…the now insignificant village of Palos de la Frontera. It was form this port that Columbus sailed on Aug. 3rd, 1492, on his voyage of discovery with this three small vessels, the Santa Maria, the Pinta, and the Niña. - Baedecker;s Spain and Portugal, 1901
This ‘insignificant village’ was our base for two days. And though it felt minuscule and far-flung, its name was well known to me as one of the stops of Madrid’s metro system. Though it may have a population just over ten thousand and almost no real tourism, except for people using it as a base for golf, it was a rather clean and charming little place.
It was neither beautiful nor unattractive, but it seemed that money had been poured into it. The streets were clean and shiny, the buildings white and rimmed with Andalusian yellow and the little squares prim and proper with colourful tiles and children running about.
The Iglesia de San Jorge Mártir is a fine little 15th century church that looks out to fields of large fat strawberries called fresones and provides the small town with its northern flank. We were housed in a sweet old hotel, aptly named La Pinta, which smelled of a grandmother’s house, served local wine, nice food - stuffed eggs, croquetas, grilled chicken skewers, fried fish (boquerones and chocos), tomato salads, stuffed mushrooms, grilled pork fillet - and sat on a street that recalled the Wild West.
The first warm morning we followed in the footsteps of Columbus and headed a few kilometres down the road to La Rábida, a graceful and peaceful little 13th-century Franciscan friary, white walls and yellow tips surrounded an old stone block, where Columbus stayed a couple of years before his famous trip.
Nearby is the Muelle de las Carabelas: a museum area with three life-size mockups of Columbus’ boats reflecting themselves placidly in a small lake. It was interesting to think that one of the most famous voyagers in the history of the world left from that flat and uninteresting estuary in three small vessels. However, there were a couple of bus-loads of tourists and, to be honest, I get very limited enjoyment from replicas.
Another day, moist and warm with the climate of the Spanish south coast, we did a loop to take in three very distinct locations. First off we went around the legendary Rio Tinto opencast mines, once the most valuable copper mines in existence.
The eight square kilometres of mines are part of the 230km Iberian pyrite belt; pyrite, ‘fool’s gold’, being that mixture of copper, iron and sulphur. The sulphur explained the smell, a stinking multicoloured otherworldly place where the green-yellow Spanish landscape was scraped and scarred with iron-red, rusty orange, mustard yellows and burned pinks.
The British arrived in 1873 and took the reigns of a history of mining stretching back to before 10,000BC. New neighbourhoods sprung up filled with English-looking houses, a Presbyterian church, a tennis club and Victorian airs and leisure pursuits. A funny corner of Spain where even NASA astrobiologists came to study the primordial lake and riverside chemistry where extremophile anaerobic bacteria were found wriggling in the noxious waters.
After the mines came a moment, brief as it was, to indulge in my love of wine and hatred of my liver. The undulating flat lands gained a touch more green, as is always the case with vineyards, and had a whiff of the Thames Valley about it as we entered Bollullos Par del Condado; capital of the Condado de Huelva wine region, a zone known for Sherry-style wines.
Somebody somewhen had clearly thrown money at the DO, as the brand spanking new, space-age honeycomb building that was the Centro del Vino, stood gleaming, slightly out of place, amongst the tight streets of this distant and rustic little farm town. We deemed it more important to visit a winery and try the wines rather than have to go round a museum where I would be translating for my parents. So with a winery in mind, we set off on foot.
Bollullos itself was charming enough, in that white-washed way that all Andalusian towns are. No building seemed to creep above two storeys, except for the principal church, which was a very fine 18th building that clearly followed the classic sevillana architectural school. A giralda-esque tower sitting stony and tiled next to a grand bone-white facade with yellow-rim finishes.
We had called ahead to meet Bodegas Oliveros, who were very friendly and offered a variety of wines from the DO. We sampled a red, a white, an aged vermouth, and, more interestingly for me, a local style of Vino Naranja, orange wine. This sweet wine is aged in a similar way to sherry, in the stacked up fractional blending solera system, but has also been macerated for months with orange peel. The result is a rich, orange-inflected dark wine and is rather lovely. We bought quite a lot.
To finish off the day we headed down through the flats to the marshlands on the west bank of the Doñana National Park. It was a place of pilgrimage that I had always wanted to visit. El Rocío is a small hamlet that plays the part of destination for the pilgrims taking part every year in the Romería del Rocío. During Pentecost the population soars from about 1600 to over a million. People come from far and wide to pay their respects to the Virgen del Rocío. We arrived to the smell of fat candles being extinguished in a dark soot-covered chapel. We had missed the fiestas by a few days.
In lieu of concrete and cobbles, the ground was sand, which lent a somewhat Leone vibe to the enclave. Despite the relative newness of the current building - built in 1960 - the ‘shrine’ is really quite the most gorgeous building. White, as per tradition, and covered in spiky spires, crosses, arches and light-brown tiles. All this reflected in the hoof-created muddy pools of water by the banks of the Charco de la Boca lake. It was a very dreamlike and strange place.
A off-kilter lunch, which varied wildly in quality, was taken at a small wine-bar called the Sacristía de Doñana. A wall covered in wine bottles crept backwards into a timber-beam bar that was propped up by locals and a gitana family with joyous and very loud children sat on the patio outside. Seemed about right for El Rocío.
The croquetas were poor and not worth remembering, however the garbanzos con espinacas, chickpeas cooked with spinach and a fried egg, were rather nice; good and garlicky and heaped up on crusty bread. Glasses of local white wine, made by the bar, were ordered, and then, quite quickly more glasses of the Zalema grape found their way to our table.
The outstanding dish was the gambas de Huelva, the area’s legendarily sweet little prawns, cooked simply and served piled high with salt.
It was our last day in the south. Huelva was a funny old province. No town made the jaw drop and no natural landscape would give one’s camera much of a workout. However it had a bunch of character and a uniquely odd cross-cultural personality. I wouldn’t hurry back but I would happily go back, if not just to sip some white wine with a plate of juicy shrimp.