The largest Natural Park in Andalucia, the Aracena y Los Picos de Aroche is 184,000 hectares of prime walking country.
100km northwest of Seville, in the province of Huelva, this is where the cross Spain ridges of the Sierra Morena finally run out and the Atlantic weather systems drop their water bombs after crossing Portugal unchecked. Lush, green and 90% forested, the softly rounded hills, covered in their blanket of oaks and pines and chestnut are less rugged and wild than many higher, steeper and rockier Sierras but the Aracena is a hikers paradise with long or short walks on moderate gradients winding along the wealth of old drovers that string the pueblos and villages together.
We did 5 long looped rambles over 5 days, and felt we could have lost ourselves in the shady valleys and over the high ridges for months tramping the cobbled mulo trails.
Our first couple of days were spent around Aracena town itself, a charming centre famous for its fantastic cave system right in the middle of town. Supposedly discovered by a shepherd and first opened to the public in 1914, the km or so of passageways and caverns visited on the tour feature a truly awesome ( not a word I use lightly) display of all forms of stalactite and stalagmite, the likes of which I have never seen before. Unfortunately no photography was allowed so I can only illustrate by showing a poster of just one interesting element.
We started early on our first 11km walk on a misty and then drizzly day, a loop to Corteconcepción. The moisture was a good illustration of how the region is seemingly so fertile and lush. Most of the fincas had fine huertas, or garden areas, which even out of season had a wide variety of fruit and veg, irrigated by various systems of water control, including one way stream gates.
A very catholic rural people, there was an abundance of roadside shrines and gatepost tiles depicting the Virgin Mary, and the entire landscape was dotted with chapels, churches, convents, monasteries and hermitages.
Passed the gardens of brassicas, root crops and the last remains of peppers, tomato etc and the orchards of orange, lemon, chestnut, pomegranate and persimmon was rich Dehesa country. Tracks lined with Arbutus, the strawberry tree, their fruit littering the ground, their flowers decorating the branches in a fitting Christmas style, were surrounded by oaks of every kind, under which the Iberian pigs snuffled and snorted, hovering up the plump and plentiful acorns.
Unlike a lot of our Spanish treks we were often accompanied by the gurgling and burbling of running water and had to ford streams on a variety of stepping stones and bridges.
We spent the drizzly afternoon in the caves and in museums of jamon (ham) and setas (mushrooms), both of which, along with chestnuts, the region is rightly famous for. Autumn is the time to be here with a rich harvest going on and the chestnuts turning golden brown. The huge variety of mushrooms is amazing with many kinds gathered for the kitchens and tables.
And as for the jamon, as much as we relished seeing the pigs enjoying their free ranging freedom, ( indeed we came upon many living feral in the open hills) the sad truth displayed in the museum of jamon was that it all ended in butchery.
But at least the end product was treated with a reverence rarely seen bestowed upon food unfortunately. There are many outlets in the area and indeed across Spain that are akin to cathedrals of pork, with the Iberian acorn fed pigs from Jabugo and the Aracena area on the high alter, and the jamon costing many hundreds of euro.
Next day was brighter and drier and we took off on another 16km circular route from Aracena west to the village of Linares de la Sierra.
Finding or way out of town past the sports arena , swimming pool and football pitch we soon found ourselves among the freshly peeled alcornoques or cork oaks on a path shared with walkers and riders.
The amount of material gathered sustainably from the cork oaks is very impressive and must involve some hard graft with ladders and mules needed to harvest the trees across the hard to reach sierra. Although the wine industries adoption of plastic corks created worries for the indigenous industry there seems to be a big revival of other cork products and an impressive selection of goods are on sale in the area.
The trail climbed a ridge and then descended towards Linares, tucked deep into the folds of the green hills. We walked on sandy tracks, rocky trails and cobbled paths accompanied by birdsong, cowbells and snorting pigs.
The village itself was an exhibition in the art of cobbling. The houses had individual designs in black and white marble cobbles at their front doors, the streets were intact and maintained and there was new and restored cobbling going on around the church.
On our return to Aracena we passed through some more open country with big fincas, the gate posts displaying the hieroglyphic initials or signs with which their stock was branded. There was also one signed with the distance to Santiago de Compostela, presumably a returned pilgrim. And then on the approach to town some tasteful and expensive looking holiday rentals.
Finishing our circle we drove to our next days starting place outside Alájar, another attractive town in a beautiful setting with towering peak of Pena de Arias Montano rising sheer above it. We drove to the chapel of Our Lady of the Angels half way up and hiked up to the mirador for mighty views across the Sierra.
A shortish 12km loop with plenty of ups and downs circled from Alájar back to Linares by way of the once abandoned but now being resettled hamlet of Los Madroneros.
A new concrete track covers most of the distance to the isolated hamlet where solar panels and mobile phones have made living or staying out here a more viable option. There has been a fair bit of reconstruction going on and there are places to rent for anybody looking to avoid the rat race for awhile.
Our route now lead us through an area with broken down walls where the resident pigs had access to miles upon miles of open territory and even abandoned houses. Remarkably tame they joined us for a picnic.
Our approach to Linares was marked by a lot of wilder, less managed Dehesa with horse and scrub replacing the grazing grasses.
After a couple of cafe con leches in the bullring bar we climbed back up towards the camper on a steep track past the poolside Riberas recreation area where a dammed stream has become a popular picnic spot.
Alájar was busy with visiting school kids and people preparing the village for Christmas so we headed for the hills to stay in Castano del Robledo, ready for an 18 km circle from there to La Pressa, Alájar and back.
From our fine (and quiet) park up next to the cemetery we descended in the morning through a misty mixture of chestnut and pines with views out across the forested slopes.
Coming to the valley floor we crossed various streams many times and on one I came a cropper and ended up on my back in the water.
The riverside walk was obviously visited by school kids who had left pictures and poems celebrating nature along the route and even had a little library in a grove of trees.
It was here we met a bunch of escapee piglets who showed no fear as they rootled past.
Past an enclave of holiday haciendas built by Dutch settlers, on a lovely track into Alájar and then up a cobbled way past the hippy hamlet of El Calabacino.
Abandoned and then squatted the community has now been regularized and some of the houses/ fincas look very settled and established.
Above the hamlet the cobbled gave way to a concrete track that turned into a rutted sandy one that climbed up through our first large scale chestnut groves. Brought to this part of Spain by settlers from the north and Galicia after the reconquest the ancient and venerable trunks, pollarded for hundreds of years, have born witness to many changes to an area which on first impressions seems timeless.
The final leg back to Robledo was down through deciduous oaks where the wildlife was dangerous, and into the town square woolbombed for Xmas.
More knitted decorations at the start of our last days loop, from Almonaster La Real, up the Cerro de San Cristobal mountain and around through Arroyo and Acebuche, a distance of around 14 km.
Looking back towards town on our steep onward bound trail the 10th century hilltop mosque was impressive with its adjoining bullring.
More glorious tracks, chestnut groves, clear streams, happy pigs, settlers idylls and forested slopes marked our last day in the Aracena.
Before setting off southwards to Seville at van speed we soaked up the view of the Sierra from its highest point on San Christobal. From a tad over 900m the whole landscape looked glorious.
We had discovered it looked just as appealing when deep down within it and vowed to return.