August 18, 2008

A Spanish Holiday With a Difference

By Laura Silverman

This was not your typical Spanish holiday. We didn't want the busy Costa del Sol or packed tours to Gaudi's Barcelona. Maybe an exploration of the local area but no crowds - definitely no crowds. So that's why we chose Punta Umbria.

In summer, the resort is mainly popular with locals from Huelva city and Seville. By day, they relax on the long, sandy beach - part of the Costa de la Luz, go hiking in the pinewoods, cycle or watch the world go by from outdoor cafes. In the evenings, there is much music and dancing on the beaches.

For more lively activities, you can venture into Huelva city, a 15-minute bus ride away, yet a welcome distance if you've come for a break.

Despite today's predominance of Spanish visitors, it was the Brits who originally developed the town into a beach resort back in the late 19th century.

They worked for the local Rio Tinto Mining Company Ltd (RTCL), which N M Rothschild and Sons of London, part of Rothschild investment bank, had bought from the Spanish government.

Many of the workers lived near the mines in Bella Vista, the now uninhabited district of the Minas de Riotinto area or in Huelva city. The wealthier ones spent their holidays on the coast.

You can learn about the history of the mines at the Museo Minero, a mining and railway museum in the Parque Minero de Riotinto.

Our next Brit-related stop was the Barrio de Reina Victoria in Huelva city, also known as Barrio Obrero (Workers' District) as many of the RTCL managers lived here. The houses are very turn-of-the- century British, with dormer windows and red-tiled roofs, but current occupiers have whitewashed the walls and painted details in bright primary colours.

What else to see in the provincial capital? Huelva has some pleasant pedestrian streets with decent High Street stores. New bars and restaurants are appearing all the time, too.

At Restaurante La Recala, overlooking the river and another piece of mining history (part of a disused pier), we ate gourmet tapas, including the freshest tuna, the meatiest swordfish and the most delicious artichoke chips fried in light batter. All made using plenty of olive oil, which is a local speciality.

The city lacks the architectural splendour of Seville, about 45 minutes' drive away, as most of its older buildings were destroyed by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake.

The whole region suffered as the tremors caused a tsunami and the rivers overflowed. For many years, Andalusians were too scared to live there in case disaster struck again.

The area deteriorated until the Brits came with their mining ideas.

There are reminders of earlier history as well, such as the Santuario de Nuestra Senora de la Cinta, a chapel where Columbus is said to have prayed before he took off on his voyage. And the remains of a 1st-century house - little documented in the guides - which is visible through the glass floor of a fashion shop, Sfera, in the pedestrian part of town.

On the last day of our trip we stayed around our accommodation, the Hotel Barcelo, on the seafront.

When a couple of us went for a walk along the beach, who should we find but the Huelva football team having a bit of a kick around?

Perhaps they'd given up on hardcore training, assured that David Beckham would be joining us to give them some tips. Sadly, for everyone, he never showed up.

Saga offers seven nights' full-board at Hotel Barcelo in Punta Umbria from pounds399.

Details: 0800 300 500 and

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