Spain – Huelva, ‘The light of Doñana’, ECO/Nature, Culture, Hotels
From the pilgrimage village of El Rocío, to the noble city of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Huelva’s Doñana National Park is truly illuminating
It’s still spring, yet the early morning light has an alluring warmth to it. Getting up early may not always be easy, but when the light is as inviting and attractive as this, then starting the day a little after seven in the morning certainly has it rewards.
‘At this time of day, the light is low enough that it truly ignites the colours of the flamingos’ explains José our guide from DiscoveringDonana.com, whose enthusiasm is compelling.
We’re in El Rocio, the Wild West style town in Huelva province, in the west of Andalucía, where the streets are of sand and outside every property are wooden bars for trying up horses. This is one of the main gateways to La Doñana, one of Spain’s greatest national parks, and probably one of the last vast wetlands of Europe. As the church bell tower casts a deep shadow in the rising sun, in front of us flamingos, wildfowl, ducks, geese, spoonbills and coots fill the horizon.
‘Let’s go and search for Lynx!’ suggests José, as we head back to the vintage Land Rover. This is a day of true off-the-beaten-track adventure, and within minutes we’re crossing the iconic bridge called ‘Puente del Ajoli’. It’s a famous wooden river crossing on the ‘Raya Real’ pilgrimage route to the village of El Rocío.
As in so many of Andalucía’s most magical places, here nature, legend, ancient customs and modern life collide with colour, noise and celebration. The story goes that way back in the thirteenth century, a hunter navigating the Huelva wetlands of La Doñana saw an icon of the Virgin Mary in a tree; captivated and in awe he attempted, without success to take the effigy home to his village of Almonte. Ever since this image of the Virgin known as the La Blanca Paloma (the White Dove) has been part of local and national culture. So every year, on the Christian festival of Pentecost (this year it’s May 27), a pilgrimage is made to the local baroque style church, ‘La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Rocío’ in the village.
Over the centuries this ‘Romeria’ has grown to be one of the biggest pilgrimages in the world, and it’s one huge party. Brotherhoods, or ‘hermandades’ come from across Spain and take the ‘Raya Real’ on foot, on horseback or in coloured traditional caravans towards the church. Novices are baptised on the way, in the river at the ‘Puente del Ajoli’ – so for us, José turns away from the bridge and instead fords the river in the Land Rover, for our very own ‘baptism’!
Once a Royal Hunting ground, this part of the Doñana National Park is made up of private and public ‘Cotos’ or reserves. Tracks of deep sand cut through the stone pine and cork oak forests, whilst Imperial Eagles and Black Kites soar above. The sun begins to grow in intensity and shards of bright light pierce the canopy of the forest, illuminating the wild spring flowers and ferns on the ground below. Turtle doves scratch around in the dry earth whilst occasional red or fallow deer dart across the path. The park is alive with abundant wildlife and thanks to José’s sharp eyesight and the pairs of binoculars in the Land Rover, we didn’t miss much; although sadly the Iberian Lynx remained elusive, but it is regular sighted.
Access to the national park and wetlands is strictly controlled. Although more than a million people arrive in the tiny village of El Rocío for the Romeria, throughout the year this UNESCO world heritage natural treasure is managed and patrolled by rangers. However there are a handful of nature guide companies that provide access to the park as part of private or group tours. That’s why we are with a professional tour company, Discovering Doñana where all guides are qualified and accredited for access to the national park. José Angel Villagas is a Biologist by training and his passion and knowledge makes a park safari a memorable experience.
The jewel in La Doñana’s crown is of course ‘la marisma’ or wetlands that together with neighbouring countryside around the delta of the Guadalquivir river, cover a staggering 1000 or more square kilometres that stretch all the way down to the moving sand dunes of the Huelva beaches. This part of the Costa de la Luz is one of Europe’s longest stretches of untouched, undeveloped Mediterranean coast.
Despite one of driest winters for decades, and the subsequent shrinkage of the wetlands, there is still a huge variety of birdlife to enjoy. The reserve is the seasonal home for all manner of migrating birds including the Ibis, an elegant and exotic bird that makes a distinctive site as flies cross the sky. Terns, Herons and flamingos are also easy to see, as well as storks, egrets, kites, eagles and vultures.
Yet this natural paradise is potentially under threat. These wetlands, which are crucial for the survival of hundreds of bird species that migrate from Africa to Europe, only receive about twenty five per cent of the water they once did. The Guadalquivir river is being dredged so cruise liners can access Seville, whilst the immense strawberry plantations, for which Huelva is famous, are alleged to be taking too much water through illegal wells. These factors combined with nearby domestic, agricultural and mining demands means that UNESCO has made formal protests to Spain over its concerns for the park.
Yet, overall the conservation of this area remains a success, and despite the ongoing development pressures faced by the Andalusian coastline, the beaches of La Doñana haven’t changed much in thousands of years.
One of the best places to access this magical coast is from the ancient port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda in neighbouring Cadiz province. Located on the adjacent side of the Guadalquivir river estuary, the port offers a regular ferry service, taking only a few minutes to cross over to the untouched beaches. Nature tour operators take visitors in specially designed all-terrain vehicles that can navigate the vast beaches. These tours are amongst the best ways to experience the huge mobile dunes and cliffs of this magnificent coastline, unique in Europe. Here the extraordinary Huelva light of the Costa de la Luz bounces off the near white sand creating vistas of sheer brilliance.
There is no better time to enjoy this light filled corner of Andalucía than right now. Sanlúcar de Barrameda, the park’s eastern gateway, is celebrating its annual Feria de Manzanilla this week, until Sunday 20th of May, and next week, from the 27th May, starts the immense Romeria del Rocio.
What’s more, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, with its noble heritage makes for a perfect stop over for a fix of luxury. To the north of La Doñana are a wealth of country style ‘casa rurales’ offering inexpensive, pared down accommodation, but here in the home of manzanilla sherry one can find hidden mansions of dukes and royal palaces, many of which have been converted into boutique hotels. Palacio de Arizón has recently been transformed into a 21st Century oasis of luxury and calm. Its ancient courtyards and frescoed towers make for a characterful stop over, whilst its spacious suites with private terraces afford a privileged cocoon in which to unwind and relax.
The friendly team will help plan excursions and tours across the water to the protected beaches and park and also offer advice on the new Tapas Route in the city, as well as historical and architectural walks and sherry winery tours.
After a day on safari in La Doñana, it’s a delight to take a rainforest-style shower in the hotel, and then enjoy a chilled glass of manzanilla and some succulent Atlantic langoustines in the bar. From the property’s private terraces which overlook the palace’s bougainvillea patios, one can then enjoy the sight of the sun setting over the city’s towers and spires.
At the end of the day, here in Western Andalucía it’s all about that light.
COPYRIGHT ANDREW FORBES