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HOT lifestyle - Huelva... A land of breathtaking contrasts

The most westerly of Andalucia's eight provinces, Huelva is also the least well-known. So whether you're a nature-lover, a foodie, a history buff, can't get your fill of pristine white beaches stretching into the far distance, or can't wait to explore mysterious landscapes as awesomely alien as Mars itself, this fascinating region of Southern Spain truly has something for everyone. Plus, there are more than a few intriguing — even quirky — little surprises to discover along the way...!

Strategically located close to the entrance to the Mediterranean, Huelva borders the provinces of Cadiz and Sevilla to the east, and Portugal to the west. Less than a four-hour drive from the Costa del Sol, the provincial capital's chequered history dates back some 3,000 years, and after being inhabited by the Tartessians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, in common with most of Southern Spain, it later fell into Moorish hands prior to its Spanish Reconquest.

But it was when Christopher Columbus arrived in 1485 that Huelva's undisputed place at the forefront of world history was assured. Unable to convince the King of his native Portugal to finance his visionary plans, Columbus landed in Palos de la Frontera and stayed at the La Rabida Franciscan monastery, where he enjoyed the welcome support of astrologer and cosmographer Friar Antonio de Marchena. And it was in the secluded XIII century cloisters that the two finalised Columbus's ambitious project before presenting it to Spain's Ferdinand and Isabella who eventually agreed to sponsor the explorer's 1492 watershed Voyage of Discovery to the New World.

 Vessels were built, local crews mustered, and on 8 August, Columbus set sail across the ocean blue with his three trusty ships: the Santa Maria, La Pinta and La Niña.

At the La Rabida Monastery - nine kilometres from the city centre - you can pace those very same cloisters, as well as touring the refectory, the Sala de Banderas and other areas, where a significant collection of Columbus memorabilia is on display. Then, at nearby Punta de Sebo, the Muelle de las Carabelas Museum features life-size replicas of the explorer's three vessels - built in 1992 to commemorate the V Centenary and The Universal Exhibition of Sevilla better known as EXPO '92 - which float idly on the waters of the estuary, while at Palos de is Frontera itself, you can visit both the historic embarkation point, and see the well from which supplies of drinking water were loaded on board. The imposing 36-metre-tall Monument to the Faith of the Discoverer by American sculptress Gertrude Whitney overlooks the river at La Rabida, while the house in which the adventurer once stayed is also nearby.

But while Huelva's long history is as compelling as Sevilla, Granada, Cordoba, Malaga and Cadiz – each seeped in culture and with an abundance of magnificent monuments to marvel at - much of the city's once rich legacy of ancient buildings was decimated by the Lisbon earthquake in 1755.

Fortunately though, several historic landmarks did survive - including the XV century Church of San Pedro, the hilltop sanctuary of Nuestra Señora de la Cinta, and the Cathedral de la Merced with its majestic Baroque facade. Other more recently built places of interest not to be missed include the Provincial and Fine Arts Museums, the Casa Colón (Columbus House), the Monument to Faith, the Conquero Mirador, Ibero-American University, the inviting Alonso Sanchez Park, and the Plus Ultra Monument commemorating the first Southern transatlantic flight.

Interestingly, too, the body of Glyndwr Michael, the fictional Major William Martin - known as 'The man who never was', a WW2 ruse of the Allies to distract German Intellegence - reposes in the Cemetery de la Soledad. Then there’s the city's quaint Barrio Reina Victoria (created for British workers once employed at the now closed Río Tinto copper mines) and the British-engineered Río Tinto Pier… more about that later. But what the provincial capital may lack in architectural splendour is more than made up for a thousand times over by the sheer beauty and diversity of what awaits beyond the city limits.

So, where to begin?

Well, since we're in gloriously sunny Southern Spain, let’s start with the beaches...

Not just any old beaches, Huelva's beaches are to die for! Lapped by the clear blue water of the Atlantic, the coastal region of Huelva - sometimes known as the Spanish Algarve - is a paradise of unspoilt white sandy beaches stretching into infinity and fringed with soft dunes, as well as fragrant pine and juniper trees. Beaches which, even during the height of summer, you can delight in having all to yourself!

At the western end of the Costa de la Luz - which it shares with the province of Cádiz to the east – Huelva’s shores are less exposed than those of its neighbour and while there are plenty of opportunities for windsurfing and kitesurfing, they are better known for the more laid-back sports of canoeing, sailing, fishing and scuba diving. There are literally dozens of beaches to choose from, some reached by road and others by ferry or via boardwalks leading through the pine woods and dunes. The municipality of Cartaya - founded by the Phoenicians and nestling between the city of Huelva and the Guadiana River - boasts some of the best.

A great place for canoeing and sailing is the charismatic La Flecha de El Rompido, a 12km sandbar, jutting out into the Atlantic on one side and with the calm waters of the estuary of the River Piedras on the other. Swans return here year after year to raise their young, while at Punta del Gato, fishing for clams at low tide is a popular pastime.

Doñana National Park

Punta Umbria is another good choice. A popular seaside resort near the city of Huelva, Punta Umbria lies on the estuary of the Rio Odiel, surrounded by the Marismas de Odiel - 7,000 hectares of salt marshes, Huelva's second most important nature reserve and a UNESCO site. Other nearby conservation areas include the La Laguna de El Portil with its cool, freshwater lagoon; and the beautiful sand dunes of El Paraje Natural de Los Enebrales; while the Parque Natural de las Marismas del Rio Piedras - a region of salt marshes, coastal pine woods, sand dunes and tidal creeks close to El Rompido - is also well worth exploring.

But for nature-lovers, the one place you absolutely must see is the world-famous Doñana Park. Granted National Park status in 1969, and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, the Coto Doñana - just 40km from Huelva city also extends into the neighbouring province of Sevilla. A unique, 543km2 ecosystem, made up by marshlands, sand dunes, pinewoods and freshwater lagoons, the former hunting estate owned by the Kings of Castille as long ago as the XIII century, is now internationally recognised as a major centre of conservation.

A delta, where waters flood in winter before receding in the spring to leave behind rich deposits of silt, the captivating Doñana landscapes are home to some 125 different species of birds who choose this remote area in which to breed, as well as almost 30 types of mammals, 17 species of reptiles, nine different amphibians and eight types of fish.

A wonderland for ornithologists, birds spending at least a part of the year here range from eagles, herons and vultures... to geese, flamingo, owls and hoopoes. And, depending on the season, birdwatchers can enjoy an amazing flypast of literally dozens of different species from the El Rocio bridge, possibly the best observation point in Europe.

There is also an abundance of game, including deer and boar, while you may even be lucky enough to spot an Iberian lynx, Egyptian mongoose, or a Retuerta wild horse, all of which are sadly in danger of extinction. Yet only a short drive from this fertile region teeming with flora and fauna, lies its polar opposite. A place so dramatically alien that you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd been teleported to a different planet altogether. Five thousand years of open-cast mining - The Río Tinto mines were first exploited by the Iberians and Tartessians in 3,000BC - have irrevocably transformed the landscape into something more akin to the Red Planet than anything on Earth. According to myth these are King Solomon's Mines, and once the birthplace of the Bronze and Copper Ages, they were later mined for gold and silver by the Phoenicians, Romans, Visigoths and Moors.

They were rediscovered by the Spanish in 1556, reopened in 1724, and acquired in the 19th century by the British, who remained until 1954 when the mines were nationalised by General Franco. During their stay, the British left their mark on Huelva in more ways than one. They laid 300km of narrow gauge railway lines and sidings, culminating in the magnificent and still standing Riotinto Pier in the Port of Huelva, from where the ore and minerals were exported around the world.

Other surviving mining infrastructure includes the Barrio de Reina Victoria in Huelva city, a typically Victorian British suburb built for the mineworkers and dating from 1916; and the Bellavista village in Riotinto, constructed for the company's executives and managers, and complete with a Presbyterian Church, social club and tennis courts. Concerned about the health and wellbeing of the Rio Tinto miners, its two Scottish doctors also founded Huelva's Real Club Recreativo - the oldest football club in Spain.

And although nowadays the mines are closed, they're still making history... though in a totally different way. With the Río Tinto region more closely resembling the surface of Mars than anywhere else on our planet - where the River runs blood red and the barren landscape is streaked with all the colours of the rainbow, from magenta, yellow and orange, to violet and blue - in recent years, scientists from NASA and other Space Agencies have carried out extensive research here, as well as testing a new spacesuit and the prototype Eurobot unmanned rover, with a view to future missions to Mars.

You can visit the Rio Tinto Mining Park, complete with the Museum of Mining, and on the first Sunday of the month, November through April, you can hop aboard a beautifully restored locomotive - the oldest in Spain that's still operational for a 12km ride through this most dramatically stunning of landscapes.

What else to see in Huelva? Well, actually there's plenty more. Like, for example, the rugged mountains of the Sierra de Aracena in the north of Huelva. Dotted with picture postcard white villages, none is more famous than the quaint little town of Jabugo, whose name takes pride of place on the menus of the most distinguished of eateries and charcuterie counters across the globe.

With valuable Jabugo hams costing up to several hundred euros each, the region's pure-bred pata negra or black foot pigs spend their lives in lush fields and orchards, snuffling out the acorns which give the meat its distinctively sweet and nutty flavour.

This is also the home of the 11 million-year-old Gruta de las Maravillas cave system which will simply take your breath away. Discovered in 1911, it was the first cave in Spain to be opened to the public and comprises some 2,200 metres of galleries, just over half of which can be visited. With no fewer than twelve main caverns of enormous proportions, plus six large subterranean lakes, the sheer magnificence of the Gruta de las Maravillas (Grotto of Marvels) has inspired countless artists, musicians, poets and writers over the years. The cave system is open every day. with guided tours taking just under an hour.

So ‘which’ Huelva will be ‘your’ Huevla? You’ll have the time of your life finding out!

Please note: Every effort was made to check the accuracy of the information contained within our archived HOT Properties Magazine articles at the time of originally going to press, but may well have been superseded over the ensuing years. They are now made available as historical archival information only. The said information has not been reviewed subsequently for present day accuracy nor has it been updated and we expressly disclaim any duty or obligation to do so. VIVA cannot accept responsibility for any errors or omissions, nor for the authenticity of any claims or statements made by third parties. We therefore strongly recommend that readers of these archived articles make their own thorough checks before entering into any kind of transaction. Prices were correct at the time of publication but may now vary due to circumstances beyond our control. The views and opinions of editorial contributors do not necessarily reflect those of VIVA .

HOT Properties Magazine Issue 100 - 2014

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