On my second day in Seville I crossed the river to Triana to a local tapas bar. The tapa of the day was one of the best I’d tried yet: a mini wheel of grilled goat cheese (slightly caramelized) drizzled with sweet raspberry sauce and served on a bit of toast.
Two Spanish ladies in their 60s sat next to me at the bar and started discussing the menu. My cheese tapa was so good that I recommended it to these strangers. Once they tried it they thanked me, and we got to chatting in Spanish.
The women were intrigued by my travels and gave me several recommendations. They asked if I liked the Iberian ham (jamón Ibérico) which I was eating, and I replied enthusiastically.
“You must visit Aracena!”((Pronounced “Ahra-thayna” due to the Andalusian s -> th)) one said. “It has the best jamón in Andalusia.”
“Yes,” said her friend. “And if you go to Aracena, you have to see the gruta de maravillas.”
My Spanish is far from perfect, but that sounded like “grotto of marvels”. Or “Cave of Wonders” to an Aladdin fan just four days removed from the Sahara. I thanked the ladies and resolved to check out Aracena.
The next morning I caught the morning bus from the downtown station with about a minute to spare, and napped for the hour and fifteen minute ride across the foggy Spanish plains.
I got to Aracena around 10am and left the bus station to explore a quaint, white-painted town built around a hill with a modest castle atop it. I followed Google Maps up the hill past various homes, shops, and the trailhead for the path up to the castle. It didn’t look like the sort of place to have a Cave of Wonders.
I kept faith in Google and reached some more touristy shops selling knicknacks made from the local cork trees. I found a very ordinary-looking building with a white arch entrance labeled “Gruta de las Maravillas“. A gaggle of Spanish retirees on holiday gathered outside the entrance, sticking close to their tour guides who held their group-flags aloft. I got the sinking feeling that the Grotto of Marvels was actually the Andalusian analog of America’s highway tourist traps like the Bigfoot Museum((The Bigfoot Museum is actually very worth the stop.)) or World’s Largest Ant Farm.
I bought my admissions ticket and joined a group of Spaniards- it turns out only 50 people are allowed into the caves at a time, and the half-hourly tours can fill up. My group consisted of 46 Spanish retirees, 3 Brits on a road trip, and myself.
I set my audio guide to English and passed through the turnstile. Belize’s remote caverns of Actun Tunachil Muchnal these were not, but I was ready to enjoy the campy tourist trap on its own merits.
To my delight and surprise, La Gruta de Maravillas was underselling itself tremendously. The prosaic entrance belied a vast cavern system filled with the largest, most varied, most spectacular rock and mineral formations I’d ever seen underground.
For centuries the caverns had remained a secret to the castle’s inhabitants above. It was only in the late 19th century that a farmer stumbled on the entrance. La Gruta was among the first caves in the world to be outfitted for tourist use, complete with carved steps, handrails, and thousands of lights to highlight the cave’s beauty.
Photography is forbidden (no doubt to drive sales of their own over-priced photos,) and while I snuck a few shots with my phone through a hole in my jacket liner, I wasn’t able to place my SLR to get the shots I would’ve liked. Here are some more representative photos from the Internet, though:
The Gruta de Maravillas was a feast for the senses, but it was almost noon and I still hadn’t had breakfast. It was time for ham.
But before I could feast, I wanted to learn everything there was to know about ham. Luckily, Aracena is home to el Museo de Jamón– the Museum of Ham.
I was the only person in the museum at the time (they were hosting a ham tasting downstairs) so I picked up an audioguide. A British lady who sounded like she belonged on Downton Abbey spoke the introduction: “Welcome to the Interactive Museum Of Iberian Ham”- and I laughed at the absurdity of it. The “Museum of Ham” sounds like someplace Homer would go at the beginning of a classic Simpsons episode.
I sat through a 10 minute video introduction to the history, ecology, and culture of Iberian Ham. The best analogy to Iberian Ham is fine Scotch whiskey. The taste and expense of the finished ham depends on time spent curing (12-48 months), diet, and racial purity of the swine. Iberian pigs are allowed to roam free in the oak forests (dehesa) and enjoy a diet of acorns. After the slaughter, their legs are hung up to dry, and it’s a common sight in any Spanish grocery store or bar to have dozens of dismembered pig legs dangling from the ceiling. Sorry, vegans.
Despite passing a 24-poster exhibition of the slaughter process, it was 2pm and I was starving for some jamón. My museum ticket offered me a €1 ham tasting at 12 participating restaurants. I asked the curator if that meant I could do all twelve.
“Yes, I guess so. But most people just choose a single–”
“Gracias, me voy.” I said.
It was time for a Prospect 12 -style ham and wine tour.((A Prospect N is when you have a beer at all N Princeton eating clubs, where (depending on the year) N is between 10 and 12))
I found the nearest restaurant to avoid expiring from hunger. The jamón was merely excellent and was served on toast. I knew I could do better. So I picked my next restaurant farthest from the museum, el Postigo.
I walked up hill for 10 minutes (Aracena is a small place) to find a cozy hillside restaurant in a house’s repurposed garage. All eight tables were reserved, but the owner welcomed me to a seat. I exchange pleasantries with the only other patron-a woman in her 50s- and she asked where I was from. Turns out Janet was a Scottish expat who’d been living in Aracena for 27 years.
The second tasting’s portion was larger and tastier and came with far and away the best olives I’ve ever tasted. Holy shit they were good. They were from either Estremadura or Asturias, and brined in the restaurant’s own custom oil, herbs, and spices. Each olive was more delicious than a kiss.((No offense to anyone I’ve ever kissed. Try these olives and you’ll know I’m right.))
Janet recommended the pork tenderloin skewer. She cautioned that it was “a gentleman’s portion”, which is such a civilized way to say “it’s freakishly huge skewer of meat, you better bring a man’s appetite.”
The meat comes out dangling on a steel skewer, dripping it’s juices onto a plate of fries like a pendulum. The pork had been sourced from the owner/chef’s friend, who has a farm in a nearby village. The pork is perfectly cooked, tender, deep pink on the inside, and profoundly juicy. I downed half the skewer without blunting my appetite and ordered a delicious red to accompany it. (Valdubón is great with meat, and excellent quality for price (~€6-10/bottle in stores))
Everything about the meal was perfect. Janet and I chatted and she recommended an itinerary North through Spain, hitting the less touristy places like Salamanca, Merida, and Oviedo. Between bites, I reflected on the serendipity of the tapa meal that brought me to Aracena, and wondered what sort of adventures would lead from this conversation.
Janet told me how the owner/chef was a young widower, and had dedicated himself to bringing people happiness through food. It seemed to be working.((c.f. Como Agua para Chocolate for similar Spanish magic realism, tragic romance, and delicious food)).
After a desert of flan, espresso, and limoncello, I gave the cook my sincerest thanks and walked out feeling not bloated, but rejuvenated– like I just had a good massage.
There was no way I’d be able to top that culinary experience in even ten more jamón tastings, so I walked through the village and up to the castle. In a further stroke of luck, Aracena’s annual Ham Festival was happening that day, and sounds of merriment and chewing rose above the town.
I walked through the church gate and to check out the structure.
A crowd of Spanish tourists in their 60s was piling into a fake train to take them back down the hill. I’ll never be a fan of group tours- but at least they’re getting out. I feel like it diminishes my individuality, and I feel like I can always do better on my own.
I had the church all to myself. I was still pleasantly buzzed from all the wine and feeling generous, so I dropped a 0.20 cent coin in a donation box and lit a votive candle, upon which a secret door to the caverns below did not open, disappointingly.
I hurried downhill to the town to catch my bus- but not before I scored some top-notch jamón Ibérico from La Joya de Jamón (the Jewel of Ham) in a vacuum-sealed packet. On my way to the bus I popped into a restaurant because I saw some Michelin stars on the door and impulsively ordered a plate of their finest 100% pure-bred, acorn-fed jamón Ibérico belota for €10. I was a little unnerved how my experience at the Museum of Ham had turned me into such a racial purist, but there’s no arguing with taste.
I grabbed the check and hustled to catch the last bus back to Sevilla.