SPAIN'S WILD WEST; Undiscovered Is a Feast of Food and History

Article excerpt

Byline: SHARON van GEUNS

"I WANT to go somewhere different in Spain this year," I announced firmly to my partner as we pondered where to go on our next holiday. "Somewhere off the beaten track where no one speaks a word of English."

It was with this spectacularly bad sell that I somehow convinced my doubtful beau Mike that we should hop on a plane and visit the plains. You know, like the ones in the rhyme.

Not just any old plains, though, but the breathtaking yet largely undiscovered region of Extremadura.

Otherwise known as Spain's "wild west", this part of the country is not on the radar of most British holiday-makerand by Spanish standards is undeveloped.

Yet the region offers a heady combination of lush forests and sweeping plains rising to ancient hilltop villages.

Bordering Portugal, Extremadura takes its name from the Spanish for "to go to extremes" - it can get blisteringly hot in summer and tremendously cold in winter.

With adventure in mind, it seemed the perfect place to get a taste of the real rural Spain.

But first we decided to take in some of the neighbouring regions before we hit Extremadura itself.

Flying to Seville meant we could see a little of western Andalucia before moving on to Huelva province.

Along the way we would stay in the historic "paradors" unique to Spain. These are magnificent, but very affordable, state-run former palaces, castles, mansions or even convents which have been turned into hotels. And they often have special offers on, making them excellent value. With so much ground to cover - more than 600 miles of driving - we were looking at a somewhat ambitious schedule.

Bring it on, we thought. Then, a few days before we were due to leave, there came an unexpected development. I was pregnant.

Overnight I began suffering some of the worst sideeffects of early pregnancy, including morning sickness.

Suddenly the idea of sharing a car with a hormonally-challenged, wildly irrational and nauseous mother-to-be didn't seem so appealing to my beloved.

Still, with tickets booked - and sick bags packed - we set off more determined than ever.

We started to relax as soon as we swapped gloomy England for glorious sunshine.

Picking up our rental car hassle-free at Seville airport (we found a great deal with Economy), we headed out of town.

We were dazzled by the scenery as we drove east towards the ancient Andalucian town of Carmona and the 14th Century Arabic fortress that would be our first pit-stop. With magnificent views across the fertile plains of the River Corbones, as well as splendid gardens and a grand courtyard, this parador is considered one of the best in Spain.

We were sad to leave after just one night.

Our next stop couldn't have been more different as we headed east towards Huelva province.

In Spain, pork rules the dinner The turned table. And in much of the countryside, many people still keep a pig, salt ham and make their own chorizo.

Huelva is the capital of cured ham because its home to the most famous pig breed of all - the black Ibrico.

Here, among the wilderness of rust-red earth, scrub oak and cork trees, the pigs snuffle for the acorns which give their ruby meat the fatty, grainy texture which makes the ham so melt-in-the-mouth tasty.

So it was pretty appropriate that we spent a night on a pig farm, the enchanting Finca la Silladilla ( And no it didn't smell, despite the warnings of horrified friends.

Instead, in the middle of hundreds of acres of protected national park, there are half a dozen endearingly rustic, tumbledown cottages run as B& Bs by the charming Maia Araujo.

We woke to a breakfast of freshlycarved jamn ibrico de bellota and orange juice before heading out to feed some of the pigs. …