Celebrating the unspoilt Sierra

Lace up for a bilingual walking and cultural festival next to the Costa del Sol

So much of the Costa del Sol may be a cankerous sprawl of concrete, but it's heartening to know you only have to venture a little way back from the coast to find pockets of unspoilt paradise.

The Sierra de las Nieves Natural Park, situated north of Marbella, is one such pocket, a UNESCO-protected mountainous area of plummeting ravines and soaring peaks, featuring one of the world's largest forests of Spanish Fir and home to such protected species as pine martens, wildcats, Golden Eagles and otters. Up here, many aspects of daily life go on in traditional fashion: the only jams you'll find are of the homemade kind and the Ibex 35 might be a herd of mountain goats.

In 2008 this bygone world was named an EDEN European Destination of Excellence, an honor awarded to areas that promote sustainable tourism. And it's this eco spirit that sees the launch of the Andalucian International Walking & Cultural Festival, a week-long series of guided walks and themed talks, presentations and entertainment.

Based up in the white mountain village of El Burgo, this English-Spanish event is the brainchild of Brit Callum Christie, a longtime El Burgo resident who's specialized in running walking tours in Spain for the last 10 years. "I think this was just trying to do something different," he says. "It's not everybody's cup of tea, a week of walking, and often you get couples where one wants to do walking, and one wants to do something else."

Each morning, festival-goers will be able to choose between two grades of daily guided walk in the Sierra de las Nieves, taking in their wildlife, history and stunning views to Morocco. Alternatively, they'll be able to opt for that day's cultural activity: anything from an Andalusian cookery class, a bird-watching trip or a tour of historic Ronda.

It's something of a pioneering event - at least for Spain. Look up walking festivals in the UK and you'll find tons, says Christie, but this is the only one in Spain.

He's hoping it will become an annual fixture, and that it won't be just those who sign up for the week-long experience tagging along. Locally based Spaniards or expats are encouraged to take part on a day-by-day basis. Evening entertainment, meanwhile, includes a paella night, as well as the celebrations for Andalusia Day on February 28 and, on the final Saturday, carnival, a fiesta still vigorously enjoyed in the village.

"They're still very much into the old traditions," observes Christie. "You've still got some people plowing by hand and threshing the corn and the wheat outside by hand. [...] It really is rural Spain."

Andalucian International Walking & Cultural Festival. February 26 to March 4 in El Burgo, Málaga. See http://www.frontierholidays.net for more.

The Sierra de las Nieves Natural Park is a UNESCO-protected wilderness brimming with rare wildlife.
The Sierra de las Nieves Natural Park is a UNESCO-protected wilderness brimming with rare wildlife.
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