Conquest of the Canaries

In the fourteenth century the islands of the Canaries were divided into fiefdoms and were ruled peacefully by Menceys, who in turn had their own tribal council to mete out judgements and enforce the laws of the land. Tenerife, for instance, had nine separate kingdoms and although there were occasional disagreements, rivalries and skirmishes on the whole they lived a peaceful existence. The majority of them lived in caves and survived off the land, farming, herding, hunting, while others built small round houses to raise their families in.

The problem for the Guanches and the Canary Islands as a whole was that strategically they were in a prime position for trade and as a way-station to the Americas. Realising this Spain made the islands a colony as early as 1483, using them as a refilling station on their way to the New World. Before this period, however, the indigenous population had to deal with invading forces first from the Portuguese and then the French.

A military expedition sent by the King of Portugal in 1341 arrived among the Seven Islands under the command of Niccoloso da Recco, principally as a fact gathering mission. Samples of gofio and several cultural artefacts were gathered and the resulting contact with the local population saw four Guanches captured, taken back to Portugal and sold as slaves.

It was not the first contact the islanders had had with outsiders but this was to set a precedent that was to bathe the near future in blood and a war that was to last a hundred years.

During the following years another expedition was sent, this time from the king of Mallorca with the intention of colonising the islands and turning the natives to the path of Christianity. It was in essence a peaceful mission, benign, and the first incursion of Christianity spread throughout several of the islands, which was to last from 1350 to 1400.

Full scale invasion came to the Canaries in 1402, though, with the landing of Jean de Bethencourt on the north side of Lanzarote. He was a Norman/ French explorer from the court of King Henry III of Castille and from this base went on the conquer Fuerteventura, Lanzarote, La Gomera and El Hierro with comparative ease. The invaders were not met with open arms, however, on Gran Canaria, Tenerife and La Palma, each of these islands resisting with an indomitable will and any weapons they had available.

Where the French were quipped with weapons made of iron, were armoured and well prepared for war, the Guanches only wore hides made from goats and carried lances, clubs studded with pebbles, javelins, rudimentary shields and polished battle-axes made of stone. Not a very well-balanced match by any means but the invaders didn´t reckon on the fierce determination of the islanders.

Holding the coasts proved to be an impossible task for the natives and they were slowly pushed further inland, continuing a retreating battle into the mountains. It was from these familiar surroundings that they were able to make something of a stand, hitting the invaders sporadically, never meeting them head to head but attacking them and harrying them at every opportunity.

This underground resistance was to continue none stop, with the islands being occupied but seemingly unconquerable in the long run. Still neither side were willing to admit defeat so the skirmishes raged on for years to come.

True the French had claimed large areas of the islands and even proclaimed the Canaries as their own, but the uprising and resistance continued unabated until the final decades of the 15th century. So even though they perceived themselves as victorious, the European colonies were nothing more than coastal enclaves surrounded by a hostile force that just would not give up.

The Portuguese attempted to wrest what control the French had in 1424 but didn´t attempt a full-scale invasion until 1446 where they were repelled after many bloody battles and then again in 1468. The French were determined to hold on to the islands no matter the cost in lives but the Portuguese were just as determined that they were going to oust the French no matter whose blood was shed, theirs, the enemy´s and even the Guanches caught in the crossfire.

The death of King Henry IV of Portugal in 1474 propelled the conflict into another, fiercer level as King Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabelle of Castille laid claim to the Guinea Coast nearby to slow the Portuguese invasion into West Africa. The response was immediate, bloody and saw the death toll rise even further as the Portuguese struggled to gain a foothold in the Canary Islands.

Virtually five years of warfare ensued until a peace treaty was signed in 1479 and the Portuguese desisted in their takeover plans and the French renounced their navigation rights in African waters. The war between the French and the Portuguese was over. Now it was the turn of Spain to try and capture the Canaries.

It was actually in 1461 that the Spanish launched a serious offensive to take over the islands but it wasn´t until 1478 that a foothold was gained in Gran Canaria by Juan Rejon. They then built a fort as their base of operations and from this beachhead Spain planned their next all out assault on the war weary Guanches.

With the sun blazing down and a stiff breeze to fill his sails on the third of May 1494, Alonso Fernanzez de Lugo landed his ships at Añaza Beach, his troops bolstered by several hundred natives from Gran Canaria who had been Christianized and had decided to support the Spanish in their crusade.

And they weren´t the only ones.

Prior to landing on the coast between Anaga and Guimar, Alonso had reached an agreement with four of the nine Menceys on the island. These four kingdoms, Guimar, Anaga, Abona and Adeje, possibly because they were indoctrinated over the years by Spanish missionaries, submitted peacefully and accepted the Spaniards with open arms.

The Great Mencey of Taoro and the island´s main king, Bencomo, refused to accept the occupation and was determined to fight the invaders to the last man. Together with the kingdoms of Daute, Icod, Tacoronte and Tegeuste they made up the richest and the most populated areas of Tenerife and formed a powerful and determined army.

Alonso Fernandez de Lugo gathered his troops on the beaches and began his march into Tenerife to subjugate the last bastion of resistance. Crossing Aguere Valley he arrived at the North shore, encountering not one of Bencomo´s men along the way. As he continued his confidence and arrogance grew, believing that the ignorant savages had retreated and were even now cowering in their caves and so, unsuspectingly, his guard down, he proceeded into Taoro, the very heartland of the resistance.

Pausing in the ravine of Acentejo(pouring waters), Alonso heard a mighty roar erupt from the surrounding slopes. Scores of his men fell, screaming in agony as spears rained down seemingly from everywhere, piercing hearts, throats and killing them instantly.

The day of bloodletting had begun.

Snowboarding on El Teide

Sitting on the beach in this glorious heat, looking up at Teide, it is hard to imagine the mountain covered in snow. Of the many words one tends to associate with Tenerife; sunshine, beaches and carnival among others; snowboarding is certainly not one of them. But little more than a few weeks ago we are doing just that: snowboarding the east face of Teide!

After several failed attempts, including storms, flooding, rock falls, broken bindings and a flat tyre, we eventually made it up to Teide on a glorious sunny day, with the mountain covered in a layer of beautiful white powder. We pulled the assortment of gear from the car, and, with our snowboards slung under our arms, started the long hike up. At this altitude, any walking is quite strenuous, but with snowboarding boots on and lugging your snowboard with you all the way, it seems to go on forever. When you finally reach the top, and you see a boarders dream of a mass of white snow falling away in front of you, down into the caldera, and beyond the circular ridge of mountains; the magnificent silhouette of Gran Canaria beautifully placed on the horizon in front of you, a big fat smile appears on your face, and your pounding heart beats just that little bit faster. Where else in the world can you sit on top of a perfect slope, with a snowboard on your feet, and gaze down at the sea and neighbouring islands?

The impatience sets in and you want to set off immediately, but your frantic breathing, grasping what little oxygen you can out of the air at this altitude, is screaming at you to stop for a minute or two. When your breathing returns to normal, being replaced by the adrenalin in your blood as you know the time is nearing, you push yourself to your feet and start to fly down the mountain. The feeling of freedom at this speed, coming as close to real flying as you will ever get still touching the ground, fills your body from your tingling toes to the tears in your eyes as the wind whistles through you. The knowledge of total control being stretched to the limit as you push yourself just that little bit harder, fills your body with even more adrenalin. You tear down the mountain, the only sounds reaching your ears being the crinkling whoosh of the snow under your board, pulling turn after turn, on each, reaching out with your hand held high as your body brushes the snow underneath you. You do this again and again, the walking up dulled as much as possible by taking your mind far away and inventing hundreds of weird and wonderful ways of getting up the mountain without actually having to walk, until you finally give in to your body and what the exertions at that altitude do to it and you set off back on the long walk down to the car.

What a better way to end a days snowboarding with a beer or two on the beach watching the sun go down behind La Gomera? I ask you; where else in the world would you be able to do this?

Las Teresitas – the people’s paradise

One of the first things I noticed after moving to Tenerife was just how little effort was needed by the islanders to find a reason for celebrating.

Whether walking the streets after the local football team had won (a rare event this season I’m afraid) or just simply enjoying the lively Latin ambience at a local bar, the Santa Cruceros refreshing joie de vivre was in stark contrast to the grey and reserved England I’d left behind.

As the bus I’m sitting on winds its way east towards the verdant Anaga Mountains, they’re at it again. Passing through the charming little coastal town of San Andres (full of excellent seafood restaurants) I wonder for a moment if I’ve been caught up in the Spanish equivalent of Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday. With laughing kids singing pop songs and elderly couples cracking jokes with the driver, it seems impossible to believe that our destination is merely a day at the seaside. But that, as I am soon to learn, is where I’m wrong. To the people of Santa Cruz, Las Teresitas isn’t just a beach. It’s the beach.

Strolling along the golden seafront, slapping on the factor 50, it’s immediately apparent that Las Teresitas is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. Built in 1973 to satisfy the local’s yearning for a resort similar to those found in the south, the most challenging task in creating the beach was finding enough sand to cover the rather dour rock and shingle shore that nature had provided. Discounting a rather cheeky offer from their neighbours (and chief rivals) in Gran Canaria, the powers-that-be instead opted to import four million sacks of sand from a Spanish-owned part of the Sahara. After being thoroughly inspected for any signs of life (scorpions, spiders, etc) the powdery material was shipped to Santa Cruz and then transported the eight kilometres to Las Teresitas by road.

Once the sand had been located, conveyed and laid, there were other problems that needed attending to, ranging from the practical to the grievous. Whilst providing sufficient parking (1,000 spaces) caused few concerns, dealing with the ferocious underwater currents of the Atlantic was a different matter altogether. Although notoriously dangerous, in the years preceding the renovation of the beach, it was not uncommon for one or two people to fall victim to the ocean each year. To overcome this perilous quandary, a substantial breakwater was built 50 metres from the shoreline, which nullifies the pull of the tide and provides a tranquil haven for bathers. Today, this 400-metre long man made seawall is a popular spot for fishermen, who in typically relaxed Canarian fashion while away the hours chatting, eating and drinking, seemingly unconcerned about the lack of bites.

Continuing a leisurely promenade along the shell-shaped shore, the early afternoon sun making me grateful for the shade provided by a variety of native palms, I suddenly find myself confronted by something I’ve never before encountered in such a setting. Set to the rear of the beach and lined by a white picket fence stands a small cemetery. With each sandy plot marked only by a simple wooden or metal cross, the sombre aura emanating from this graveyard is in stark contrast to the lively adolescents playing volleyball just a few metres away.

By the time the sun finally dips behind one of the surrounding mountains, I’m already nursing my sunburn (and a cold beer) at one of the kiosks dotted around the beach. It’s only then I discover that widespread changes to the area’s appearance are afoot. It seems that Las Teresitas is about to become a bonafide resort, complete with grand hotel, plush apartments and an extensive range of leisure facilities. Whilst this would undoubtedly benefit the region’s economy and provide new employment opportunities, from my dealings with my bar buddies, Jacinto and Pedro, I get the impression that my fellow beach dwellers wouldn’t mind things staying just the way they are.

As dusk approaches, and the last sun lounger is being packed away for the night, I join the exodus streaming towards the bus stop fully expecting another joyfully riotous bus journey. But no. As the lime green guagua trundles back towards Plaza España, the singing and laughing has been replaced by a silent, glowing contentment. And when I think about it, I’m not overly surprised, as never before have I witnessed such a fanatical group of playistas, united in wringing out every last drop of enjoyment that their favourite local oasis has to offer. Fair enough I suppose, but for a single reason alone, I have to admit to feeling a little disappointed that the trip home is so lacking in the day’s earlier vivacity.

Animal Magic – Parque Las Aguilas

Perched atop a mound of ochre coloured rocks, a small black cat peers sedately into the lion’s den. A couple of very rare white lions gaze back – lioness Saskia offering up a lazy scowl. A group of visitors ooh and ah as Nanouk shakes his young mane. Expertly judging the crowd, the king of the jungle emits a low, thunderous roar. The observers gasp. Kitty doesn’t as much as move a whisker.

Clearly at ease in such close proximity to its larger, more ferocious cousins, this domestic cat is one of a handful of creatures that have decided to pick up sticks and move into the green oasis of Parque Las Aguilas Jungle Park. Similarly, a community of frogs has sprung from nowhere to fill the lush ponds, while an assemblage of birds and insects also pay regular visits.

Situated on the hills overlooking Las Américas, this park is the animal equivalent of a five-star holiday resort – a verdant sanctuary sat amidst the arid, rocky landscape that distinguishes the island’s southern coast. The dense arrangement of greenery harbours an array of enclosures. Home to some 600 animals, the impressive menagerie includes tigers, leopards, penguins, meerkats, apes, monkeys, crocodiles and hippos.
When the park opened a decade ago, its original theme centred on birds (águila translates as eagle), though evidently the focus has broadened greatly since then. As a result, there have been a handful of different names for the park over the years, including ‘Las Aguilas del Teide’ and ‘Ecological Park’. Its current moniker, ‘Parque Las Aguilas Jungle Park’, is a bit of a mouthful but, according to the zoo’s marketing department, the park aims to rest with the much snappier ‘Jungle Park’.

Birds still play a major role here at the park. Aside from a standard procession of displays, there are also two highly entertaining shows. The ‘birds of prey’ show features eagles, vultures and hawks, with the majestic creatures taking it in turns to swoop in from various areas of the park.

Throughout the open-air display, handlers circle the central plaza, carefully choreographing the birds’ actions; while a bubbly presenter tells the audience about each species. One of the last performers to glide in is an imposing condor with a 3-metre wingspan, inducing a communal ‘wow’ from the crowd. This half hour show is only in Spanish, but the ‘exotic bird show’ sees two presenters alternating between Spanish and English.

Aside from an abundance of plant life, the jungle theme is also expressed in the zoo’s décor. African motifs decorate heavy doors; benches are shaped like lizards; Bengal tigers are housed in an Indian temple and two resident pythons twist around a serpent-shaped sculpture.

On a larger scale, a realistic cave sits at the zoo’s northernmost point. A foamy gush of water cascades along the rocky exterior; while inside, an array of stalactites drop authentically from the dank stone-like ceiling.

A small group of performers, dressed in traditional African costumes, dance and play the drums for passersby; further enhancing the jungle atmosphere.

What makes this park special is its layout. Hidden amidst a thick bulk of trees and plants, tangled trails loop around a collection of shaded enclosures. Visitors marvel as creatures large and small roam the grasses, scale trees and slip behind rocks. The enclosures blend easily into the surroundings and are successful in emulating the animals’ natural habitat. Stressing the earthy feel of the park, many displays forsake glass barriers in favour of more creative alternatives. Many are designed so that observers actually view the animals from above. The crocodiles and alligators, for instance, are a gleaned as you walk bravely across a 12-metre hanging wooden bridge. Similarly, the vast enclosure that’s home to the orangutans is a sunken valley of rocks, trees and watery trenches.

Since apes generally dislike water, there’s no need for a barrier when it comes to the gibbon display. The father and son team have their very own island, while the surrounding moat hosts a flock of pelicans. There’s also a chance to pet the animals; an open enclosure houses a group of squirrel monkeys, which happily jump from one person to the next as if hopping between branches.

If you’d like to see the zoo’s community of ostriches, you must slide to their location via a swirling bobsleigh track. A clever idea, though a little unfair if you happen to be with a hoard of children (it costs €2.50 a pop). Luckily there aren’t many other hidden costs at the theme park. A free obstacle course dubbed ‘Jungle Raid’ criss-crosses above the bob track; old and young alike can put their agility to the test in this network of ropes, poles, bridges and tunnels. Or if you’d rather conserve your energy, opt to keep to the stream of footpaths instead.

At times the greenery takes over and visitors are simply required to walk through dense patches of jungle or along narrow paths flanked with towering trees, thick masses of cacti and brightly coloured flowers.

It takes at least two hours to walk around the park and see everything (wear comfortable shoes), although you can happily while away most of the morning or afternoon here. There are plenty of reasons to enjoy a lengthy pause; whether to watch the penguins being fed, take in a show or stop for lunch at one of several snack bars scattered around the park. Alternatively, a handful of picnic areas provide an unusual setting in which to park your hamper.

Doñana and other treasures

Wild, protected nature, good food and age-old traditions are just some of the attractions of the province

The Parque Nacional de Doñana is big protected natural area with more than 100,000 hectares between the provinces of Huelva, Cádiz and Sevilla. The original mélange of land and water created an environment shunned by people but ideal for wildlife. The park has a rich history as a royal hunting estate, property of the Kings of Castilla and the Andalusian Nobility. The National Park was officially created in 1969. The conservation laws protect the precious lynxes and the thousands of bird species such as grey herons, lanner falcons, ring and turtle doves, partridges, oxpeckers, cattle egret, storks and vultures. If you’re lucky you may also catch a glimpse of a Spanish Imperial Eagle, now down to 14 breeding pairs. You can explore the park in a veritable safari jeep and there are organised camping trips for children, as well as audio-visual shows and exhibits. Doñana comprises delta waters which flood in winter and then drop in the spring leaving rich deposits of silt and raised sandbanks and islands. These conditions are perfect in winter for geese and ducks but most exciting in spring when they draw hundreds of flocks of breeding birds. In the marshes and amid the cork oak forests behind, you’ve a good chance of seeing numerous species of the birds and animals that abound here. Doñana is particularly well known for the variety of bird species, permanent residents, winter visitors from north and central Europe or summer visitors from Africa, such as numerous types of geese and colourful colonies of flamingo. Entrance to the park is strictly controlled. You can take half day trips with official guides or explore the environs of the visitor’s centres on foot.

To visit the park take the A483 past Almonte and El Rocío to El Acebuche (near Matalascañas) where one finds the main visitors’ centre. There are trips into the park at 08.30 and 17.00 every day except Sundays in the summer (1/06 – 15/09) and at 08.30 and 15.00 every day except Mondays in the winter. Booking is recommended by phoning the visitors centre on +34 959 430432. Full day trips can also be organised for groups. The visitors’ centre ‘El Rocina‘ is nearer to El Rocío, and it has an audio visual display and nature trail. The park can also be reached (but not entered) by taking the ferry boat across the Guadalquivir river from Sanlúcar de Barrameda where a new visitors’ centre is projected.

El Camino del Rocío, the typical Spanish devotion

Every spring around one million people converge on the shrine of El Rocío, at the edge of the Doñana national park, in the biggest Romería in Spain. The devotees of the Virgen del Rocío take part in a celebration which combines religious fervour and festive color. Many of the pilgrims make their way to the shrine on horseback, in brightly decorated carriages, and multi-coloured caravans that wind across the Andalusian countryside. They dress in flamenco style and perform the traditional Andalusian songs, a mixture of tradition, religion, and a pure flamenco party with good tapas. And, of course, the excellent wines from El Condado de Huelva, the region that in the past was a private property of the counts of the medieval wall protected village of Niebla.

Sierras de Huelva, hills, forest, and good food

In the north of the province lies a mountainous area famous for its magnificent groves of chestnut, which are well-suited to the more Atlantic climate in this region. The Sierra de Huelva has a very diverse flora and fauna and the terrain is ideal for breeding black pigs (“ibéricos”) which provide the famous Jabugo ham. The nearby villages of Cumbres Mayores and Cortegana are also devoted to production of fine hams. It is said that the micro climate of these hills is ideal for the oak trees which provide the acorns on which the pigs feed. Pata Negra ham is the finest and most expensive, it is produced from pigs that have had a diet exclusively of acorns.

Another of Huelva province’s better known attractions are the Caves of Marvel in the small town of Aracena. The different parts of the cave have particularly evocative names referring to their shapes and include the Hall of the Organs, the Hall of the Jewels, God’s Glassworks and the Great Lake of the Emeralds.

Costa de Huelva, with wide uncrowded beaches

The Costa de la Luz (Coast of Light) is the western part of the Andalucía coastline that faces out to the Atlantic, including the province of Huelva until its limit with Portugal. It has beautiful golden sands and small seaside towns devoted to national and international tourism. From west to east these are: Ayamonte, Isla Cristina, Islantilla, La Antilla, El Rompido, Punta Umbría, Mazagón, Matalascañas…

Whether they belong to old fishing towns or modern resorts, the typical beaches here are more expansive and backed by sand dunes and pine trees. This part of the coast has not seen the high-rise hotel development of other areas. The temperatures are slightly milder and the often strong Atlantic winds and waves are favoured by wind surfers and surfboarders alike. The Huelva cuisine is always present on the coast too; the Chocos (local squid) and the Gambas are on the top of most people’s list of preferences.

Tuna, sword fish, and a rich variety of other species. Big spaces, pure waters, clear sand, nice weather. The Costa de Huelva has a lot to offer, along with its always warm welcome.

Huelva – A jewel to be discovered

The province of Huelva may not be the best known part of Andalucía among foreign visitors, but it has a lot to offer

The province of Huelva lies at the west of Andalucía and stretches from Seville Province to Portugal. Huelva boasts the Marismas del Odiel and the history of Christopher Columbus. Close to Huelva city, the Puerto de Palos shows an impressive museum where a perfect replica of the Admiral’s fleet seems to be still ready to weigh anchor to America.

The capital of the province is a modern and active town, the heart of its administrative and cultural life. Tartessians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Arabs were in this area, and the old Latin “Onuba” is still a name used for the inhabitants of Huelva (who are known as “onubenses”).

British influence is from the 19th century when companies started to work in the ancient copper deposits on the open air mines of the Rio Tinto, reputed to be the oldest mines in the world. In 1892 the business community was flourishing so well that they celebrated, with pomp and ceremony, the Fourth Centenary of the Discovery of America. A colonial style hotel called Casa Colon (Columbus House) was built for the occasion and is used today as a congress centre. At the beginning of this century, the British also built the Barrio Obrero Reina Victoria (Queen Victoria Working Class Area) in a classic Victorian style.

The British also created the Huelva Recreation Club nowadays called the ‘Recreativo de Huelva’, and the first Spanish football team. People know the Recreativo as the “Decano” (the Senior-older Club of the Spanish league).

The Marismas (Marshes) are omnipresent in the capital and reminds us of the ocean’s proximity and local traditions.

Latin America is the other big topic in the local identity, as the onubenses feel they are a bridge between Europe and the new world and this is reflected in many activities such as the yearly world famous Iberoamerican Cinema Festival, where is possible to view the best Latin American and Spanish productions. Huelva is a varied province that has so far escaped mass tourism.

Almería: Domes and arches

The Almeria east coast resorts of Mojácar, Garrucha and Vera are very attractive to tourists
Almeria is a province of disconcerting contrasts. It is home to one of the most fertile areas in Europe, the Campo de Dalías, and to the most overwhelming dryness in the continent in the form of vast deserts.

On the one hand it is a land that is clearly tourism-orientated, due to its position, climate and magnificent beaches. And on the other it is also a forgotten land, above all since the railway line from Guadix in the province of Granada closed down at the beginning of the 1980s.

What to see

Clearly a great attraction to tourists are several of the villages on the east coast of the province, the part near the province of Murcia, especially Mojácar, Garrucha and Vera.

Mojácar is a sparkling mixture of hundreds of white houses with minute domes, arches, fabulous views from windows, high minarets, the odd flat roof, steps and masses of warm beaches.

The origin of the village is not clear. Some historians situate it as far back in time as the Age of the Iberians and others place it in the time of the Carthaginians. In the middle of the fifteenth century it was conquered by Alonso Fajardo, who sacked the village and knifed its inhabitants. The wall dates from these days, although only the gate now remains.

The spot was discovered by tourists in the 1960s, when it was an unknown village where the women still used to carry pitchers of water gracefully on their heads and the majority of the houses had their doors painted with “indalos” – a traditional local geometric shape which has now become a symbol of the area.

You mustn’t leave Mojácar without visiting the Plaza de Parterre, the Town Hall Square, Calle Jazmín, Calle Estación Vieja, the Jewish quarter or Arrabal, the Luciana arch, Plaza Nueva – where you must stop to see the view of the Valle de las Pirámides (Pyramid Valley) – and the church of the Incarnation, in a little square which also contains a monument to the women of Mojácar.

Some of the guides who show visitors around the village insinuate that it is still possible to see veiled women in the streets but the truth of the matter is that they dress in the latest fashions here and it is only a few country women who still hang on to old forms of dress and ancient customs.

The guides also say that this is a land of highly imaginative people, where superstitions and witchcraft go hand in hand.

Now carry on along the coast road until you come to the village of Garrucha. As the light fades the fishing boats will be coming back to harbour, accompanied by seagulls, and pulling alongside the wholesale fish market for their catches to be auctioned. This is one of the most unchanging sights, although after the auction the fish is no longer carried away on the backs of donkeys, but in huge refrigerated lorries.

Garrucha has a motto in its coat of arms which fits the description of the village exactly: “Ex mari sortis” (exit to the sea) because it is just that – sea without the usual municipality boundaries, although it has had to face conflicts with neighbouring Mojácar and Vera in this respect.

Two suggestions in Garrucha: take a walk along the Malecón, a beautiful seafront promenade where the local landowners had houses in the eighteenth century, or go to the beaches which attract thousands of visitors every year and try the roast sardines. If you still have time take a look at the San Joaquín church.

Around ten kilometres from Garrucha is Vera. If there is one village famous for its Holy Week processions this is it. There are also one or two interesting monuments in Vera such as the Iglesia de la Encarnación (the Church of the Incarnation), which dates from 1520; the Convento de los Padres Mínimos (a monastery); the Iglesia de San Agustín (Church of St Augustine) and the Mudéjar (referring to baptised Moors) bullring.

Don’t miss the Saturday market, where absolutely everything is on sale, including a few useful items!

Vera beach runs for five kilometres and is in very good condition.

The coast at Vera is also known for being the site of the only nudist hotel in Spain: Vera Playa Club. If you decide to spend a few days there you will have to leave your bikini or tanga, sarong, bathing trunks or T-shirt in the cupboard. It is a different way of passing one’s leisure time, but under very strict regulations.

The experience….

Of the tourist destinations on the coast of Almeria, the most popular is probably Mojácar, which also boasts a large number of “residential tourists”, otherwise known as foreign residents. The village proper sits perched on a hill giving panoramic views, and is a maze of steep winding streets, old houses, tiny bars and souvenir shops. The two main drawbacks are the difficulty of parking, particularly in summer when the road up to the village becomes clogged with cars and coaches, and the discomfort experienced by the less agile in attempting to stroll up, and down, the pedestrian alleys. Mojácar village holds no attraction for the disabled visitor.

Mojácar Playa, on the other hand, lies at the foot of the road up to the village and is a long extension of residential developments, clubs, shops, businesses and sea-front amenities. One of Spain’s chain of state run hotels or Paradores offers first class accommodation immediately opposite the beach.

A rather different hotel, but also top class, is the nudist Vera Playa Club which has indoor and outdoor pools and a “mini-club” for children.

Arcos de la Frontera: Touring the White Villages

Most Andalusian villages are white since whitewash covers the walls of the houses but only one itinerary in the region is called the Route of the White Villages. It is mostly in the province of Cadiz but enters that of Malaga too.

The route of the White Villages begins in the town of Arcos de la Frontera which sits on top of a rock dominating the River Guadalete. It is a white town, full of surprises, with mysterious streets where arches abound, although they have absolutely nothing to do with the name (“arcos” meaning arches).

The origin of the town is lost in the mists of time but its foundation is attributed to none less than one of Noah’s grandsons. The city witnessed numerous violent confrontations. It was here that Rodrigo, the last Visigoth king lost his life and empire when attacked by the invading Arab forces. At a later date Arcos was one of the first towns to fall into Christian hands, those of King Alfonso X the Wise, in 1264. But the town’s Moorish past still lingers in the white houses with barred windows, where geraniums peek through the iron grilles. And, whether you like it or not, any of the children frequenting the tourist attractions on the look out for visitors will tell you the history of Arcos.

What to see

The historical quarter of Arcos, enclosed by the Cuesta de Belén (Bethlehem Hill) and the Puerta de Matrera (Matrera Gate), was declared a national monument in 1962.

In La Corredera, the street which crosses the town from top to bottom, entering from the N-342 road, you will come to the Hospital de San Juan de Dios, the old Vera Cruz shrine. At the end of the Cuesta de Belén is the Palace of the Condes de Aguila and nearby, lies one of the most precious jewels of the town: the castle, Arabic in origin, and later re-built by the Christians in around 1430. Unfortunately it is not possible to visit the castle since it is private property.

Going up Calle Deán Espinosa you come to the Iglesia de Santa María (St. Mary’s Church). This is the principal church of the town according to a decision made by a tribunal in 1764 which was set up to resolve the conflict over age and importance that was raging with the Iglesia de San Pedro (St. Peter’s Church). But the disputes did not end there. The two main parishes in Arcos got involved in rivalry over the arrival of the bodies of unknown martyrs from distant lands. Thus when St. Mary’s brought the body of St Felix from Rome, St. Peter’s managed to get the remains of St. Fructuoso and St. Victor. They had won the contest.

Historical anecdotes apart, the two churches are extremely valuable from a sightseeing point of view. St. Mary’s was built in the fifteenth century on the site of a mosque and the main façade is plateresque Gothic. For its part St. Peter’s looks more like a fortress and the style is Gothic.

The best way to see the rest of the area around Arcos is to leave the town by the N-342 and then to take the C-343 after about five kilometres. This will take you to Espera, one of the oldest of all the villages in these mountains. Later you will come to Villamartín, an agricultural town surrounded by rich fields due to the abundant supply of water.

As you continue the whiteness of the towns and villages gets brighter and brighter, in contrast to the surrounding fields. Leaving Villamartín by the local 523 road you will see the ruins of the Castillo de Pajarete on the top of one of the peaks after about three kilometres. Prado del Rey, a village founded in the eighteenth century by Charles III, is distinguished by the flowers bordering the majority of the streets.

El Bosque – the village which is considered to be the centre of this local agricultural area is also nearby. During the War of Independence the locals were the first of all the mountain dwellers to rise up against the French. The village suffered grave damage as a consequence. The Iglesía de Santa María de Guadalupe in the Plaza de la Constitución is worth a visit.

Take the local 524 road to Ubrique when you leave El Bosque. From the outskirts of the town you will already get a whiff of tanned hides as this town is the great centre for leather in Andalucía with a wide range of goods available.

Other areas worth a visit not far from Arcos de la Frontera are the Grazalema Natural Park, Zahara de la Sierra and the beautiful village and castle of Olvera.

The experience….

To see the town of Arcos de la Frontera without having to rush around, it is a good idea to stay overnight. Although there is not a very wide choice of accommodation, the hotels on offer are good and reasonably priced. Try the Parador Casa del Corregidor in the Plaza del Cabildo. There is also the Cortijo Fain in the Carretera de Algar, kilometre 3. If you choose to stay in nearby Ubrique there is Pension Ocurris in Solís Pascual 49.

When eating out in Arcos and its surrounding area it is worth trying the local specialities. These include “tagarnines”, a type of asparagus found growing both wild and cultivated in the area as well as “berza”, a type of cabbage. Also try Algodonales cakes, Olvera stuffed fillet steak and a local soup made with wild asparagus (especially found in Zahara). Recommended restaurants in Arcos include El Convento and Mesón Curro el Cojo and El Castillo in Zahara.

In the nearby village of Algodonales visit the Valeriano Bernal guitar workshop. If looking for souvenirs in Zahara de la Sierra locally made basketwork and leather bags is in abundance and the village of Ubrique stands out for its local leatherware.

How to get there
To reach Arcos de la Frontera, take the A-92 from Granada in the direction of Seville as far as the Antequera crossroads. Then take the N-342 which will take you across the Sierra del Tablón. There are regular bus routes linking the towns and villages in the area with the city of Cadiz, although by far the best form of transport is your own vehicle.

Huelva: Unspoilt nature on the Atlantic

The area between Lepe and the Portuguese border offers plenty to see and do

Many international tourists – as opposed to Spanish ones, who tend to be more in the know about their immediate surroundings – bypass the Costa de la Luz on their way through southern Spain to the Algarve. In doing so, they miss the lovely, unspoilt area around Lepe and Ayamonte, which are not only worth visiting in their own right, but offer easy access to numerous areas of natural beauty or sightseeing interest.

What to see

The town of Lepe is well known for its magnificent beach resort at La Antilla, for its modern strawberry cultivation, for its annual “Romería”, or pilgrimage, and not least for the popular humour associated with the town. For many years, Lepe has been used in Spanish jokes to typify a backwater whose inhabitants are not known for their intellectual powers (as in “Why do ‘Leperos’ plant olive groves on the beach? To get anchovy-stuffed olives”). The Leperos themselves, far from taking umbrage, took advantage and have made their town a centre for humour, cashing in on the town’s fame to organize joke-telling contests and invite top comedians to perform there.

The most significant monuments are the cupola of the 13th century San Cristóbal chapel, the water cistern of the “Casa Palacio”, the monument to sailors and the 5th Centenary park.

Nearby Isla Cristina is known for its fishing trade and pleasure harbour, and for its eight kilometre long beach, and also for the modern religious statues in its main churches.

Nature lovers will want to head into the area between La Redondela and Ayamonte, at the mouth of the rivers Guadiana and La Ría Carreras. The vegetation here is unique, with pine trees, eucalyptus and sea thistles, and the fauna is varied and includes spoonbills, gannets and red bills. Nearer the sea, the dunes are perfumed with lavender and rosemary.

Islantilla, and the golf club of the same name which is one of the major attractions for tourists, are situated in the middle of a natural park right alongside the Atlantic. The 27 hole golf course opened in 1992 and boasts a lovely colonial style clubhouse – and green fees which will not break the bank! It is much used by golfers from across the border who arrive via Faro airport, and recently by Costa del Sol players who find the area makes a pleasant change and, with the new road network, is much “closer” to home than it used to be.

The experience….

A recent visit to the area in spring threw up the pleasant surprise of being able to see numerous storks, perching on the telegraph poles and nesting high up on church towers, and occasionally making their distinctive loud clattering noise.

Another bonus, at any time of year, is the chance to visit Portugal. The trip no longer involves the uncertainty and frustration of long waits at the border, and for a quick visit, there is no need to change currency or language, as the Portuguese near the frontier are quite at home with pesetas and Spanish. Towels, towelling robes and matching slippers are a good buy, and on the gastronomy front there are cod dishes and the famous “vinho verde”, or a bottle of souvenir Port.

For the increasing number of Costa del Sol residents visiting the Costa de la Luz, crashing waves and Atlantic sea breezes come as a refreshing change, and a stroll along the sea front at dusk can be a bracing, and even solitary, experience.

How to get there

By road – straight across the bridge from Portugal at Ayamonte, with none of the former queues at the border, or from the other side via the “Fifth Centenary” road between Huelva and Seville. The nearest airports are Seville and Faro.

Huelva – city of pilgrims

Mining centres, chemical industries, famous ham and wines are the main features of Huelva, a city of pilgrims whose past configured the first western urban civilisation exposed to the Atlantic.

History

Its situation on the Atlantic coast,
its mild climate (relatively humid), its unique rich mining deposits and its advantages for settlers all explain why, centuries ago, Huelva attracted a considerable wave of migrants, whose traces still remain to this day. In the city, and above all in the province, one is struck by the legacy of the ancient peoples of the eastern Mediterranean – the Phoenicians and the Tartessians – whose royalty settled here. At later dates Roman, Visigoth and Arab royals came to stay – the presence of the last of these remains in the form of many monuments. Finally, Huelva has a lot to do with the discovery of America. The voyage that was to change the course of history originated in La Rábida and set sail from Palos de la Frontera.

What to see:

Visitors to Huelva, especially in spring and summer, are struck by the clear light as they contemplate the Baroque cathedral built by the Duke of Medina Sidonia and the San Francisco and Concepción churches. Before pausing in the monumental San Pedro Square go up to the top of the Conquero then go down to the Paseo de los Pinzones that ends in the Punta de Sebo, erected in honour of Columbus.

The province of Huelva is rich in architectural gems, both on high ground, where there is a line of defensive castles, the majority built in the thirteenth century due to lack of trust in the kingdom of Portugal, and in the south, running from El Condado to the “Castilla beach” on the Atlantic. Here one can also admire the Niebla ramparts and the Guzmanes Castle. For those who prefer monasteries, in the Palos area lies La Rábida, the small Franciscan monastery closely linked to Christopher Columbus and the journey that began the discovery of America. Near the city, three villages evoking days gone by can be found: San Juan del Puerto, Gibraleón and Trigueros. In the municipal area of Trigueros lies the El Soto dolmen. On both sides of the river estuary are the two tourist areas of the province, Mazagón and Punta Umbría, which are outstanding for their bright beaches. A little further away you can find Ajarque and Cartaya, with their extensive areas of pine trees that meet the sea at a small fishing village, El Rompido. Fishing is also the economic means of Isla Cristina, not far from Ayamonte, which lies at the mouth of the River Guardiana on the Portuguese border. Behind this is the village of Lepe, famous for its figs and strawberries.

To the east of the province lies Moguer, with churches such as Nuestra Señora de Granada, convents such as Santa Clara and its Town Hall: all architectural elements that will surprise visitors. The Sacro Art Museum and the Juan Ramón Jiménez Museum, in memory of the poet, both offer special interest. Following the Seville road, the tourist arrives at El Condado, famous for its wine. To the north the Sierra de Aracena houses the Gruta de las Maravillas, a cave with almost 1,500 metres of maze-like galleries. With its cold dry air, this is also the area of the best cured hams in the country, although the area is also rich in churches, medieval mosques and monasteries

Festivities

One of the most famous of Spain’s traditions is the custom of the “romería”, a religious pilgrimage with a party atmosphere. The most famous of these is the “Romería del Rocío” that culminates in the shrine of Our Lady of the Rocío in the village of Almonte, located in the triangle formed by the province with Seville and the sea. Every year, one weekend in May or June, depending on the liturgical calendar, the road to the shrine becomes packed with decorated carriages and horses that move to the sound of flutes and drums and form a stampeed that never fails to be spectacular and colourful. The “Rocío” is something that has to be lived because the imagination, however vivid, is incapable of capturing the reality of this event, above all the night procession, in which the faithful cram together by torchlight in order to touch the venerated image of the Virgin of the Rocío. One would say that it is a magical night on which the whole of Andalucía catches its breath.

The experience….

Huelva’s beaches are beautifully wide, clean and uncrowded although they do have the disadvantage of being exposed to the breezes.

Despite the obvious tourist attractions of the Baroque cathedral and the Christopher Columbus monument illustrating the important history of the city, Huelva is one of the least visited Andalusian cities. This gives it an unspoilt feeling of authenticity and foreign tourists often experience the sensation of being a surprising novelty for the local “onubenses”(Huelva was originally called Onuba). An interesting feature of the city is the “Barrio Inglés”, one solitary row of English style houses in the midst of high blocks.

When shopping in Huelva and its province a must is a piece of the pottery from Trigueros or Aracena or a hand-embroidered tablecloth from Cortegena. As far as local gastronomy is concerned, the cold meats, cured hams and clear El Condado wine that can be tried in one of the many local restaurants are a pleasure to the palate. The “aguja palá” (sword fish) and the “chocos con habas” (cuttlefish with broad beans) are specialities in the small fishing villages. Strawberries from Palos and marzipan from Gibreón are recommended for dessert with a glass of golden Moguer Moscatel.

How to get there
Huelva has good train links with with all the main cities in Spain. By road, the N-341 joins Ayamonte with Seville.

When to go:

Any time, however the best months to visit Huelva are without a doubt May and June.