Saturday, May 3, 2014

Semana Santa Trip Part 1: Sierra de Aracena

     Over here in Spain our Spring Break is called "Semana Santa," or Holy Week. It's the week before Easter and we don't have school. My friend Camille and I decided to take a hiking/camping trip in Andalucía, covering less trodden places. Our first destination was the Sierra de Aracena, which is in the province of Huelva in southwestern Spain. We arranged a Blablacar ride down there. If you don't know, Blablacar is a ride sharing website, popular in Europe and still non-existent in the U.S. I've had great experiences, it's cheaper than other transportation, and many times it enables you to get to out of the way places easier. Case in point: Aracena.

A map of where we walked in the Sierra de Aracena
     The man we rode with, Óscar, had a van and there were seven of us. Everyone was very nice and we even stopped in Trujillo on the way down because I'd never been. Trujillo was a wealthy city, with palaces built by venturers who had come back from America, including Francisco Pizarro (he defeated the Incas in 1533).

     After the stop we continued on to Aracena. It was getting dark. We all picked up groceries at Mercadona (the best Spanish supermarket chain) and the driver suggested we might stay with him and his friends that night and have dinner, as it was getting late to find a place to camp. We cordially accepted. His house is down about a two mile "road" with nothing else around it, about half-way down a valley. It is rustic, with stone floors, a fireplace, solely solar powered and complete with orange, lemon and fig trees. He also has a mare. The mare seems to think it is a dog. It came galloping down to meet us as we pulled into the driveway and nearly followed its owner into the house. 

I call this one "Horse with Head in Front Door." It's the best photo I've ever taken. 
by Martín Rico (1833-1908). You can find this in the Prado museum in Madrid.

   At the time it reminded me of this beautiful little Martín Rico painting. Eventually I have to do a post on my favorite Spanish painters. Spain's had some of the best in history.


     Needless to say, we were fortunate to have met such a nice guy. Camille cooked dinner and we ate outside and learned a few new Spanish phrases. I am a collector of Spanish phrases. The next morning we had breakfast and took off with a borrowed map of the sierra. The hospitality we experienced will not be forgotten.

Linares de la Sierra from a distance
     With the help of our wonderful host we found the centuries-old footpath connecting the villages of the sierra and walked toward Linares de la Sierra. It's a small white village tucked into the hills and there isn't too much to see, although the bullring/plaza is ineresting.

Plaza that doubles as a bullring

Linares de la Sierra 
     We walked around the town and then continued on toward another village, Alájar. There was so much rosemary. The weather was perfect the entire trip, which was fortunate because April is known to be rainy, especially in the mountains.

     Around this region there are a lot of cork trees. They still strip the bark every seven years to make primarily wine corks, and some of the trees are very old.

Cork trees
      We arrived in Alájar, a pleasant village with quite a bit happening on that particular day. There was a market with many tantalizing things for sale. We ended up buying membrillo (quince paste) with pine nuts to have for breakfast.

Plaza in Alájar
Alájar from above

We walked outside the town and ascended the Peña de Arias Montano, a big rock formation named after the tutor of Philip II, for some great views of the town. We bought some dried peaches and continued on, winding up the mountains as the trees changed from cork to castaños (chestnut). After a while we reached yet another white village, Castaño del Robledo.  

     There really is not much to see in most of these towns—the walk is the best part. The paths were previously the only way to get from town to town.
Wild Asparagus

Quince fruit with pine nuts
      We left Castaño and walked halfway to Jabugo before stopping for the night to camp. Fortunately it wasn't very cold, and the next morning we continued on to Jabugo.
On the road again
      We had several pocketbooks for identifying vegetation: trees, plants, flowers, fruits. Camille correctly identified a wild asparagus plant and found a lone stalk that she cherished for a while afterward. We arrived in Jabugo, the most famous ham town in Spain. But not just any ham—they have jamón ibérico de bellota. This is the cream of the crop. The pigs, dark gray in color, are left to roam around eating acorns all their lives, getting properly fat. The legs are cured for nearly two years (or more) under strict conditions and during that time the ham becomes an absolute delicacy. One of the most famous brands of jamón ibérico is Cinco Jotas, which is what the man at the bar used to make my morning toast.

Best tostada con tomate y jamón ever. 

     Jamón ibérico is not cheap. In Jabugo it is cheaper than anywhere else, and it is over 100 euros per kilogram. We bought 150 grams to eat for lunch. It was not a mistake. This stuff is truly amazing. It is hand-sliced razor thin so that it nearly melts in your mouth. Here's a quick video about it ( And here is a poor quality clip of Anthony Bourdain eating Spanish ham and cursing Gweneth Paltrow for not eating ham ( 
     After, we walked back to Castaño del Robledo and toward Fuenteheridos, where we would take another Blablacar to Jerez de la Frontera. Outside of Fuenteheridos we stopped in the shade and feasted on ham, dried figs and dark chocolate with almonds. It was phenomenal. 

This piece of ham looks like Spain
This piece of ham looks like the Spanish flag
Up next, Part 2: Jerez de la Frontera and Arcos de la Frontera, along with Easter Processions