Where do the locals go to avoid the tourist hordes? We find five under-the-radar towns the Spanish would rather keep to themselves
This dazzlingly pretty pueblo blanco (white town) is beloved not just for its beauty, but as a trekking base for the Sierra Nevada mountains. The clear air and warm sun are both stimulant and narcotic: you’d like to head off on long hikes, but you also want to fall asleep on a bench, using your backpack as a pillow and listening to the water. (Natural springs trickle through the streets in culverts built by Moorish craftsmen.)
You earn your beer here by summiting Mulhacen, which at 11,413ft is the highest mountain in Spain. The national-park bus (£8.50 return) takes you from Capileira (4,711ft) to the Alto del Chorrillo (8,825ft), after which it’s a gentle three-mile hike to the summit. Another magnificent route is the 12-miler from Capileira to Trevelez. The first five miles are a stiff climb into the barren Sierra Nevada, followed by a magnificent descent involving pine trees, waterfalls and rivers to the pueblo blanco of Trevelez, the highest village in mainland Spain and home to some of its best and rarest jamon.
Back in Capileira (there are buses from Trevelez at 4pm and 5.30pm; £1.60; alsa.es), dine on traditional mountain cooking with a gastro twist at El Corral de Castaño (mains from £9; Plaza Calvario 16), or traditional mountain cooking without a gastro twist at El Asador (menu del dia £10.50; Carretera de la Sierra 16).
The Hostal Rural Poqueira is a proper, old-fashioned casa de huespedes — guesthouse — with a tapas bar downstairs and simple, comfortable rooms upstairs. You can use the outdoor pool belonging to the posher Hotel Real Poqueira, across the road (doubles from £42, B&B; hotelespoqueira.com).
Granada (90-minute drive), with British Airways; or Malaga (two-hour drive), with easyJet.
Santillana del Mar, Cantabria
The guidebooks call this the town of three lies — it’s not a saint (sant), they say, nor flat (llana), nor by the sea (mar). Actually, the name of what is arguably the prettiest pueblo in Spain is a contraction of Santa Juliana — the town’s patron saint (though the sea is, indeed, four miles away).
It’s an obscenely beautiful spot, regardless, dominated by the huge romanesque grotto of a church that purports to house what little remains of the 3rd-century martyr Juliana. Half an hour’s walk west are real caves: the Cuevas de Altamira are a Palaeolithic Sistine Chapel, created by Pleistocene Banksys. The paintings are 14,000 years old and so priceless that most tourists can now only see the replicas in a “Neocave”. If you buy your ticket between 9.30am and 10.30am on a Friday, however, you could be among the five lucky people per week who are allowed entry to the real thing (£2.50; museodealtamira.mcu.es).
At lunchtime, don’t be put off by the plastic chairs at El Bisonte Rojo: the menu del dia is a three-course bargain (£12; Avenida del Alcalde Antonio Sandi 6). For dinner, book a table at the Palacio de Mijares and order the four-course tasting menu (£23; palaciomijares.es).
End the weekend with an easy hike to the beach, eight miles there and back. Everyone knows the path; ask at your hotel.
There’s no point looking at all those medieval houses if you can’t stay in one. With creaky floors, exposed beams and rough brickwork softened by superb service, Casa del Organista is just the ticket (doubles from £50; inninspain.com).
Santander, with Ryanair. Santillana del Mar is a 30-minute drive west.
“To reach something good, it is very useful to have gone astray,” said St Teresa of Avila, and by straying two hours west of Madrid, you’ll reach something very good indeed: a Disneyesque citadel encircled by 1½ miles of turreted walls. Walk them (£4; muralladeavila.com) and you’ll see the rooftops of Avila on one side, the high plains of Castile-Leon on the other, and, in the middle distance, the monument called Los Cuatro Postes. Kiss under these ancient stone posts and they say your love will last for ever.
St Teresa is the local celeb: an adventurous girl who ran away from home at seven years of age, determined to be martyred fighting the Moors. Later, she experienced a religious ecstasy likened to being stabbed with a golden lance and founded the order of the Barefoot Carmelites. Curiously, after her death, they discovered a minute perforation of her heart. Just saying. She’s buried in the Convent of St Teresa, where you can see her finger (£1.75; santateresadejesus.com).
Nearby, in the Monastery of St Tomas, lies Inquisitor General Tomas de Torquemada — Carmelite carrot and Catholic stick, interred together in Avila (£3.50; monasteriosantotomas.com). The town’s cathedral is a gothic fortress with a museum housing El Greco’s portrait of Garcibañez de Nuxia (£4; catedralavila.vocces.com).
Foodwise, you’re dining on chorizo de olla (potted sausage), the deep-fried sucking pig called cuchifrito and the egg-yolk confections called yemas de Santa Teresa, along with big-hearted garnacha wines. For posh nosh with great views, try El Almacen (mains from £13; restauranteelalmacen.es). The best tapas are at Meson Gredos (mains from £6; Calle Comuneros de Castilla 4).
El Encanto is a chic boutique hotel hidden inside a 16th-century palace (doubles from £63; hotelelencanto.es).
Madrid, with easyJet. Then take the train from Chamartin station to Avila (£16 return; renfe.com).
Alcala del Jucar, Castile-La Mancha
Built beneath a splendid castle on a millefeuille of limestone above a bend in the River Jucar, this is the most romantic retreat in Spain. It gets crowded with locals in summer, so come early or late, and if your first glimpse doesn’t elicit an OMG, I’ll give you your money back.
As you climb the steps to the Arab castle (£1.75), watch out for cars (the locals see staircases merely as bumpy roads) and think of poor Zulema. Kidnapped by a Moorish king, Garaden, she threw herself from the highest tower rather than convert and marry. Or so the locals say.
Don’t miss the cave houses: Cuevas del Diablo, now an underground bar; the Cuevas de Masago, comprising an odd combination of coin museum, restaurant and Spain’s biggest fossil collection; and the Cueva del Rey Garaden, named after the kidnapping king. Up in the crags, you’ll find others, abandoned and waiting for someone like you to turn up with a grand design. Maria Jose Torres is both town baker and tour guide. She’ll sell you a picnic and recommend a shady spot beside a crystal pool in the Jucar in which to eat it.
Casa el Moli serves huge portions in a woodland glade beside the Jucar (menu del dia £12; Paseo de los Robles 7). More intimate, but no less rustic, is Fogones el Chato (mains from £9; Calle Malvas 16). Just one more thing: Alcala by night, all lit up. OMG.
Yes, you can stay in a cave house. With a hot tub. It’s called Casa Paraiso and it’s as romantic as it sounds (£140 for two nights; casasruralesalcaladeljucar.eu).
Valencia, with Ryanair. Alcala del Jucar is a 90-minute drive west.
How on earth has a medieval city all but surrounded by the sea, with a humongous Templar castle, magnificent beaches and a passion for food that keeps more than 200 restaurants in business, managed to keep itself out of Britain’s holiday limelight? Maybe the name put the tour operators off. The Spanish, who pronounce it altogether differently, adore Peñiscola.
Let’s start with the castle (£4; castillodepeniscola.dipcas.es), a Game of Thrones location that was once home to the antipope Benedict XIII, a 15th-century Sepp Blatter who refused to step down after the collapse of the Avignon papacy and remained a model of pig-headedness until his death in 1423. Nearby, there’s a small but satisfying fishing museum (free; Calle Principe 1) and a ghetto of boutiques in a warren of whitewashed streets.
The best beach is Playa Norte: three miles of palm-shaded sand overlooked by the castle. For a weekend, it’s all you need, but if you must explore, follow the coast road south for five miles into the Serra d’Irta Natural Park, where you’ll find the lovely Playa del Pebret. Be back in time for dinner. Frankly, most restaurants here are good, but the standouts are Sebastian en Perla Blanca (menu del dia £12; perlablancarestaurante.com) for barbecued pork ribs, and Restaurant Carmen Guillemot, where you should order the seven-course tasting menu (£35; carmenguillemot.com).
Dios Esta Bien is a fab little B&B right beside the castle, where breakfast is a matter of pride (doubles from £52, B&B; diosestabien.com).
Castellon, with Ryanair.