Huelva and Doñana area guide: outstanding natural beauty
Anybody fancy a four-hour drive across the wilds of Andalucía to the very southwest corner of the country and its most sparsely populated region?
A place where Europe's last remaining wild Iberian Lynxes can be found? A huge breeding ground for African flamingos and a 100,000 hectare swathe of wetland where the landscape has never been touched or shaped by human hands? Of course you do. If you want to move to Spain and experience everything that this richly diverse country has to offer, then you'll want more than just beaches, bars, Brit-themed entertainment and surly waiters – you'll want to discover Spain's vast wilderness, too.
Which is exactly what the region of Huelva and Doñana offers. A sparse, slightly backward backwater that boasts brilliant seafood, odd festivals, a fierce rivalry with neighbouring Portugal and a history that has been played out at sea, rather than on the land.
In truth, the reputation is well founded, but only touches upon a very narrow aspect of life in Spain’s wildest corner. For example, the city of Huelva – which is located some 40km west of Doñana, right on the border with Portugal's Algarve region – boasts a rich history that has been shaped by both Portuguese and Spanish influences over the last few centuries, Huelva is like no other city in Spain and is an intriguing sight to behold every day of the year. And fear not – all mod-cons are present and correct in Huelva... there's no wild bears, no angry mammals prowling the streets, plenty of excellent accommodation and enough home comforts to keep even the most ardent city-type comfortable and convenienced for the duration of their stay.
Doñana is a little more agricultural, most famous for the Doñana National Park, which is a strictly protected biosphere that is one of Europe's most important ecosystems, an ornithologist's paradise and a feather in the cap for Spain's conservationists. In a country often derided for its willingness to brutally tarmac its natural beauty in pursuit of euro investment, the Doñana National Park is a fiercely defended national treasure, and an area of outstanding natural beauty that is well worth seeing.
There IS a rich seafaring history in the city of Huelva, predating the Romans all the way back to ancient Phoenician times. Most historians agree that Huelva is the site of the fabled port of Tartessus, which would certainly make sense – its location is as strategic as they come. As the gateway to both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, and sited between the estuaries of two of Spain's most important and navigable rivers (the Guadiana and the Guadalquivir), Huelva has helped shape much of Europe for centuries. The Romans had their time there, as always, but it was the Moors who gave the city its modern-day name (it was called 'Walbah' back then, but anybody with an understanding of the Spanish language will know that, phonetically at least, 'Walbah' and 'Huelva' are pretty much identical) and prestige.
After the Christian Reconquista, Huelva's importance grew and grew. In 1485, Christopher Columbus arrived in the city having failed to convince the Portuguese monarchy to fund his voyage across the Atlantic in search of new trade routes to India. While staying at the city's La Rábida Monastery, his plans were finalised and his expedition given the funding and seal of approval by Spain's Ferdinand and Isabella. Come 1492, Columbus was ready to set sail, and the rest is history. Those very same cloisters at the La Rábida Monastery remain today, and visitors can trace Columbus' footsteps throughout the city and beyond, which includes a trip to the small port of Palos de la Frontera, which is where the last fresh water drinking supplies were collected before Columbus and his crew disappeared over the horizon, and into the unknown.
Since then, much of Spain's and Portugal's riches from the New World came ashore at Huelva, helping to create a wealthy city that benefited not only from a favourable climate and brilliant location, but centuries of relative peace, enlightenment and progression. The city's modern day charm and beauty is a testament to its foundations, and its intoxicating atmosphere has helped boost its population over the past few decades...you might not want to leave either.
Over in Doñana, the untouched 100,000 hectares of land has none of the material wealth of Huelva, but is awash with natural riches. Over this vast wetland, some 30 different types of mammal, 17 species of reptile and 125 different kinds of birds call the Doñana home, including some of Europe's rarest creatures, such as the Egyptian Mongoose, the Iberian Lynx, wild boar and even the extremely rare Spanish Imperial Eagle. This wilderness is certainly no place for a human to call home, but for a fleeting visit it's nigh-on unrivalled in Europe.
Climate-wise, Huelva and Doñana National Park enjoy above-average rainfall, summer highs of 38c and winter lows that rarely drop below 10c, making the region pleasantly comfortable pretty much all year round.
Let’s take it for granted that the weather is pretty good. Picture endless blue skies, minimal wind, a gentle warmth that will certainly surge into a stifling heat in a few hours, but by then you will be in full siesta mode after a delicious lunch dining on local delicacies and perhaps a couple more glasses of superb sherry than was sensible. Pictured? Good. Let’s get started.
There are a couple of places of interest in Huelva, the most intriguing being the Barrio Reina Victoria, which translates as Queen Victoria District.
This puzzling part of Huelva is easy enough to explain. As you stroll through streets edged by well-clipped hedgerows fronting the lawns of Victorian-style houses, you could be forgiven for running for cover at the merest sight of an advancing hood-wearing teen, shuddering as you spot a white Transit van turn the corner in front of you or instantly inebriating yourself because the weather's pretty good. But fear not – you're not in England, you're just in a quaint corner of the city that was created for expat British workers once employed at the now defunct copper mines of Huelva. While the effect is purely superficial, it's still a striking sight to behold – a tiny slice of genteel England, thousands of miles from home.
After that eyebrow-raising spectacle, why not take The Columbus Trail? You can retrace the great explorer's footsteps in and around Huelva and gain an understanding of the scale of the task that faced him all those centuries ago.
While Columbus was either Portuguese, Catalan or Genoese depending on what you read, it was Spain that helped him realise his dream of heading across the Atlantic; here in Huelva, a number of sites played an important part in the planning for the discovery of the New World. The La Rábida Monastery was where Columbus first sought assistance from the resident Franciscan monks, while the local Pinzón Brothers were rich and well-connected sailors that helped arrange the fabled meeting with Ferdinand and Isabella. This monastery, as well as Palos de la Frontera and the town of Moguer (where Columbus met with sailors who advised him on the best routes to take in search of a western passage) are all either in Huelva or close by, and can all be visited.
For a slower pace, Doñana cannot be beaten. Immersed and enveloped in unstinting natural beauty, the park’s El Rocío Bridge is one of the best bird observation spots in Europe. In addition to the dozens of local birds that swoop and bob past you every day, the bridge is also directly below a couple of migratory paths for birds from North Africa, including flamingos and vultures. If you're a bird lover then this chance to see some of nature's most beautiful birds should not be missed, while the entire family will find something to enthral them, either in the skies or across the beautiful landscape in which the bridge sits.
Provided you are not worn out by all the birdwatching and trail tracing, a night out in Huelva can throw up a couple of surprises (suffice to say, there’s not too much going on along Doñana’s wetlands past sundown), not least the city’s stunning cuisine.
It's a fair way to go for a meal, but Huelva's culinary offerings are pretty special. As you would expect, fish and seafood dishes feature heavily on most restaurant's menus, with the city injecting its own unique take on a number of famous dishes and also serving up some wonderful local delights that you will struggle to find anywhere else. The deep and fresh Atlantic waters that wash the shore of Huelva provide the city with Atlantic Prawns; caught in the estuaries of the Guadiana and the Guadalquivir, these rosy-coloured prawns have a fabulously fresh flavour that is best captured when grilled over an open flame and washed down with some local sherry.
Additionally, the waters around Huelva produce supreme tuna, sea bass, sole, red mullet, snapper, cuttlefish and coquina clam. Simple, fresh, affordable and healthy, each one makes for a fantastic meal for all the family. Other specialities of the region include the rich Iberian cured ham, the Bonares Easter cake and wines produced by the Denominación de Origen Condado de Huelva.
Afterwards, totter your way to a traditional bodega serving local sherry and manzanilla atop upturned barrels, take in a traditional (and usually authentic) flamenco show, amble through the city’s safe and deserted streets at twilight and even – if you are feeling up to it – gatecrash one of the local discotheques. Sure, they will be pumping out some awful Eurotrash pop until the early hours, and you are likely to get a lot of quizzical looks from the youngsters in there surprised to see an outsider’s face, but it’s good, clean and safe fun, and a great way to really get to know this fascinating corner of Spain.
By journalist, editor and former Costa del Sol resident, Ian Clover.
Costa del Sol Area Guides
- Alhaurín de la Torre
- Alhaurín El Grande
- El Faro
- La Cala de Mijas
- La Duquesa
- Mijas Costa
- Nueva Andalucía
- Puerto Banús
- Riviera del Sol
- San Pedro
- San Roque
Surrounding Areas in Andalucía
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