The yellow sun baked country of Huelva stretches before you on the motorway trip from Seville. It is a scene unchanged in many ways from the time of Don Quijote; rolling hills dotted with whitewashed villages, olive and citrus groves and abandoned haciendas.
The soil is old soil, washed and drained by rains and droughts through the milleniums to become a sandy loam that cracks and crumbles with your touch, not unlike Australia. The summer grass, quickly drying in the ever present, baking sun, shows no variance in colour from dirt in which it grows. Native trees ( that’s if you don’t count the olive) seems to be limited, with the main example a type of conifer that takes the shape of a slightly flattened lollipop. This natural topiary I am told can also be quite tall but the ones I am seeing aren’t.
I will be based in Huelva province for the next couple of months and the main city only 10km’s away. From a distance Huelva city resembles an industrial boil on the delicate ecological skin of the earth. Huge silos and smoking chimneys dominate your sight. Set at the delta of the Rio Tinto river it is also a major port and the closest to the trade routes of the Atlantic Ocean. The vast river flats a haven in days gone by for multitudes of wading birds.
Multi storey apartment blocks which are the other dominant feature of the urban landscape, show signs of aging in the relentless Spanish sun without the benefit of the cosmetic surgery ever present in more affluent tourist areas. Did I mention that Huelva is the most untouristy place in the whole of Spain ( and there isn’t many of them). They even demolished their only surviving Roman dwelling some years ago to build a carpark!
Huelva has one welcoming and totally unexpected surprise for this Australian traveller, Gum or Eucalyptus trees ( to everyone else in the world). I’m not talking about one or two, I’m mean forests of them. They are everywhere, beside river banks, around paddocks. Up in the hills there are huge plantations, which have resulted in self seeding populations almost rivalling the farmed variety. Originally grown for wood pulp to feed the voracious appetite of the paper mills, they have spread to such an extend that they are a real threat to native flora. I reckon let a few koalas loose and you have an instant tourist industry, food for thought for those in power in Huelva, don’t you think?
I read that around the world there is a love hate relationship with gums. They are on one hand lauded for there quick growing, usefulness and on the other hand despised as water guzzling ( they can drain a swamp as quick as look at it) , native vegetation stranglers (the Eucalyptus oil gets into the soil and inhibits all other plants). All I can say is Huelva Provence is little Australia!
I know that I have just spoken disparagingly about Huelva City and now I will make amends. The proverbial ugly duckling comes close to becoming a swan when you actually enter into its heart, nothing as spactacular as the old Jewish Quarter of Seville but nice enough. Narrow cobble stone lanes, black wrought iron and the occasional geranium lined balcony.
Two friends of mine
The predominantly Spanish population of Huelva coexists with a generous number of Africans, some from Spanish speaking Equatorial Guinea, others speaking French from Malle, Senegal and Cameroon; still others speaking English from Gambia, Nigeria and Ghana all in the elusive search for better economic conditions. Unfortunating because they are here illegally they have no papers and the only work they can get is fruit picking. Hot, hard and long, most are forced to live in Charbolas ( make shift huts in camps that line the bush between farms made of cardboard, old wooden pallets and plastic sheeting) without proper sanitation or garbage disposal and yet they provide a work force that has allowed the huge berry industry in Huelva to flourish.
There are also European escaping, not from poor economies but rather poor weather. They inhabit mostly the coastal areas and the large urbanisations that exist in Spain. Then there is the English; I noticed at the beach the other day a crumbled watchtower from approximately 1500. I could imagine some lonely, Spanish sailor watching night after night for the menacing English frigates that might appear. Five hundred or so years later all I can say is they shouldn’t have bothered cause they came anyway!
At Mazagon the river flows into the Atlantic. A small coastal town where in winter you could literally let off a shot gun off in the Main Street without a chance of hitting anyone. In summer the story is completely different. The population explodes for a relatively brief period before reverting to its ghost town existance.
Spain has one big problem and the numerous pieces of tissue I saw blown the around low dunes on the 100 mtr or so boardwalk to the beach shows how bad it is. They have almost NO public toilets. On my first dip in the Atlantic since I was a child there were a couple of hundred beach goers at Mazagon beach and the only public toilet that the council provided ( believe me when I say that the fact there were some to begin with is very unusual) were locked. Apparently they are only opened for special occasions, like the school summer holidays and they weren’t scheduled for another two weeks!
Which brings me back to Huelva city and the Africans. When the seasonal picking work runs out they are forced to do one of two things, other than travel to another part of the country which is hard if you have a family with kids. The first is to out right beg in the city. This option is usually only taken up by women and the occasional Romanian. A nice thing about the Spanish is that most seem to understand that they without social security the women are reliant on their donations and are generally willing to drop a few cents into the tin. One great thing about Huelva is that you can live quite cheaply, not the Hilton by any means but safe and dry. €100 a week will give you a room in a shared apartment and enough money to feed yourself and a child.
The African men however have actually developed a whole industry for the time of the year when there is no picking to be done. They sell tissues at the traffic lights. Why you ask, because as I said before there are few public toilets so you are forced to ask at a bar to use their toilet. Thankfully they are usually kind enough to let you, but often fail to provide toilet roll!
- Always carry a packet of tissues – you know why
- memorise this phrase ladies – “puedo usar el sevicios por favor ” – you know what it means!