No getting away from Huelva’s iconic explorer
Its name doesn’t trip off the tongue like Barcelona or Madrid and it’s certainly not on the list of top destinations for visitors to Spain.
In fact, the small Andalusian city of Huelva, and province of the same name, is one of the least visited of all in the country. Yet it has so much to offer – from beautiful beaches to magnificent mountains and a maritime history second to none.
To say the city’s links with Christopher Columbus are understated is to put it mildly. In this area, Columbus, an Italian, lived for two years while he strove to win the backing of the Spanish crown for his expeditions to the New World and the discovery of America.
Statues of Cristóbal Colón, as he is known in Spain, are everywhere, the most prominent being the giant Columbus monument on at the confluence of the rivers Tinto and Odiel. His exploits also form the centrepieces of several museums.
I think they are maybe taken for granted in Spain and certainly don’t seem to be being sold to the outside world to the extent that they could.
On the Río Tinto estuary, the Muelle de las Carabelas (Harbour of the Caravels) is a quay with life-size replicas of Columbus’s three ships: the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa María, built for the 500th anniversary celebrations in 1992. Yet when I arrived in mid-September, just after the end of the Spanish schools’ summer holiday, I found I had picked the wrong day. It had just started to close on a Monday. Disappointed visitors were wandering around aimlessly after making the trip to see it. The centre itself, although modern, looked tired, like a neglected fairground attraction, and in need of a big tidy-up.
Getting there by car had proved a challenge as signage for La Rábida from the city centre was virtually non-existent. Not far from the replica ships is the very well kept Monasterio de Santa María de la Rábida where Columbus stayed with the monks and expounded his plans while waiting for the royal go-ahead from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. The monastery is next to botanical gardens full of exotic plants and has a museum detailing the discovery of the New World and Columbus’s life. You could quite easily spend a day at La Rábida.
Another Columbus site is Palos de la Frontera, a small fishing village on the River Tinto 10km upstream from Huelva City where, in 1492, Columbus set sail westwards to make history after recruiting mariners from in and around the village for his trip.
There are still more Columbus sites but I had better stop there and mention a couple of other things.
A British connection
Huelva city has a major historical industrial connection with Britain. Its famous copper mines, worked by the Romans, were sold in to a British headed consortium and the Riotinto Company Ltd. was founded in March 1873.!
The mines became one of the world’s major sources of copper and sulphur and the Riotinto company brought with them many British workers and to make Huelva a home from home built typically Victorian houses to accommodate them. They are even credited with bringing football to Spain.There is still much to be seen of this influence in museums and architecture and also the huge Pena del Hierro mine and the mining railway. The metal quayside built by the Riotinto company at Huelva port is now used as walkways by the locals and is well worth a visit.
The Huelva region is also home to the Parque Nacional de Doñana, one of Europe’s most important wetland areas with an incredible variety of wildlife in its sand dunes, marshes, pine woods, salt flats and freshwater lagoons. It is one of Europe’s last remaining habitats for the endangered lynx and the rare Spanish Imperial Eagle. The best time to visit is in winter and spring when the park is full of wildfowl. In winter thousands of geese and ducks arrive from the north, while in spring there are many flocks of breeding birds, including herons, spoonbills and storks.
In the north of the province is the gently rolling Parque Natural Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche, a protected area with excellent walking opportunities.
For me, the best thing about Huelva was wandering around the city in the early evening when everyone spills out in to its abundant parks and open spaces to enjoy themselves. Skaters, cyclists, joggers, keep fit enthusiasts and strollers invade these areas along with young children and their parents. It is one continuous open air festival until night falls. What a quality of life!