To understand the Huelva of today, relying on yesterday, we suggest starting the visit on the outskirts of the city, in a marvellous and little known setting, the Odiel Marshes. For this, we have to follow the old road going to Punta Umbria through Corrales turning left towards the Juan Carlos I Dike. After about 4 kms next to the drawbridge, we have the impressive panorama of the Huelva ria and of the city with its port and industrial installations in front of us. Form here, we can understand what has always influenced the history of the city; its location at the mouth of two of the four large rivers of Lower Andalusia.
We are on the island of Saltes which was formed by the confluence of the alluvial deposits of both rivers meeting maritime currents. The sea is to our right. From our left flows the river Odiel and in front of us, the river Tinto, the stream which since earliest antiquity has been the source of Huelva's fortune and development, emerges from under the metal bridge. Some 75 kms upstream are the rich veins of Western Europe's oldest copper deposit, whose mines have ceased to work recently.
Can you see this huge stone statue in the confluence? It represents the man who brought universal fame to this part of Andalusia. After he had spent a long time thinking about his project in a monastery, now hidden by a clump of trees located behind refinery chimneys to the right, Christopher Columbus managed to persuade sailors from two villages located a few kilometres up river, Palos and Moguer, to equip their boats and sail with him in the great adventure of discovering a new world.
In Columbus's time, Huelva had already been a sea harbour since the Bronze Age, a place where natural resources came and went, finding its origin in an important community of metal casters belonging to the mythical Tartesos. Its situation in the vicinity of the copper mines, good communications with the producers of pewter along the Atlantic coast, and an ideal location on the way out of the Mediterranean, placed it halfway between the producers and the consumers.
These were the Phoenicians who, from the eighth century onwards, had a huge influence on local culture. Until then the Tartessians had dedicated themselves exclusively to cattle breeding and agriculture. The Phoenicians brought them writing as well as elaborate casting techniques. It also seems that from them came the first name for the city. Onos Baal, or fortress of Baal, in honour of their god. From that, it became the Roman Onoba, and then Awnaba and later Guelbah of the Arabs.
The Greeks followed in the Phoenicians footsteps, bartering raw materials for elaborate products coming from the East. This is why it is very interesting to visit Huelva's Provincial Museum, located on Avenida Sundheim, which displays not only pieces demonstrating the high development reached by Tartesos, but also remains of Greek pieces found in the city's grounds. Unfortunately, while contacts with Eastern peoples had brought splendour to Tartesos, they were also the reason for its decadence when the Carthaginians started to look for metals to pay their troops, preferring the closer sources of supply of the south-eastern part of the Iberian peninsular.
Jumlping centuries, we see that the rich copper deposit was again of utmost importance to the future of Huelva in the 19th century when British companies stgarted to work it. In 1892, the situation was so flourishing that they celebrated with pomp and ceremony the Fourth Centenary of the Discovery of America. A colonial style hotel called Casa Colon (Columbus House) was built for the occasion and is used today as a congress centre. At the beginning of this century, the British also built the Barrio Obrero Reina Victoria (Queen Victoria Working class area) of Victorian style at the time, but sine then made very Andalusian by use of local colours.
If we revert to chronology, we find that the most interesting remains left by the Arabs in the Huelva area are the recent excavations on the Saltes Island where we stood earlier on. These can be visited asking for permission of the Visitors Centre for the Odiel Marshes. Saltes was a village of farmers, fishermen and iron casters. And what has been excavated corresponds to the remains of a fortress and a number of houses.
In the Huelva area, the Reconquest, led by Alphonso X the Wise, ended in 1262. In 1485 we again meet Christopher Columbus, who left Lisbon and sailed to Palos de la Frontera in the company of his son Diego after King John II of Portugal denied him his support.
Five kms away from Palos is the La Rabida Fransiscan monastery, which traditionally put up sailors. There Columbus encountered the encouragement of Fray Antonio de Marchena, one of the convent's monks, who was also a cosmographer and astrologer. There the project for the long journey was studied and deliberated upon before the presentation to the catholic monarchs. Its church and 13th centurycloister are beautiful examples of the Mudejar architecture in Andalusia. At the foot of the monastery, the Caravels Wharf presents replicas of the three vessels which discovered the new world, the Santa Maria, the Pinta and the Nina. They were built for the occasion of the Fith Centenary in 1992.
In the village of Palos, which was a sea port 500 years ago, we find the church of San Jorge where on 23rd May, 1492, the letter of the Catholic Monarchs which ordered the villagers that two vessels be fitted out for the long journey was read out. Columbus still had to find a crew. Unfortunately, the inhabitants mistrusted him and Father Marchena had to use all his persuasion to convince one of the best local captains, Martin Alonso Pinzon, to form it. It is possible to visit his house, which has been converted into a museum.
We still have to visit another of the local scenes of the Discovery, Moguer. The abbess of the impressive Santa Clara Gothic-Mudejar monastery built in the 14th century was King Ferdinand of Aragon's aunt. Accordingly, she also played an important part in Columbus's relationships with the court. In the 14th century choir, impressive stalls, made for the nuns in Sevilla by Arab artists and with Arab decoration and yet to be restored, can be seen.
To visit the beautiful village of Moguer is also the opportunity for knowing the surroundings and the house where Nobel prize winner Juan Ramon Jiminez lived until he was thirty years old. Huelva gives its visitors the image of a city well anchored in the present, but where nature and the remains of a glorious past have much to offer. Let yourself be seduced.
This article was first published in the Andalucia Costa del Sol Magazine.
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