A land of glorious woodlands and far-reaching views, without doubt one of Spain's most beautiful and unspoilt mountain regions …
In the province of Huelva, to the northwest of Sevilla and close to Spain's border with Portugal, lies La Sierra de Aracena, without doubt one of Spain's most beautiful and unspoiled mountain regions.
It's a land of glorious woodlands and far-reaching views, of soft, rolling hillsides and crystal-clear streams. The hills are thickly wooded with sweet chestnut and cork oak, giving the area a marvellously green and verdant feel.
The forests give way, here and there, to small groves of olives or walnuts and to orchards of apples, plums, peaches and figs. Distant, rocky escarpments are covered in cistus and heather. In Spring, an incredible profusion of wild flowers carpet the meadows and clumps of peonies grow in the shade of the chestnut trees. Travelling through the little country lanes of the Sierra, it is almost reminiscent of a perfect day in the English countryside.
The combination of altitude and proximity to the Atlantic Ocean has given this very special part of Andalucía its unique microclimate, fresh and sunny, and it is this which enables the magnificent groves of chestnuts and oaks to flourish. It is a climate which is ideal for holiday makers too, whether walking, touring … or just taking it easy.
For nature lovers it's a dream location. Quite apart from its marvellous and diverse flora and fauna, the hills are home to a big rabbit population which provides the staple diet of carnivores like the rare black vulture, weasels, stone martens, badgers, polecats, and wildcats. The woodlands play host to over 85 species of birds, who reside here or migrate through the sierra. These include imperial eagles and black vultures.
Aside from the wildlife, the Sierra is also home to the prized Iberian black-footed pig, the pata negra. In Autumn, this special breed is let loose to range free in the forests, to forage for and feast on the acorns that fall from the oak trees.
The hams are salted and left to cure in dark caverns for a year and a half, to become the delicious jamon iberico, a ham fit for princes, perhaps the most famed in all the world. Hams from the village of Jabugo are, without doubt, the most highly prized gourmet delicacy in all Spain.
Not surprisingly, given the wealth of local produce here (the area is equally renown for its wild mushrooms and asparagus), restaurants and bars are above average. There's usually more than one hostelry in just about every village, specialising in dishes made from local pork and other specialities of the region.
The opportunities for appreciating the more authentic aspects of rural Andalusian life are boundless here. Quiet and very relaxing, the Sierra de Aracena still provides a taste of 'real' Spain.
Its rich Moorish heritage - evidenced by the hilltop castles seen above several of the villages - together with its splendid scenery, its unique cuisine and charming villages, make it an ideal destination for those who appreciate traditional, out of the way areas. Life here is easy paced, definitively Andalusian.
Cobbled paths and ancient mule tracks criss-cross the Natural Park, meandering through the pretty, wooded hillsides, linking together a series of charming, whitewashed villages, their rural economies still reliant on the production of quality cured hams, chestnuts and cork.
People here are by nature, friendly and outgoing. In summertime they take to the streets and plazas of the villages in exuberant fiestas, known as romerias. The women don their flamenco dresses, the caballeros sit astride their horses and there is, of course, always a huge party!
Autumn sees the chestnut trees ablaze with colour, and the chestnut pickers fill their baskets in the woods. Mules are loaded with sacks for the return journey to the village. Orchards are laden with fruit and the forests provide a rich harvest of delicious, wild mushrooms. The acorns fall and the pigs get fat!
Given the Sierra's southerly position, winter is short and mild, and the profusion of evergreen trees such as the ilex holm oak, provide a green canopy for new-born lambs. Winter rains replenish the lush countryside. This is an important time of year for curing hams and making chorizo and salchichón, the traditional sausages.
Spring arrives in March or even earlier, with a burst of flowers that lasts through to June and temperatures that make holidaying here ideal. The warming rays of the Andalusian sun and a million wildflowers bring colour and joy to the green woodlands and gently rolling hills.
The altitude and its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean mean that summers are cooler in the Sierra de Aracena than elsewhere in Andalucía. Warm and sunny by day, nights are cool and comfortable. The chestnut trees provide plenty of shade both in the towns and in the countryside. In August, the town of Cortegana celebrates a medieval festival.
The Sierra de Aracena is just about perfect walking and riding country. There are miles and miles of delightful paths and tracks which criss-cross the rolling hills, passing through wonderful countryside, linking the villages together. Everywhere, there are splendid views.
There's lots to discover here - touring around by car is very pleasurable. Equally, it's a great place just to relax, read, and swim, listening to the crickets and the birds singing in the trees.
Aracena is the main town in the Natural Park with a population of approximately 7,500. Meandering up the hillside which is topped by an impressive Moorish castle, it is both pretty and welcoming. There are several excellent restaurants here, not to mention tapas bars and some good shops. The town also has a popular Saturday market.
The town boasts a fine thirteenth century church, but its most famous landmark is the Gruta de las Maravillas, the "cave of wonders", the most visited site in the province of Huelva.
For centuries the townsfolk of Aracena were unaware of this marvel that lay, unsuspected, beneath the very ground they trod. Discovered by accident (by a stray pig apparently!) the Gruta de la Maravillas is the largest cave in Spain, a mile and a half long, and is truly a marvel of subterranean lakes, striking colours and all manner of exquisitely adorned stalagmites and stalactites.
Set in a deep valley, Alájar is famous for its imposing 17th century shrine of Arias Montano which stands on a rocky promontory high above the pretty village. An annual pilgrimage here attracts thousands of people, many on horseback or in horse drawn carts. Almonaster de la Real is another very beautiful village dominated by its 10th century Moorish Mosque.
There are many more, equally handsome little whitewashed villages, all well worth spending a little time in. Fuenteheridos is one of the most visited, others include Linares de la Sierra, Galaroza and Valdelarco.
Close to the Portuguese border, Aroche with its medieval walls looking over the woods and meadows below, boasts a bull ring rather curiously built inside its Moorish castle.
Further south, admittedly outside the designated Natural Park are the giant opencast mines of Rio Tinto, as surreal a landscape as one will find this side of the Moon! Reputed to be the oldest mines in the world, the continual search for iron ore, copper, silver, sulphur and a host of other minerals has opened up amphitheatres of gargantuan proportions, vast man-made craters that measure several kilometres across.
The minerals have created unworldly colours - strange blues, greens, yellows, reds and browns which permeate both the rocks and the rivers of the region. All very eerie!
And the British have played their part too. Owners of the mines for many years, they brought their sports with them and it was here that the very first football match was played in Spain.
If you crave urban adventure, the marvellous city of Sevilla is just an hour and a bit away from here. Cities don't come any more vibrant - or any more beautiful than this! The quintessentially Andalusian city, Sevilla offers everything from bullfighting to flamenco, a history which encompasses some of the greatest cultures ever, a multitude of stunning buildings, the much famed Sevillana nightlife, fabulous shops, restaurants et al.
Don't miss it, but in summer, beware, it's also famous for being the hottest city in all Europe.
Then there's Portugal, a different world away, yet less than an hour's drive from here. It's enchanting, beguiling and so, so different from Spain.
To the south, The Parque Nacional de Doñana is 1½ hours away. Here, on one of the world's most important and protected biospheres, amid its sand dunes, marshes, pinewoods and freshwater lagoons live flamingos, rare buzzards, lynx, mongoose and a startling variety of migratory birds. The fine, white sandy beaches of the Costa de la Luz are just a couple of hours away.
Towns & Villages
A favourite holiday retreat of the Spanish royal family, Aracena is a busy, bustling little market town (population 7,500). Picturesque, relaxed and cheerful, it meanders up a hillside topped by the remains of its Moorish castle and a church built by the Knights Templar …
One of the prettiest villages in the Sierra, white-washed houses and winding, cobbled streets radiate out from the little central plaza. Overlooked by the towering, rocky outcrop of Peña de Arias Montano, there are bars and restaurants here with cosiness and character …
Surrounded by lush vegetation and thick woodlands where Iberian pigs root around for acorns, this pretty village of 1,600 inhabitants typifies the easy going, happy lifestyle of the Sierras. A gentle place, slow and rural, all around the countryside is beautiful …
Tucked away on the southwestern edge of the park is unspoiled Almonaster. It has a magnificent hilltop mosque dating from the 10th century situated in amongst the ruins of a castle. The mezquita's mihrab, the prayer niche facing Mecca, is the oldest example of its kind in Spain …
Fuenteheridos is a pretty village, a popular retreat for visitors, especially weekenders escaping from Sevilla. Many houses have preserved their original features, including rustic wooden balconies adorned with geraniums tumbling from wrought iron railings …
Cortegana's castle dominates the skyline from miles around and is the setting for a spectacular, four-day Medieval festival held at the end of August - jousting tournaments, re-enactment of the battle between the Moors and Christians, plenty of music and merry making …
Not the most picturesque village in the region but worth a mention as the "capital" of the famous ham and other pork products which are produced in the sierra. For many Jabugo is shorthand for jamón Ibérico or pata negra - and there's plenty on offer! …