Walking in Sevilla province: pine forests, glades and lakes

The province of Seville: we will scour it for family-friendly walks.

This year, I’ve decided to make an effort to get out of the house with the kids at least once every weekend, to go on a little adventure. Within easy distance – in other words, inside Sevilla province. Which gives us plenty of variety, with parks, hills, woods and my beloved Doñana park (which straddles Seville and Huelva provinces); vias (old train routes) and senderos (hiking paths).

Via Verde de la Sierra in south-east Seville province. One for another post.

This means piling into the car with a picnic and bikes, changes of clothes and, of course, the camera, and heading off somewhere in the countryside for plenty of charging about and fresh air. We can explore, learn about nay-cha, cul-cha, and run about till we’re all knackered.

A sight to bring a smile to any parent: tired children.

The Spanish are partial to having picnics and barbeques with family and friends in parks, but they prefer the tables-and-chairs version to the rug-on-the-floor so beloved by the English. I was brought up with buns and thermoses and tupperware. Walks were an integral part of our family time together. However they don’t seem to be quite such a big deal here – unless you count strolling up Calle Sierpes after a slap-up lunch, to see and be seen, and check out the shop window displays.

Setting off on our bike ride in Las Doblas.

Our first such outing this year was to Las Doblas, a route which follows the Guadiamar river west of Seville. This is located just outside Sanlucar la Mayor, at the bottom of the hill leaving the town on the old Huelva road, next to the solar power station (tall towers aglow with sunlight).

There’s a big car park, various barbeques with seating areas (ugly fixed concrete picnic tables), a footpath, and a lake with a long wooden walkway. The scenery is unspoiled and beautiful, with a wide variety of plants. We were lucky enough to go on a sunny winter’s day, when we barely saw another soul. The path was mostly in reasonable condition, with a few dodgy, uneven parts; the five-year-old had no problems, and we pulled the two-year-old along on her bike.

Walkway across lake - just like the Florida Keys.

After about an hour’s gentle stop-start rambling, we left the path and found some mimbre plants, which my son fancied using as arrows (he’s into the castle thing). This is similar to wicker, and is used to make baskets and furniture.

Zac with a mimbre plant/arrow.

Then we found our way to the Guadiamar river, whose banks were covered in trees and plants; it was almost like a forest, with sunlight glinting through and illuminating the water. Apparently there are little turtles around here, though we didn’t spot any. Too noisy, I guess.

The river was bathed in sunlight, so it looked like a fairytale glade.

The one blot on this particular landscape was a derelict restaurant. Built by the Junta, it was never used, which seems a shameful waste, as its setting – by the lake – was so serene and completely surrounded by nature.

Lake with abandoned building, designed as a restaurant.

I’m no botanist, but we saw many plants I couldn’t resist snapping – a wonderful variety of textures and colours, from bare, silvery branches, to little margaritas (daisies), to soft, feathery ones that almost seemed to swim in the breeze.

We’ve also had some shorter walks, such as along the first section of the Via Verde, which goes from Camas to Santiponce. Camas is not a pretty town, so getting out of it is probably sensible.

Leaving Camas on the Via Verde.

This was more of an urban adventure, as the via crosses over a dual carriageway before heading on with fields up the hill to the left, and an industrial estate to the right. The path is in good condition.

Then, our latest excursion was to a park just outside the town of Guillena, called Parque Gergal. It is named after the reservoir nearby.

Exploring the Parque Gergal

This park is not in perfect condition: its barbeques have seen better days, though like other country parks (unlike in towns and cities) there was very little litter on the ground.

A pine tree with caterpillar tent.

This park was full of pine trees, so the kids had fun collecting pine cones from the ground. Some of them had white tents woven around their branches. My husband told me this is a bug called procesionaria, a caterpillar which spins a web around branches during the winter, coming out at night to feed on the pine needles. When spring comes, these destructive larvae hatch into moths.

We found a tiny hermita, a statue of the Virgen del Pilar in a little cupboard, with a veleta (wind vane) on top, complete with rooster. Bizarrely, it was a) English, and b) upside-down, with an M in place of a W (Spanish would have an E for este, and an O for oueste).

The Gergal reservoir and dam.

From this park, we had a great view of the mighty dam which holds in the water of the Gangal reservoir, and streams which come out. Alongside this dam runs the Ruta del Agua, the far end of which we visited back in December.

A little dell for your private picnic.

This park was on a slope, and had lots of little dips and separate areas screened off by bushes and trees. Apart from the loud folkloric music competing from each car, it was a calm place with dogs, children and the odd morning-after raver.

A tree perfectly designed for two children to climb. How thoughtful.

Previous excursions have included the aforementioned Ruta del AguaCañada de los Pajaros and Italica – next up will be the Roman ruins of Carmona. I also want to go to the waterfalls near San Nicolas del Pueblo, in the north of the province near Cazalla.

Do you have a favourite walk near Sevilla? I’d love to hear any suggestions.

La Pepa comes to Sevilla

On Sunday we went down to the Muelle de las Delicias to see Galeon La Pepa. My daughter got very excited, thinking we were going to see Peppa Pig, and was rather confused when George wasn’t there too.

Muelle de las Delicias, with its cobbles and old railway lines from the goods trains.

But the ship was pretty cool, so that was OK. La Pepa was here almost two years ago, then called the Galeon de Andalucia. It’s a wooden replica of a 17th-century trading ship, 55 metres long and with three masts.

The galleon has been renamed as part of the celebrations this March for the bicentenary of the first democracy in Spain, drawn up in Cadiz in 1812. The democracy was known as La Pepa, after the day when it was written – Dia de San Jose.

Boarding the galleon - the commemorative La Pepa banners were everywhere.

Now, as on Dia de Andalucia 2010, we had blue skies and sunshine, although being a normal weekend, rather than a puente, the queues were manageable – we only had to wait for about 10 minutes to board the ship and look around.

A jolly sailor from the crew of the Galleon de Andalucia/La Pepa.

The crew, who took part in the voyage to Shanghai (for the Expo) and the Philippines – with plenty of stops along the way, as various plaques showed - were on board to explain how various parts of the galleon worked. Sails are used for about half the time  (I would love to see those massive sheets billowing in the wind). One of them told me that they had no internet or satellite phones – no way of contacting their families. A Spanish son who doesn’t call his mother every day? Especially when he’s en el extranjero? Por dios!

Another sailor - the fact that they were rather good-looking young chaps had nothing to do with it, of course.

It was a real novelty to meet people who took such pleasure in greeting the public and explaining about their work, and their amazing journey aboard this magnificent vessel. Their enthusiasm was tangible – and infectious – as they told us what it was like to sail in La Pepa. Other boats often came alongside to greet them, and they were invariably welcomed warmly when they arrived in a new port, though in the Phillippines especially, they told me, people were out in force to see this floating Hispanic history lesson from their former colonial masters.

Trading routes from Cadiz - round the world, and back again.

As we had recently visited Seville’s fab new maritime museum, the Pabellon de la Navegacion, a few km up the river next to La Cartuja, with all its interactive games involving pulling rigging, steering ships and shooting pirates, it was great for the kids to see a real ship’s wheel, anchors and other nautical niceties.

I'm loving the cannon's macrame harness.

The wheel on the bridge - "Hard a'port, cap'n!" (Haven't you always wanted to say that? I have.)

We also saw the bathroom (small, but with a pretty ceramic sink and, true to its period, no plastic in sight), the captain’s cabin (very small) and the Sala del Almirante – the Admiral’s Room, with its sofas (un-period), dining table and coats of arms.

Sala del Almirante - where the rum is consumed, one imagines.

It was a fascinating visit – especially since we eschewed the queue last time, with then-much younger children who were a) not interested and b) not patient.

La Pepa, with its La Pepa flags fluttering gently in the breeze - tasteful advertising if ever I saw it.

The galleon will be in Cadiz in time for 19 March, but I was told they will be making a call at Malaga either before or after the main event commemorating La Pepa’s 200th anniversary. It has already visited the ports of Bilbao, Santander, La Coruña and Huelva - as well as Cadiz (of course), where 25,000 people came on board - and will be heading up the east coast of Spain to Valencia and Barcelona, among others.

The galleon, with the Puente del Quinto Centenario, built for Expo 92 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage of discovery.

In the meantime, it’s a pretty impressive sight, surrounded by smaller craft – sailing boats, canoes, windsurfers – moored at this beautiful quay on the river Guadalquivir. This is the spot from where so many of the New World ships left in search of lands to colonise, and to where they returned laden with gold and silver, helping to create the mighty Spanish Empire, and Seville’s Golden Age.

La Pepa is at the Muelle de las Delicias in Seville until 29 January. You can visit the ship from 3pm-6pm on Fridays, and 10am-6pm on Saturdays and Sundays; admission is scot-free. For more information about future port visits, see the Fundacion Nao Victoria’s website.

Here come the Reyes: part two

Last week was Reyes, the day Spanish kids most look forward to the whole year, because it means PRESENTS!

The Reyes Magos – Baltazar (Moor), Melchior (white beard) and Gaspar (the other one, although just to confuse, our Gaspar also had flowing facial hair). They, along with the Reina (Queen), ride around the local town or city in style on specially decorated floats, with their helpers, throwing caramelos (sweets – in this case, the small boiled types – why do you think there are so many dental clinics in Spain?), footballs, and small Chino-type toys into the crowd. (Presents proper are delivered to your house by the Reyes that night, who arrive on their camels, so it’s nice to leave out some refreshment – a glass of milk.)

Floats are usually colour-themed, or take popular TV characters. These snaps are of our town’s Reyes offering; next year, I’m planning to decamp to Seville, which has 34 floats, to our five (smurfs – the Spanish love their pitufos). Think local amateur theatre v West End musical. Equal amount of enthusiasm and imagination, but on a different scale, with a much bigger budget (yes, austerity, blah, but this is the biggest cabalgata - parade – of the year. Happy, wowed citizens on Reyes is an essential element of the political agenda).

And one very happy little boy – which is what it’s all about, after all.

Sail the high seas, high-tech style

On 2 January, Seville got another new museum. The Pabellon de la Navegacion was originally built for Expo 92; outside were moored the replicas of Columbus’ three boats, the Pinta, Niña and Santa Maria (now in a special dock at La Rabida in Huelva – due a blog post from a visit I made last year).

Now the pavilion has been refurbished, and reopened as a museum (although that term for me has fusty overtones – discovery centre is more like it) of Atlantic exploration – about the ships which sailed from Spain (indeed, many from Seville itself) in search of the New World, carrying missionaries, merchants and explorers – from the late 15th century onwards.

The "sea of lights", which illuminates section by section, creating a wave effect - much more wow than it sounds (or, indeed, looks in this photo).

The first thing you notice is the sea of lights, which you walk into as soon as you arrive.  It’s an extraordinary sight - an undulating mass of black stems, with LED bulbs at their tips, which light up and then go dark in swathes, creating an effect of constantly moving swells, waves forming - so you feel as it you’re surrounded – enveloped – by the ocean.

These form the basis of the first part of the space (Sala 1), which has a curved, wood-beamed ceiling, like a ship. Among the sweeping lights, you can find tales of various voyagers, based on actual people who travelled the oceans centuries ago.

Dominican missionary Fray Tomas, who set sail for the New World in 1544, complains about the mistreatment and lack of respect shown to him and his fellow brothers by the sailors - it was so hot, dirty and uncomfortable, and with such little food, that it was "like hell". Not sure the natives they tried to convert, burning them at the stake if they refused, would have agreed.

These stories are told in delightful animated versions (so much better than cheesy reconstructions using actors), on large screens hanging from the ceiling, which look like they’re floating above the sea of lights (see photo, third above). Every audio feature, and information panel, is available in both English and Spanish.

"Raise the mainsail!" My son experiences life as a cabin boy.

Some are accompanied by typical ship’s features which you have to operate to get the film to start (I had a willing participant, which saved me the bother).

Zac listens to marine adventures - through an illuminated bottle.

You can also listen to modern-day seagoers, (fictional, including a cruise-ship passenger, and a man who travelled in a patera from Africa) whose tales are heard through bottles. You hold them to your ear to hear their voices – a wonderfully simple (and nautical) but effective idea, even if the glass is a bit heavy for younger children to hold onto for too long.

"Poo - yucky, Mum!" - Zac smells the stinky bodies of the captain's cabin.

As well as watching and listening to shipboard tales, other sense are stimulated, with boxes (at child height – it’s been very well thought-out) offering olefactory experiences such as tar, and the captain’s cabin (men unwashed for months).

The model ships you can see were also in the Pabellon in its first encarnation, during Expo 92, which lends a pleasing sense of continuity, as many pavilions were demolished, or left to ruin.

The screens of the historical maritime-themed video games (with benches for you sit down and watch).

But the most popular area with my son was the video games. On a huge panel at the far end of the space, along the back wall (Sala 3: Life on Board), are five screens.

The bilge-pump game - use some muscle to get the water out of the ship as fast as you can.

Each has a ship-themed game, operated by a shipboard device: the (steering) wheel, the bilge pump, the falconete (gun – operated by a button, rather than trigger), the rigging, and the capstan – a winding device used to lift heavy loads, such as the ship’s anchor.

"Hard aport!" My daughter tries out her navigations skills - the corresponding screen wasn't working, but that didn't bother her. (Bet that game is great.)

Sadly, the first screen, with the wheel, wasn’t operational when we visited – this was only the third day of the pavilion being open, so it’s normal to have some hiccups. I noticed a staff member walking around, checking how all the exhibits were running, and making notes on his iPad. The impression was of people who take their job seriously, not necessarily a given here in Andalucia.

Zac takes out some pirates - "Toma ya!"

No prizes for guessing which one my small tester made a beeline for – what little boy doesn’t want to shoot pirates? Each game has a timer and score, so you can see how you’re doing, as well as – thoughtful touch this, a bench for siblings or friends waiting to take a go, or parents wanting to take a load off.

The last area, Sala 4, entitled “Historic Views of Seville”, with two screens, was not operating when we visited.

After  leaving the pavilion, you head to the river to go up the tower, which offers amazing views up and down the river, and over the city. More in my next blog post.

The royal postperson comes to town: “Is it cos I is black?”

Belen (nativity scene) showing the three Reyes Magos arriving on their camels.

On 6 January the Reyes Magos (Three Wise Men, or Three Kings) visit towns and villages throughout Spain, arriving by helicopter, boat, elephant or camel, depending on the extent of each ayuntamiento (town hall)’s budget deficit. This is the biggest day of the year for Spanish children – Santa Claus is also celebrated, so the lucky little tinkers get a double dose of presents, and us parents get a double whammy on our wallets – but Reyes is the biggie.

But before the day itself, there is another important event: the arrival of the Reyes Magos’ cartero/a (postperson), to collect letters from the children. S/he is accompanied by a number of colourfully attired pajes (attendants).

Pajes, or attendants, of the Cartera Real. Yes, their faces are painted black - just wait till you see the Reyes themselves.

We had the good fortune to stumble upon this happy pageant on the way back from a family lunch in the local town this afternoon – our first day back from Christmas in the UK. I was in my usual post-leaving-parents vile mood (I don’t cry for my Mummy, but I do miss my family so much it hurts), plus our internet is down again which served to compound my malas pulgas (I am only writing this thanks to my life-saving, beloved iPhone). So the fun and noise of such a joyous celebration blew away my black clouds, as well as keeping the kids entertained for a good while.

This old train repair shed has been refurbished as a hall for the hermandad which organised the visit of the Cartera Real.

For those not familiar with the who, what and where, the cartero/a real comes to town a few days before his/her bosses, the Reyes (6 January) to collect the letters from the children, who tell them how good they’ve been this year (truthfully of course – Spanish embellishing the truth? Never!), and ask for the presents they would like the Reyes to bring them. In case you’re wondering why I’m being so gender-unspecific, it’s because since our cartera was a cartera, then I can’t blanket masculinise all the carteras out there, even though that’s what they do here.

The Cartera Real (Royal Postlady) takes a letter from a small, happy girl, for special delivery to the Reyes Magos - the post box is next to the paje on the right.

This Cartera Real sat on her splendid plywood throne, backed by swathes of regal red fabric, and flanked by lackeys (pajes). Other lackeys accompanied the little cabalgata (procession) – once Postlady Pat(ricia) had heard all the petitions, she and her two chief pajes climbed onto a cart embellished with a big silver star and, preceded by a band which played mournful Semana Santa-type tunes jazzed (cheered) up by fast drum-beating, made their way through the town, along with the all-important letter box, carrying the childrens’ missives for the Reyes Magos.

Setting off to take a turn around the town in one's carriage, under a shining star.

Drums and other paraphernalia of the band - it's all about the rhythm, man.

The pajes – of various ages – blow whistles, lending the procession an air of jolly reverence, and Caribbean party vibe, thanks to the rhythmical beats.

One of the strangest aspects of the Reyes celebrations is that, although women leading roles,  political correctness doesn’t extend to race – almost all of the participants are blacked up. In a few places, they actually hire people whose skin is naturally that colour, though mostly not. Most countries wouldn’t even allow it. Do you find it offensive?

The royal postbox - carrying the dreams of many small people.

Short video of The Cartera Real procession, January 2012 – to get you into the spirit!