Seville, I’m breaking up with you

Querida Sevilla mía,

You know that age-old, “It’s not you, it’s me”? Well, it’s not me. Eres tú. We’ve reached the end of a nine-year relationship, one marked with uncertainty at the beginning, with as much elation as frustration in the years since we became intimate. And más pronto que tarde, I knew we’d end up here.

Te estoy dejando.

giralda sunset1

My friend Stacy maintains that the first Spaniard you fall for is never the one you stay with – it’s always the second. If Spanish lovers were cities, you’d be my second great love, my second Spaniard. Two years before we got to know each other, Valladolid entered my life. Stately and daunting, but a romance that was always a little off. Castilla y León’s capital never did it for me, a bit too cold and a bit too stand-offish to be anything long-term. Neither the castles nor the robust red wine could woo me, but it was a foray into what it meant to truly love a city.

You and I met on a sweltering July day in 2005, your characteristic heat baking midday as I dragged a suitcase towards Calle Gravina. Back then, the Alameda was all albero, you could drive down Constitution and around the roundabout at Puerta Jerez and there was a noticeable lack of skyscrapers, gastrobars and coffee houses. On the surface, you were beautiful, but I pined for Valladolid, not entirely convinced you were boyfriend material.

tapas bodeguita romero typical Spanish tavern

Two years later, we were thrust together again. Still sore from being flat-out rejected by Granada, I set out to try and get to know you on a Sunday evening in late September when everything was shuttered. Walking down Pagés del Coro, I craned my neck to watch the swallows dip between the balconies and around the spire of La Estrella chapel.

Swallows, golondrinas, always return to where they’re from. Even at that moment, exhausted from two weeks traveling and unsure about starting my job the next morning at IES Heliche, I knew I had returned to where I was to be from. In those tender first steps in our relationship, I was smitten. I would soon fall deeply in love with you.

Plaza del Altozano Triana

But today, nine years later, I ripped the band aid off, and HARD. I just up and left it seems, without time for long goodbyes at all of the places I’ve come to haunt in these years together, to the hundreds of caras I’ve come to know in the barrio. No ugly cries, just a few tears pricking my eyes as I locked up my house, rolled one suitcase to the bus stop and headed towards Santa Justa and, later, Madrid.

Like I said, it’s you, not me.

I guess you could say I saw this coming, like that little ball that sits low in your stomach when you know life is going to darte un giro in a big, big way. I needed that giro because you’d simply gotten to easy. I can understand even the oldest abuelo buried deep into one of your old man bars, can no longer get lost in your tangle of streets. You are a comfortable lover, warm and welcoming, familiar and comforting.

But I’m not one to be estancada, stagnant, comfortable. Walking down La Castellana in March, the ball in my stomach dissipated as I skipped from a job interview back towards Atocha. The trees were bare, but the sky was the same bright blue that always welcomes me in Seville. As they say, de Madrid al cielo. Madrid was calling.

Sunshine and Siestas at the Feria de Abril

Sevilla, you’ve been more than good to me, giving me just about everything I’ve ever needed. You’re easy on the eyes, fiery and passionate, deeply sensual and surprising. You’ve shown me the Spain I always wanted to find, even between castles and tintos de Ribera del Duero and my first impression of Spain. You’ve reignited my love for culture, for making strangers my friends, for morning beers and for living in the moment. You changed me for the better.

And you will always be that second great love, te lo prometo. Triana will always be my home.

But you’ve just gotten too small. My dreams and ambitions are too big for your pueblo feel, as much as I’ve come to love it. Your aesthetic beauty continues to enchant me as I ride my bike past the cathedral at twilight or I leave extranjería and am not even mad that my least favorite place in Seville is also one of my favorites. Your manjares are no match for the sleek pubs and international food in Madrid, which I know I’ll grow tired of.

ceramics at Plaza de España Seville Spain

I admit that it was difficult to reach your core, to understand the way you are and learn to appreciate those nuances. At the beginning, it was all new and fun and boisterous, the out-loud way that you live each day, those directionless afternoons and long, raucous nights. Lunches that stretch into breakfast. Balmy evenings, Cruzcampo in hand. Festival after procession after traffic jam. Unforgettable sunsets. Unannounced rain showers. Biting cold and scalding heat. You are a city of extremes and mood swings, for sure, but you’re at your best that way. You are as passionate as they say you are.

Still, there were frustrations with the language, that lazy way that you “forget” letters and entire syllables. Frustrations with getting around and untangling the back alleys of your deepest barrios. Frustrations navigating the choque between our two cultures and figuring out a way to make it work for nearly a decade. There was a lot of give and take, that’s for sure.

my first feria de abril

And that’s not to say you haven’t changed for the better in these nine years together.

You’re more guiri-friendly, easier to get around and constantly coming up with ways to reinvent yourself without losing what makes you, . Even when I rolled by eyes at the Setas, I found the best views from its waffle-like towers. You always find a way to stay true to yourself, even if that means having to take the long way home when the streets are choked with a procession or if I call the Ayuntamiento and they send my call from office to office without ever getting through to an actual human.

But those same things that I once loved have become annoyances as we’ve gotten more comfortable with one another. Some of it is trivial, lo sé, but in the bigger scheme of things, we need time apart. Room to breathe, to try new things. I can’t get everything I need from you right now, Seville, y ya está. I know the decision was quick and may have its repercussions, but it’s what I have to do right now if we ever want a chance again.

Expat in Seville Cat Gaa

Madrid presents so many new possibilities. I scoffed at the idea of living there and opening myself up to loving it, but it will never be you. In fact, I think it will be like Valladolid, a tough nut to crack and one whose true character I may never know the way that I know you.

I’ll look for you in the bares de viejos, in a sevillano passing by wearing a Betis t-shirt, in the way that the Madrid gatos will laugh at my accent or look puzzled when I ask for a copistería or a cervecita. You’ll probably follow me around, to be honest. You were never one to let go lightly.

I love Seville Heart Necklace

This morning, as I drove over the San Telmo bridge towards Triana, the swallows returned. It was already a warm July morning, maybe even eleven years to the day since I first felt the breeze over the Guadalquivir. Eres un amor para toda la vida, Sevilla. Maybe in three or five years’ time, we’ll find ourselves back together, a bit more mature and ready for a new stage in our relationship. You’ll have changed, I have no doubt, and so will I.

But if the golondrinas are any indication, volveré. It’s the natural course.

Con todo mi cariño,

Cat

Wondering about my absence the past two months? I’ve been back and forth on the AVE, making trips to Madrid for job interviews, spending time alone with Sevilla and even squeezed in a ten-day trip to the US for my sister’s wedding. On July 3rd, 2016 – coincidentally the same day I applied for my visa for Spain in 2007 – the Novio and I officially moved to Madrid. I’ll start a job in a few weeks as an admissions counselor at a prestigious American university with a campus in the heart of La Capi. Adiós, teaching – never thought I’d see the day!!

No time for complatency

Will I like Madrid? I’m positive I will. Will I love it? Not in the same way that I love Seville, but the Novio and I have big plans for the next few years, and Seville was simply too small for our career ambitions. I’m not entirely sure how the scope of Sunshine and Siestas, a blog that has largely been about Andalucía, will change, but you can count on my voice coming through! 

I’m curious to hear your reactions to the news, which I’ve managed to keep surprisingly quiet! Not even sure I believe it myself!

Five Reasons Why Andalucía is the Place to Be in May

Andalucía in springtime is perhaps the closest I can get to nirvana. Yes, the azahar flowers met an untimely death in April and my allergies are rampant, but even the short bursts of rain seem more poetic and more welcome now, because I’ll soon be slurping down snails or sneaking in a beer before work. The sky is blue and the temperature is perfect; the beaches are uncrowded and tourists have yet to choke city centers and my favorite tapas bars.

Even with flight deals to foreign destinations, staying close to home in Andalucía is my first choice when it comes to weekend plans and city breaks. From ferias to romerías, my social calendar is already packed with ideas!

Things to do in Andalusia in May

While I’m busy preparing for my sister’s wedding in the US along with the crazed end-of-term tasks, please grab a cervecita and enjoy some of these festivals for me this month!

Jerez de la Frontera: La Feria del Caballo

May kicks off with La Feria del Caballo, a smaller more welcoming version of my local Feria de Sevilla in little sister city Jerez de la Frontera. A city renowned for its sherry production and Andalusian horses, the festivities revolve around just those things. Head to the recinto ferial on the north end of town to dance Sevillanas and gawk at horse carriages, glass of fino in hand.

Feria de Jerez

And no need to wear a traje de gitana, chicas – this feria is way more laid-back!

2016 dates: April 30 to May 6

Córdoba: Cruces de Mayo, Festival de los Patios, Feria de Córdoba

Seville’s big month is April, but May is totally Córdoba’s time to shine. While it may not be as grandiose as its westerly neighbor, the Ciudad Califa has THREE festivals of national touristic interest.

calleja de las flores córdoba

Cruces de Mayo, which typically takes place during the first weekend of the month, sees large flower crosses set up in city plazas as offerings (and, rumor has it, there are small bars selling food and drink). Next up is the Patios Festival, where locals open their homes and gardens to the public, their walls and wells draped in beautiful flowers. If your wallet hasn’t burned a hole in your pocket during your stay in Andalusia yet, the cordobés version of a feria closes out the month.

2016 dates: Cruces is April 28 to May 2, after which the Patios are open daily until May 15th. The Feria will be held from the 21st and 28th of the month.

Málaga: Noche en Blanco

Málaga is an up-and-coming touristic epicenter, and the city has responded by offering 20% more activities, openings and gatherings for their annual White Night. Fashioned after its American counterparts, the museums, galleries, expositions and tours here will operate until 2am.

You can see the full program here.

2016 dates: May 14th from 8pm until 2am.

Huelva: La Romería de El Rocío

My first trip to El Rocío – a mere hour’s bus ride from Seville – was one for the books. Straight out of the American Wild West, I was surrounded by people from all over Spain who were devoted to an effigy found near the marshes of Doñana National Park. From parades to enormous corrales housing groups of hermandades, this is certainly quite an event!

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I call her the lushy Virgin Mary, as her party on Pentecost Sunday is also characterized by hedonism. After the long walk to the Aldea from various parts of Spain, the statue “jumps” over the altar and is passed around town on the shoulders of her followers. The best part of the Salta de la Reja is that it happens at a different time every year, meaning Sunday night reaches fever pitch proportions.

2016 dates: the carrozas leave their respective hermandades on various days leading up to Pentecost Sunday, which is May 15th this year.

Granada and Almería: Moros y Cristianos

This long-standing festival, reenacting the Christian Reconquest of Spain during the 8th to 15th centuries, isn’t limited to Andalucía – many locals in southwest and south central Spain have their own version of the event. Imagine full-scale battles, costumes and an enormous medieval fair (meat on a stick!). And given that Andalucía – Granada specifically – was the last stronghold of the Moors, the region takes pride in their rendition.

2016 dates: Dates vary by municipality, but count on late May or June; check local websites.

come and drink

As for Seville? It’s still recovering from Semana Santa and Feria! I’ve been drinking in the temperate weather, the sunny bike rides to work and the longer evening light. Well, that and draining my wallet on gas and bocadillos.

Even if you’re visiting Andalusia on an all-inclusive holiday or cruise, make time to experience these visitor-friendly festivals – they will give you an insight into Andalusian culture and tradition in the wonderful region I now call home.

Curious about events taking place in other parts of Spain? Madrid’s local festival, San Isidro, is marked by bullfights and events around the city, and Girona is famous for its Temps de Flors. Devour Spain covers the ins and outs of San Isidro, and Jess’s photos of the flower festival are gorgeous! And my apologies: I should have pushed publish on this article two weeks ago – oops! 

What’s your favorite springtime festival in Spain?

Vía Crucis de Santiponce: Semana Santa Lite

Torches lined the gravel path, which inclined ever-so-slightly upwards. Mari Carmen had taken hold of my arm and was pulling me forward through the crowds as pebbles rolled out of place, causing me to stumble – no joke – three times. Up ahead, a procession showing Christ carrying the cross was reaching the top of the hill.

Via Crucis Santiponce

When my friend invited me to a Saturday night out at a small-scale religious procession, I hadn’t been skeptical or searching for something better to do. After turning 30, some sort of chip clicked on, and I have been determined to switch up my weekend routine ever since. Because, #thisis30 and my stamina is not what it used to be. Attending one of the Aljarafe’s most celebrated fiestas locales with an American friend’s Andalusian mother-in-law was going to be a new experience.

Santiponce traditional festival

Accompanied by a somber three-piece woodwind band, we were able to sneak around the gold-laden paso and slip into the crowd next to the local cemetery. Close to 50 brothers, torches and cruces de guía in hand, had taken up rank across from the cemetery’s western wall as Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno sliced through the masses of people. Even on my toes, I couldn’t see but as he passed through the gate, the speakers crackled to life with the Our Father.

Growing up Catholic, I’d learned many prayers by heart, but even working in a Catholic grade school hadn’t prompted me to learn the words in Spanish. I bowed my head so that Mari Carmen wouldn’t see that I couldn’t say more than Padre Nuestro, que estás en el cielo, santificado sea tu nombre

What is a via crucis

As the procession backed up and headed down the hill towards Itálica, an ancient Roman town that saw prosper and the birth of two emperors, I could finally ask Mari Carmen why she’d invited three guiris out to a procession. The Vía Crucis of Santiponce is one of Spain’s most revered Lenten activities, and draws the participation of brotherhoods, called hermandades, from around Spain.

Following the old Roman road through Itálica, we stopped and waited near the entrance to the ampitheatre. Inside, fourteen brotherhoods would line up along the oblong-shaped walls with their cruz de guía, or the crucifix that heads up each procession in its respective hermandad. No pointy hats here. The Cristo would stop at each one as an hermano would read passages from the Bible and pray an Our Father fourteen times.

Via Crucis Spain

Just as the paso passed into the amphitheater, the clouds broke and a drizzle began to fall. Umbrellas went up, blocking my view. Even the threat of rain keeps most Cristos and Vírgenes at home, safe in their temples, but the 25 year-old tradition wouldn’t let the damp weather spoil its journey. Instead, a poncho was placed around the veneration’s shoulders and the first station – Jesus is condemned to death – was completed.

Torches burned and the crowd thinned out at Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno made his way through the last moments of his life. We followed him as he passed the stone walls of Itálica’s most famous ruin as he figuratively prepared for his death and resurrection.

hermandades en un via crucis

Via Crucis Spain Italica

Brotherhoods participating in a Via Crucis in Spain

Altarboys Spain

Santiponce Via Crucis

A tí te gusta la Semana Santa, Cat? Mari Carmen asked, again clutching my arm as we heard the grunts and shoe scoffing of the costaleros under the float as they approached 11th station, the crucifixion. Like Semana Santa, a Vía Crucis a moment of reflection and meditation, a plead for forgiveness or piety, but without the crowds and the pushing come Palm Sunday.

I answered her no, that the raucous celebration of the Feria de Sevilla were far more my pace.

If you go: The Vía Crucis of Santiponce is celebrated yearly and of touristic interest. It is held on the first Sunday of Lent, typically in late February or early March. Admission is free and parking is ample, or you can take the M-170A from Plaza de Armas. 

Via Crucis Santiponce2

Have you ever been to a religious celebration? Have any cool events to share in Spain? If you liked these photos, check out last year’s Palm Sunday processions photo diary!

Let’s Have a Little Talk About Spanish Toilets

The smell hits me like a pata de jamón to the head: a cocktail of bathroom disinfectant, spilled hand soap, ancient pipes and bleach. And that’s only if the person before me hasn’t bothered to flush.

Verdad verdadera: if you drink liquids, you have to pee. If you drink beer, you have to pee twice as much. And if you drink beer in Spain, you have to pee in a filthy, poorly lit bathroom that likely doesn’t have toilet paper (and if it does, you’d better steal what’s left of the roll and stash that contraband in your purse).

In the eight years I’ve lived in Spain, I’ve not been able to get over Spanish bathrooms.I’d do a silent fist pump when I’d find a few scraps of toilet paper, or a toilet seat, or even hand soap (also known as the váter Holy Trifecta) in a public bathroom.

But váter, you and I have to have a talk.

Let's Talk About Bathrooms in Spain

It was on a sweltering July night at an old man bar in my neighborhood that I actually considered shuffling three blocks back to house to use our facilities. But I’d had several vermouths, so I handed the Novio my purse and scuttled to the unisex bathroom.

The space was hardly larger than a broom closet (in fact, it probably once was), and my toes rested right next to the door when I closed it. I was wearing sandals, so the bottoms of my feet became soaked in who knows what. As I squatted, my butt hit the wet pipe attached to the flush, and I struggled to find the light switch in the dark. The pipes creaked as I attempted to flush a running toilet, so I gave up entirely, ran my hands under the faucet obsessively and ordered another vermouth (though grain alcohol to kill any germs might have been a better option).

I won’t call out any names here, but as a rule of thumb, if it’s a brightly-lit cervecería frequented by old men, you shouldn’t expect anything special. A step up might be a restaurant frequented by the same old men. I won’t even get into the toilets at discos – particularly the outdoor terraces in the summer. I mean, even the Parador de Zafra, a luxury hotel owned by the Spanish government, has a problem keeping toilets stocked with toilet paper!

Not all hope is lost – any place that caters to tourists or business travelers has a better shot at possessing the Váter Trifecta. But Andalucía seems to be the worst when it comes to bathrooms. A friend of mine runs food tours and trained her Seville guides to always bring a small pack of tissues for tour guests, lest they be forced to drip dry.

What are toilets like in Spain

My buttload of gripes has grown as I’ve gotten older. I mean, I went to a large Midwestern University where Saturday morning tailgating meant either sneaking into a stranger’s house on Melrose Court, or finding an alternative solution. But a civilized country deserves a civilized sort of outhouse.

First off, women’s restrooms in Spain tend to double as storage closets for empty beverage bottles, stacking crates and even cleaning supplies (so where the cojones do they keep the toilet paper?!). On more than one occasion, I’ve had to crawl over a pile of crap just to get to the toilet.

I’ve made it abundantly clear that toilet paper is noticeably absent in a high percentage of bathrooms. If you’re a lady, whenever you feel the urge, you either have to rummage around in your purse for kleenex, discreetly ask a friend, or grab a wad of napkins from a table. But Spanish napkins aren’t designed to do anything more than mop up wax, so you’re better off not even trying with them. Note to self: add Kleenex packets to my shopping list.

But don’t throw tissue (or waxy napkins, or really anything non-liquid) into the toilet bowl, because you will cause stress on already overworked pipes and clog the toilet. I once made that mistake and couldn’t show my face in that bar for two months – TWO months! But don’t worry, there will be a NO TIRAR PAPELES AL WC sign affixed somewhere in the room just in case you forget. “We won’t replace the toilet paper for months because we don’t want you to accidentally throw it in the bowl” seems to be every old man bar’s mantra.

bathroom soap in Spain

Soap and paper towels have no place in a  Spanish bathroom either, so even washing your hands can be futile. Alternatives are your jeans, your jacket, or simply walking out of the toilet with wet hands, people moving away from you as if you were covered in blood or leprosy sores. Makes you want to wipe your hands on the bartender’s jeans instead.

And let’s talk briefly about you can only use bathrooms if you’ve had a consumición at the bar? I’ve had to resort to slamming a beer and beelining to the bathroom or ordering a scalding café con leche and have it sit waiting for me as I squatted over yet another shitty (pardon the pun) latrine. Even the holes in the ground in China and Turkey seem more sanitary than the “marvels of modern plumbing” in Iberia.

My first vision of Spain was from a bus that pulled into my study abroad city, Valladolid. I pulled the Iberia blanket off of my head and groggily stared out the window as we stopped at a stoplight. A young mother was holding her child at arm’s length as the little girl let out a steady stream of pis. On the street. In plain daylight. Consumption at a bar be damned, this kid is peeing on a tree.

Pues nada.

This post is a little NSFW, yes, but a constant topic when I’m with my guiri friends. Have any other bathroom gripes to add?

Tapa Thursday: Tasting Jerez de la Frontera

I’ll admit it – I have a big ol’ crush on Jerez de la Frontera.

While Seville swoons, Jerez pokes and teases, yet always entices. It moves slower. It seems to stay for just one more round of ‘la penúltima.’ Jerez knows how to party, but it also knows how to stop and smell the sherry.

And at just an hour car ride south of La Hispalense, it’s easy to cheat on Seville with Jeré.

Tasting

No stranger to Spanish wine culture, Jerez – along with El Puerto de Santa María and Sanlúcar de Barrameda – make up the Sherry Triangle and produce white wine of the same name. I discovered the Feria de la Vendimia thanks to Devour Spain‘s monthly newsletter, and though we’d missed the grape stomping and the sherry cooking classes, there was still one lingering activity on a sunny Saturday late in the summer: the Feria Gastronómica.

Feria de la Vendimia Jerez

Set in a shady plaza sandwiched between the Alcázar fortress and world-famous González Byass Wineries, nearly two dozen tents offered special tapas and a drink for 3.50€ under caseta tents. Rather than do a lap, we beelined straight to a brightly colored bar at the west end of the square. Being hangry is a good enough excuse for me to follow my nose and tummy into a tent.

Jerezano cuisine is similar to that of Seville, but because the province of Cádiz boasts both sea and fertile terrain, there is more fresh fish and seafood, plus heartier meats. The Bahía de Cádiz is famed for Almendraba tuna and bull meat, called retinto. While it would have been easy to choose croquetas and solomillo, I was determined to choose tapas that were more regional.

Here’s what we devoured:

Pepe Limon Sherry Spritzer

While I’ve become a sherry convert thanks to the Feria de Sevilla, my friends find it too bitter. Pepelimón is the newest product from the makers of a fino variety called Tío Pepe that is half fino, half 100% lemon juice. Like rebujito, it’s sweet and potent (and don’t fret, I had a glass of sherry after we’d eaten).

Destraperlo beer Jerez

Craft beer is on the rise in Spain (admit you just did a fist pump), and Jerez has a new kid on the block, Destraperlo. Irene invited us in for free samples of their pilsner and red brands. La birra más burra es muy buena – it’s got more body than local favorite Cruzcampo, but with less bite than an IPA, making it just right for the Spanish palate. 

Ensaladilla de Pulpo

Thirst quenched, we stuck around in the Guardia de Ángel tent for ensaladilla del pulpo. Octopus is one of those Spanish foods that I would have never thought I’d like, but mixed with mayonnaise and paprika, the salty taste was too overwhelming.

Albondigas de Atun

Sticking with seafood, I nabbed some albóndigas de atún con queso payoyo with homemade tomato sauce. Both alemndraba tuna and Payoyo cheese are native to Cádiz, and this was indeed the star dish of the day.

eggplant tapa in Spain

The berenjena con queso de cabra carmelizada en Pedro Ximénez came recommended at Bar Papanata’s tent. Washed down with sherry, of course!

Sampling sherry in Jerez de la Frontera

Realizing we’d only been on one side of the food fair, we got one more drink at Restaurante Bar Gula. I wanted to try the hamburguesa de retinto, a bull’s meat burger, but we opted for croquetas de tomate y albahaca con jamón and a chicken satay (hey, when you find international food in Andalucía, you order it!). 

After five tapas a piece, we were stuffed!

Croquetas in Jerez

That day was one of those typical Andalusian Saturdays where you look at your watch and ask, wait! Where did the time go? Between catching up on our summers, sampling tapas and ordering another round, it was suddenly after 5pm and time for merienda.

Spanish desserts and I broke up a long time ago, and Jerez’s dessert game seemed a little off (we were so desperate we hiked to a Foster’s Hollywood, the most jankity Friday’s you can imagine, to find it closed). We settled on cakes from a pastelería.

oreo cake

While Jerez’s food culture isn’t terribly different from Seville’s, I can never resist a decent food festival, especially when all of the bars are clumped together.

While Jerez may not be the food mecca, I have a feeling that Sevill’s kid brother might soon have its swan song.

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I visited Jerez’s Feria de la Vendimia with Caser Expat Insurance’s Typical NonSpanish project. All opinions and extra calories are my own.

Have you ever been to a Food Festival in Spain?

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?

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