A day with the goats – free-range foodie fun in the Sierra de Aracena

Goats doing what they love best - climbing.

Goats doing what they love best – climbing.

Finca los Robledos is in the beautiful Sierra de Aracena.

Finca los Robledos is in the beautiful Sierra de Aracena.

The farm is close to the town of Aracena.

The farm is close to the town of Aracena.

The finished product: delicious Monterobledos goat's cheese.

The finished product: delicious Monte Robledo goat’s cheese.

Readers of this blog will know that I like my food, especially if it’s from a small local producer, and that I also love days out and trips with my kids, even more so if we’re “close to nature” and eating is an essential part of the experience. So going to an organic farm with the kids to make goat’s cheese – what could be more free-range, foodie and fun?

A few months ago we went to the Sierra de Aracena for the day, to Finca Los Robledos near the town of Aracena – around an hour’s drive from Seville. Down a bumpy country road, then a narrow farm track with a little stream flowing next to it, we finally arrived at the farm. Our hostess and guide was Maria Jesus, who owns the farm along with a cheese shop in Aracena. It’s a family affair: one of her sons, Manuel, looks after the goats, along with his girlfriend; Maria Jesus and her husband, Rafael, make the cheese; and her other son, Miguel, runs the cheese shop in town – his daughter was there on the day we visited, and she played happily with my two children.

But Maria Jesus is definitely the brains and the driving force behind the operation. An energetic, sharp-witted, creative woman, she is full of tales of when her father ran the farm – it was sold to him by a terrateniente (landowner) on very fair terms (unlike today’s endless horror stories of banks, mortgages and evictions). In fact, her family has been making cheese for five generations.

The cheese world in the Sierra de Aracena is a small one, and it turns out another favourite cheese of mine, Doña Manuela, is owned by one of Maria Jesus’s brothers; Manuela is their mother’s name. Both Monte Robledo, Maria Jesus’s cheese, and Doña Maneula are certified organic, as both herds of goats graze on the same pasture – her farm is part of a 400-hectare plot of land divided between the three siblings.

Zac greets a goat - they're such friendly creatures.

Zac meets a goat kid – they’re wonderfully friendly creatures.

Maria Jesus’s herd of goats numbers 150, and she makes 10,000 kilos of cheese every year. The goats wander on the grassy hills around the farm by day, grazing on wild plants including acorns which makes them produce greater quantities of creamy milk, full of protein and with a fantastic taste. The goats are milked by machine every morning, munching on a snack during the process to keep them happy. Maria Jesus explains that it’s quicker and less painful for them, with silicone teats like those on a baby’s bottle. The goats are friendly, nuzzling me and the children; some of the kids, whose mothers wouldn’t feed them and had to be hand-fed using bottles, are downright cheeky and head-butt us.

Trying my hand at milking the goat, as explained by Manuel, with moderate success.

Trying my hand at milking the goat, as explained by Manuel, with moderate success.

Then it was Lola's turn to milk the goat - she was a natural.

Then it was Lola’s turn – she was a natural.

Zac has a got at milking the goat.

Zac has a go at the “squeeze, pull”.

We all try our hand at milking – Miguel shows us how to hold, squeeze and pull the teat in the right direction, with pressure in just the right spot. I worry about hurting the poor animal, but a warm jet of white liquid spurts out and Lola shrieks with delight. Her little hands manage to produce some milk too, though Zac finds it trickier.

Zac in the kitchen garden - lush, green and the perfect space for kids to run about in.

Zac in the kitchen garden – lush, green and the perfect space for kids to run about in.

Then Maria Jesus shows us the kitchen garden, a long grassy sloping area where they grow tomatoes and other vegetables in summer. The scenery is beautiful – lush grassy hills covered in oak trees, and today the sun is shining so it looks idyllic. There’s a small patio, with low buildings on one side: we visit the little museum, which is chock-full of fascinating old agricultural implements. I love places like this – finding out how people lived and worked in these hills years ago. If you visit their shop in Aracena, you can see more such vintage farming tools.

Maria Jesus shows us the anti-wolf collar.

Maria Jesus shows us the anti-wolf collar in the farm’s museum.

An entremuros, a wooden tray used for separating curds from whey - this is now done in a large stainless-steel vat.

An entremuros, a wooden tray used for separating curds from whey – this is now done in a large stainless-steel vat.

An old cooking brazier - hot stones placed under, pan on top.

An old cooking brazier – hot stones placed under, pan on top.

Maria Jesus picks up a scary-looking metal collar with long spikes which looks like a medieval instrument of torture. It was for the dog who looked after the goats, to protect him from wolves – a serious danger to livestock until only a few decades ago. Other antique contraptions in this cave of wonders are a hand hay-baler; an iron cooking brazier; a mill for grinding cereal to feed the pigs; an entremijo, a wooden tray used to separate curds from whey when making cheese (read on for more about this process); an iron plough; and glass jars full of dried herbs such as arnica and hierbabuena (mint) collected by her mother (the mint still has a strong smell despite its years). It puts the farm into a historic context, which seems a wonderful idea and makes our visit that much richer.

The we go into the dairy – this is unashamedly modern, with stainless-steel vats for making the cheese. The milk is filtered when it comes out of the goat, and then heated gently and stirred with big paddles. When it is hot, rennet is added to make it coagulate, and then it is “cut” with a metal implement with blades called a lira.

Freshly-made cheeses in the dairy.

Freshly-made cheeses in the dairy.

Cheeses maturing nicely. My mouth is watering just looking at this picture.

Cheeses maturing nicely. My mouth is watering just looking at this picture.

The cuajada (curd) and suero (whey) are gradually separated (the latter is fed to the pigs, as it’s high in protein), until you have a creamy, dense-textured white mass which is pushed into small plastic moulds with slots for the whey to drain out. The cheese is turned over every day, and after 20 days you have a semi-curado cheese. If you want a stronger fill-flavoured cheese, curado, you leave it for at least 50 days; for larger cheese, the process takes two to six months. Herbs can be added, such as rosemary or oregano, pimiento or black pepper.

A pure-bred Iberian sow with her newborn piglets.

A pure-bred Iberian sow with her newborn piglets.

Next it’s time to meet the Iberian piglets – born just four days ago, they confirm my non-meat-eating beliefs more than ever. I make sure my kids, entranced by the sight, realised these little darlings could be the jamon on their tostada one day. WARNING: gratuitous cute animal photo.

cerdo iberico

Reason #27 why I don’t eat meat.

A pail of fresh goat's milk, ready to be made into cheese.

A pail of fresh goat’s milk, ready to be made into cheese.

Rennet made from cardoon, a thistle-like plant.

The magic ingredient: rennet made from cardoon, a thistle-like plant.

The milk is thickening.

The milk is thickening.

Straining the mild to separate the curds (lumpy white stuff in the sieve) from the whey (liquid in the pail).

Straining the milk to separate the curds (lumpy white stuff in the sieve) from the whey (liquid in the pail).

Now the moment we’ve all been waiting for: after milking the goats, and playing with them, seeing how the cheese is made, and all those old implements, it’s our turn. Maria Jesus heats up some fresh goat’s milk (the very same stuff that we extracted earlier, or so I like to think), and adds the vegetable rennet, made from a plant called cardoon. The milk starts to thicken and she “cuts” it with the spoon, and then when it has curdled, and gone nice and lumpy, the curds are separated from the whey and we’re each given a little plastic pot-full of cheese to squash down. The process looks so simple, with only two ingredients – milk and rennet – but obviously you need to know exactly what level of heat to use, what temperature the milk needs to get up to, and when to add the rennet.

Maria Jesus gives Lola her cheese to squeeze.

Maria Jesus gives Lola her cheese to squeeze.

Zac pushes down his cheese, to squeeze the last whey out of it.

Zac pushes down his cheese, to squash the last whey out of it.

Zac's cheese, all ready to take home.

Zac’s cheese, all ready to take home.

Lola with her cheese - it didn't last long.

Lola with her cheese – it didn’t last long.

We squish our cheeses to get the whey out – a top activity with my children, unsurprisingly – then we pop lids on, write our names and listen to Maria Jesus’ careful instructions to keep the cheeses in the fridge, and turn and drain them every day for five days, adding salt, then put them on a plate covered with clingfilm. The children’s cheeses didn’t make it home in one piece, as queso fresco - fresh home-made goat’s cheese – is just too delicious to resist, but I kept mine for a month and when I finally gave in, it was fabulous (if I say so myself). And anyway, food tastes so much better when you know exactly where it came from, and what a happy, free life those goats lead.

Maria Jesus is a mine of information about everything from the history of the area, to which types of her cheese sell best where (the markets are king), to her collection of philosophical frases (sayings) on the farm’s website. She is an immensely kind woman, and generous with her time, which makes this a perfect family day out in my book.

A visit to Finca los Robledos costs 2 euros; cheese-tasting 3 euros without wine, or 5 euros with wine; visit with cheese-making 5 euros; visit, cheese-making and tasting 10 euros; and all the above with lunch (goat stew, naturally), 20 euros. They’re well set-up to cater for groups, with a large dining room.

If you want to stay in the area, I can highly recommend Posada San Marcos in nearby Alajar, or for self-catering, Monte Mateo in Navahermosas.

You can buy Monte Robledo cheese at the Monte Robledo shop, Calle Concordia 18, Aracena (tel 959 128 994); in the Alameda organic market in Seville on the second Saturday of every month, and the Aljarafe organic Market in Gines on the third Saturday of every month.

You can see Maria Jesus making cheese in this video.

A sensory experience: la higuera

This fragrant little beauty, on a tree in Benoajan after a 9km hike, made my day.

This fragrant fig tree in Benoajan, spotted at the end of a 9km hike, provided a moment of sheer euphoria.

They say that memories triggered by smell are the most powerful and long-lasting. Familiar odours can bring back, in depth and detail, experiences and places visited many years before.

As one website explains: “When you first smell a new scent, you link it to an event, a person, a thing or even a moment. Your brain forges a link between the smell and a memory. When you encounter the smell again, the link is already there, ready to elicit a memory or a mood.” This is called the olfactory memory. Fascinating stuff, I hear you say (or perhaps not), but so what?

Andalucia is replete with olfactory experiences such as azahar, sweet orange blossom, Seville’s spring smell. But one of the most intense I’ve ever had, seared into my memory, was on the recent Mr Henderson’s Railway gourmet hiking trip: the fig. I’ve never given much attention to this particular fruit – goes well with ham, used by the Victorians to make a dubious pudding. My father’s fig tree is famed locally for its prodigious harvests of the swollen purplish bulbs; but they always remind me of a livid bruise, and the visceral pulp is less than attractive. Visually, and in every other sense.

Walking the dogs in the fields near my house, on a late summer evening a few weeks ago, I became aware of a glorious scent. Warm and sweet, it encapsulated the sun-bathed Spanish countryside – soft and golden. After a while I realised it was coming from the higueras – our route takes us through a field of the huge-leaved fruit trees. None had figs, all having been mercilessly foraged by the crisis-hit locals. But the trees still smelled divine, nonetheless.

Our route from Jimera del Libar to Benoajan.

Our route from Jimera del Libar to Benoajan, following the Guadiaro river.

Back to Mr Henderson’s Railway - on day three of our Algeciras-to-Ronda trip, having eaten like kings in converted stations and cargo sheds along the line, and slept like queens in heavenly hotels (more on those soon), we hiked a 9km trail from Jimera del Libar to Benoajan. The trail runs alongside the historic train line (built by an English Lord, don’t you know) which follows the Guadiaro river. Two hours of full-on walking up and down hills on the hiking trail, with just a few seedy cookies for sustenance (thanks, Lidl), just about did me in. (You see, my idea of exercise is an hour’s gentle padel knock-about with another mum, or a slow ramble with children and aforementioned canine companions. Or, at a push, a bike ride showing tourists around Seville.)

It was hot that morning, though thankfully with ample shade from the trees lining the path, under which I rested my red-faced, sweating, exhausted self. We hardly met another soul, that’s how off-the-beaten-hiking-path this route is. Watching the train pass by, through tunnels and over bridges built by compatriots over a century ago, and the fabulous views of the river, railway and tree-covered slopes from the hillside path, made it all worthwhile. Just.

Deep in the wilds of Andalucia, pretending to be a hiker.

Deep in the wilds of Andalucia, pretending to be a hiker. You can see Mr Henderson’s Railway behind.

Then I felt that joyous little leap of finally glimpsing your destination at the end of an arduous journey (for me, at least) – in this case the village of Benoajan, across the river. As the track led downhill through the outlying houses towards the bridge, I caught a whiff of something sweet, and looked up. Hanging down above my head was a large, luscious, purple fig.

What a moment! The elation of completing the hike (everyone else had already finished – I was the last, but enjoyed indulging in this profoundly personal experience alone); the relief that I had survived without bruises, scratches or sprained joints; the anticipation of yet another fabulous meal just around the corner; the enveloping warmth of a September afternoon in Andalucia; and, dare I say it, the guilty frisson of being away from my children for so long – it was all wrapped up (no parma ham) in that fruit tree and its delectably rich, evocative, sun-drenched aroma.

Fig salad: a late summer classic.

Fig salad: a late summer classic.

And lunch, on the pretty, shady terrace of a converted mill, next to a stream and drenched with pink bouganvillea, vines heavy with grapes, and yet more fragrant fig trees, lived up to its expectations – delicately-flavoured, colourful salads, hearty pasta, and exquisite ice-cream to refuel after all that physical exertion, accompanied by some excellent dry moscatel wine (a recent discovery, well worth trying). And although I didn’t order it myself, I tried a friend’s fig salad. And, reader, I liked it.

Bright bouganvillea against a white wall: so Andalucian.

A burst of colour – bright bouganvillea against a white wall is so Andalucian.

What smell triggers your memory?

The value of knowledge – a gourmet hiking adventure in deepest Andalucia

Toma Tours, Manni Coe, tuna, atun de almadraba, almadraba, Cadiz, gastronomy, gourmet, restaurant

A guided tour of the blue-fin tuna, a must for serious foodies on a trip to Andalucia.

I love to travel around Andalucia, and try to explore more of this hugely varied region whenever possible, usually in day trips. After 10 years of living here, there are still legions of parks, mountains, lakes and towns that I haven’t visited yet.

So when Manni of Toma Tours invited me to come along on his special preview of Mr Henderson’s Railway – three days of slow food and easy hikes, based around a historic train line between Algeciras and Ronda – I didn’t jump at the chance, I positively leaped. A trip without having to do any internet research, plan the trip, make bookings, read maps, or mediate between squabbling children. For I am, like most Mums, my own family’s tour planner/manager/guide/arbitrator.

Tuna fillet on wakame seaweed.

Fresh almadraba tuna fillet on wakame seaweed – from Barbate, in Cadiz, only caught a few months of the year.

Manni’s company, Toma, takes small groups of visitors around Andalucia (and beyond, to Morocco) – hiking hidden trails (he’s super-fit), eating the finest seasonal produce and drinking local wines at out-of-the-way restaurants, and experiencing all the wonderful cultural and natural attractions the region has to offer, in both major cities and smaller towns, as on this trip. Manni has lived in Andalucia for over 10 years, as well as studying Spanish at University, and has an impressive knowledge of the region’s history and culture.

The trip took place during the first week of the school term, finishing on my son’s birthday, so the timing wasn’t ideal – my son’s face when I told him I wouldn’t be there on the morning of his big day was heart-breaking. I had to leave the trip early to get home in time that day, missing the last visit – to a bull farm, with an iberico (prime Spanish pork)-fest lunch. No great loss for me, since I’m a non-meat-eater and not a bullfighting fan, either.

Mr Henderson's Railway, train,

A scenic stretch of Mr Henderson’s railway in the Serrania de Ronda, running above the river Guadiaro; the hiking trail overlooks the train tracks.

In terms of the hiking aspect, I’m no fitness freak (read: lazybones), so the thought of the hikes filled me with trepidation. All resolutions to get (even slightly) fit and take some proper exercise prior to the trip went out of the window, with dog-walking being my sole aerobic preparation. Not many hills where I live, except the one that goes down to Seville, and that’s a bit hardcore for me. How did I fare? You’ll just have to wait for the next post to find out.

vegetables, home-grown, organic

Home-grown organic produce in one of the restaurants where we ate with Toma Tours.

As I set off for Algeciras, the starting point for the trip, I felt naked without my family, and realised this was going to be the longest I’d ever been away from my children – three nights (in seven years). Then it dawned on me this that was also going to be three days with NO COOKING, CLEANING, WASHING, TIDYING UP, NAGGING, OR CHIVYING, and I suddenly felt light-headed with excitement. As much as I insisted on taking reams of notes (to the amusement of fellow travellers in the group), and snapping endless photos (ditto), I could devote 100% of my attention to take in my surroundings, which is very rare.

To return to the trip – Manni has been closely involved in the restoration of Mr Henderson’s Railway, a line which was built in the 1890s by the eponymous gentleman (he was later made a Lord) to take officers from Gibraltar up to Ronda. They had to take a boat from the Rock to Algeciras, but then they could sink back into the luxury of the venerable Edwardian-era Reina Cristina Hotel – the first hotel on Spain’s southern coast; sadly, its once-magnificent views of the bay are marred these days by the industrial machinery of the port – before hopping onto the train at the nearby railway station. Manni has in-depth knowledge of the construction and history of the railway and its two hotels (there’s one in Ronda too).

An old train station with terrace restaurant.

An old train station-turned-terrace restaurant on the Algeciras-Ronda line.

The train stopped at various small stations along the way to Ronda, many built below the mountain-top villages they served, such as Gaucin – in some cases they were several kilometres away. Today, a few of these stations and their accompanying storehouses have been turned into restaurants, which form an integral part of the tour we were doing, next to the railway which has three trains per day from Algeciras to Granada. Often in tiny, way-off-the-beaten-track places, they’re the sort of restaurants you’d be unlikely to stumble across on your own – this is where local knowledge is key. So Manni can guide you to the most best and most fascinating of everything: train lines, hiking trails, gastronomic secrets, hidden boltholes…

This gorgeous naturally designed pool had one of the best views I've ever seen.

This pool is sublime – fabulous view across the valley, and perfectly landscaped to look natural, with plants and rocks.

In later posts I will write in more detail about each section of the trip, but the main impression I took away with me was that the heart and soul of a company like Toma Tours is Manni – his charm, dedication, enthusiasm, professionalism, and sense of fun. He’s one of those people who carries you along with him on a wave of goodwill.

Manni Coe of Toma Tours, who will whisk you to the best spots in Andalucia.

The ever-smiling Manni Coe of Toma Tours greets us at Ronda station.

He has supported the restoration of the railway, got to know the restaurant owners (who clearly adore him; he is a rather good-looking chap, which helps), and loves to share his new discoveries with people – to introduce them to the wonders of  the Guadiaro valley which runs north from Algeciras towards Ronda, through spectacular wooded mountains and limestone cliffs. These people include a certain TV presenter who was investigating railways for a BBC programme.

Ronda, view

Relaxation room in our Ronda hotel – get that view.

If you have an interest in railways (or even if you don’t), and you like to combine hiking – the full trip is five days, with 3-5 hours of walking per day – with some astonishingly good food in wonderful surroundings, off the tourist beaten track in Andalucia, then you can’t do better than the Mr Henderson’s Railway Gourmet Walking Tour. And I even got home in time to bake my son’s birthday cake. Nothing fancy, just a Victoria sponge, but he was delighted. And we all survived fine without each other for three days. Now, when’s my next trip?

Spain’s last untouched wilderness: a visit to Doñana National Park

El Acebuche, Doñana

El Acebuche Visitor Centre, where Doñana tours leave from, is also home to the lynx-breeding programme.

boat, Guadalquivir, Doñana, Andalucia, Sanlucar de Barrameda

My sister-in-law and her boys on our visit to Doñana National Park nine years ago.

Doñana National Park, Huelva

My nephew on the boardwalk in the pine woods of Doñana – you can see a choza (traditional thatched dwelling) behind him.

Many years ago, in my first year here in Seville, my brother and his wife and family – two small boys – came to visit. They spent some time at the beach, and one day we all took a boat trip from Sanlucar de Barrameda, the sherry town at the mouth of the Guadalquivir river, across the water to Doñana National Park.

The visit included walking along a wooden boardwalk alongside the river, to a collection of chozas (thatched houses) in a riverside forest clearing, where a few families still followed a simple, traditional way of life. We spotted some deer and various birds, but no lynxes. It was a brief but tantalising glimpse of Europe’s largest wetland reserve, 1300km2 of protected land which stretches across three provinces – Sevilla, Cadiz and Huelva. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Doñana National Park is one of the last untouched wildernesses of modern Spain.

Doñana, visit, tour

Our transport of delight – wet sand, steep dunes, woodlands with muddy tracks – this mini-monster takes every terrain in its stride.

In the years since, nearly a decade during which I have got married and had my own children, I have harboured an increasingly fervent desire to go back and explore more of the park. With my family, we´ve visited some of the information centres around the edge of the protected area – La Rocina (just outside El Rocio), Palacio de Acebron (a modern hunting palace nearby), and El Acebuche (near Matalascañas).

I knew that small green 4×4 trucks take groups of people inside the park to see the different types of landscape – beach, dunes, woods, wetlands – and to spot the wildlife, which as well as lynx, includes wild boar and many protected birds. Finally, about a month ago, after weeks and weeks of rain, I decided that with the marismas full, it was the perfect time to book myself and my family on a trip to Doñana – nine years after that first visit with my nephews, who are now strapping teenagers.

lynx, doñana, acebuche

An Iberian lynx, with her newborn cubs – an endangered species, they were bred in captivity at El Acebuche (the picture is of a live video stream).

When we arrived at El Acebuche, the main visitor centre for Doñana, and the departure point for the tours, my own children (aged four and six, about the same age as their cousins on that visit) were beside themselves with excitement to see the sturdy, designed-for-adventure vehicles waiting. While collecting our tickets from the tour office, we were fortunate to see a live video feed showing a rare Iberian lynx with new-born babies, just a few days old.

The breeding programme at El Acebuche has seen continuing success, with young born every year, and a current total of 30 lynx in captivity, with 80 in the wild, who are provided with their own bridges and tunnels to cross the road safely which bisects their territory. The problem with releasing those bred in captivity into the wild, as our guide later explained, was food: making sure the cotos (reserves) of woodland were well-stocked with rabbits. The bunny population was severely depleted by mixymatosis and is still being restored – we saw several enclosures for rabbit communities near the track on our visit.

Doñana, visit, tour

This map shows our route (the dotted red line) through the different types of terrain; routes are routinely modified when animals choose to nest close to them. (Doñana National Park Tours)

Settling in to our truck – sitting in the front row – we were impressed that our guide, Gonzalo, spoke perfect English and could make his commentary in one language and then repeat it in the other, slipping seamlessly between the two, and with an excellent accent; no details left-out through laziness (which happens quite commonly here). The route of the tour, which lasts about four hours, he explained, takes in 70km of Atlantic sandy beach, mobile dunes, woodlands and marismas. We would see a palace, chozas (traditional dwellings made from locally gathered materials), with three stops along the way when we could get out and have a look around, including the dunes and marismas.

Doñana, fisherman, fishermen

One of the fisherman’s houses on the beach in Doñana Park, near Matalascañas.

The first part of the tour skirts around the back of Matalascañas, an unattractive resort town with some of the ugliest apartment buildings I’ve ever seen on a beachfront. You go through a gate and onto the beach, which feels odd and slightly wrong, to be driving directly on the sea-washed sand. Passing some of the few dwellings inside the park (allowed to remain since they predate the park’s creation, in 1969), fishermen’s huts, self-sufficient with their solar panels, you drive along the shore, half in the waves. The truck bounces up and down merrily over the sands, with a view of waves and birds. The sky and sea were both grey, and drizzle was falling, smearing our windscreen and windows with big, fat drops.

Only cyclists and walkers are allowed along the 30km stretch from Matalascañas to the Guadalquivir mouth at Sanlucar. There are no hotels, shops, chiringuitos (beach restaurants), nothing. In a country with as overdeveloped a coastline as Spain, that is a paradise to be cherished. Sadly, litter strewn across the empty sands dragged us back into an earthly domain – the tide had brought detritus from passing boats. Far more appealing, we saw a 16th century martello tower, part of defensive fortifications from a long-ago war with neighbouring Portugal, which is just up the coast.

Doñana, dune, Huelva, Spain

One of the trucks atop a sand dune. You’d never think this was Spain.

corral, dune, pine, Doñana, UNESCO

A view over the corral, thickly covered with pine trees, to the far sand dune.

junco, corral, choza, dune, Doñana, UNESCO

The bottom of the corral is covered with junco grass, used to make the rooves of the chozas.

After the thrill of driving in the sea, we turned inland to the dunes, which felt a little Lawrence of Arabia (in fact, some scenes of the David Lean classic were filmed here). These mobile dunes, blown inland by the south-westerly wind, move around 3-6 metres every year. Between the dunes are small valleys, called corrales, which have junco grass (used to make the rooves of the chotas) and pine trees. As the sand advances, it covers over the pines completely, creating a constantly changing and evolving landscape.

pine, sand dune, Doñana, Huelva, Spain, protected, National park

Running down the cola (steep, seaward side) of the dune – who can resist? These pine trees will eventually be covered by the advancing sand…

Doñana, pine, sand dune, Huelva, Spain, protected, UNESCO, National PArk, Spain

… until they’ve completely disappeared; on this sand dune the top of a pine tree is still poking out – called a pino testigo; the plant next to it is a juniper bush.

We stopped at the top of one such dune, and walked (or ran/rolled in the case of the kids, who by this time were delighted to stretch their legs and let off some energy) down to the corral. The other vegetation are juniper bushes, atop little sandy mounds. These have highly flexible roots and can cope with the mobile environment around them – they literally move up and down as needed. It feels (is) nature untouched by man – sure, truckloads of people like us come to visit, but noone actually lives here, leaves rubbish or produces sewage, damages or removes any part of this precious ecosystem, plant or animal. The notable exception to these strict rules is El Rocio, the massive pilgrimage which takes place in May every year, and sees thousands of people crossing Doñana, in 4x4s, trailers pulled by tractors, horse-drawn carts, and ox-drawn gypsy wagons, leaving mountains of waste such as plastic bottles in their wake.

rabiits, lynx, Iberian lynx, Doñana National Park, UNESCO, Spain

The pine woods, looking through to dunes; you can make out the fence of the rabbit enclosure.

Then we headed into the pine woods – diverting from the normal route along the edge of the marismas (marshlands), to avoid two pairs of nesting peregrine falcons which were recently discovered. We saw the areas where some pine trees had been removed, to allow light to come through so the grass could grow for the rabbits to eat, safely hidden behind their rabbit-proof fence (natch) till they’re numerous enough to be released and provide breakfast, lunch and dinner for the lynxes.

jabeli, wild boar, piglets, Doñana

A pair of wild boar with their piglets, in the woodlands.

javeli, jabeli, wild boar, Doñana

You can see the beautiful markings on the piglets.

We spotted (well, the guide did) imperial and booted eagles, black kites, glossy ibis (whose numbers have recovered in recent years having disappeared from this part of Europe) and red deer. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quick enough to catch any of the birds on camera (and my zoom’s not strong enough, in any case). But I did get the wild boar pair near the road, and their piglets. Shades of Asterix.

marisma, marismas, Doñana, bird, bird-watching, ornithology

The famous marismas of Doñana, seasonal wetlands which are home to many rare birds, as well as a colony of 40,000 flamingoes.


You can spot hundreds of different bird species in these marshy areas.

The next stage of the visit was the one for which Doñana National Park is most famed: the marismas, or wetlands. These are seasonal areas of shallow water, full in spring and winter, with some shifting islands and mudbanks, and dry in summer. A colony of 40,000 flamingos live here, coming to feed during the day, and returning to their nesting areas at Fuente de Piedra lake near Antequera, about 150 km away, at night. In total, there are 275 bird species to be spotted in Doñana, many of which migrate from Africa. It is an ornithologist’s paradise, with star spots including purple gallinule, Kentish plover, pochard, and marbled teal.

birds, Doñana

Zac does some bird-spotting, as opposed to bird-scaring.

When we stopped to get out of the truck, the marismas were covered in hundreds, if not thousands, of pink flamingoes; a spectacular, breathtaking sight. However with one shout from my son, the spell was broken: most of them flew off – one of the challenges of appreciating nature with small children. Our fellow passengers were remarkably tolerant of this unintentional sabotage (which came despite, or indeed perhaps because of, numerous requests from me to please be quiet when we got off the truck to see birds).

Will all these wide open spaces full of endangered species to protect, you’d expect plenty of park rangers; in fact, few guards live inside the park, although today most are in the surrounding towns and come in by 4×4. Those who do live here, are marooned during the wet season, like the white house in the distance in the photo above. Their quarters are self-sufficient energy-wise, with solar panels for electricity, a mobile phone and radio, and a boat rather than a car. Previously, this type of vocation was passed down from father to son; now it’s for those who thrive on isolation and silence.

choza, Doñana National Park

A choza, traditional thatched house where Doñana families lived: Hobbit house.

The families who lived in Doñana survived by collecting piñones (pine nuts) from the pine trees; fishing, hunting and farming; making charcoal, salt and honey; and other traditional skills using local materials such as weaving baskets from grass. Most have left now, though their chozas (thatched houses) remain and can be visited – the final stop on the route, called Poblado de la Plancha. The chozas are built in family groups called ranchos, inside a walled enclosure, facing each other: one as sitting room/kitchen area and the others as bedrooms (one is still occupied for a few months of the year). There is also a half-built choza, showing the frame, so you can see how they’re constructed.

Palacio de las Marismilllas, president, Spain, Doñana

The Palacio de las Marismillas, used by presidents, has an odd, British colonial-Spanish style; it was built partly by sherry baron William Garvey, who once owned Doñana.

After the chozas, we passed the Palacio de las Marismillas, where Spanish presidents take their holidays, as well as the likes of Tony Blair and the King of Belgium in the past; Rajoy was staying there that night. My husband’s joke about the unemployed (of whom he is one) showing up to wave placards and disturb the head of state’s visit didn’t impress the guide.

red deer, Doñana National Park

Red deer are common in Doñana, but it’s still a thrill to see one of these majestic creatures.

wild cow, Doñana

Doñana has over 2000 wild cows like this fierce-looking mother, with her calf.

Other wild animals we saw included red deer and wild cows; Doñana is also famous for its wild horses, who live in the marshes and can be seen on the wetlands next to El Rocio town. Unfortunately, this protected area has been in the news lately for various unwelcome projects which threaten its ecosystem with environmental armageddon: fracking for natural gas inside the park, and dredging the Guadalquivir to allow larger ships to reach Seville. Both projects could have potentially catastrophic consequences on this priceless natural space, risking everything so carefully protected and nurtured in the bioreserve over the past 30 years. As ever, it’s economy v environment, and as ever, he who shouts loudest (and has most political clout) wins.

Doñana, beach

Seabirds feasting at low tide.


“Birds flying high, you know how I feel, Sun in the sky, you know how I fee-eel, Fish in the sea, you know I feel…”

Returning along the beach, the tide had gone out, and seabirds were feeding on the sediment left behind, which made for a beautiful sight in the soft evening sunshine – turned out fine in the end. Not sure how much the strapping nephews would have enjoyed it, with its lack of WIFI and sporting possibilities, but for anyone who likes raw nature, rare ecosystems, and rural Spain as it once was, it is unmissable. And after so many years of anticipation on my part, I can honestly say it lived up to my expectations in every way.

We went as guests of Doñana National Park Tours. The visits leave from El Acebuche near Matalascañas (A483, km 37.5) at 8.30am and 3pm in winter (5pm in summer, from 1 May; note there are no tours during the El Rocio pilgrimage – 12 May to 25 May 2013). Tel 959 430432. Price: 29.50 euros per person (no child reductions).

If you want to see what a choza looked like when people lived there, La Rocina Visitors Centre has a fascinating recreation, with traditional furniture, tools used, and food grown, stored and eaten. To find out about local skills and crafts in Doñana Park, La Fabrica de Hielo in Sanlucar de Barrameda and Palacio de Acebron both have good displays. And for a less adventurous day out, but with lots of close-up bird action, Cañada de los Pajaros bird reserve near Sevilla has many of the same species as Doñana.

Up close and personal with the birds

goose, Cañada de los Pajaros, Sevilla

A greylag goose guards its nest.

Cañada de los Pajaros, Sevilla

Flamingoes are exotic, storytale birds – the pink legs, the long, bendy necks – they just don’t look real.

Spring is here in Seville – which means warm days, mild evenings, the smell of orange blossom, and a succession of large-scale events revolving around passion, death and debauchery.

Many people will be watching the Semana Santa processions over the next week, as statues of Jesus Christ and Mary are carried on floats, preceded by hooded, robed figures, weaving their way through the packed, narrow streets of the city.

But if the dolorosas (Virgins) don’t float your boat, never fear; there are plenty of other activities near the city, especially if you have children who would rather be running about in an open space, than standing in a crowded alley for hours without being able to see much action.

The huge amount of rainfall we’ve had here in Andalucia over the past weeks and months has meant that any lakes, rivers, streams and other watercourses are full to bursting. While this isn’t much fun if you live next to a river, like people in towns such as Ecija and those near Jerez who’ve been flooded, it is very welcome for some residents of Andalucia, whether permanent or seasonal: namely, the feathered ones.

Some of the bird species you can see at Cañada de los Pajaros.

Some of the bird species you can see at Cañada de los Pajaros.

We first visited Cañada de los Pajaros, a small bird sanctuary south of Seville, back in September 2010 (the name means ravine, or gully, of the birds). When we came it was very dry, with the levels on the lake low, and one large pond had no water at all. Now, however, is a perfect time to go, as there is ample water, and lots of birds to see. The storks are nesting in the pine trees, and watching them fly to and from their tree-top nests, soaring above your head with their broad, jagged-edged wings, collecting twigs to complete the building process, is enough to keep a curious grounded human interested for hours. The Cañada’s location is near the northern edge of Doñana Park, a UNESCO-recognised bioreserve, and one of Europe’s most important wetlands for migrating species, famous for its ample birdwatching opportunities. Many of the birds which live in Doñana can also be found in the Cañada.

pratincole,<div class="mceTemp mceIEcenter"><dl id="attachment_6596" class="wp-caption aligncenter" style="width: 480px"><dt class="wp-caption-dt"><a href="http://scribblerinseville.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/crested-crane.jpg"><img src="http://scribblerinseville.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/crested-crane.jpg?w=470" alt="crane, Cañada de los Pajaros, Sevilla" width="470" height="352" class="size-large wp-image-6596" /></a></dt><dd class="wp-caption-dd">Crested crane - this one loved posing for photos.

This collared pratincole is exquisitely pretty.

Cañada de los Pajaros

The spoonbill is another fantastical-looking bird – here they have them both in captivity and flying free. Isn’t the red ibis amazing?

The reserve (described as a “servant reserve” on their leaflet; they mean subsidised, I think) consists of a large lake, which you walk around, with a bird hide right on the water, and benches for some peaceful contemplation. At the far end are various enclosures with a huge variety of birds, from tiny, exquisite pratincoles, to bright-red ibises, and some wonderfully-named species: smew and whimbrel. An island in the lake is home to a flock of flamingoes. The sanctuary runs its own breeding programme for crested coots in captivity, the world’s first such, and also has other endangered birds such as the black stork and the marbled teal. You can see up to 200 species in total.

swan, lake, Cañada de los Pajaros

Meeting the swans on the lake (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Cañada de los Pajaros

Lola wasn’t too sure about the swans, which were quite forward when seeking food.

Cañada de los Pajaros

My son checks out some of the lake’s wildfowl.

But our favourite part was feeding the birds. All children love being able to feed animals – mine always remember their experience with the goats and even a giraffe at Colchester Zoo in the UK. We bought two bags of bird food – like a finer version of pienso, dry dog food – and the kids watched as swans, geese, ducks and coots waddled over, with varying degrees of confidence, and gobbled up the little coloured nuggets, fighting and flouncing when one got too much, or another wanted to show his mettle. The young geese (as-yet untagged) were soon in trouble if they overstepped the mark, being chased by furious adults.

crane, Cañada de los Pajaros, Sevilla

Crested crane – this one loved posing for photos.

Cañada de los Pajaros

I’ve never seen a white peacock before! It looked so regal – wouldn’t be out of place in the grounds of a Maharajah’s palace.

Cañada de los Pajaros

The cranes enjoyed the food we gave them.

We got up close and personal with cranes, not your everyday experience, who were amazingly tame. We saw snowy peacocks, strutting cockerels and imperious herons. And the noise was extraordinary: the hoo-hoo of the cranes, the tapping of the storks, the hissing and honking of the geese, the quacking of the ducks, the farting of the coots (at least that’s what it sounded like).

Cañada de los Pajaros

A stork flies back to its nest on top of a pine tree.

Cañada de los Pajaros

The community of storks in the canopy.

Cañada de los Pajaros, spoonbill

This spoonbill looks rather dignified.

Cañada de los Pajaros

A breeding pair of storks in their treetop nest.

March is nesting season for the storks, who come here to breed from late February until the end of August; their chicks will be born next month. Storks like to nest somewhere high up, safe from predators – you often seen them on top of chimneys; here, they love the pine trees. We also saw spoonbills nesting up in the branches.

We spent a very enjoyable few hours at the Cañada, luckily with sun, then cloud, and the heavens opened when we got in the car to go home (and ate our sandwiches). This is a place where kids can run around without causing too much havoc, it’s a beautiful natural environment, and they’re intrigued by all the various birds – their favourite was one we could barely see, as it was in an enclosure away from the path. It was a mynah bird, which imitated them as they said “Hola!”, right down to the tone of voice. They found it hilarious, and spend many happy minutes chatting to it and then bursting into hysterics of laughter. Helpful, friendly staff, spotlessly clean grounds and easy parking make this an ideal family outing.

Cañada de los Pajaros is near Puebla del Rio, 25km south of Seville on the Aznalcazar road (SE659). Entrance is 10 euros for adults and 6 euros for children over 5 years old. There is a restaurant next to the reserve, as well as casas rurales to rent.

Here are some bird names in Spanish and English:

focha – coot

ciguena – stork

grulla – crane

garza – heron

garcilla – heron/egret

gaviota – gull

malvasia – white-headed duck

espatula – spoonbill

canastera – pratincole