How to NOT Plan a Trip to Riotinto, Huelva

Julián was good at exaggerating and making up words. “My town, it is the most fantastical of all the towns of Huelva, simply the bestest.”

Julián and I parted ways long ago, but his stake that Minas de Ríotinto was the most fantastically bestest towns in Spain didn’t fall on silent ears. With a claim like that, I had to make a visit.

So off I set towards Ríotinto on a particularly warm November afternoon after meeting my friend halfway along the Doñana Trail. Windows down and Guns & Roses blasting, I drove north into the Sierra de Huelva via Bollullos. All signs – the brown roadside signs, that is – pointed me in the right direction.

But I never made it. Just as roundabout sculptures went from stone monoliths to oxidized mining equipment, my GPS told me to make a 180 degree turn around a roundabout and head back to where I’d come from. Sixty minutes later, I was back in Bollullos, seeing just a trickle of the red river.

Minas de Riotinto, Huelva

Turns out that Google Maps categorized Ríotinto as both a village and protected natural area. So, really I ended up where I had intended to go, but learned a lesson: Don’t rely on Google Maps when there are directions on the website.

Resolute to visit another day, it took me until May to find a weekend to print out directions and go. I grabbed Kelly and my sunscreen and decided to enter via Castillo de las Guardas in the north rather than risk a faulty GPS and lack of roadsigns (and to avoid the beach-going crowd on the A-49).

As soon as we’d turned onto the N-476, we scoured the twisty highway for the next sign of civilization. Though the hills have been excavated for copper, silver and gold for more than five millennia, the whole region is sparsely populated. As soon as I saw a sizable town, we ignored signs and I pulled off. Instinctively, we found the church and assumed the tourism office would be there. Our GPS said we were in the neighboring town of Nerva.

Nerva Huelva

Lesson learned: do rely on Google Maps when you know you’ve punched in the correct destination.

Around 2pm we arrived in the actual town of Minas de Ríotinto, a town whose number swelled when the Spanish government reopened the mines in the early 18th Century. Kelly asked me what there was to do, and I had to admit that I’d only looked for a place to eat and had paid little attention to the attractions.

Like many websites in Spain, I found the Foundation’s website poorly put together and confusing – both in English and Spanish. So, I decided to just show up. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have ignored the website or simply have made a phone call.

Rio Tinto Mine Tour

After the mines reopened in 1724 and later came under the control of a multinational company called Río Tinto, Limited. Hundreds of Brits flocked to the busy mines for work in the 1870s, bringing with them their language, food culture, Victorian decoration and even football – el Recreativo de Huelva, a second division team, is descended from the club formed at Ríotinto.

The company grew to be the largest mining company worldwide, though their exploitation of the mines in heir namesake town had all but finished by 1925. The mines ceased exploitation in 2001.

We arrived at the Visitor’s Center, housed in the old mining hospital and current mining museum, around 1:50pm. We were surprised to find it still open when most people would be having a leisurely lunch. The museum monitor told me that there were four big ticket options in town: the museum, a replica of a Victorian House, a visit to one of the mines with a guide and a touristic train ride, but that we’d arrived too late in the day to do it all. Don’t arrive midday and expect to be able to see all of the attractions – you’re better off starting early, breaking in the middle of the day for lunch and taking the train for the grand finale.

Mining Museum Spain

Kelly and I, as Chicago natives, have likely visited the Museum of Science and Industry and its mining exhibit a dozen times each, but we knew next to nothing about mining or the history of Ríotinto. The museum was a definite, but we had to choose between the mines and the touristic train. I was about to flip a coin when the monitor stopped us. “Don’t skip the train ride,” he told us. “The visit to the mines is interesting but not as esteemed as riding an old steam train.”

Steam Locomotives Huelva

Museo Minero en Riotinto Huelva

Signs all around the museum prohibited photography and videography, but having entered the museum so late we had missed the last guided tour – this meant we didn’t have to elbow past a group. They all stood baffled as they attempted to take photos on their mobile phones. If the guide wasn’t ruffled that they were deliberately breaking the rules, I certainly wasn’t going to clandestinely take out-of-focus photos on my cell. Ignore the posters.

The museum was small but traces mining activity in the area from the Roman times – complete with an underground replica of a mine – to modern day. Three trains take up residence in the old hospital alongside cancelled train tickets, RTC Ltd.-issued uniforms and excavated gemstones.

Promptly at 3pm, we were ushered out. I had seen that one of the town’s five restaurants was renown for their English take on Spanish dishes. At La Epoca, you can’t miss the menú turístico, a three-course meal served every day of the week for 9,50€. When the Riotinto Company took over the mines, they brought their traditional dishes and savory sauces: I chose an omelette of locally grown vegetables and pollo al riotinto, a battered and fried chicken breast in coronation sauce.

Restaurante La Epoca Riotinto

The scheduled departure time for the touristic train was 5pm, but don’t worry too much about being on time for the train. We left at 5:17, seated aboard train cars once used to transport passengers between the various excavation sites. The mines employed 3,000 laborers in their heyday, and the train line that joined the mines and the province capital of Huelva was traversed by more than 1,300 transport cars, used to move both men and might.

The 12 kilometer journey was slow to start, taking in the alien-like landscapes that reminded me of Teide. Definitely don’t forget your camera because the trip is scenic, if not eery with hollowed out mine cars, abandoned equipment and tracks that lead to nowhere.

Touristic Train of Riotinto Huelva

Touristic Train Minas de Riotinto

rio tinto railway

El Río Tinto is so-called for its crimson color – it literally looks like red wine – and believed to have a chemical component that is heavy in metals and iron. While no animal or fish life can be traced, bacteria thrives. In fact, NASA studied the chemistry of the water and concluded that Río Tinto is the place on Earth that most resembles samples taken from Mars.

visit to Riotinto

Landscapes of Rio Tinto Huelva

Spain's Red River Río Tinto

El Madroño and the Mines

Red River in Spain

Rio Tinto and its Color

Don’t be afraid to touch the water or bottle some up as a souvenir – though the water will stain your clothes, it won’t do any harm to your skin. And if you do get off the train, don’t expect to call samesies on your seat – all of the Spanish abuelos will have changed spots, looking bored and fanning themselves before the train pulls away.

After so many years of living in Seville, I’d seemingly done all of the day trips. The mines and museums of Riotinto stayed off my list for years, so if you have a car and a free day, don’t miss it.

If you go: Minas de Riotinto is located 90 kilometers from Sevilla. The museum, Victorian House, mine visit and touristic train are open daily except for New Year’s, the Epiphany and Christmas Day. Plan to spend a day and around 20€ for the whole visit. Follow my advice and check the website for opening times. 

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I visited Ríotinto as part of the Typical NonSpanish Project, meant to show a different side of Spain and power by Caser Expat. All opinions, text and photo are my own.

 

Have you ever been to Ríotinto or had an unplanned day turn out to be awesome?

Learning Photography Basics with Photo Tour Seville

How many times have you been on a trip and you hand your camera off to someone, only to get this result?

Dude, I put it on auto for you. How could you have messed that up?

I sadly have pictures of myself in some gorgeous places – Beijing, Romania, Morocco – that have turned out less-than-stellar because asking a stranger to take my photo has resulted in a simple click without considering composition, light or even where my body was in the photo.

And then there’s the traveling-and-not-always-knowing-where-to-look factor. At breakneck speed on trips, I often forget to slow down and seek out details in photos, opting instead for macro shots of famous sites and landscapes.

As a professional photographer, Alberto began Photo Tour Seville to help visitors to the Andalusian capital discover the city’s most beautiful rincones, have professional photos taken in such rincones and receive a personalized photo album to take home.

We met Alberto in Plaza de América one sunny October morning – not optimal for photos, perhaps, but one of those mornings where it’s pleasant in the sun, chilly in the shade and the blue hue of the sky still fools you into thinking it’s still summer.

Alberto gave us a mini-tour through María Luisa park, a historic part of the city he jokingly calls “el despacho,” or the office. We sat in a shady plaza dedicated to Miguel de Cervantes, Spain’s literary mastermind, which had ceramic bookshelves with a few tattered paperbacks for loan.

Alberto explained the various parts of the manual functions, something I’d toyed with from time to time before settling on automatic settings for sake of time. I was familiar with all of the terms – f-stop, white balance, aperture – but haven’t quite worked out how to make them all fit to get the result my own two eyes did.

Then, he gave us a series of tasks around the park to practice what we had learned. First up was a formidable challenge: freezing the water of a fountain located in the center of the park while allowing the colors of the blue sky and lush gardens come out.

Easier said that snapped, as it took me three tries to get it kind of right!

I’d considered shutter speed for making the water not blur together, but couldn’t get the aperture, or the amount of like that gets let into the lens, and the ISO to work together. Essentially, the lower the ISO, the clearer your pictures are but the less sensitive they are to the light coming into the camera.

Next, I worked on taking a portrait of Laura on a bright day while experimenting with depth of field. Without Alberto’s help, I fumbled through the settings to be sure Laura’s face was in focus and the backdrop of the Museo de Artes y Costumbre’s mudéjar facade a bit blurred, taking into account all of the light that would be in the frame.

Fail. I’d need to work at this.

Once I’d reset and looked for a place with less light, I snapped another picture of my friend with better results:

The pigeons at the western end of the plaza were our next challenge. I’ve long tried to capture them in flight, but had never gotten the shutter speed fast enough to have their wings fully outstretched. But that had an easy fix: shutter speed. I set my shutter as fast as it would snap – 1/3200 of a second – and waited for the birds to fly.

Even when the pigeons weren’t flying, I experimented with depth of field and closing the aperture to focus the photo.

Alberto then led us through the lush gardens of María Luisa, constructed for the 1929 Ibero-American Fair and full of hidden fountains and busts. Apart from tutorials, Sevilla Photo Tour also takes photos of families (which eliminates the more-than-likely chance that you’ll have a photo like the one above of a rooftop rather than the Giralda).

Like any good tour, we ended with a beer and a few tapas before I jetted off to work. Laura spent a good chunk of her afternoon in the park and Plaza de España testing out her photography skills. When I met her at 10pm that night on a ceramic bench in the picturesque half-moon square, I tried to remember what I’d been taught.

Yeah, add a tripod for Camarón to my registry wish list!

Alberto graciously offered Laura and I the tour free of charge, but all opinions are my own. If you’re interested in learning more, get in touch with Alberto at Photo Tour Seville!

Have you ever been on a photo tour, or any sort of out-of-the-box tour while traveling?

Autonomous Community Spotlight: Cantabria

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.

When I sat down to write this month’s post about Cantabria, I didn’t feel inspired. I made it a point to get to Northern Spain one summer between summer camp in Galicia and summer camp in Castilla-La Mancha, but my trip left me far less than impressed. In fact, I called a post ‘Santandisappointed.’ Looking back, it may have been the crowds, it may have been traveling alone, it may have been my timing.

That’s why I’m offering the floor to my friend Liz Ferry, who has not only studied in the capital of Cantabria, but has also work their as an auxiliar. In fact, she loves the region so much, she left Andalucía to head back to a place where surf and turf exist together.

Cantabria and I go way back – back to the American crisis of 2008, when I studied abroad in Santander, Cantabria, and literally spent every penny I had, thanks to the exchange rate at the time. But apart from losing all my money, I fell in love for the first time in my life, and it was with a place. I later moved here in 2011, and with the exception of a one-year fling with Seville, I have stayed here ever since.

This tiny region is often considered by other Spaniards as cold, rainy, windy, and full of boring, sosa people. Our semi-Irish winters, however, make for an incredible landscape, with views of the Bay of Biscay, the Cantabrian Mountains, and the Picos de Europa.

 

 

 

 
Name: Cantabria

Population: 592,000

Provinces: Only one (Cantabria), but there are 10 comarcas: Asón-Agüera, Besaya, Campoo-Los Valles, Costa Occidental, Costa Oriental, Liébana, Saja-Nansa, Santander, Trasmiera, and Valles Pasiegos

When: May 2008 (Cat: 14/17, August 2010)

About Cantabria: Cantabria is a little-known region of Spain, which climate and landscape-wise is more similar to Ireland than it is to the interior and south of Spain. It’s known for its cold, rainy, and windy winters, and its mild summers, in which we hope to get enough good beach days to enjoy all the hidden corners of the region. Cantabria is also a Celtic region – along with Asturias, it was one of the last regions to hold off the Roman Empire from invasion.

Must-sees: The capital, Santander, is a small city of about 180,000 people. It’s home to one of the vacation palaces of the royal family, the Palacio de la Magdalena. There are great walking paths on the grounds of the palace that offer some of the city’s best views. From the palace, continue to the Sardinero beaches, Santander’s famed beaches that offer lots of activities nearby, such as a luxury casino. Continue walking along the coast to arrive at the cliffs, Cabo Menor and Cabo Mayor. Cabo Mayor is home to the main lighthouse, and provides the city’s best sunset views.

Santander also holds a Semana Grande festival every summer, the week leading up to the Day of St. James (July 25). The atmosphere of the city does a 180 – people are eating pinchos and drinking wine or cañas in the streets and at casetas, and there are free (and not-free concerts) every day, tons of activities for people of all ages, fireworks over the sea, bullfights, and typical fair rides.

For seaside enthusiasts who prefer a quieter scene, Cantabria is full of beautiful, natural beaches and coves. San Vicente is a fishing village with sea and mountain views, and the beautiful Playa de Oyambre is right next door. Suances is a tourist hot-spot in summer, with its plentiful beaches and mountainous landscape (it’s also where I work!). Liencres is my personal favorite, home to the Dunes of Liencres and a hidden, rocky cove beach called Portio. Castro Urdiales is a popular beach town near the border of País Vasco, which makes for a quick commute to Bilbao for a night on the town.

For mountain lovers, Potes is a must, with its cobblestone streets, cider, and proximity to the Picos de Europa. Fuente Dé is nearby, where you can catch a cable car into the Picos de Europa. San Roque de Riomiera, further off to the east, has breathtaking mountain views, as does Vega de Pas, a small town in the Valles Pasiegos.

For a historical visit, head to Santillana del Mar, the town of the three lies (if you break apart it’s name in Spanish, it means Holy Flat Land of the Sea, but it’s not holy, it’s not flat, and it isn’t on the sea). This well-preserved medieval village has become quite touristy, but for good reason – it’s like you walked into the Middle Ages. The famous Altamira caves are nearby, although most people are only allowed to see the replicas. For other caves with cave drawings (that are even older than those of Altamira), go to Puente Viesgo, a small village also famous for its churros con chocolate.

No Cantabrian experience is complete without a gastronomic tour. Cantabria is famous for its seafood and fish. Fresh-caught fish and seafood from the rough waters of the Bay of Biscay are served up daily throughout the region. Santander even has a whole barrio full of such restaurants, the Barrio Pesquero, where you can get a menu del día for 12 euros. Foods specific to Cantabria include cocido montañés, a typical bean dish, sobaos, a light breakfast pastry, and quesada, a cold, dairy-based dessert. After a weekend lunch, you can see scores of cántabros taking a shot of orujo, a liquor made in Cantabria.

My take: I’ll take an Irish-like winter any day in order to have the beautiful green views intertwined with the Bay of Biscay. If you’re lucky enough to see Cantabria on a sunny day, you too will fall in love. While we do prefer to keep it relatively unknown and to ourselves, I am proud to boast about my tierra Cantabria. Once a Yankee, always a Yankee.

Have you been to Cantabria? What are your thoughts? Check back at the beginning of October for the next installment, Castilla y León.

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias 

Seville Snapshots: The Ceramic Benches of the Plaza de España

I adore Plaza de España.

It was here in 2005 that I sat on one of the ceramic benches and journaled about studying abroad. Eight years later, I’ve made countless visits to the half-moon square with visitors (inlcuding Alex, my blog media naranja from Ifs, Ands & Butts), to photograph Andrea and Carlos’s wedding, and to the dreaded Extranjería for residency issues.

Originally built in 1929 for the Ibero-American Fair, the majestic building and its ceramic tile work crown the María Luisa Park. Roma gypsies peddle fans and tourists rent boats to float around the moat. The colonnades hide several government offices, but the main attraction are the hand-painted tiles that represent each province of Spain and its place in history.

In 2005, I sat at the Valladolid bench, fresh out of my study abroad experience. Moving back to Spain had barely crossed my mind at that point, and much less so, to Seville.

Have you even been to the Plaza de España? What’s your favorite monument in Seville?

Four Kid-Friendly Options in Seville

As a teacher, I often sigh thinking of how wonderful it would be to grow up in a city like Seville. The beautiful parks, proximity to historic sites and the long lifespan of their abuelitos seem to make childhood here happy and educational, even if the kids do dress up like pansies. Though it has long been known as a city with a rich history, many of the activities that people traditionally choose in Seville – museums, parks and flamenco – can prove to either be a bit dull or not youth appropriate.  Here’s a few picks for where to take your niños in La Hispalense:

Cheer on one of Seville’s fútbol teams

While my great sports love will always be the Iowa Hawkeyes, I’ve become a die-hard Real Betis fan, one of Seville’s teams in the top-tier of La Liga. La Liga is home to world famous football squads such as Real Madrid and Barcelona.  These two squads annually compete in El Clásico. Due to the match’s popularity, free tickets have been given away from a competition making El Clásico one of the grandest and much-awaited sporting event in Spain.

The Estadio Benito Villamarín hosts Real Betis home games and has a capacity of 45,000 spectators.  They say that only Real Madrid and FC Barcelona have more fans than the verdiblancos of La Palmera, and football is not just a sport, but a passion for fans. Tickets are usually cheap, and the thrill of constantly teetering between victory and defeat gets anyone’s heart racing. Your kids likely won’t understand the choice swear words for the referees, called árbitros, anyway!

Visit the Museum at the Plaza de Toros

The Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza is the second oldest modern bullring in Spain and home to one of the most well-known bullfighting festivals in the world. Even if you do not like to watch bullfighting matches, it is still worth a visit. The mustard-colored albero sand and the stark white of the building is insanely gorgeous.Construction began on the structure in 1749 and the building has been maintained until today.

There’s also a small but informative museum that celebrates the history of the sport, explains its three parts and pays homage to the toreros who compete, which can be conducted in English. You can even see the head of the mother of Spain’s most famous bull – the one who killed prominent bullfighter Manolete. According to tradition, if a bull fatally gorges a bullfighter, the mother of the animal is slaughtered.

Seville Bike Tour

If you are only going to be in Seville a couple of days and want a way to see as much of the city as you can, consider taking the Seville Bike Tour.  A bike rental is included in your fee and your tour guide takes you around to the best places in the city while explaining to you the history of Seville.  Tour guides speak English, Spanish, and even Dutch and are very friendly and accommodating.

La Reserva del Castillo de las Guardas

One of the largest wildlife parks in Europe, La Reserva del Castillo de las Guardas has over 1,000 animals and 100 different species in settings nearly identical to their natural habitat.  You can drive through the habitat on your own or have a guided tour while seeing lions, zebra, and all sorts of wildlife as if you were on Safari.  In addition, there are also exhibitions and live shows separate from the wildlife habitat that include sea lions and even a recreation of the American Wild West. La Reserva of Castillo de las Guardas is located about one hour north of Seville in the town of the same name.

Other museums like the Pabellon de la Navegacion or the Castillo de San Jorge are cheap and kid-friendly options, as well as the wealth of parks and plazas. If I were a kid, I’d been in and out of the fountain in La Alameda de Hercules during the hot summer days (but mostly just to get a funga face from the Naners)!

Where do you mommies and daddies hang out with your kids in Seville?

Places with Encanto: Barcelona’s Parc Guell

When I was a child, I used to cut up old pictures into tiny squares, scatter the fragments and look at the kaleidoscope of memories that began to collect, adorn other picture frames and end up in projects I completed for high school.

Years later, I toured Gaudi’s whimsical Parc Güell, a high-hanging oasis in the middle of a bustling metropolis. The shards of ceramic that lined the few physical structures and park benches captured my imagination much the same way that my photos had.

Originally meant to be a luxury subdivision dreamt up by Count Güell and designed by Antonio Gaudí, only two houses were ever built. The property was turned over to the city and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 1960s. Despite the crowds and the uphill climb from the nearest metro stop, the park is a beautiful showcase of Gaudi’s work on a small scale, and it’s one of the redeeming parts of a city I’m not too fond of.

Have you been to Parc Güell? Which shot is your favorite?

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