From the sunny beaches of Tarifa an imposing curtain of mountains rises out of the Campo de Gibraltar. Lying on the beach or sitting at a café, one cannot help but wonder what lies behind those jagged peaks. In reality they conceal a rural world full of character and real Andalusian flavour, where life is delightfully sleepy and there will always be mañana.
So near yet so different, the Andalusian hinterland offers a refreshing contrast to the pace and excitement of the coast. As you set off into this mysterious world right on your doorstep, and you pass empty valleys, isolated farmsteads and those famous black bulls in the fields, you gradually realise that you are entering the real Spain. Here, bullfighting, flamenco, fiestas and, indeed, siestas are not merely the famous icons of Spanish culture-they are real. Take any of a number of routes inland from Tarifa and you will travel through a succession of expansive farmland, nature reserves and rugged mountain scenery before you spot your first real pueblo blanco (white village), shimmering brightly in the summer sun as it if were a mirage.
The sensation of an optical illusion is strengthened by the fact that most of these mountain villages appear to hover high up, seemingly between heaven and earth, but as you come round the last bend of a winding mountain road, you are suddenly confronted with a real-life town with tightly knit white-plastered houses that pack a steep hillside. Villages such as Medina Sidonia are actually built upon a large cliff that once offered protection from invaders but now offers spectacular views over miles of surrounding countryside.With their whitewashed houses suspended high above the plains below, and often crowned by the dramatic silhouette of an old castle, the Moorish character of these little villages is still well preserved.
Inside, they are characterised by the steep, narrow alleys and sleepy atmosphere that so typify the white villages-take a wrong turn and you might well walk into a courtyard full of chickens or washing hanging out to dry in someone's backyard.
It is uncanny to think that eight centuries before, a Moorish sentry was probably rooted to the very spot you're standing on, but most of the pueblos blancos actually date back to Roman, Iberian and Celtic eras, well before the Moors ever set foot on the Iberian peninsula. At Benalup de Sidonia, prehistoric cave paintings attest to an even older human presence in these parts.
The need for protection against raiders and invaders explains the reason why the early inhabitants of Andalucía chiselled their villages into steep rocks rather than building them on the flatlands, where they would be far more vulnerable. It is out of this isolation that the pueblos blancos-the embodiment of Andalucía-were born, and they have now become the guardians of that traditional culture. A short voyage of discovery here can be fitted into a day trip, illustrating just how easy it is to leave the glitz and glamour of the coast behind and venture into another world, the real Andalucía, where time has in many cases stood still and you can still expect to be delighted by sights and experiences long lost elsewhere.