A novel approach to walking the hills
ARACENA, Spain - In a chapter of my perennially unfinished novel, a young woman in the Middle Ages walks to Portugal from Spain: "They came to a remote outskirt where the pastores grazed their sheep. A late-day sun tipped the wildflowers," I had written. Now here I was on a dirt road flanked by the very flowers and farm animals of my imagination. Welcome to the Spanish dehesa - literally, meadow or pasture - where life imitates art.
Lying east of the Guadiana River, which forms the Spanish-Portuguese border, the dehesa is a heartland that for centuries tended its businesses of farming and mining, happily eclipsed by Spain's drama queen, Seville. Less developed for tourism than some areas, its attractions tend to the odd and pastoral - and as I discovered, the delicious.
An hour and a half's drive from Seville, the sunny whitewashed towns of Sierra de Aracena and Picos de Aroche are linked by looping off-road trails, a walker's heaven. Here the hills slope instead of jag, and Moorish place names roll gently off the tongue.
"Life used to be so hard that people drank shots of 50-proof aguardiente de anís for breakfast to brace themselves for the day," a pensioner confided in the tiny square of Alájar, one of some 30 mountain towns. "Now everyone wants to retire here and open a restaurant." I think they already have, for besides ancient cart paths, the through line of my journey was the region's sumptuous larder and unassuming eateries.
From the administrative center, Aracena, the villages, some with fewer than 200 residents, can be reached on walks lasting an hour to a day depending on several factors, including picnic breaks and momentarily losing one's way. (Portions of the trails have been partially restored and the way marked, but consulting the Aracena tourist office, local knowledge, and a hiking book or map will help.) In the woods and pastures, foragers, who in the days of my novel would have been pilloried for trespassing, were gathering pine nuts, wild oregano, and mushrooms.
"We find them [mushrooms] exactly 21 days after the first good rains," said Sam Chesterton, who with his wife, Jeannie, offers cooking classes at their rural bed-and-breakfast, Finca Buenvino in Los Marines. The couple serves the tana, or Caesar's mushroom, raw, thinly sliced, and dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, pepper, and salt. In the local tapas bars, we tried fresh tentullo (porcini) in omelets, pork roasts, a dessert cake, a reduction with liver and Pedro Ximinez (sherry), and a plate of nutmeg-spiced croquettes.
The most skilled foragers aren't humans, however, but friendly, free-ranging black-hoofed Iberian pigs that fatten on the sweet bellota, or acorns. People cheerfully pay $150 a pound for jamón Ibérico, the cured, aged ham that melts on the tongue. The prized pigs are treated accordingly, with strict guidelines for the number of acres and trees needed to raise them.
"Don't even think about skimping," said a farmer in the countryside beyond Jabugo. "They fly planes overhead with GIS maps to make sure no one cheats!"
Pigs and hams are so revered that ham stores and a ham mu-
seum, Museo del Jamón on Aracena's Gran Vía, vie with the area's venerable attractions. One of these has to be the cameo village Almonaster la Real, with its bricked 9th-century mosque on a magnificent hillside. Another lies underground in the middle of Aracena, La Gruta de las Maravillas, or Cave of Marvels, 12 chambers of fantastic stalactite formations and lakes that have been astonishing visitors since 1914.
Some foodies go so far as to tour Jabugo's ham factories and buy wooden jamón stands that clamp a ham leg into the correct position for carving. Even King Juan Carlos visits Aracena's World Congress on Dry-Cured Ham. But the dizzying choices of aging periods, breed classifications, and prices mattered little to us. The real fun was indulging in the filets, chops, cheeks, ribs, embutidos (sausages), and cocidos (stews) of meat, vegetables, and chickpeas in small family-run bars.
From the south-facing hills, Sierra de Aracena looks down on the ravishing and ravaged scene of the world's oldest and vastest open-cast mines. The earth for miles around shimmers in a variety of hues, and the acid-stained Río Tinto runs through it, the color of blood. Lord Byron was said to have visited these mines; so did we.
"We suspect these are the mines of King Solomon," said David Marquez Vera, an English-speaking guide at the mining museum in Minas de Riotinto. "Their mineral wealth is so great that every civilization since Rome has exploited them."
I shivered as we descended into a cold reproduction of a mine shaft where life-sized mannequins hunched in the darkness represented slaves who were forced to work naked and never allowed above ground. "The acid in the air was so intense that within three months they went blind," Vera said.
Gratefully, we emerged, continuing in the sunlight across the scarred red and ochre earth of a mine called Peña del Hierro. "Roman slag," said Vera, who has hiked here all his life, as he easily identified the rock I had picked up. Close by is Barrio de Bellavista, a preserved Victorian compound built by the British mining syndicate Rio Tinto Co. Ltd. for its managers and engineers. In contrast to the modesty of the workers' barrios, the mansions, tennis courts, and manicured gardens were like a little England, poignant in their bittersweet loveliness. Even the graveyard had been filled with imported dirt so the company's personnel could be buried in English soil.
Though not my choice (I was overruled), the mine visit deepened my appreciation for the good life of today's dehesa. Had we stayed longer into the first frost, the Chestertons and other small breeders would be slaughtering their hogs and making traditional feasts with the livers and lungs, garden tomatoes, onions, garlic, and wild oregano, wedges of manchego cheese, and homemade bread washed down with grape must.
In the end, my walk to the border took place outside the sierra where the land is flatter and less verdant, but sheep, cattle, lambs, and pigs graze just the same. "Follow the path that way. It's about five kilometers to Portugal," advised a man trudging homeward with a cart of firewood. At the border, the dehesa continues as the Alentejo, with its own farms, foods, and abandoned mines. But night was approaching and I had to turn back.
In the twilight, the scarlet bark of freshly harvested cork trees glowed in the fields, and a woman with silver hair nearly to her waist strode along, lightly prodding her pigs with a walking stick. I described the scene in a message to a friend in Westport who replied, "You could get some pigs and raise them here, you know. And let your hair go long, too."
It was a beautiful thought.
Patricia Borns can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.