It's a truth seldom acknowledged that, while you travel to see big-ticket sights, it's the insignificant places you remember most fondly when you're done. So it is on my escorted journey around Spain and Portugal. We've seen fabulous things, from Velasquez paintings to Seville cathedral and Lisbon's plunging streets. Yet the place I remember with the biggest smile is Alfarnatejo, a farming community of 500 people, lost in the folds of Malaga's rugged hinterland.
The whitewashed village is adorned with tubs of roses. Houses sport iron window grilles and drooping geraniums. Nothing much to be seen but a town hall. ('That's where they make huge, important decisions that hardly affect anyone,' says our local guide John with a wink.) No tourist hordes either, just peace. You can hear nightingales singing from the graveyard.
We've headed into this hinterland from the Malaga coast along what was the original Camino Real or royal road that linked Malaga to Granada. Below Alfarnatejo, we pass a 14th-century inn with attached jail cell. The landscape is sumptuous. Olive, almond and cherry trees patchwork valleys topped by limestone outcrops. The roadsides are an explosion of yellow and purple wildflowers.
We're far from the madding Costa del Sol crowds an hour away. Alfarnatejo's neighbouring village Alfarnate, the region's highest at 890 metres, occasionally sees snow in winter, which brings just about the only visitors, says John, an Englishman who has lived here for 20 years.
"Andalusians come here to throw snowballs. They pile snow on their car bonnets and see how far they can drive towards home before it all melts off," he says.
That morning, the only people in Alfarnate are men with hats and walking sticks, sitting companionably on a bench in the sun. They were probably olive farmers once, with brawny arms and earth-stained fingers. We stop to see the village olive oil manufactory, which belongs to a co-operative of local producers. John explains how the olives are separated from branches and stones before being mashed, heated and placed in a centrifuge to extract the oil.
We try the village's Virgen de Monsalud olive oil, dipped into bread. Some is unfiltered, which the Spanish appreciate for its spiciness. Some is suffused with peeled garlic. This isn't the stuff you get in garishly decorated tourist bottles on the coast. It's the real deal, unctuous and flavoursome, from olives off centuries-old trees.
It makes us hungry for lunch, which is why we come to Alfarnatejo. Our coachload of convivial travellers splits into small groups and disperses to dine with the locals. My host is Immaculata, whose house is flanked by lemon trees and concrete dogs. A statue of Jesus provides a benediction as we step through the entrance. His heart pulses red. On the opposite wall are photos of Immaculata's kids.
There's nothing contrived about this lunch. We sit amid potted plants and religious kitsch. Immaculata speaks scarcely a word of English, but it doesn't seem to matter. We're happy to be here, and our happiness needs no translation. Immaculata shows us her kitchen, and her terrace that looks over a splendid view of wheat fields splashed with poppies. Soon we're tucking into her pork fillet in an apple and leek sauce. A local liqueur to finished perhaps? Why not. And maybe another.
We pile back into our coach and stare out at the scenery as we loop over a 1026-metre pass into Granada province. Olive trees crosshatch the landscape. The Sierra Nevada mountains are a snowy backdrop. Next stop the Alhambra, surely the highlight of our entire journey. Or so they say, though Alfarnatejo has been memorable, too.
Insight Vacations' popular 15-day 'Best of Spain and Portugal' itinerary between Madrid and Barcelona (or the reverse) runs weekly from April to October and visits destinations including Salamanca, Porto, Lisbon, Seville, Gibraltar and Granada. Prices from $4,727pp twin share including some meals, Insight Experiences such as the Alfarnatejo visit, a travel director and local specialist guides. See insightvacations.com/au
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Insight Vacations.