Sierra de Aracena – Hidden Jewel of Andalucia

april-holidays-2011-098Forty minutes to the west of Seville, lies the quietly seductive Sierra de Arecena, an area of outstanding natural beauty, with lush rolling hills, little historic villages and stunning countryside.

This is the home of the world famous Pata Negra pig, famed for its prized cured meat that produces expensive Jamon Pata Negra, as well as prized Lomo from the under belly. Much of the lowland is Dehesa, the widely spaced oak forests (cork or holm) and grazing pasture, that gives the pigs the perfect feeding conditions, enabling them to fatten up on the acorns, which drop to the ground during autumn and winter.

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The Sierra, tucked north of Huelva, has a laid back rustic charm that’s hard to find elsewhere. Here, the mountains aren’t the jagged peaks of the Sierra Nevada, north of Malaga, but are low and rolling, heavily wooded with Chesnut and Oak, and in Spring, carpeted with flowers. The town of Aracena is the capital of the region, boosting an historic Templar church, as well as formidably impressive underground caverns and grottos.

In the surrounding countryside, large Cortijo’s dot the landscape, responsible for breeding the pigs, cattle and horses that permeate the landscape, many worked by generations of the same families on their massive estates. The light here is magical, changing throughout the day, but particularly stunning at sunrise or sunset when the shadows caste by the endless succession of hills, creates hues of blue, green and grey that ripple into the horizon. It’s a landscape that quietly seduces you, so that the longer you spend here, the more you love it and appreciate its old fashioned charm, slow pace of life and visual delights.

In winter, the Sierra gets snow and the tightly knit village communities are snugly harnessed to work the seasons to maximum effect, using the abundant timber to burn wood fires to keep warm when temperatures drop. Spring is one of the most beautiful times to visit, when carpets of flowers spring up and the Dehesa is lush and green, the air warm and the Sierra devoid of tourists.

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Swifts dart around, making nests in the eaves of village buildings and these small communities feel like time capsules from the past, where life hasn’t really changed over hundred’s of years, except for the arrival of the motor car and tourism. It’s an area that borders Portugal and many visitors come from there to appreciate and enjoy what’s on offer. It has a unique charm that I’ve not experienced elsewhere in Spain, as well as a fascinating history, as this was where the Moors built their earliest Mosques, after colonising this part of the country in the early 8th Century.

spainapril2011-125This 1,000 year old mosque, on the hilltop above the stunning village of Almonaster la Real (al-Munastyr, in Arabic), has commanding views into the far distance towards the south. It boosts the oldest Mirab in Spain, which is the alcove in any Mosque indicating the direction to Mecca, towards which all Muslims must pray five times a day.

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This mosque was built over a Roman monasterium, which in turn was constructed over the remains of a Visigoth temple. It’s a microcosm of Spanish colonialism and occupation.

april-holidays-2011-114This impressive archway, sits high on one of the hills, with commanding views, the bells presumably rung for significant Catholic occasions. It is somewhat reminiscent of the Clint Eastwood’s film, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

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