Huelva: Andalucía’s overlooked province and why I love it

Jessie called me to give me the bad news: “They placed me somewhere called Huelva,” using the hard h sound we’d learned to adopt in Valladolid. Without looking at a map, I assumed Huelva was on the other side of Andalusia and sighed heavily, sad that we couldn’t continue our Vdoid antics with an acento andalú for eight more months.

Jessie (on the far right) and I in San Sebastián. June 2005.

As a matter of fact, Huelva is the little slice of overlooked Andalucía is wedged between Seville, Cádiz, Badajoz and Portugal, a far-flung yet varied region.

Confession: I think Huelva has more to offer by way of destinations and gastronomy than Seville does. Gasp!

Bet you didn’t know that Christopher Columbus prayed at the La Rábida monastery before setting off for the New World (and that you can visit recreations of the Nina, Pinta and Santa María in its port), or that the Recreativo de Huelva is Spain’s oldest football club, as the English settlers to Río Tinto brought the game over when they came to exploit the mines?

I mean, yes, it smells like a swamp and it’s not exactly a beautiful city, but there are some redeeming factors that make the province of Huelva worth a day or two, particularly along its coastline or a trip to Doñana National Park.

THE HAM and other eats

I would clearly start with my taste buds and my beloved jamón ibérico. The black-footed pigs in the northern hills of the province, part of the Cordillería Bética, feast year-round on acorns, giving the cured meats a buttery smooth taste and texture. They’re taken to the slaughterhouse in Aracena in early Autumn to be turned into meats and other products from the Denominación de Origen Huelva (note: this weekend kicks off the Feria de Jamón in Aracena, where free samples abound!). 

Huelva is also famous for fresh seafood and strawberries. The gamba blanca de Huelva is a local favorite that is simply boiled and served with rock salt, and it’s characteristic of the region. The fresas and fresones are cultivated in the greenhouses along the coast from Palos de la Frontera to as far as Lepe, with their growing season lasting just a few months in the springtime. Migas, a bread dish with garlic, is also common in the mountains.

And then there’s wine! The bodegas around Bollullos Par del Condado produce a young white wine similar to mosto that’s a bit sweet, as well as vinegars. You can visit the bodegas and wine museums from Seville, as it’s only a 45-minute drive from the capital.

The beaches and mountains

Huelva shares a coastline with the Atlantic, with the Ríos Tinto and Odiel forming the Sebo peninsula where upon the capital sits, and the Guadiana separates Spain from Portugal. Many sevillanos flock to the coast during the warm summer months because of its proximity to the capital hispalense – less than 100 kilometers. The beaches are of fine sand, moderately windy and relatively clean. Seven of Huelva’s beaches have been bestowed with the Bandera Azul – three in Punta Umbría, two in Isla Cristina and one each in Moguer and Almonte.

In the Northern part of the province, the last little push of the Bética becomes the Sierra Morena. This region is full of great hiking trails, ideas for excursions like mushroom hunting, and gorgeous little villages where you can eat well and on the cheap. Aracena is the ‘capital’ of the region and boasts a series of underground caves and a crumbling castle that crowns the hamlet.

Huelva is also home to Spain’s largest national park, Doñana. These protected wetlands and pine groves cover about 135 square miles and is the breeding ground of the Iberian Lynx. The park boasts quite a few beaches, too, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can visit the park with a guide, though my mom and I snuck in a horseback ride from nearby Mazagón.

The fiestas

For years, I equated Huelva with a hangover due to its enormous Erasmus population and cheap bars (and because I was 22 and 23 when I went every other weekend), but Huelva knows its fiestas poplars.

Each Pentecost Sunday, those faithful to the Virgen del Rocío (known as Our Lady of the Swamps) take a pilgrimage to the Aldea outside of Almonte to witness the festivities to exalt one of Spain’s most popular symbols. It’s like the Feria de Sevilla set in the Wild West – hitching posts, covered wagons that people live and travel in for a few days, the palios that carry the image of the virgen towards the sacred ground where her image was found in a tree trunk or some business like that. And get this  – people flock from as far away as Brussels on foot, and then return the same way they came! If you’re on the way to Doñana, definitely stop in El Rocío and visit the gorgeous whitewashed shrine – it’s lovely.

Huelva also celebrates its connection with Columbus during Spain’s national fiesta, October 12th, has several smaller romerías for various saints in the province and has its own version of Carnival and Holy Week.

Living well and living cheap

For everything that Seville lacks, Huelva makes up for it. Onubenses enjoy a better microclimate than Seville, are closer to the beach and can live comfortably for cheap – Jessie and company lived right in the center of town in a Duplex for 180€ a month! I would grab a bus every other weekend to go see her and the other girls, enjoying a few days near the beach for cheap.

Getting to Huelva capital from Sevilla is easy: Damas runs an hourly bus on weekdays from Plaza de Armas for 16€ roundtrip. Have you ever been to Huelva? Any recommendations on other things to see?

For the Love of the Dove: El Rocío

I’ve never been one for Bucket Lists, but often set travel goals for myself. When I was 20, I decided to do a 25 before 25, making a list of my top-five destinations when I moved to Spain two years later. Twenty-twelve meant no resolutions, just a few ideas for travel goals during 2012: one new country, one off-beat travel activity and one nationally recognized festival, in Spain or not.

It’s the end of May and I’ve just completed my goals. I think I shall hashtag this as #travellover. Last weekend, my sevillana half orange, La Dolan, and I went to visit Spain’s lushiest Virgin Mother, La Virgen del Rocío.

The festival of El Rocío is one-part religious pilgirimage, one-part full-blown fair and two parts party: those devoted to the Virgen, known as the Lady Of the Marshes or the White Dove (Nuestra Señora de Las Marismas, for the hermitage’s proximity to the protected swampland of Doñana National Park, or the Blanca Paloma), make a pilgrimage from their towns to the immaculate white church outside the village of Almonte. This can be done on foot, on horseback, or by riding in oxen-driven carrozas, a type of temporary covered wagon. Arriving on or before the Saturday of Pentecost, often sleeping and eating outdoors, the rocieros then gather in El Rocío for a series of masses, parades and the famed salta a la reja.

We arrived just before noon on Pentecost Sunday. I wore my celestial blue traje de gitana, coral flower on my head, while Cait opted for a breezy skirt. It was over 90º out, but the rocieros were in their typical costumes: the women in trajes de gitana or faldas rocieras, a skirt with ruffles suited for walking, and high leather boots. The male counterpart is a traje corto, with tight cropped pants made for horseback riding. I made a face at Cait, suddenly very hot with the sleeves of my dress and restricted in movement.

The whole village of El Rocío is like a town straight out of a Wild West film set – hitching posts set in front of modest houses, horses clopping gallantly around the sandy streets. It was difficult to walk with my espadrilles while dodging carriages, and sand soon filled my shoes.

As we neared the stark white church, a beacon against the bright blue Andalusian sky, we decided to visit the village’s most famous resident before going any further. As we neared, the tamboril drums and simple flutes that characterize the sevillanas rocieras grew to a furor, and the crowd standing under the scalloped entrance of the hermitage suddenly parted. The Pentecost mass had just ended, and a parade of the simpecaos, the banners carried by the different religious groups, had begun.

The knots of people ebbed and moved as the 110 hermandades, yes the same kind from Holy Week, from around Spain presented their faithful before the church and moved around the village’s dusty streets. From simple to elegant, each carry a symbol of the Virgen del Rocío. The pilgrimage dates back to the 17th Century, with the hermandad from Almonte, el Matriz, being the oldest. Following the banner come women in two straight lines on either side of the simpecao, carrying long silver staffs topped with images of their brotherhood’s virgen. Their necks were emblazoned with the same silhouette in the form of heavy pendants on the end of multi-colored rope cords.

The festival at the Aldea is characterized by religious devotion, of course, but there’s much more to it. As Cait and I reflected over our first action-packed hour, we listened to other bar-goers recount their tales. Once the hermandades arrive to El Rocío through the various routes from the East, West and South, they settle into houses that look like a giant corral or hotel around a central patio, with room for the carrozas and horses behind. Gines, Olivares, Villamanrique and Triana have enormous patios, and we peeked in to see the merriment between beers. People sing, dance and pray for up to one week during the pilgrimage and the celebration.

Feeling refreshed, we decided on visiting the Virgin herself. The temple is simple, white-washed, save the golden retablao and a few frescoes in the corners of the nave. Cola de batas, the boundy ruffles of the traje rociero, showed under confessional booths, and the romeros prayed to the Virgen Mother, who was kept safely behind a cast iron gate, called a reja. After praying the rosary that night at midnight, she would “jump over” the reja and be paraded around the village on the shoulders of revelers, called the salta a la reja. This is the culmination of the week’s events, and it signals the abandonment of the recinto and the camino back home.

Outside, we bought candles in the gift shop to take to the adjacent prayer chapel. There’s a life-sized statue of the Rocío that people press their candles to before lighting them and finding a place to prop them up. The whole chapel was cool, smoky and silent – a far cry from the music emanating from the casas outside.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking through the streets, popping into bars for a beer (and relief from the hot midday sun), visiting my students from Olivares and trying to keep the sand out of our shoes. We got on the bus six hours after we’d arrived, absolutely exhausted and still bigger feriantas than rocieras.

Have you been to El Rocío or done the peregrinación? What was your experience like, especially on the road towards the Aldea? For more pictures, be sure to check out my Facebook page and become a fan for up-to-date photos and posts about Spain and Seville.

18 May

If there are two typically Spanish things, it’s futbol and fiesta.

If you’re lucky, they both happen the same day. May 18th, if you’re a Sevillano, may very well have been one of the best days of your life. Here’s a play-by-play of last Wednesday:
7:15 – Wake up to shouts of, “QUE VIVA LA BLANCA PALOMA!” Or, long live the white dove! and the subsequent release of cannons. The mass of the Virgen del Rocio, or Virgen of the Dew, starts promptly at that hour. I was at Kike’s house, so I covered the pillow with my head and tried to sleep it off.
The pilgrimage to El Rocio, a beautiful and famous hermitage in the middle of Southern Spain’s famous national park, happens every Wednesday before pentecost in both Triana and Olivares. Around here, most girls are named for the famous virgins, and I have no shortage of friends and students named after the white dove, Rocio. Faithful followers rent of by big trailers, spruce them up with pictures of the Virgin and brightly-colored flowers, and make a long trek on foot towards the hermitage, a journey of 67 kilometres. People come in droves to see the simpecado, a gold-laden statue of the Virgin, passed around on Pentecost Sunday.
8:00 – Grabbing Juan Bosco, I set off for the long way home. Instead of cutting through the center and through Triana, I was relegated to practically the highway because the entire Police force of Seville was directing traffic. The carretas, the trailers which carry the pilgrims, had completely clogged San Jacinto. I quickly got dressed amidst cracks of whips sticks and more cannon booming.

8:50 – From my table besides the window in La Sonata, I ate my tostada and had my coffee listening to tambourines tingle. Women in short flamenco dresses with stiff leather boots and men sporting straw hats emblazoned with their hermandad stood around smoking, greeting friends and making sure they had everything together. Many wore green and white (the colors of Triana) braided necklaces bearing a round, silver image of the virgin. Triana and Olivares joined about ten other hermandades that day in camino to the Aldea de El Rocio, as the small municipality is called, and it is among one of the most famous. Sevillanas played and the hermanos filled the streets. I walked to the bus stop and watched carretas join a long line, all numbered, waiting for the official salida at 11am. Sadly, the simpecado, which is often pulled by bulls, had not left.

Most people make the trip to El Rocio on foot, choosing to sleep in the fields at night and leave the trailers for storing food and drink and taking refuge during inclement weather. Rocieras, another version of Sevillanas, keep the troops motivated, and some go on horseback or carry the carretas with tractors.

9:50 – The bus driver pulled into the first stop in Olivares and said, this is as far as we can go. I was easily a 15-minute walk from school, with heels and with treats for my students, so I trucked along the town’s main street until I ran into the trailers. Olivares’s hermandad is also well-known, but the carretas are simple, pulled by tractors and briming with smartly-dressed Olivarenas who waved to the people gathered on street corners and on balconies as if it were their maiden voyage. Since school had been cancelled for the first two hours, I met a few of my compis in front of the hermandad’s church, Nuestra Senora de las Nieves, and watched the remainder of the parade go by.

A carreta leaves Olivares, in front of the hermandad rociera’s chapel

10:30 – Two of my students, Rocio and her cousin Carmela, were missing from my first class, and even though I had a few days left, they had already said goodbye to me. The rest of the school day was fairly normal: classes, private lessons, and by the time I left Jaime and Maria’s, I was exhausted and feeling stressed.

10 pm – I arrived to Kike’s house exasperated and with three boxes of brownies still to make. I was greeted in the plaza with shouts of ATLEEEEEEETI and VIVA ER BETI! Sevilla FC and Atletico Madrid were duking it out that night for the championship of the Copa del Rey. Kike watched while I poured over boxed brownies with scant cooking supplies. Sevilla won 2-0, and I could have cared less. The city of Sevilla, however, did care, and car honking, screaming and red and white fireworks continued until 3am.

Pff, I’d take siestas over virgins any day.

For a video of the salida of the Virgen from her temple, click here

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...