Family time way off the beaten trek

 

What better way to bond with the kids while getting back to nature than by trekking with donkeys through the Spanish province of Segovia, writes LIAM STEBBING

IT WOULD BE hard to miss the chap we have come to meet in the main square of Prádena, a blessedly peaceful village an hour or so from Madrid. Like many Spanish males he’s not particularly tall, but he has an awful lot of rich chestnut hair, densely packed teeth, angular hips and prominent ears.

His partner, who is a little smaller, has a more ladylike figure, with rounder hips and smoother skin. She has the same prominent ears and packed teeth, however, and were she a little more conscious of her image she might be alarmed that her pale-brown hair is tending towards grey. They might both also be concerned by their propensity for attracting flies, but you live with such minor irritations when you’re donkeys.

Madrileño and Manchega are here to take us from Prádena, in the province of Segovia, through the foothills of the Guadarrama mountains, which sit like a cocked eyebrow to the north of the Spanish capital. Over the next three days they’ll be leading us along a section of the Cañada Real, a path, hundreds of kilometres long, that the medieval king Alfonso X, of Castile, decreed shepherds could use to drive their flocks from the chilly north to the still-fertile south each winter.

But first we have to learn the ropes. Javier, who has organised our itinerary, accommodation and donkeys, is here to make sure that our incredibly excited daughters, who will be riding the animals while we walk alongside, know their asses from their elbows. This doesn’t take long. Essentially, once we’ve made sure their saddles are tightly strapped we say “Arre!” to set Madrileño and Manchega on their way and “Soo!” to make them stop.

That’s the idea, anyway. As long as Rosie (10) and Maebh (8) dismount while the donkeys cross streams – they have a tendency to jump, or more accurately lurch, from one side of the water to the other – we should be fine.

Just follow each day’s route, for which we have a map and detailed instructions, and we’ll find our accommodation for the night – and our luggage, which Javier will have dropped off for us, leaving the saddlebags free for our picnic lunches.

As we set off, crossing our fingers that the donkeys don’t add to the spectacle by relieving themselves as we make our way up the street, a handful of elderly locals chuckle and joke with each other, perhaps wondering why on earth we’d choose a mode of transport they were glad to wave goodbye to many decades ago. We’d probably stare, too, if a group of tourists came up the main street of our village in Ireland with a horse and cart, but these few days are about bonding with the kids while we get back to nature in beautiful surroundings – with the prospect of a hearty Spanish meal to replenish us at the end of each day’s trek.

The main N-110 road, which we cross tentatively, marks the edge of Prádena. Instantly we’re in the countryside, where our first challenge is a scree-thick track that twists and turns its way up towards the Guadarrama mountains, which still shelter pockets of snow towards their peaks, a few hundred metres above us.

The donkeys make light work of the climb despite the altitude – the villages in this area are already 1,000m above sea level. We, by contrast, are left a little out of breath and starting to feel the heat of this intensely bright, clear day.

It’s a thrill to look back and see how quickly we have left civilisation behind; the animals are more thrilled by the sight of some shady trees, which Manchega is the first to bolt for. She fits snugly under the boughs; our daughter Maebh, still sitting on her back, ends up pinned between a couple of branches. Donkeys being stubborn beasts, it takes much pushing and shoving to persuade Manchega to move far enough to free Maebh.

Mildly traumatised, we push on. It’s the right thing to do: as long as you keep her quirks in mind, Manchega turns out to be rather sweet, and she and Madrileño amble along past flocks of lean mountain sheep and, occasionally, herds of long-horn cattle – including, we can confirm from our slightly anxious checks of their dangly bits as we get nearer, the odd intimidating bull.

Waving our arms should be enough to shoo most animals away, according to Javier. Having seen a few minutes, in a bar, of a televised bullfight, we’re not so sure this approach will work with a half-ton toro. We steel ourselves and walk past, eyes straight ahead. The bull, thankfully, is more interested in chewing grass.

Madrileño is an old hand on this route, and we’ve been told that he should go first across streams, to give Manchega confidence. As it happens Manchega leads the way most of the time, her partner clomping along behind. “Perhaps she just lets him think he’s in charge,” says my wife, unamusingly.

As so much of the snow has already melted, most of the streams have dried up, so Maebh and her elder sister get to spend long stretches in the saddle – although from time to time, and despite our explanations that the donkeys are strong enough to carry them all day, they jump down to give the donkeys a break. As far as the girls are concerned the animals are their friends, and deserve to be treated as such.

At the end of each day, and each morning before we set out, they feed, water and groom the donkeys. An ass can work up a thirst under the Segovian sun: at each hotel Madrileño drains a bucket of water in barely 30 seconds, sucking up the liquid with a noise that makes him sound as if he’s slurping the last drops of a milkshake through a straw.

We must come close to making the same noise with our beer when we flop down at a bar after each day’s walk. At between six and 12 kilometres, none of the daily itineraries is particularly demanding, but they combine with the summer heat – up to 40 degrees at its peak, although thankfully only in the high 20s during our visit – to make you particularly appreciative of a friendly bar that serves ice-cold drinks.

As this is small-town Spain, away from the crowds of the cities or the costas, we have a limited choice of places to eat each night – and even less of a choice of things to do. A couple of good books and a pack of cards come in very handy for filling the gap between arriving at each hotel, in the middle of the afternoon, and dinner, at 9pm or so, particularly as, in a fit of back-to-naturism, we stopped the children from bringing their iPods or Nintendos to Spain.

Evening isn’t the best time to eat here: lunch is the main meal of the day, and all the restaurants offer good-value set menus between about 1.30pm and 4.30pm. As we eat lunch up in the hills, feasting on picnics that the hotels have provided, in the evenings we keep things simple by opting for salad, bread and, more often than not, grilled meat.

Our Spanish is abysmal, and most locals speak little English, so for the most part we rely on gestures to help us communicate; what is clear, though, is that the recession is biting in Spain, too: on our midweek visit we seem to be the only guests at any of the hotels, and even the villages are very quiet (although, apparently, they fill up at weekends, when a combination of visitors from Madrid and locals returning from work in the cities brings them to life).

It makes for a feeling of solitude that is only accentuated on the Cañada Real, where in three days we pass just one other walker. But we’re happy to make do with animals for company: the eagles, hawks and vultures that wheel overhead; the storks gliding back to the nests that top every church in the area; the lizards that skitter over the rocks; the sheep, cattle and horses that graze on the foothills; and, of course, the donkeys that have been bringing us through this beautiful countryside.

When we arrive at our final hotel we take Madrileño and Manchega down the hill to the field where we expect them to spend the night. But when we go to check on the donkeys after dinner we can’t see them. They have been collected already, taken back to the farm where they live. We didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. Sometimes, particularly for our daughters, it’s easier that way. But if you’re reading this, Madrileño and Manchega, thanks for the memories.

* Liam Stebbing and family were guests of Away from the Crowds (www.awayfromthe crowds.com, 00-34-618- 219449), which also arranges cycling and Vespa holidays. A five-day donkey holiday costs €450 per adult and €225 per child, including BB and picnic lunches but excluding evening meals and flights, plus €160 for each donkey. The company will pick you up from the airport and can arrange nights in Madrid or the city of Segovia (see right)

Go there

Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus. com), Ryanair (www. ryanair.com) and Iberia (www.iberia.com/ie) fly to Madrid from Dublin.

Where to stay and where to go

Where we stayed

Posada del Acebo. Calle Rafael Matesanz 7, Prádena, Segovia, 00-34-921-507260, www.el-acebo.com. A charming, welcoming old town house. At the edge of the main square, a few steps from several good places to eat.

At Restaurante Cañada Real (Travesia Mayor 3, Prádena, 00-34-921-507032) we blew the budget on meltingly delicious mountain lamb that had been roasting all morning in a wood-fired oven. If you have miscalculated, and there’s too much meat for you to eat in one sitting, you can come back later to polish it off with salad and bread for a cheap supper.

Hotel Restaurante La Cerca. Centra de Soria, Arcones, Segovia, 00-34-921-504083, www.tursegovia.com/lacerca. Simple accommodation and a popular restaurant presided over by the ebullient Toñi, who cooks, and her taciturn husband, Angel, who tends the bar. Full of truck drivers – a good sign – from noon; lunch is the best time to eat here.

In the evenings try Pepi (Calle Puerto 59, Arcones, 00-34-921-504031), a bar and restaurant across the main road, whose shaded garden makes it easy to stay longer than you had intended.

La Data. Gallegos, Segovia, 00-34-921-509087, www.ladata.es. A stylish but comfortable and extremely welcoming hotel with small but appealing rooms that maximise their use of space with mezzanines that can accommodate two children in addition to the adults below. Felipe, the young owner, cooks simply but passionately.

Try the tiny Cafe Bar Casa Paco, up the hill, for a drink before dinner.

Hotel Spa El Chorro. Calle la Mateja, Navafria, Segovia, 00-34-921-506907, www.hotelspaelchorro.com. This expensively furnished hotel is ideally located for summer swimming in a dammed pool in the nearby river. You might find the reception lukewarm, however, and decide that, despite its views, the restaurant is best avoided. Using the hotel’s indoor pool is an expensive extra.

Where to go

The donkey holiday is a self-contained break, but if you’d like to extend it, to get the most from your airfare, the obvious places to stay are Madrid and Segovia. The latter, the provincial capital, is best known for its Roman aqueduct and old town, a World Heritage site. It’s 35 minutes by bullet train from Madrid, which is even easier to while away a few days in. If you’d like to see some art but without the Prado’s crowds, try the nearby Thyssen- Bornemisza gallery. Away from the Crowds can pick you up from either city.