Discover authentic Andalucia on a Headwater walking week
Whatever your idea of a perfect Spanish white village, Zuheros ticks all the boxes. Tucked beneath soaring limestone peaks, this picturesque community with its ruined hilltop castle stands on the northern edge of the Sierra Subbetica National Park, its tightly-packed maze of narrow streets fringed with gleaming facades, terracotta roofs, and courtyard gardens.
The park itself is a haven for nature lovers and walkers, so Zuheros makes an excellent base for Headwater Holidays’ independent walking week, Hidden Valleys of Cordoba. This was my fourth Headwater walking holiday but my first one based in a single hotel rather than moving on every couple of days, so I was curious to see whether I would find enough variety.
First plus point is value for money. Hotel Zuhayra is small, family-run and traditional, but only classified as 2-star, with prices to match. And the break is all-inclusive – breakfast, picnic lunch, dinner with wine and water, and all necessary taxi transfers, including the 90-minute journey from Malaga airport. There’s also very little to spend money on in Zuheros apart from the odd reviving glass of mid-afternoon wine to celebrate completion of another walk. So you can keep your holiday euros in your purse unless you decide to explore further afield.
And whilst the hotel may only be 2-star, the friendly welcome, cleanliness and standard of food are top notch. Hotel Zuhayra is authentically Andalusian in style with tiled floors and wooden furniture. A large bar-cum-lounge on the ground floor acts as a hub for village life but the first-floor dining room is quiet and relaxing. Headwater guests choose their next day’s dinner from a table d’hote menu with three choices, and my gluten-allergic companion had no problems finding something delicious to eat. They even sourced gluten-free bread for her. On the second floor, our twin room had a bath with shower over and a panoramic view across olive groves stretching to the horizon.
Unlike other Headwater holidays where a local rep takes care of meet-and-greet, Hidden Valleys of Cordoba is in the capable hands of hotel owner, Antonio, himself a keen walker. Once we had settled into our rooms, he talked us through arrangements – an excellent complement to Headwater’s comprehensive walking notes.
Antonio and his reception colleagues are all English speakers and nothing seemed too much trouble. Restaurant staff and the delightful local taxi drivers had only key words of English between them, but they all had big smiles and everything worked like clockwork.
The big advantage of being in one place is being able to plan your week according to your mood, the weather and the state of your legs. Antonio gave us a daily weather forecast which was surprisingly accurate. My friend and I are both 60, walk regularly and are reasonably fit, but we’re used to the footpaths of the Home Counties rather than the rugged limestone terrain of this spectacular national park.
We eventually settled on three challenging walks of 9 miles, 11 and 11.5 which, given the terrain, took up to 5 hours each, allowing for a picnic stop. All were lovely but our favourite began with a taxi ride to the lofty Ermita de la Virgen de la Sierra for a linear walk back to base. Headwater grade this as Two Boots and you do need to be surefooted and alert to instructions – some sections were quite stony with a few short, steep climbs, and trails weren’t always as well marked as we’ve found in other countries. But Headwater’s notes are excellent and we had no real difficulty finding our way, despite a couple of brief moments of indecision.
The holiday runs in March, April, May and then September and October. In April, the grass was vibrant green before the summer heat, and dotted with a myriad of tiny wild flowers. We met few people, passed little habitation, and really felt at one with the spectacular landscape of rocky peaks and deep gorges, broad valleys and olive groves. Every so often we would stop just to listen to the birdsong – lots of familiar birds from our own gardens, but a persistent cuckoo, the occasional hoopoe, and at one point, an unforgettable group of 20 vultures circling over the valley.
If you fancy an easier walk, Antonio has a book at reception of shorter alternatives or you can just stroll along the Via Verde below Zuheros which follows the line of the old olive train. And on our one damp day, we opted for a short tour of the ruined castle and a guided visit of the local bat caves to see the stalagmites, cave paintings and yes, even a few bats.
Headwater gives detailed instructions for five day walks, allowing for the castle/bat cave day on your sixth day. But if you don’t know Andalusia’s heritage cities, it’s a shame to be so close and not invest some of your unspent holiday budget in a day trip.
Cordoba is around an hour away (€110 return by taxi) and Granada an hour-and-a-half (€180). Split between two of us, it was an affordable way to see Cordoba’s fabulous Mezquita and Royal Palace, and Granada’s legendary Alhambra. But that’s another story.
We loved the flexibility of this itinerary, the friendliness of the hotel, and the unspoilt countryside – just 90 minutes from the Costas by car, but worlds away in atmosphere.