Here, in the heart of La Sierra de Aracena, you are in 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.
Travelling through the little country lanes of the Sierra, it is almost reminiscent of a perfect day in the English countryside.
Not surprisingly, given the wealth of local produce here (the area is home to the prized Iberian black-footed pig, the pata negra, perhaps the most famed ham in all the world, and 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 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 also 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 arealso less than a couple of hours away.
For nature lovers this is a dream location and just about perfect walking and riding country, with lots of pretty villages to explore along the way. It’s ideal terrain both for serious hill walkers and more casual strollers.
Spanish language, cookery and guitar lessons are available locally. There is a tennis court just outside Aracena; it’s free but you need to book your slot. For fun golf, there’s a 9 hole course at Rio Tinto (the oldest course in Spain). For the more serious stuff, there’s a plethora of championship courses around Huelva and Sevilla.