Those in the know are perfectly aware that the buzz and sophistication of Sotogrande and Marbella are best kept at a drive’s length. And anyone attracted to a more authentic taste of Spanish life heads to the hills where properties of local character can be found.

Sir Peter Wakefield ? the former British ambassador to the Lebanon and Brussels ? and his wife, Lady Wakefield, found their special corner of Spain in 1965 ? just as the developers were moving in on Marbella and the Costa del Sol. Sir Peter relates how ‘a moment of madness’ led them to pay £12,500 for La Molineta ? a hamlet of ruined mill buildings on a rocky hillside near the village of Frigiliana, on the edge of the Sierra Nevada national park, and a few kilometres inland from the coast at Nerja.

For centuries, despite its dry sub-tropical climate, this was one of the most fertile regions of Spain, thanks to an ancient irrigation system which channelled water down the mountain valleys to the Mediterranean. At La Molineta, the entire building complex is a former mill facility where paper, flour sugar and olie oil were produced. At its hear are two watermills, the larger of which, El Rosario, made paper in the 18th century, and later, sugar. The other watermill, El Molino Viejo, was a flour-mill and the scene of a tragic confrontation between anti-Fascist villagers and Franco’s triumphant Guardia Civil. Around the mills, within the walls, were the bakery, the butcher and a number of cottages.

‘When we arrived on the scene in the early 1960s, most of the buildings were collapsing, but the location was enchanting, and the possibilities infinite,’ Sir Peter recalls, adding ‘however, finance was not. And so began the long adventure, a roof here, a door there, a sale, some tree-planting, converting the mill pond into a swimming pool, and terraces galore; and so it went on for 40 years.

‘Our good luck, in one sense, was our lack of resources. We could not afford to do may things we would have liked to have done. As the years passed we came to realise how important it had been to leave things untouched. To take but one example, the roof of the great sugar mill was a fine specimen of 19th century ironwork and bare Roman tiles. And so it remains today ? powerful, practical and impressive. The plans for the minstrel’s gallery and so on, were shelved, but 40 years on, we find joy and enormous pleasure in a fascinating complex of watermills, cottages and gardens at La Molineta, which is now listed as site of outstanding beauty.’

La Molineta is being offered as a whole through Vaughan International in London (020 7736 1700) at a guide price of £2.4 million.

Spain has a long sporting tradition and Tim Hodges of buying agents County Homesearch International (0034 952 20 7736) has been scouring the hinterland of southern Spain for equestrian and sporting estates on behalf of British buyers. There are plenty of dilapidated mills and farmhouses to be found in the rolling hills around Córdoba, where £350,000 will buy a substantial building suitable for restoration. The scenic Sierra Norte national park, north of Seville, is a landscape of rolling hills and cork trees, dotted with farms raising hosres, bulls and pigs: some of Spain’s most succulent hams come from here. For those who like to walk on the wild side, the Costa de la Luz between Cádiz and Tarifa has wonderful rolling surf beaches but can be a little windy in the winter.

For the future, Mr Hodges recommends the little-known Axarquia region which runs from behind Málaga city in the west to Nerja in the east. He descirbes the area as ‘386sq miles of rural hills and lakes, fantastic vistas and white villages many with spectacular views of the coast’. This is a relatively poor area where the EU is s now subsidising the production of avocados, as a result of which the local farmers have beung to plant these large green trees in significant numbers, thereby gradually transforming scrubby hillsides into woodland.

Property in the area is a mix of cortijos, larger holdings suitable for horse-breeding or village houses close the region’s national park.

Wendy Scott of Cluttons Spain recommends La Herradura on the Costa Tropical in Granada province, as a ‘typically Spanish town which has been popular with Germans and Spanish ‘old money’ from Madrid, but is increasingly starting to attract British buyers looking to upgrade from the more established towns such as nearby Nerja.’ With a new motorway under construction, this area will become far more accessible for the British buyer, when the exit opens at the end of 2006.

‘Property prices on this stretch of unspoilt coastline can be four times cheaper than Marbella, and La Herradura is not only incredibly scenic and coler than Marbella or Malaga but is still largely untainted by development and excessive tourism, something which the local planners are keen to maintain. Here, £1.4m will be buy a seven bedroom house on its own private headland overlooking Herradura Bay (Cluttons Spain 00 34 952 907 200).

Ronda is one of the largest and more established towns in the hills behind the Costa del Sol. Famed for its bullring and spectacular scenery, the pay off is that tour buses from the coastal resorts run a regular conveyor belt of visits throughout the season. As a rule of thumb, the narrower the streets of the town or village, the less likely it is to be the subject of tourist invasion which means the villages dotted around the hills and valleys near Ronda often have a good supply of properties. Cluttons are currently marketing two properties: one a traditional style townhouse located in the centre of Cartajima, a classic pueblo blanco16km from Ronda. The 9-bedroom house is on the market for ?1,350,000. For those looking for something more secluded, they also have a large villa set in extensive gardens with views over the mountains which is within 5 kilometres of the main town. This is on the market for ?1,950,000 (Cluttons Tel: +34 952 907 200)