El Rocio, Andalusia, Spain Saturday, March 28, 2009
El Puerto de Santa Maria (commonly called El Puerto) is a pleasant little port, perhaps not somewhere one would choose for a holiday, but ideally situated between Cadiz and Jerez. The campsite, Las Dunas de San Antonio, was
clean, spacious, with good facilities and many Brits, Dutch and Germans over-wintering. It was also very popular with Spanish weekenders, which is not necessarily a good thing. The Spanish family in the caravan behind us left much to be desired.
Mum and Dad were overweight and tattooed, the two pre-teen kids were obese, whingeing brats and the four dogs (yes four) yapped all the time. Fortunately they left on Sunday night. It is sad how a bad neighbour can cloud one's opinion of a site,
as otherwise this was a good spot. On one side of the site was a nature reserve of dunes and pine forest; side two was a quiet road then a nice sandy beach with palm trees and a view across the bay to Cadiz. Side three was a sports complex, where there
were football matches and marching band practices, and to the rear were more woodlands between the site and the town.
There was a corporation trimaran ferry service from El Puerto to Cadiz; the terminal just 20 minutes walk from the site and a very pleasant café bar by the terminal to enjoy a coffee and waffle while we waited for the boat. The crossing was rough! As soon as the boat left the shelter of the harbour it picked up speed and bounced its way over the 5-mile stretch. The entrance to Cadiz harbour was a bit like the Mersey. The twin towers of Cadiz cathedral behind the port looked just like the Liver Building from a distance. We called at the tourist information office to pick up plans of a couple of themed walks through the old town, to be told that the themed walk leaflets are dealt with by the other office. We went to the other office to be told that they are not printed in English, so we had to use a French version. The fact that the British stormed, captured and destroyed Cadiz several times in the 16th Century has not been forgotten!
The first walk took us around the ramparts, built to prevent the British sacking the town yet again. The views across the harbour and bay were good. The ramparts led into a lovely park, not unlike the Tuileries, with specimen trees and shrubs and a monument to the dead at Trafalgar, erected on the 200th anniversary in a gesture of peace between the three nations.
Then on to the Castillo de Santa Catalina, a fine star-shaped castle at the end of town, and the long walkway out to sea to the Castillo de San Sebastian. Between the two is a lovely beach, backed mainly by university buildings. The students out for their lunch "hour" provided a nice (and attractive) atmosphere. We lunched in a bar on the prom and had very nice tapas. Sadly we were told that tapas must be eaten in the bar and could not be taken outside into the sun, for some reason.
Our walk continued back towards the main town and the medieval quarter, with the Cathedral and other palaces, many of which were undergoing renovation. There was also a large Roman Theatre, said to be the largest in the Iberian Peninsular, which unfortunately was closed. There was not really a lot to "do" in Cadiz, but it was a very pleasant city to just wander and sit people watching. Then the boat home was even rougher!
This is of course the Sherry region, and El Puerto de Santa Maria is one of the three main production centres. To be called sherry, or Vino de Jerez, it must be grown and made in the triangle of Jerez, El Puerto and Sanlucar de Barrameda, a small area by wine standards, about 30 km each side. El Puerto hosts several Bodegas, the three most well known perhaps being Osborne, Terry and Caballero. The Osborne symbol is the silhouette of a bull, the black one seen on so many hills and roundabouts in the region. It should not of course be confused with the other black bull silhouette, the symbol of Spain, which is identical and provides free advertising for Osborne! We visited the Osborne Bodega, a 20-minute walk from the campsite, where a very nice young lady explained the complex maturation process for sherry. She was wrapped up in her winter clothes and explained to the four of us on her English speaking tour, all in T-shirts, that as far as the Spanish were concerned it was still winter. At the end of the tour we were taken to a table where there were four bottles, one of each of their main types, for us to sample. More bottles were offered if we wanted. I was so glad we had walked there. Needless to say we spent the afternoon sleeping it off!
By contrast, on another day, we went to Jerez itself, home of Domecq, Gonzalez Byass, Harvey and Sandeman, amongst others. We chose Gonzalez Byass, makers of Tio Pepe (Lesley's favourite) and Croft, to which I am rather partial. This was a far more professional tour, with a little road-train to take us through the gardens (filled with South American specimen trees brought to the site by one of the earlier Mrs Gonzales), past a small vineyard to the distillery, where their brandy is made, to the main Bodega. The process is identical to all the others, so other gimmicks are used to keep the visitor focussed on the brand. There is the famous"tipsy mouse", where they have set a glass of sherry on the floor with a little ladder for the mouse to climb up, take a sip, then stagger home. No doubt a number of mice are involved, and it is a strange sight. In another store room are barrels of sherry or brandy signed by famous people, including the Spanish and English royal families, sports stars ranging from Bobby Charlton through Fangio to Rafael Nadal, film stars such as Orson Wells, Jack Nicolson and Steven Spielberg and politicians such as Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. Pride of place went to one by Picasso, with a little drawing. The final tasting was a disappointment, with a glass of Tio Pepe and a glass of Croft. I would far rather have tried one of the other types. (NB - I enjoyed it! - Lesley.) Our tour coincided with the end of a visit by three coach loads of German policemen and their partners. It was good timing actually, as they had completed their visit and so did not interrupt the "flow". The last part of the visit, before the tasting, was a viewing of the warehouse designed by Eiffel, of tower fame. As well as being interesting architecturally, and interesting for its contents, it was, by coincidence, acoustically excellent, as was proved by the massed voices of the German police choir.
Whilst in Jerez we just had to visit the Fundacion Real Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre, or Andalucian riding school. Neither of us are horsey types, but this had had such good reports. It is extremely popular, with two shows a week to a packed house every time. There were displays of solo riding, where the rider, in traditional Spanish dress and hat, takes his horse round the ring forwards, sideways, backwards, walking, cantering, skipping (a very odd sight) all without a word or apparent instruction. And all this was done to music, of varying rhythms, with the horse keeping time to the beat. Then several more horses, riding in formation, doing much the same. Two carriages performing complex manoeuvres, riderless horses with their trainers, demonstrating training methods and doing "circus" tricks, and finally ten horses and their riders doing a "musical ride". It was a fantastic show, worth every penny.
We left El Puerto on Friday, before the weekend Spanish invasion, and moved westwards past Seville to El Rocio and Camping La Aldea. This is an absolutely amazing place. I doubt if many of you have heard of it, but at Whitsuntide each year up to one million pilgrims arrive to pay their respects to Nuestra Senora del Rocio, yet another incarnation of the Virgin Mary. In this instance, the Senora is a gilded statue in a comparatively modern church. What makes this pilgrimage so different is the town itself. Situated in the Donana National Park, 180,000 acres of salt marsh and sand dunes, on the edge of a lake covered in flamingos, it is a stunning sight.
It has grown over the years from a small village to a sizeable town by the continual addition of hostels built by "Hermandads", or brotherhoods, from towns all over Spain. However the town council (if indeed there is one) never got round to building the roads. Whilst these buildings are set out in a straightforward grid pattern, with shady parks across the centre, all the roads are sand. And whilst on the two main streets this sand is quite firm, elsewhere this is soft dune-like sand. If you do not have a 4x4 or a horse, steer clear of the side roads! In fact horses and horse-drawn carriages are the norm. All the streets have hitching rails along the edge just like the Wild West. There are even a couple of bars with high tables so riders can catch a swift half without dismounting.
As well as the annual pilgrimage,
each Hermandad has an allotted weekend for a visit. Each weekend four or five towns will be sending a delegation. They meet up on Saturday for partying and fireworks. Horse riders strut round the town doing party tricks on their horses, much
like Californian youths might cruise the Strip in their flash cars or young motorcyclists do wheelies in the high street. Then on Sunday they parade through town, many dressed in traditional costume, playing guitars and beating drums, making formal visits
to the other visiting Hermandads, then parading to the church with their banners (not unlike the old Miners' Gala) to be blessed by Nuestra Senora. Then they parade through town again back to their respective Hermandads for celebration meals. Meanwhile
Spanish families not part of the Hermandad will gather in the parks and cook huge communal paellas.
The National Park is also well worth a visit. Most of it is fenced off to exclude all bar the few who live and work there. This ensures that it remains a haven for all sorts of wildlife, a lot of which spills over into the parts accessible to the public. As well as wild boar, red and fallow deer, the European Lynx has one of its last strongholds here. Soaring above the park are red and black kites, imperial eagles, booted eagles and ospreys, whilst flamingo, spoonbills, stilts and glossy ibis wade in the marshes. The ubiquitous stork nests on every pylon. We have had several very pleasant walks in the park, spotting birds and flowers we had not seen before.
Seville is just 40 miles away, so we had to have a day trip to see it. I am so glad we did. It really is a beautiful city, with the elegance of Paris and the history of Granada. The Moorish influence is still strong, with the Alcazar, or royal palace, not quite as old as the Alhambra but almost as beautiful The cathedral is immense, the third largest in Europe after St Peters and St Paul's. Actually, architecturally, it is a bit of a hotchpotch, but impressive nonetheless.
The bell tower, which as in many Andalucian churches, was formerly a minaret, is more famously known as La Giralda, named for the weather vane being held by Faith, the bronze at the top. We climbed as far as we could, up the sloping ramp within the tower, to the belfry, from which the views were great.
40 miles west of El Rocio is Huelva, the last major town in Spain before the Portuguese border. This is a port on the estuary of the Rio Tinto. Yes, it is that Rio Tinto and it really is red, well, a mucky brown colour running through red sands. Many miles upstream is one of the largest opencast mines in Europe. The estuary is a mass of oil refineries, complete with the smoke and smell. However, across the river from Huelva is the little village and monastery of La Rabida, whose abbot financed an exploratory voyage in 1492 by one Cristobal Colon (how the name translated to Christopher Columbus I do not know). Replicas of the three ships, Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, which themselves copied the voyage 500 years later, are moored here, in almost the same spot as they set off from on their epic voyage. The setting does not really do them justice, with the backdrop of petrochemical plants, not unlike the canal boat museum at Ellesmere Port. It was amazing to see how small these boats are. As Lesley said, " I wouldn't cross the Mersey in one of those, never mind the Atlantic".
We are staying here in El Rocio for a few more days, partly to see another weekend's festivities but mainly because it is so relaxing here. It is a lovely site, with all the facilities we need and pleasant company around. It is amazing how many people we see who we have seen at previous sites. One couple from near Macclesfield, Ken and Diane, we first met at Oliva, then again at Cuevas Mar near Mojacar. They moved on to Portugal, and then lo and behold here they are at El Rocio on their way back. We have had a couple of sessions with them around a glass of wine comparing notes and it is so useful to us amateurs to pick up tips from seasoned travellers such as these.