ‘These are beautiful Rajasthani tents, with proper beds, cotton sheets and more,’ he promises.
They need to be, I tell him, having got used to luxuriating at his beautiful dozen-room pile, with its high white walls, vaulted ceilings and patchwork of pantile roofs.
‘The Sierra Morena (or ‘Dark Range’) most likely got its name from its heavy carpet of oaks and chestnuts as well as its distinctive black rocks,’ writes Jon. Pictured above is a view of the hills in the region
With its all-pervading smell of jasmine and orange blossom, and hundreds of climbing roses it is not hard to imagine George’s aunt, the 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 settling into a third cafe con leche, George’s mum, Charlotte — the Clementine of this Xanadu — suddenly appears with some gaiters for me. ‘Your steed awaits’ she trills rather joyfully.
It’s immediately apparent that this is not your usual holiday hack. For starters, George’s horses, a mixture of Spanish Arabian and Anglo-Arabian, are as responsive as a race car and itching for the off.
According to Jon, inland Andalucia has dozens of immense mountain ranges running through its eight provinces – such as Granada’s Sierra Nevada (pictured)
LEFT: An Iberian lynx — the world’s rarest wildcat — stalks the woodland of the Sierra Morena. RIGHT: One of the ‘beautiful Rajasthani tents’ on the George Scott Rides wilderness escape, which features ‘proper beds, cotton sheets and more’
Born into this equestrian world and schooled locally, he knows the region well and has long battled to keep open its ancient drovers paths, as well as cut many deals with fellow landowners to be able to pass through their land.
We find ourselves on winding dirt tracks through quiet and rolling woodland that’s as wild and beautiful as anywhere I’ve been in Europe.
It is incredibly peaceful, and I am soon lost in my thoughts as the hours drift by. ‘Rather like reading a book’, as George poetically describes it.
But the rides are certainly not predictable, he insists, citing a ‘sudden flight of a partridge or the slither of a snake’, so I cannot completely switch off.
And, of course, my moment comes when I’m suddenly confronted by a pair of foals that are running loose and, somewhat bizarrely, trying to give my horse a nip from behind.
Rearing up, my mount spins around and almost knocks me into a tree, leading to a ten-minute dismount as I gather my thoughts and George sends the delinquents packing with a couple of well-aimed pine cones.
Thankfully we are just a few minutes away from lunch and turn a corner to find a ruin transformed into the most welcoming site on a hot Spanish day: a shady picnic table loaded up with organic goodies from the local region.
This is stirrup cup extraordinaire, as a member of Trasierra’s team bounds over to greet us with a choice of ice cold fino, a local sparkling wine or a chilled Alhambra lager.
Jon begins and ends his trip at Trasierra, a historic 3,000-acre olive estate in the town of Cazalla de la Sierra (pictured above)
To eat, there is a warm Spanish tortilla, fresh asparagus and two types of salad. A plate of cold cuts and cheeses bring up the rear.
The afternoon’s ride is merely a hop, no more than an hour, to the remarkable tented camp which sits in a shady glade surrounded by oak woodland.
The tents are equipped with crisp sheets, hot water bottles, beautiful dressing tables with mirrors and sinks, handmade soaps, fresh cologne and tea and coffee delivered every morning.
In addition, there’s a fully stocked bar and a selection of board games.
That night, after the obligatory campfire, buckets of vino and wonderful jamon Iberico, I sit outside looking at the stars and listening to nightingales.
I can get the hang of this, I think, and am rather disappointed to be heading back to Trasierra terra firma.
The final night at the ranch turns into an amazing feast — an outdoor barbecue by Gioconda, a true culinary star, who learned how to ‘fire cook’ in Argentina and helped to launch the Slow Food Movement in Spain.
The table is so perfectly set with flowers and linen, it could be a North London dinner party . . . apart from the warm spring temperature and the occasional whinny from a horse somewhere off in the dark.