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The Americans call it leaf peeping, the Japanese call it momiji gari. But if you're looking to be inspired by the shades of autumn foliage, you don't need to travel all the way to New England or the Far East – Sherpa Expeditions have a number of trips departing in the next few weeks where you can experience the splendour of the changing leaves.
PORTUGAL | Douro RAMBLER
Surround yourself with colour as autumn transforms the photogenic Douro River Valley, which slices across northern Portugal. As the terraced vineyards that slope along the riverbanks prepare for winter, they turn into an endless sea of red, orange and yellow. From visiting small working wine estates to taking scenic boat trips, there will be plenty of opportunities for wine tasting tours, where you can fortify yourself against the autumn chill with a glass of the region’s famed local port.
Departure dates until 15 October - click here for details and booking.
SPAIN | hiking in hidden Andalucía
The weather in Andalucía’s mountains can be harsh in the summer and winter months – but visit in autumn for beautiful gold and yellow colours of chestnuts and poplars lighting up the valleys, while the hedgerows and paths are lined with figs, mulberries, walnuts and pomegranates. With the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada as a backdrop, this is an exhilarating walk among terraced fields and through white-washed villages and along irrigation channels that date back to the Moorish era.
Departure dates until 20 November - click here for details and booking.
GERMANY | Bavaria - King Ludwig's Way
Saturated with alpine flowers in spring and crowded with tourists in summer, southern Germany offers more relaxed tempos for leaf-peeping during the autumn months. Home to the idyllic Romantic Road, this is fairy-tale country, with geranium-bedecked chalets, onion-shaped church spires and copper-turreted castles rising out of red and green forests – including the enchanting Neuschwanstein Castle, the eccentric King Ludwig’s most famous architectural masterpiece.
Departure dates until 22 October - click here for details and booking.
AUSTRIA | The Lake District and Dachstein Alps
Towering peaks, high mountain passes, alpine meadows and lakeside walks are all combined in this surprisingly compact area – there is nowhere better to experience autumn unfold in Austria than the heart of the Lake District, which encompasses 76 crystal clear lakes, the impressive Dachstein Glacier and breathtaking rock faces up to 3,000 vertical metres high. Wander through ochre mountain forests, explore glimmering lakeland shores and visit alpine villages of wooden chalets.
Departure dates until 20 October - click here for details and booking.
If you like the look of these trips but would prefer to visit next spring, summer or autumn, you can book for 2019 now.
Lucy and Ángel run and own the guesthouse in the Sierra de Aracena (Spain) that is the start to our Smugglers Trails of the Sierra de Aracena walking holiday. It gives opportunities for hiking near Seville in an area that is dotted with tiny white-washed villages and a network of 70+ year-old walking paths. We sat down with the couple to talk about their love for Andalusia, the best regional food and their favourite places of the Sierra de Aracena.
Can you tell us about yourself and how you ended up in the Sierra de Aracena?
We are Lucy and Ángel an Anglo Spanish couple that met in the USA almost 30 years ago, when we coincided on a working holiday at a family-run hotel in upstate New York. The seed was sown!
We lived together in Sevilla, Ángel’s home city, for over 10 years. Both teachers, we loved to escape and discover Spain whenever we could – usually on a motorbike. Trips to the Alpujarras, Sierra Norte de Sevilla, Galicia, Leon, Murcía, Jaen, Ronda, Cadiz coastline and Portugal were all memorable explorations. However, the place we kept going back to was the Sierra de Aracena in Huelva. We fell in love with the tiny village (750 inhabitants) of Alájar; its narrow-cobbled streets, the lack of mainstream tourism, the friendliness of the people, the great walking and the mild climate all concluded to us taking over the business and setting up home at the original Posada de Alájar in 2004. In 2006 our family was completed with our amazing daughter.
Ángel always says I am not here for him but for the jamón and the gambas (prawns), which I sometimes find hard to dispute! We love the feeling of being part of a community, where everyone knows each other and even when life does get a bit difficult you can get out and go talk to the pigs!
“We fell in love with the tiny village of Alájar: the narrow-cobbled streets, the lack of mainstream tourism, the friendliness of the people, the great walking and the mild climate.”
What are your 3 most favourite places in the Sierra de Aracena?
We chose Alájar, so we really are very biased about our favourite place! La Posada de San Marcos is somewhere very close to our hearts. We have set up this accommodation with sustainability at the forefront and it is a favourite for us. We are proud of the fact that our carbon footprint is minimal and enjoy explaining to our visitors how everything works in terms of eg. (water) recycling, building materials like sheep wool, and renewable energy. Every little bit helps - as they say!
The Peña de Arias Montano is a very special place with a spiritual pull and views all the way down to the coast. Aracena is our main town, it’s a bustling market town that covers most of everyone’s needs and boasts the Caves of Wonder (Gruta de las Maravillas), an amazing set of caves that are well worth a visit.
What do you like best about welcoming travellers to your accommodation?
The conversations! It is so interesting to chat about all sorts of things, share recipes and give tips on where to walk, eat and what to look out for. We love chatting with Sherpa’s hikers when they get back to Alájar to hear all about their walk and discuss what they have seen along the route.
What is a typical dish for people to try when visiting the Sierra de Aracena?
The most important ingredient of the area is the Iberian ham. The Iberian pig is endemic to this area and has been farmed free-range for centuries. On a walk, you will see many roaming around the hillsides under the holm and cork oaks eating as many acorns as possible. The acorns and the air from the sierra in the drying process give the ham a unique flavour. The fresh meat is also amazing – nothing like regular pork. The noble cuts were sold to those who could afford to eat such delicacies meaning that the locals were left with the poorer cuts and therefore have developed lots of dishes based on pulses, locally grown vegetables and the wild mushrooms found in abundance given the right weather, so there is plenty for the vegetarian too.
“We like to call it our secret sierra”
What is special about walking in this part of Andalusia?
Less than 90 minutes from the sophisticated city of Sevilla it feels like time has stopped still in La Sierra de Aracena. We like to call it our secret sierra with a greenness more likely to be found in the north of Spain and the warmth of the Andalusian sun then on a trip hiking near Seville. There is an amazing variety of flora and the area has recently been designated a starlight dark sky destination.
Walking is still not a pastime in this area, it used to be a necessity and the paths between the villages show you a way and pace of life that has been lost in most parts of Europe. Walkers are surprised at how few people they actually see on the trails, which helps you feel you are discovering the area and then you come across a lovely traditional village or hamlet.
The Andalusians are happy to stop and chat and try hard to communicate, it amazes them that people are fascinated by something that is second nature to them and are even envious of what they have here.
What kind of people should go for self guided walking trips in Andalusia?
The walking is quite easy, there are no major climbs. We do recommend to wear boots as the once cobbled paths have now become quite stony in places. You never feel completely alone while walking as there are plenty of animals along the route and there is usually a small hamlet or village just in time for refreshment! Just 1,5 hours away from Seville, the walking route starts in Alájar and makes a circuit around the sierra. Hikers will be sleeping in other lovely whitewashed, cobblestone paved villages and return to our accommodation for the final night, which is lovely for us as we can greet you back ‘home’ and hear your stories.
If you like more information on hiking near Seville and the 8-day Smugglers Trails of the Sierra de Aracena walking holiday, please contact our team of travel experts.
We sat down with Alpujarras resident, hiker, guesthouse owner and author Emma Illsley to talk about walking in Andalucia, her recently launched cookbook, that she wrote with husband David, and of course asked her about the best Andalusian dish.
Can You Tell A Bit About Yourself?
We are David and Emma, we moved to the Alpujarra Mountains and Mairena village in 1998. Nearly a decade before that we were living in different parts of Spain and Portugal. We both worked for the British Council and were in Galicia, Oporto and then in the Canary Islands where we indulged in our love of windsurfing.
We initially came to the Alpujarra mountains as a sabbatical year on which we wanted time to think and plan where we would like to live and work. We fell in love with the Alpujarras. Both with the astonishing Spanish landscape and with the way of life. The small villages of Andalusia consist of families and of subsistence farmers still producing food and farming the land as they have done for generations. We both love hiking as well as cycling so we decided to set up as a small guesthouse in the middle of the Alpujarra mountains.
What Inspired You to Write the Andalusia Cookbook 'Las Chimeneas'?
We both write in our spare time and I had written another book Bee-eaters and other Migrants. In this, I chronicle what it is like to live in a small remote mountain community, focussing on the changes in the seasons and the local traditions. We were looking for another project like this. As our small restaurant was already getting fantastic reviews and many of our guests kept asking us why we didn't put together a book of recipes, the idea came about. From here the project emerged as a book that informs about the food we cook at our restaurant combined with content about local food production and traditions, as well as interviews with our neighbours. That is how “Las Chimeneas – Recipes and Stories from An Alpujarran Village” developed. The fact that we were put in touch with two very talented people, Anna Norman - a writer and editor who structured the book and gave us much needed deadlines, along with Suzy Bennett - a very experienced travel and food photographer, meant the project grew from a small idea into something much bigger.
What Is a Typical Dish for People to Try When Hiking in Andalucia?
Our dish pollo en asado or chicken with sundried tomatoes & peppers is very traditional. It uses the sundried produce that is famous in the Alpujarra Mountains. If you travel in September, you will see drying peppers hanging from the balconies and tomatoes on the rooftops.
Even just one generation ago people produced everything they ate. All our dishes are also made from ingredients that are grown on the terraces around us. To prepare the food, we work with Sole and Conchi who are from our village. Another traditional dish we like is carne en ajillo - a pork dish with an almond sauce. It is the dish that people used to make for special occasions such as birthdays or communions. As we are surrounded by almond terraces, there are plenty of nuts for this dish at hand!
Both dishes are delicious and guests give rave reviews and compliments to the chef regularly. The Alpujarra mountain range is also very famous for the air-dried jamon serrano which is delicious cut thinly as a tapas - or added to our broad bean dish in spring along with sundried tomatoes and the zest of an orange.
What Season Do You Like Best for Walking in Andalucia?
I love walking in September and October because there is so much produce in the fields such as wild grapes, figs and almonds. But every month has its delights. November has the autumn colours. Winter walking is fantastic in December and January with clear skies and views across to Africa with snow on the high peaks. The amazing almond blossom comes in February and then we move into spring from March onwards with an incredible range of birds and flowers. June in Andalusia can be warm for walking, but it is a very dry heat so more than manageable if you wear a hat and carry plenty of water - and then it is lovely to come back to sit out in the warm evenings. The only months that are too hot for walking in Andalusia are July and August.
When Is the Annual Harvest Of The Alpujarra Mountains?
We have several harvests in the Alpujarra mountains surrounding us. The olive harvest is in January and February and as many of the walks go through the olive terraces, it is quite common to walk alongside families in the fields. You will see them busy with their nets and long sticks, which they use to hit the olives off the high branches.
The other important harvest is the almond harvest in September. This is another interesting time to come walking in Andalucia as it often coincides with fiesta season. Every weekend sees a different village celebrating the day of their own Patron Saint. Our village fiesta of Santo Cristo de la Luz is the nearest weekend to 18th September. We love for walkers to be involved in these harvests, it’s a great experience and opportunity to spend time with the local Andalusians.
What Is Your Favourite Place In Andalusia?
It is completely biased to say it of course, but I love our own village of Mairena where Sherpa’s hikers spend their first night and their last two nights. It is partly because I have been here so long and know everyone in the village, but it is also because our village really hasn't changed much over the years. Pretty much the only tourists we see in the village are our guests! It is still mainly a village made up of farmers. Mairena has one friendly bar and a shop and the houses all have the traditional flat rooves based on the Moorish architecture of North Africa. Above our village, the ancient threshing circles have been turned into a lookout point and our olive mill is one of two in the whole province of Granada which is still a traditional press. The village locals are friendly and will always give a big grinned ‘Hola!’ as anyone walks by.
What Can Walkers Make from The Fruits They Can Pick Up on Their Hike?
We are always happy to give people the recipe for our delicious ajo blanco or white almond gazpacho. For most of the year it is possible to gather almonds in their shells, which does mean you then have to shell them but that's part of the pleasure. I have a quote from the local best-selling author Chris Stewart who is a regular diner at our restaurant. He once happened to be dining with a trumpeter who agreed to serenade the restaurant that evening!
"The trumpeter’s willowy wife offered me a spoon of her ajo blanco. This miraculous combination of garlic, almonds, olive oil, and the water of a clear mountain spring, was as good as it gets. It’s easy to louse this simple dish up – too thin or too thick; too garlicky or too oily… but Sole, who runs the show here from the kitchen, has the trick of getting it just right." – Chris Stewart
What Is the Best Thing About Walking in Andalucia?
David always says that coming to the Alpujarras is probably one of the shortest flights from Northern Europe that brings you to immerse yourself in something truly different and culturally exciting. Although it is a cliché, walking in Andalucia makes you experience a way of life that in much of the world has been lost. You will have challenging, varied walks with incredible views down to the Mediterranean and up to some of the highest peaks in mainland Spain. The norm is to hardly see another hiker for hours. Each night you will stay in lovely traditional villages and get to see a way of life little changed. People here for example still think that one of life’s pleasures is the privilege of being able to fill their jugs with spring water from the village source. Andalusians continue to grow their own food wherever possible, simply because they know, rightly, that it tastes so much better.
I believe that walking in Andalucia gives hikers a very rounded experience; get to feel fit, enjoy raw nature, and experience something life enhancing. On top of that, hiking in Andalucia is the perfect antidote to the stresses of modern life.
If you are interested in the cookbook Las Chimeneas – Recipes and Stories From An Alpujarran Village, please let us know and we can bring you in touch with David and Emma. If you are interested in walking in Andalucia and staying at David & Emma's guesthouse, have a look at our 8-day Hiking in Hidden Andalucia self guided walking holiday.
The festive season has started with plenty of different celebrations around Europe. Here are five festivals you can join this December or January in Slovenia, Rome, Germany, Tyrol, and Andalucía.
1. Three Kings Parade | Andalucia, Spain
Cabalgata Los Reyes Magos is the Three Kings Parade celebrated across Spain on the 6th January. In Andalucia, towns and cities welcome the Three Kings when the evening falls on the Iberian Peninsula on the 5th January. It's a colourful parade where the kings toss out sweets for the children waiting along the streets for the parade to pass by.
Thousands of spectators come to witness the arrival the three wise Kings Balthazar, Melchior and Caspar dressed in traditional costumes.
When: 6 January 2016
2. Nativity Scene | Postojna Cave, Slovenia
The Live Nativity Scene in the Postojna Cave in Slovenia, about 1 hour drive from Trieste, is a unique performance. The caves are an attraction on its own already, but when the biblical scenes come to life they're even more rewarding. Fantasy stalactite forms, the inventive play of light, harmonious music and singing in a very acoustic environment together create an almost surreal Christmas atmosphere. At the cave's entrance a Christmas market takes place. If you want to experience the nativity scene, it's best to make a booking in advance. Shows run every half hour from 1-3pm.
When: 25-30 December 2015
3. Krampustag | Eastern Tyrol, Salzburg & Bavaria, Austria
Perhaps less suitable for younger children, in Austria on the 5th of December the Krampustag is celebrated. Young men dress like demons: wearing fearsome masks made out of wood, fur robes, tails and use branches as weapons to chase away bad spirits. The processions organised are known as Perchtenläufe and are truly spectacular to watch. The Perchtenläufe originally take place only four nights a year, on December 21 and 24 and New Year's Eve and January 5. Good places to observe this festival are Gastein, Altenmarkt, St. Johann and Bischofshofen in Salzburg, Henndorf and other places in Eastern Tyrol and Bavaria.
When: 21 December 2015 - 5 January 2016
Sherpa Expeditions self guided walking holidays in Tyrol & Bavaria
4. Christmas market | Stuttgart, Germany
One of the best places to go for a typical German Christmas market is Stuttgart. It is said to have one of the most beautiful markets in Europe and has a very nostalgic feel to it. The market is set up in and around the Old Palace on the Renaissance inner courtyard. There are over 280 wooden Christmas stalls, which sell a range of Christmas items and gifts. Obviously there's also plenty of German snacks and drinks available, try for example roasted chestnuts, gingerbread, Swabian specialities and mulled wine (gluewhein).
When: 28 November - 23 December 2015
Sherpa Expeditions trips in Germany
5. Fireworks | Rome, Italy
For those of you who are in Rome over the holiday period, make sure to be part of the New Year's Eve celebrations in town. Prepare for lots of fireworks after the midnight countdown. It's especially spectacular with the backdrop of some of the world's most impressive monuments like the Trevi Fountain, Colosseum, Spanish Steps, Piazza di Spagna, and San Marco square. Prepare for lots of noise as well; people throw old pots, pans and furniture out of their windows to 'let go of unhappiness and prepare Rome for a happier future'.
When: 31 December 2015
Sherpa Expeditions trips in Italy
Image of Three Kings in Spain, copyright of ©Europe Video Productions | Image of Postojna Cave, copyright of ©Shadowgate Postojna Cave | Image of Perchtenlauf, copyright of ©riegersburg.com | Image of fireworks in Rome, copyright of ©neigesdantan
The Iberian Peninsula remains a firm favourite for many holidaymakers and not just during the summer months. Actually the coming months of December to February are an exceptionally good time to travel to Spanish and Portuguese destinations like Madeira, La Gomera, Andalucia, and the Sierra de Aracena. With pleasant temperatures around 20 degrees C, sunny days, and a landscape that ranges from subtropical greenery, to pine forests, and barren flatlands you have all the ingredients for a welcoming winter holiday. Ah, and the flights to Tenerife, Santa Cruz, and Seville have competitive rates for the winter months as well. So if you want to beat the tourists and enjoy a crowd-free break here are some tips for things to do in Spain and Portugal.
Canary Islands: Southern Trails of La Gomera
Despite being easily accessible from Tenerife (the boat trip takes just an hour), La Gomera remains largely untouched by mass tourism. The southern part of the island is also the sunnier part. The landscape is surprisingly lush green, with deep gorges densely wooded at the top, covered by mountain rainforest. Columbus’ last port of call before crossing the Atlantic in 1492, La Gomera is home to many friendly and small resorts. What you can do on the island is taking coastal walks, enjoy a view of Tenerife from Mt Garajonay, visit waterfalls, or take a historical walk of San Sebastian town.
Madeira Island Walking
Rising steeply from the Atlantic Ocean off the coasts of Europe and Africa, Madeira offers both a mild climate and a 1,350-mile network of levadas through which you can discover the island on foot. Madeira island enjoys an impressive year-round flowering season thanks to its subtropical climate and rich volcanic soil – you can even find a dedicated Orchid Garden with more than 7,500 species here! Another thing to do is take a guided tour of a Madeira wine lodge - and try some local libations...
Hiking in Hidden Andalucia
There's a part of Andalucia that is a bit more off the beaten path: the unspoilt sector of the Alpujarras east of Trevelez. A visit in the winter months of December, January or February is great for walks on sunny days. There can also be snowfall and it can get a bit chilly, but the landscape is rewarding these months. Walking the southern fringes of the Sierra Nevada, following the Camino Real (Royal Trail), and staying at charming villages of Berchules, Yegen an Mairena make for a fantastic winter break, even when the sun doesn't show its face.
Walking in Las Alpujarras
The rocky sun-baked region of Andalucia on Spain’s southern coast often conjures up images of much of what the world thinks of as Spanish: flamenco, tapas, matadors and bullfights. Head into the heart of this region to the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada though and you will discover a whole different world of unspoilt villages and countryside of Las Alpujarras. We chat with David Illsley one of our Andalucia experts on his tips for travelling to this remote and lesser travelled region of Spain.
Favourite time to walk in Las Alpujarras
My favourite times to walk are in the spring and the autumn. In springtime the fields and terraces are awash with flowers and blossoms of all kinds; it's heartbreakingly beautiful to see so many together, all natural rather than planted in park-like straight lines, and framed by the snows on the Sierra Nevada. Meanwhile the autumn colours are all classic golds and yellows as the chestnuts and poplars light up the valleys, whilst the hedgerows and paths are lined with figs, mulberries, walnuts and pomegranates so that it's an utter joy to walk out picnic-free and forage for your lunch and never go hungry.
TOP EXPERIENCES IN LAS ALPUJARRAS
When walking in Las Alpujarras I like the simple pleasure of arriving tired and thirsty at a village in the certain knowledge that somewhere there'll be a mineral water spring burbling away by the Church or main square. Many are naturally carbonated too, and each has its mythical reputation for curing rheumatism, keeping you young looking, or even - in Berchules - for making you fall in love.
favourite food & drink IN LAS ALPUJARRAS
The wines here are very much unknown, but over the last 10 years or so there has been an astonishing improvement in quality, to the extent that many of them can keep company with the best of the Riojas and Dueros. The cheeses likewise. Little rainfall means little pasture, therefore few cattle, but there are huge numbers of goat and sheep whose milk makes for the most wonderful cheeses.
The amazing olive oil of Spain is well known, but it's always worth trying out the artisanal mills in the smaller villages, which are often sensational. The press in Mairena, for example, is one of the very few remaining which uses traditional techniques and whose oils are as unique as they are fabulous. A couple of well-known London restaurants use it as their special oil; and if you buy it in say, Covent Garden it will cost you around £40($70) a litre - or direct in Mairena, about £3($5)!
While you are walking in Las Alpujarras there are some other great towns that are worth exploring. Jerez de la Frontera, Tarifa or Ubeda, say, can be seen in a day or two and will give you a proper flavour of the country. Almeria is well off the tourist track but has a magnificent Casbah overlooking the port. It's almost as big as the Alhambra, but you'll be sharing it with dozens of other people, rather than the thousands crowding the streets of Granada or Cordoba. Almeria also has one of the best fish markets you'll see anywhere, lots of great little tapas bars who don't rip you off, and easy access to some of Spain's best beaches on the National Park at Cabo de Gata. It's also a great winter destination, with more days of sunshine than the Canaries. Not for nothing was Lawrence of Arabia filmed nearby and in fact film buffs will enjoy Mini Hollywood, venue of the Spaghetti Westerns and countless other major films.
For more information on visiting Andalucia visit our Walking Holidays in Andalucia page for more details on what you can experience on a walking holiday in the region.