Go West from Seville, a scant 50km from Portugal and you’ll find, wedged up against an endless stretch of a flat sunny beach, a whisper of a town: el Portil. It’s one of the many conurbations dotted along the long bank where the Rio Piedras, barely separated from it by a thin finger of sand, merges into the Bay of Cadiz. The town, like its twins, Nuevo Portil, el Rompido , Isla Christina and dozens more, is not much more than a sprawl of tourist apartments, townhouses and villas bracketed by a golf course at one end and a trace of a town centre at the other.
There are a few restaurants, a few bars, a few farmacias and a few small supermarkets. When we were there, at the end of September, a few weeks after the season had ended, there were hardly any people. Where do all the restaurant waiters, the chefs, the bartenders, the sellers of trinkets go when the season dies and all the (mainly Spanish) visitors have migrated back to homes and jobs and cares? To some, this end of season silence would be dreary. Where’s the buzz, the bronzed beach-bound bodies (there were still a few casually naked in Fashion Beach), the clatter of tapas in crowded bars? To us, despite the inconvenience of closed restaurants and the often bizarre opening times of supermarkets (Carrefour closed from 2:30-5:30 on a Friday???), the quiet beaches and traffic free roads slumbering under perfect blue skies without a trace of rain, was a treat.
For buzz, further West there’s el Rompido. This is also a mainly tourist town, but there, the draw is it’s large, bustling, marina and its small fishing fleet. There are lighthouses; there’s even a church. Whereas el Portil’s few restaurants are all well away from the water; in el Rompido, they all seem to cling to the beach like barnacles. The one we ate in was, like most of them, crowded, lively, jolly and child-friendly. The cuisine was also tasty but fairly rudimentary. Maybe it’s the season…but I think I can find better Spanish fare in Brixton.
The big town in the region is Huelva, about 15km away.
Ah, history at last! The origins of this town go back some three thousand years to the Phoenicians. This rich historical vein, along with the Moorish charm you’ll find in the nearby cities of Seville and Cadiz is not immediately apparent, the city having been flattened by an earthquake about two hundred and seventy five years ago. So from the outskirts, it’s a pretty boring looking place: an indifferent lurch of drab industrial buildings. But the charm is still there. The place was once a company town: the main employer was the dread Rio Tinto, the (then) English mining company. The only trace of this element of this past is the Muelle: a long, curving two tiered wooden rail track, now converted into a pleasant boardwalk; it juts out into the wide mouth of the Odiel river, once the main artery of ore-gorged vessels. Now it seems to come from nowhere, and goes nowhere…hopefully not a symbol of the city’s future. The Muelle runs parallel to a long, elegant river walkway that seems to frame an entire side of the place. Here, bars, coffee shops and the gaiety of school outings add a specialness you won’t find in the architecture
It is in the centre of town, the Plaza de las Monjas, where you’ll find the stronger traces of its Moorish past and where stands an imperious statue of Columbus, the area’s claim to fame. (Just don’t be tempted by its underground car parks, designed I think for pack animals and definitely not for large Renaults, whose wing mirrors do stick out so inconveniently)
It was near here, just a few kilometers away (in Palos de la Frontera) that Columbus, with his discoverer’s zeal, persuaded Queen Isabella’s confessor Antonio de Marchena to lobby on his behalf. He succeeded with the Spaniards where he’d failed with the Portuguese: to get funding for his wild-eyed voyages. The Spaniards weren’t happy that their smaller neighbour to the West was making all the breakthroughs: first Henry the Navigator had pretty much invented the caravel (finally a boat whose sails allowed you to tack against the wind); then Vasco da Gama and Bartholomew Diaz were making all the exploratory headway. To los Reyes Católicos, Ferdinand and Isabella, Don Crístobal Colón must have seen like a blessing. And It was here in Palos that he built his ships and from here he sailed. In nearby la Rábida, there’s a nicely done reconstruction of the three caravels (so surprisingly tiny) in which he and his hundred sailors crossed the Atlantic and changed history.
So now we’re back to the bay of Cadiz. Back to August 3, 1492 when the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria sallied forth to usher in two hundred years of Spanish supremacy…none of which is apparent here in sleepy el Portil.
Only, perhaps, the memories of greatness linger