Having promised to share the reasons why our Spanish summer holiday (and the paprika) prompted me to take this scary step of starting Have Paprika, Will Travel, here is the blog post that first appeared on the Snoob website http://www.snoob.co.uk/blog/horse-riding-to-ben-fogle-sort-of.
For the sake of those kind people who have already read it via Snoob, please forgive my repetition. I promise to be more original next time 🙂
A memory to savour: my children’s silhouettes trekking through warm clouds of red-brown dust thrown up by the gently pounding hooves of the horses they were riding. I could see the thrill in my kids’ bodies, none of them having ridden before. No. 2 urged me to speed up (slow-coach cautious mum); he was alive with excitement and wanted to RIDE through this wildly beautiful countryside.
Where were we? Sierra de Gata, Northern Extremadura, Spain. Drive about 3 hours west from Madrid, almost to the Portuguese border.
Was it good? Probably our best family holiday ever.
Why? Where do I start?
Here: I slowly sip some delicious Spanish white wine, and think of seven key reasons…
1. Back to the horses. No Health and Safety instructions, and an utter lack of any requirement to sign our lives away prior to our ride – how refreshingly not like the UK. It was simple: on arrival, the owner of the stables, Jesús, looked keenly at each of us, then matched us one by one with his horses (caballos). Jesús was kind and gentle, a big character, and addressed us like long-lost friends in fast fluent Spanish. We did what we think we were told (we speak a mere smattering of Spanish between us), mounted our horses and set off into the Spanish sunset. Literally.
2. Gwen and Bart and their Finca las Cañadas (http://fincalascanadas.com). I am very grateful to the magic of Google for bringing their farm to my attention deep in last December’s darkness, when the promise of some Spanish summer sun was very appealing. I had no idea where Extremadura was, but felt it was far enough off the beaten track to suit us down to the ground.
The Finca deserves more depth (to come later) than this initial list inspired by my first sip of wine. For now you should know that Gwen and Bart are genuine and lovely people, who have completely embraced life in Extremadura since they took the plunge almost six years ago, when they left their native Belgium. Their full immersion into Spanish life means they know and understand the local people, their language and customs, and all things essential, which proved invaluable at 2am one night when No. 1 needed urgent medical assistance.
3. The genius of the Piscinas Naturales. Natural swimming pools have been created in every village by damming the rivers. Local children spend their holidays swimming in fresh, clean water (no need to splash out on expensive clubs). And for the working Spanish the cool of the pools is the perfect answer to a hot, hard day’s work.
Each pool is different, and we tried them all before settling on three favourites. Our nearest pool at Villasbuenas de Gata was simple, charming and beautiful. By watching the locals we worked out the perfect place to sit for the last of the evening sun, and the best angles for satisfyingly big jumps into the water. For less confident swimmers, the shallow parts were clear and stunning. Plus the small bar served beer and ice cream – always welcome 🙂
Robledillo was up in the hills, so the water was slightly more “refreshing”. The village itself was a picture. One Friday morning we had the entire succession of pools to ourselves. If you wanted (and I did) you could follow the pool’s passage from high up in the river where the water boatmen were hanging out, down to the upper pool (a little chilly but gorgeous), then further downstream to the shallower part where No. 4 played with his toy animals, which led into a larger, deeper pool surrounded by daringly high jumps (ideal for older kids and brave adults).
Another firm favourite was Acebo, a larger series of inter-connected pools, some shallow, some deeper with awesome jumps from the rocks above. The spacious grassed areas lent themselves to extended groups of Spanish families. You’d see them assemble en masse with their picnic blankets, tables and chairs, and cool boxes. And they’d leave bags of chopped watermelon to keep cool in a cascade of water fed by the river.
Not being members of an extended Spanish family, we weren’t quite as practised as they, and used the restaurant above the pools for a cheap and cheerful lunch and break from the hot sun.
4. Speaking of food…who doesn’t love tapas? We shared vast and delicious platefuls of food – garlicky beans and aubergines, patatas fritas, fresh tomato salads sprinkled with more garlic and paprika, chorizo, searingly hot lamb…you get the gastronomic gist. We loved the honest generosity of the Spanish restaurateurs; never before have we been advised not to order so much food. They told us: if you are still hungry after a few platefuls, then you can order more (which, of course, we did – out of appreciation for the food rather than hunger).
5. The Belgians (they called us “the UKs”) – the second safari tent’s occupants during our first week. During our first supper hosted by Gwen and Bart, we parents quietly aired mutual relief that we would be able to meet our kids’ demands for company other than their boring parents and siblings. And the kids broke the ice by playing with the dogs, and seeing who had the worst table manners (ours won). Highlights of that week included jumping in unison into the piscinas naturales, telling black stories, and exploring the Finca at night 😉
6. Very little English is spoken in Extremadura, which we loved. It gave our kids the proof that people can still communicate effectively without understanding each other’s languages at all. We had a lovely exchange on our very last day when we slowed our car for a passing goat (as you do). We greeted an old man sitting outside his house, “Buenas Dias!” He recognised us as the family with a roof box that called “Hola!” to everybody. He smiled, walked over and leant right inside our car. He talked with us at length. We talked back. Nobody had any idea what we were all talking about. But when we were done, we bade each other fond farewells. We drove off and the old man sat down again.
7. Javi y Mercedes. First it was my husband who kept getting lost (apparently) in their Alimentación (grocery shop) in the village. He’d stop the car on our way back to the Finca, pop in for……milk, wine, olives, cheese…never a long list, but he’d spend forever. One day, the rest of us decided we didn’t want to wait, so after 5 minutes we followed my husband in. He was communicating in an interesting fashion with Javi and Mercedes, while smiling customers sat on a couple of chairs, waiting their turn to be served. No one was in a hurry (least of all my husband). My husband spoke Spanglish, Javi and Mercedes took turns to understand him, and between them it worked. They spoke back in Spanish (mostly) but had some ability in Spanglish too. We visited Javi and Mercedes most days after that just for the merry linguistic exchange, even if we needed nothing.
Now back to give the Finca a little more detail (and another sip of that white Rioja)…
We love camping, but not in the rain. We like being in the great outdoors close to nature, but not all of us like to share showers and toilets (sorry but we’re not hardcore camping folk). So the Finca ticked a bucket-load of boxes for us:
- Our home was a supremely comfortable, huge safari tent with proper beds, wardrobes and bathroom, and a fully functioning kitchen area. Luxury. We breakfasted in warm sunshine on the spacious terrace, and after a day at the piscinas returned to cook and eat, whilst watching the shadows slowly deepen and change in the reds, browns and oranges of the earth, then disappear as day became night.
- No gadgets. I guess this could be perceived as a minus point by some teenagers…and adults….well, of course we’d all taken some, but there was no wifi to connect with the online world once we were there. (unless you were close to Gwen and Bart’s house, but I didn’t tell the kids that). We played cards and music, talked, joked, and argued (you never escape that on holiday, no matter how far off the beaten track you go), and absorbed our surroundings.
- And the peace (except for the aforementioned occasional cross words). We woke to the gentle sound of bells as the sheep wandered over the land. Native holm oaks and cork oaks gave us welcome shade during the hottest part of the day. The scene from our tent was natural, wild and unaltered in hundreds of years. It reminded us of Africa. Or cowboy country. There’s a beautiful, honest roughness to the landscape. And I couldn’t get enough of the skies. I must’ve taken hundreds of photos of the skies alone. At night you gaze upwards at the unparalleled night sky and see more shooting stars in one week than you might in a lifetime.
- The kids did chores willingly. They took compost to the chickens, fed the sheep, and talked to Gwen and Bart working in their vegetable garden (Gwen and Bart worked – I’m not sure the kids did).
- Self-sufficiency. We are not self-sufficient at home, but I wish we were. Gwen and Bart showed us how it could be done. They generate their own electricity, have meat from their lambs, cheese from their sheep, eggs from the chickens, veg from their garden. Gwen’s tomatoes are something else. She grows every kind you could think of. If you get the chance, accept Gwen and Bart’s offer of a 3-course meal with them at their house (15 euros pp, children half-price). A sumptuous self-sufficient feast, washed down with delicious local wines.
- The dogs. I am the meanest mum in the world who will not allow her children to have a dog. They all agree on this. Imagine their delight in finding not one, but four dogs at the Finca (one is an occasional and very welcome visitor).
Gwen and Bart are minor celebrities in their native Belgium thanks to a documentary aired on Belgian television in 2012. If you care to take a look, here is the link http://www.een.be/programmas/vlaanderen-vakantieland/ongekend-spanje-extremadura (worth looking at for a taster even if you can’t speak Dutch). Their background and story is fascinating…but I won’t say more than that here…much more interesting if you hear it from them around their table at the Finca..!
Last word (I promise)…my No. 1 and I share a love of Ben Fogle’s tv show “New Lives in the Wild“. After our first evening at the Finca, we had the same thought: Ben Fogle should visit Gwen and Bart at their Finca. It’s wild, it’s beautiful, and just a bit different. So come on Ben, what do you think? The Belgians have beaten you to it….surely it’s now time for the Brits to find out why Finca las Cañadas is so special?
You can find everything you need to know about Finca las Cañadas here: http://fincalascanadas.com (prices for the safari tents range from 495 euros per week in low season).
For more on the unspoilt region of Extremadura, click here:http://www.turismoextremadura.com/viajar/turismo/en/index.html
And for more of those divine platefuls of food, go to Bar los Portales in Gata: https://www.facebook.com/lasjanonas