To the west of Seville lies one of Andalusia’s most beautiful and least visited areas. It’s home to the oak and cork forested hills of the Sierra de Aracena, and full of ancient towns and villages that come with a traditional mix of narrow streets, over-sized churches and medieval castles that date back to Moorish times. It’s not quite off the beaten track, but after Seville the pace of life in Huelva Province is not so much slow as from a different period in history.
The Sierra de Aracena is famous throughout Spain for its black Iberian pigs, considered to produce the finest (and most expensive) of all Spanish pata negra (black hoof) hams. You can spot the pigs all over the countryside eating the acorns that are essential for giving their meat its distinctive flavour. The area is a culinary cornucopia, with some of Spain’s most delicious goat and sheep cheeses, honey, fungi, wild asparagus, artichokes and chestnuts.
We had a couple of days in the area to do some walking on tracks around the villages, and sample the region’s traditional foods. On the drive to Alájar were we were staying in a small rural hotel, we stopped in Aracena, the region’s largest town with around 8,000 people. It’s an atmospheric and historic place with pleasant cobbled streets, a couple of attractive churches and a picturesque medieval castle sitting dramatically on a hilltop.
Aracena is also home to the Gruta de las Maravillas, a cave system filled with truly amazing limestone formations, stalagmites, stalactites and colourful pools of water. The cave system lies under the hill upon which the castle stands. The temperature and humidity make a visit a little unpleasant, but the unearthly beauty of the place is extraordinary. Sadly, photos aren’t allowed.
When we emerged out of the caves we headed into town, stopped for a reviving coffee and a little tapas, and headed up to the castle to take the views. This area has a long and turbulent history of conquest and reconquest. It was under Moorish control for 500 years before the Portuguese drove them out in 1251. It became Spanish in 1267 in a rare peaceful transition.
The castle was built in the 13th century while still under Moorish control, but seems to have been too little, too late to prevent Christian forces from capturing the town. Within the old walls is a small church, built in a Gothic-Mudéjar style by the Knights Templar, who controlled the area until the mid-14th century. The walk up the hill is worth it for the panorama over the town and surrounding countryside.
On our way out of town we came across a couple of fields of the region’s prized pigs, all roaming freely around the countryside, and shovelling up as many acorns as they could eat. It would be a recurring sight over the coming days, along with plenty of sheep and goats. It was like stumbling upon a version of rural Spain that Laurie Lee so vividly conjures up in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. Truly glorious.