Huelva & Isla Cristina

Huelva is last of the large Spanish port towns before the Portuguese border and the place where Christopher Columbus (or Cristobal Colon as he is known locally) set off from on two of his three voyages of discovery.

On the bright and hot Saturday morning that we visited, the whole of the town was out to celebrate another sending off – this time of their groups of pilgrims on the ‘romeria’ to El Rocio.

A stroll into Huelva

The central plaza was set up with bars and barbecues and a gigantic pan of paella was being prepared with mountains of fresh seafood.

Several people looked to be nursing their heads over strong coffees at the cafés lining the square, as the three-day party had started the night before and would end on Sunday, once the flamenco dress-wearing and horseback-riding pilgrims had departed.

Huelva Plaza Mayor

Roads were being closed by the local officers of the guardia civil as a procession of very young brass band players marched a sassy tune to the accompaniment of the beating of gigantic drums and the cheers of proud parents.

It was a shame not to stay as despite the early hour, there was already an air of chaotic excitement about the place, but we had a date with a beach.

Beer & paella preparations

Camped midway between La Antilla and Isla Cristina along the sandy coastline at the western end of the Costa de la Luz, we struck out in the afternoon sunshine to find a hire bike for Josh.

We wanted to cycle the eight-mile round route to Isla Cristina the next day and enjoy a boat ride around the island and harbour. After strolling along the seashore with the lowering sun burning our backs for an hour we arrived at the smart resort town of La Antilla and set about a fruitless mission to hire a bike.

A walk in the coastal woodland

Eventually spotting a couple of potential candidates tethered outside a swanky hotel we asked the lovely receptionist for advice. She sent us outside to wait for the little white tourist train to take us four miles up the hillside to a golf complex which might have one to rent to us.

Quickly ruling this out as we would have to walk the four miles back downhill and then return along the beach to the campsite, we retraced our steps, this time with the sun burning our faces. Having eaten handsomely from our gas barbecue ‘the cadac’ with Josh cooking Iberian ham steaks and frying potatoes, we joined the crowds in the campsite bar watching Valencia beat Barcelona in the Spanish cup final.

Hot beach sand dunes

Next morning at 10am we set out to walk along the beach to Isla Cristina. Hundreds of thousands of shells were strewn along the tide’s retreat, many tiny and pearl-like and others large and fist-shaped.

Collecting them wasn’t forbidden so we poked about comparing their colours and markings and commiserating where the tell-tale holes showed how the gastropods and bivalves had met their miserable ends, being food for others.

Isla Cristina lagoon

Along the boardwalk at the shallow and wide lagoon of Isla Cristina we all agreed that the emerald blue waters had looked better from a distance, when up close they were smelly, dank and stagnant.

By now crowds of people were emerging with umbrellas, cool boxes, sun chairs and beach toys ready to spend the day on the smooth white sands. It was high noon and 35 degrees.

Boats on sandy beach at Isla Cristina

We struck out around the headland to find a tour boat to take us out of the harbour and onto the sea. Things didn’t go exactly to plan but a real treat was in store for us!

We joined a small party of Germans and Dutch in the little power boat of Capitán Juan, or “Juan Love” as Josh named him for his incessant playing of Bob Marley tunes at every opportunity.

Mussel beds

Our sea adventure turned into a hilarious tour of just the harbour with Juan Love showing us the former salt flats, the cockle and clam farms, the oyster beds and the sardine fleet.

Speaking little English, German or Dutch he furiously swapped a collection of USB sticks to play his commentary in different languages but kept muddling the sequence. We were chuckling as the boat headed captain-less towards anchored and large fishing vessels. Nothing seemed to faze Juan, as he slipped the boat into reverse to dodge a dredger.

With Bob Marley urging ‘No Woman No Cry’ we pottered towards a dilapidated pontoon packed with rusting fishing equipment and piles of old nets. It smelt.

Juan dashed to the back of his boat with a long wooden pole topped with a hook which he used to try to anchor us onto the pontoon. Half throwing the pole at a nearby yellow buoy, he missed, and stabbed an elderly passenger in the foot.

Trying for a second time, he managed to whack her in the arm with the pole before shouting in triumph at securing us alongside the pontoon. “Buen, si? Muy tranquilo” he declared. Josh asked us quietly “should we even be here?!”, as Capitán began to dish out the advertised lunch of prawns and white wine.

Juan injuring passengers

By now everything struck us as wildly amusing! The English commentary had earlier described the pair trawling carried out from the harbour as being “destructive to the environment and detrimental to the eco-system of the surrounding area”.

However, this seemed to have escaped Juan who happily dished out small portions of cooked prawns and cheap white wine in single-use plastic containers and plastic sherry glasses.

Pouring himself a large glass, Juan plonked himself next to Simon and started beheading his own portion of prawns and throwing their shells into the sea. We were all bemused. “Si si es bueno para el fishey”, he announced. We followed suit. Pleased, Juan finished his wine and polished off Simon’s before lighting a cigarette under the boat’s ‘no fumar’ sign.

Puffing along in the harbour

Still, “don’t worry about a thing, cos every little thing is gonna be alright” … with Marley blaring we headed back to the harbour at speed before suddenly juddering to a halt. Juan excitedly pointed and yelled “Paloma! Paloma!”.

Confusedly, we all looked around, above and below into the waters. Watching us from its perch on a sardine boat was a pigeon. “Si, Paloma” sighed Juan.

It was too much. All three of us collapsed into giggles for the rest of the journey and were unable to hide our hysterics. We had to look away as Juan used both hands to shove the injured elderly lady by her backside off his boat and onto the harbourside.

Calling us his “familia” (he was angling for tips) as the Dutch group barged off unimpressed and we could barely stand up for laughing. It was the Germans who did the honours on this occasion. And what an occasion! We laughed about it through our tasty lunch of pizza and paella in a small family-run café in the town.

We were still chuckling as we strolled the four miles back in the hot late afternoon sunshine along the sand dunes above the beach, marvelling at the wild flowering cacti.

Cactus flowers

Like so many evenings in Spain we didn’t start cooking until it got cooler, often eating after 10pm. We all slept very well that night!