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Sierra de Aracena Nature Park (Spain)

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Country: Spain / Country Region: Andalucia / World Region: Europe

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      20.04.2012 13:09
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      A delightful 'natural park' in southern Spain, little frequented by tourists

      While we rested from walking and refreshed ourselves at a bar in Galaroza, my wife and I discussed whether or not I should write this review. One opinion was that the Sierra de Aracena is unspoiled because it is little known to foreign tourists, and ought to be allowed to stay that way. Against this were the attractions of the area that made it worth writing about, and the fact that a review of mine was in any case unlikely to make any material difference to its chances of being spoiled. A man standing near us, dressed like a local, put down his glass of mosto - the semi-fermented grape juice that locals drink - and asked in perfect English where we were from. It turned out that he originated just a few miles away from where we live in Kent, but had settled in that part of Spain some quarter of a century earlier. His view was that it was so poor, with so little employment for those who live there - many young people leave to find work elsewhere - that any cash that came with visitors could only be for the good. Also, that it could stand a lot more tourists than the few it currently receives before their presence ran the risk of changing the character of the area. So here's the review.


      * The Sierra de Aracena... *

      ...is in the north-western corner of Andalucía in southern Spain, close to the Portuguese border, lying about 100 kilometres inland from the port of Huelva, and a similar distance from the regional capital Seville. Officially designated a 'natural park' (the Parque Natural Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche to give it its full title), the Sierra is mountainous, but only mildly so, with the highest peak topping just 960m, smaller than Snowden, making for an undulating verdant landscape rather than a rugged rocky one. Even though many of the slopes are steep, this is walking rather than climbing country. The 28 towns and villages of the Sierra muster just 41,000 inhabitants between them, a sparsely scattered population mostly reliant on the land: growing fruit, olives, chestnuts and cork; raising cattle, sheep and goats, as much for cheese as for meat, and above all black Iberian pigs to produce the ham for which the region is noted.


      * The landscape of the Natural Park... *

      ...is more natural than most, given that the impact of man means that few places in Europe are entirely natural nowadays. The Park encompasses an area of 186,000 ha, of which over 120,000 ha is woodland, often cloaking the crests of the hills as far as the eye can see. Oaks of various kinds abound, especially holm oaks, the acorns from which are used to fatten up the pigs, gall oaks and cork oaks, which you see with their bark in various stages of recovery from being harvested. Sweet chestnuts are very much in evidence, and pines flourish here too, but though they are in places felled for timber there is little sign of intensive forestry. In the deep valleys between the heights are small patches of pasture, olive groves, orchards and nut plantations. Walking through the woods in early spring, we noticed blossoming almonds growing wild, or maybe these were merely the residue of human planting, abandoned long ago. Also in blossom, though only where cultivated, were mimosa, peaches and citruses of various kinds, the citruses often with last year's fruit still on the boughs. Wild cistus, lavender, thyme and rosemary were flowering beside the trails, as were violets, primroses and periwinkle, just as they might in England.

      Apparently, wild boar, muflons and even lynxes are still to be found deep in the woods, though we saw none of them, nor even the more commonplace roe deer. The birds of prey were much the most visible and impressive form of wildlife, soaring high above the ridges. The Sierra is home to several types of eagle, goshawk, vulture and kite, though our spotting skills were not up to distinguishing which were which. We did notice hoopoes, herons and egrets, though, and of course the storks that are found throughout southern Iberia. Almost every church steeple or tower supports a nest or two.


      * The towns and villages... *

      ...mostly nestle in the folds of the hills. Only those that have castles stand out against the skyline: Aracena itself, Cortegana, Almonaster, probably Aroche and Cumbres Mayores too, though we did not travel far enough west or north to see these two despite their being well-known for their surviving fortifications. I have no idea how many of the 28 settlements are officially designated as towns and how many as villages; of those we saw only Aracena is indisputably large enough to be thought of as town. Many are tiny and all the more charming for it, but to call them sleepy would be to overstate their animation. If we happened to walk through their narrow streets in the middle of the afternoon - admittedly, siesta-time - we would seldom see a soul. In the morning or early evening there might be a few shoppers, church-goers or café-customers around, but only a few. The slow pace of life and the absence of crowds do seem to make people friendlier; almost everyone would offer a "hola" or "buenas" as we passed. Even Aracena could hardly be described as bustling, though it does boast on its outskirts two supermarkets that are open all day (in the carpark of which we fell into conversation with a woman who invited us round to tea). Most village stores observe a strict siesta and are closed between two and six.

      The towns and villages of which we saw sufficient to form a judgement on their sights were:

      ~ Aracena. The old town lies in the shadow of the hilltop castle, which has largely been dismantled although a mediaeval church with some mudéjar-ish motifs is still to be found within the remaining walls. Another notable church, that of Santa María de la Asunción, dates from the early 16th century. The central square has an attractive medley of architectural styles through the ages, including the Art Deco Casino. The main tourist attraction, however, lies beneath the town in the shape of the rather predictably named Gruta de las Maravillas (Grotto of the Marvels), reputedly one of the most impressive limestone cave complexes in Spain, which I regret to say we did not manage to see, having mistimed our arrival.

      ~ Almonaster. An even more ancient castle dominates this tiny town, though it too has mostly been plundered for its stone, much of it having been used to build a still-working bull-ring on an adjacent site. Also surviving within the ruins are the remains of a mosque left over from the Moorish occupation, later adapted for use as a church. The town below has an almost elegant main square arranged around a marble fountain and, to my bemused astonishment, two bars each sporting a 'Pub' sign opposite each other down a cobbled side-street. Such signs might be commonplace on the costas, but not here in the hills; reassuringly, neither remotely resembled a British pub, and neither was open when we passed through around midday.

      ~ Alájar. A pleasant village, with a maze of narrow lanes of white-washed terraces, leading down to the river of the same name from a central square with cafés and an imposing town hall. It offers a Saturday market (well, a few stalls, anyway) and a post office (open for an hour each weekday morning). It is perhaps best seen, and its street-plan certainly best understood, from the church of La Peña, which perches on a ledge on the precipitous mountainside that rises above the town. Conversely, the view up to La Peña from below is also spectacular.

      ~ Linares. Postcard-pretty as it sits in a hollow in the hills, Linares has a fine church and a minuscule bullring, which spends most of the year acting as the central plaza and has its cobbles only sanded over for action on Midsummer Day. Talking of cobbles, Linares is paved with a particularly impressive range of llanos empedrados ('doormats' made in mosaic form from different-coloured stone chippings, which are to be seen in many of the villages) embedded in the street outside nearly every front door. There is a lovely fountain on the edge of the village, that feeds a communal lavadero (washing facility) that is still in use. And several of the best walks in the area start from here.

      ~ Castaño del Robledo. Some good walks start from here too, which is no surprise, since it is the highest village in the Sierra. Above it towers a church that appears too big for the village and is impressive from a distance, but which has apparently never been completed or consecrated, despite dating from the 18th century. The pace of life is indeed slow in these parts.

      ~ Jabugo. Well known as the local centre for ham curing, and has a more industrial atmosphere than the other towns in the area. The hanger-like buildings in which the ham is hung up to dry represent an unappealing contrast to the stone and stucco architecture that prevails elsewhere. Having been warned of this, we visited it mainly because it was holding its annual "Cocido" (stew-up) while we were staying locally, a festival in which the townspeople prepare what they claim (and The Guinness Book of Records apparently confirms) is the largest stew in the world. This may yet prove to be the subject of a separate review.

      ~ Galaroza. Another town with a local industry to its name, though here it is more on a craft scale and involves no ugly buildings, with carpenters fashioning furniture or other goods in their workshops from the chestnut wood that grows nearby. The town sprawls in a semi-circle round a hill, topped by a chapel and hermitage, said to be interesting, but which (having already walked a fair number of miles) we failed to reach.

      Most of the towns and villages are, in any case, not so much notable for their individual monuments as for their tranquil, timeless atmosphere. Though simple in design, many of the old houses display features - balconies with potted plants, courtyards with orange trees or vines, ornamental ironwork, decorative tiles or plaques - that add colour and charm. Pride is obviously taken in the public squares, often embellished with plants and fountains, which are everywhere kept clean and tidy in a way that would put many British towns to shame. This may be a poor area, but its people are clearly intent on keeping it a pleasant one in which to live, which helps make it a pleasant place to visit too.


      * Food and festivities *

      The people of the Sierra de Aracena are also very keen on celebrating their food. I have already mentioned the Cocido at Jabugo, with its gargantuan pork-and-ham-based stew. Stews (guiso is the local word) are also cooked with jabalí (wild boar), venado (venison), and setas (wild mushrooms) of which the Sierra has over 500 edible varieties. It is, if I remember rightly, the village of Fuentehreridos that hosts the annual Seta festival. La Umbría certainly has one dedicated to Migas, the traditional staple based on fried breadcrumbs and garlic, eaten with stew, sausage or sardines. Zufre's fiesta is focussed on the olive, La Nava's on the peach, and that of Los Marines on the grape and the mosto that is brewed from it. There is hardly any commercial viniculture in the area, but most farms, and even many household gardens, have a corner set aside for a few vines to supply their family, friends and perhaps the local bar as well.

      Finally, early in each December, Aracena organises a public Tostón (toasting) of chestnuts, again on a record-breaking scale (300 kilos last year), an occasion that is combined with a kind of Bonfire Night, illuminated not just by the bonfires themselves but with torches of skewered dry chestnut leaves, set alight and whirled around to trace fiery patterns in the night. As often in remote rural areas, the people are accustomed to create their own entertainment, and as well as the food festivals there are religious ones, while many towns hold local carnivals in February to help them through the winter.


      * Walking in the Sierra... *

      ...is rather well catered for. Well-worn drovers' tracks and footpaths weave their way around and over the hills and through the valleys, while the lanes and by-ways carry so little traffic that one can follow them undisturbed. The local authority seems to have recognised walking as an activity that might attract visitors, and there a number of officially-recognised and well-signposted routes. There is also a handbook available ('Sierra de Aracena - a walk guidebook' by David and Ros Braun), with both background information and some suggested itineraries. In any case, with the aid of a map and a compass one can easily pioneer one's own. The farmers and herdsmen encountered are generally friendly and their dogs kept under control; only once in a week's walking were we deterred from following a footpath through a farmyard by a loose, unsupervised dog, and had to find another way instead.

      Walks that I can recommend include: a circuit directly up from Castaño del Robledo to Galaroza, then back by a river gorge slightly further to the west (all officially recognised and way-marked); a circuit from Linares towards Aracena (way-marked), but diverting up a track over the top of the Sierra de Picachanes, for great views as one ascends; a circuit from Alájar to Linares via the almost (not quite) deserted hamlet of Los Madroñeros; and a circuit also from Alájar down the gorge of the Ribero de Santa Ana before returning up the parallel gorge of Alájar river. But there must be any number of other trails to be blazed.


      * Places to stay *

      The area has relatively few hotels. So far as I can tell from what we saw while there, and confirmed by a quick trawl on the internet, there is only a single large purpose-built modern one, the Aracena Park Hotel and Spa, which disfigures a hilltop just outside the town. In complete contrast is the small but elegant, boutiquey Casa Noble near the main square. Several of the towns and villages have a posada (guest-house, not to be confused with the Portuguese pousada, a much grander affair) and it is not difficult to find cottages, flats or rooms to let. We stayed in a rented cottage, one of several available at the Molino Rio Alájar, a place of charm and character kept by a Dutch couple: Monica, who has charm, and Peter Jan, who has character. Also in residence are various cats and a supporting staff of dogs, the latter very willing to escort guests on walks, indeed very hard to discourage from doing so. The Molino is well-situated, well-equipped, well-furnished and well-supplied, and is recommended, though we thought it fully priced for its amenities. I see now - too late - that discounted rates are available on one or two of the internet booking sites.

      Travelling around, we noticed only one campsite, attractively located if somewhat isolated in the hills near Fuenteheridos, though there are certainly others to be found.


      * How to get there *

      To enjoy the Sierra de Aracena to the full, it really does help to have the use of a vehicle, but it's a long drive from Britain to this far corner of Spain. So probably the best plan is to hire a car in Seville, which can be reached by train (Eurostar to Paris, overnight trenhotel to Madrid and then AVE) or more mundanely by air (Ryanair and Easyjet fly direct). I regret to say we followed the latter, quicker and cheaper though much less pleasant or environmentally-friendly, option. From Seville airport we reached Aracena in about an hour and a half. If you didn't want to hire a car, there are buses, but they seemed few and far between and you might find it difficult to plan your activities around their timetables.


      * When to go *

      Spring or autumn, of course. Not summer, when it can be horribly hot. We were perhaps a little bit too early in mid-March; although the temperatures were pleasant enough we probably missed the best of the spring flowers. Autumn would be good for woodland colour, not to mention enjoying the local fruit, chestnuts, wild mushrooms and new season's mosto, but the weather might be wet. Usually the area attracts quite a lot of rain by Spanish standards. We happened to visit after a particularly dry autumn and winter, which had the benefit of the sunshine holding for our visit, but meant that the vegetation looked less colourful than one would usually find it, and the rivers and streams were muted trickles of their usual selves. Typically, the landscape would be at its lushest in the spring.


      * Recommendation *

      Whether or not you'd enjoy the Sierra de Aracena rather depends on how you like to spend your time. If you require constant entertainment and stimulation, it wouldn't be for you. On the other hand, if you're content to explore some unspoiled and exhilarating countryside, to amble around timeless towns and villages, to sample some hearty and tasty local fare, and to adapt to an altogether gentler pace of life, then you might very much enjoy it, as we did.


      © Also published, with photographs, under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2012

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      Walk through the park and discover the excellent paths winding around chestnut and cork oak woods.