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Walking to Andalucía: Cañaveral de León's miraculous lagoon

Whenever I tell someone we have a house in Extremadura the next question, almost invariably, is: why there? The answer, in a roundabout way, lies in the village of Cañaveral de León, just over the border in Andalucía.

When we first started coming to this part of Spain back in 2003, we often stayed in the cluster of villages near the town of Aracena, which gives its name to the mountains and natural park of the Sierra de Aracena. Places like Castaño del Robledo, Fuenteheridos and Los Marines.

One hot afternoon we were talking to a guesthouse owner in Castaño who told us, in almost mythical terms, about a village across the mountains. She herself had never been, she said, but apparently instead of a village square it had a magical blue lagoon.

We had three young children at the time, so the next day we set off to find it. In those days the stoney road across the Sierra seemed to wind on forever (on today's tarmacked route it takes about 40 minutes) but eventually we rolled into the hilltop village of Cañaveral de León (population 419).

Right in front of the ayuntamiento (town hall), overlooking the oak-forested valley below, was a huge D-shaped pool in which local families were splashing around. Its interior was dazzling blue, enclosed by chubby, whitewashed walls. Spring water gushed and sparkled into the lagoon from terracotta pots along one side.

We were smitten at first dip and kept coming back. Some summers we rented a house nearby and when we finally decided to buy a place in Spain we agreed it should ideally be within walking distance of Cañaveral de León.

The ayuntamiento, which takes great pride in its unusual asset, is at pains to point out that no es piscina - this is not a swimming pool. It is an historic irrigation facility, or alberca, used since time immemorial to collect water from the village's natural springs during the rainy winter to irrigate the parched fields in summer.

Each July, however, they empty the pool, paint it afresh and refill it with 1.5 million litres of spring water for use as a summer leisure centre. But not this year. This summer, murky shallows lap against its unpainted floor. Its walls are grubby and its fountains dry. It is yet another victim of coronavirus.

The disappointment is compounded because this week should have been Cañaveral's fiesta, one of the region's most exuberant celebrations. Also cancelled. During nine days at the height of the hot weather, villagers go wild in honour of their patron Santa Marina, an early Christian martyr credited with creating miraculous sources of water.

There's a romería, in which they don traditional clothes and walk, drive and ride horses and donkeys to a river a couple of miles outside the village for a picnic fuelled by gallons of rebujito, manzanilla sherry mixed with lemonade.

There's a cattle run through the village's central street, when the locals cling to window railings to avoid the stampede. Hard-as-nails cowboys rock up in town, showing off by performing running somersaults into the lagoon before getting down to the real action. It's the only place I've ever seen someone literally taking a bull - or at least a cow - by the horns.

There's a funfair and all night music and dancing. Sometimes they hold a flamenco fashion show, with a catwalk stretching across the surface of the lagoon. Maybe next year.

Borders are strange things. Although we now live just a couple of kilometres from Cañaveral de León - admittedly up and down a steepish mountain road - our focus points towards Extremadura rather than Andalucía. We are more likely to go shopping in Fregenal de la Sierra and socialising in Fuentes de León to the north than to Aracena and Cañaveral to the south. We were astonished when our extremeño neighbour - about the same age as us - told us he had never swum in the lagoon.

He doesn't know what he has been missing. There is surely no better way to signal the start of summer than to jump into the cool waters of Cañaveral's miraculous laguna.

Main photo by Andy Teare, others by Peter Barron.


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