Some 90km northwest of Seville, ARACENA is the highest town in the Sierra Morena with sharp, clear air, all the more noticeable after the heat of the city. A substantial but pretty place, it rambles partly up the side of a hill topped by the Iglesia del Castillo, a Gothic-Mudéjar church built by the Knights Templar around the remains of a Moorish castle. The town is flanked to the south and west by a small offshoot of the Sierra Morena – the Sierra de Aracena – a wonderfully verdant corner of Andalucía with wooded hills and villages with cobbled streets.
Gruta de las Maravillas
Although the church is certainly worth the climb, Aracena’s principal attraction is the Gruta de las Maravillas, the largest and arguably the most impressive cave in Spain. Supposedly discovered by a local boy in search of a lost pig, the cave is now illuminated and there are guided tours as soon as a couple of dozen or so people have assembled; to protect the cave there’s now a strict limit of 35 persons per visit. At weekends and holiday periods, try to visit before noon – coach parties with advance bookings tend to fill up the afternoon allocation. On Sunday, there’s a constant procession, but usually plenty of time to gaze and wonder. The cave is astonishingly beautiful, and funny, too – the last chamber of the tour is known as the Sala de los Culos (Room of the Buttocks), its walls and ceiling an outrageous, naturally sculpted exhibition, tinged in a pinkish-orange light.
The king of hams
The king of hams
Surrounding Aracena is a scattering of attractive but economically depressed villages, most of them dependent on the jamón industry and its curing factory at Jabugo. Jamón serrano (mountain ham) is a tapa or bocadillo standard throughout Spain, and some of the best, jamón de bellota (acorn-fed ham), comes from the Sierra de Aracena, where herds of sleek black pigs grazing beneath oak trees are a constant feature. In October, the acorns drop and the pigs, waiting patiently below, gorge themselves, become fat and are promptly whisked off to be slaughtered then cured in the dry mountain air. The meat of these black pigs is exceptionally fatty when eaten as pork but the same fat that marbles the meat adds to the tenderness during the curing process. This entails first of all covering the hams in coarse rock or sea salt to “sweat”, after which they are removed to cool cellars to mature for up to two years. Jamón serrano from mass-produced white pigs is matured for only a few weeks, hence the incomparable difference in taste. At Jabugo the best of the best is then further graded from one to five jotas (the letter “J” for Jabugo) depending on its quality. A whole leg of cinco jotas jamón will set you back anything from €250 to €350. The turismo can provide details of where to sample and buy.