Monday, May 20, 2013

Spain's southern coast

 I'm not going to continue where I left off because Sasha wants to tell you about Merida and El Rocio and national park Doñana.  So instead, I'm skipping ahead to the Friday evening of our trip, when we hit the coast near Tarifa and saw Africa.  I don't have pictures that does it justice, but the part of Morocco that you can see from Spain is mountainous, and in the evening light with just a touch of mist rising off the Atlantic, the views were pretty awesome.  At first as we were driving in, I told Sasha "I think that those hills/mountains are in Africa" and he didn't believe me.  But I became quite convinced that I was right when I saw a huge cargo ship between those hills and where we were driving, and ultimately Sasha had to admit that was convincing.  After checking into our hotel, we decided that the hotel restaurant food smelled yummy and rather than driving to find a restaurant in town, sat on the hotel patio watching the sun set over the Atlantic. I promise I'll post again later about all the food, but if I talk about the cool stuff we saw and the food at the same time, it will be way too long.
Where do these belong??

Saturday was another busy day.  It was warm and sunny, and we were torn between spending the morning on the beach or looking at Roman ruins, but luckily didn't have to choose, because there are Roman ruins right by a lovely beach in the town of Bolonia. Bolonia is a small town just west of Tarifa on the Atlantic coast of Spain, and although now it is a small tourist/farming/etc. village, it was quite the city back in the days of the Roman empire and was the place to go for salted fish (the town was called Baelo Claudia, in the Latin).  Since the Roman empire's days are rather old history at this point, the town is pretty much just a set of foundations and some columns and a theater that have, I'm sure, all been largely reconstructed.  I liked the pile of carefully numbered stones a short ways away from the excavated foundations.  It was like the archaeologists said "hhmmm...I don't know where these go, so let's just leave them over here for later".  It was also clear that plenty of the roman city is still buried under the grass; there were tantalizing stones poking out here and there.  Still, it is cool seeing things that old. 
Roman ruins and beach.  Sorry to make you jealous.

And, we got to look at them on a nice, warm day on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean.  OK, so this picture is a little deceiving in that you can't walk onto the beach from the ruins; there were some fences, a small road, etc. But still, the ocean was right there. 

We were quite clever actually, and toured the ruins first thing in the morning (by Spanish standards) and we almost had the place to ourselves.  As we had our fill and were headed to the beach, we saw a bunch of tour buses arrive, so we left just in time.

We had an hour or so on the beach (enough to be warm and happy but not enough for either of us pale Northerners to burn) and then we went back to shower and go meet my labmate Nuria, who was visiting her family for a long weekend.  It was fun to hang out with a local, and after meeting her family and seeing their house, we went with Nuria and her boyfriend Marek to the nearby town of Castellar de la Frontera. 

Castellar de la Frontera
Castellar is a cool fortress of a town perched high on a hill.  I little while ago, they built a "new" Castellar down in the valley with more comfortable looking homes, schools, etc. so the upper walled town seems to be more the haunt of non-Spanish ex-pats and is full of hotels and the like, but the town is also a bit off the beaten track, so it didn't really have that tourist town feel. Although there was a donkey giving rides to kids having a birthday party at one of the hotels, and there was a guy with raptors that you could pay to hold...needless to say, we did pay and did hold them.

We wandered around, stopped for drinks in a small cafe, and, since it is so high on a hill, tons of raptors were migrating right over our heads, making my husband happy.

Nuria and Marek at Castellar
White houses in the old town.

We headed down to the new town for a tapas dinner.  Since Nuria likes food as much as me, you can believe it was a good dinner!

We went back to our hotel near Tarifa, and Sunday morning, stopped briefly in Tarifa before heading on.  I was set on getting to the point closest to Africa, but alas, there is this island/peninsula south of Tarifa that looked tantalizingly cool but is partly a military installation or something, so was off limits.  So I had to content myself with the map instead. 

At least it was cool to be on this strip of beach separating the Meditarranean from the Atlantic.  We have pictures by the signs for each, but I'll spare you.  Alas, it was windy and cloudy and hazy, so we couldn't even get a good final view of Africa.  We did see a guy doing some cool stunts while kite surfing, though.

For the rest of the day, we decided to check out Gibraltar.  It was kind of a last minute addition to our itinerary, but it proved irresistible.  Now, you may have heard of the rock of Gibraltar and maybe you are like me and were picturing, I dunno, something like Plymouth rock on a hilly coast.  Not so. Gibraltar is one giant rock with a small bit of town crouching on a strip of beach. Unfortunately, the clouds and fog made it sub-optimal for photographing and for birding (Sasha was hoping to see more migrating raptors) but Gibraltar was cool nonetheless.
The Rock of Gibraltar through the fog.
That's a lot of town crowded into a very small area; I guess a lot of it is even on "reclaimed" land.
Gibraltar is still a British colony, so we had to go through a manned border crossing to get in.  It was pretty prefunctory, though; we just sort of waved our passports at the guards and they waved us through, although that was definitely a blessing given the long line of cars waiting to drive in.  I think there are all sorts of cute Britishy things to do in the town, but we didn't do more than quickly drive through the town to get up onto the rock.  Now here is a moment where what we did and what we should have done diverged.  If you go to Gibraltar and want to wander around seeing all the cool things up on the rock, take the cable car up or figure out how to hike up.  DO NOT  try to drive into the upper rock nature reserve, even if your bird finding guide seems to suggest this is a good idea.  Especially not if your wife is prone to carsickness and your rental car is somewhat lacking in the pick-up department, since you will inevitably need to start your car while it is parked on an exceptionally narrow road on an exceptionally steep hill.  After stop number 2 (a cool if curiously techinicoloredly illuminated cave; stop number one was a closed birding station), I decided that it would be best for all involved if I walked to the next sights on the list and met Sasha there...but that's skipping over the myriad reasons to go up to the upper rock nature reserve. Besides the cool caves, that is.
 Monkeys doing monkey things (or posing for the tourists)

First, there are monkeys. Monkeys are cute; maybe not quite as cute as sheep, but still. Monkeys are not native to Spain (or Gibraltar) but someone decided that Gibraltar needed monkeys and introduced them in the 18th century, and it's clear that they are well loved by the people, as I saw several monkey play stations complete with piles of monkey food (cabbage, potatoes and wedges of various fruits) while hiking about.  It is also clear that they have sharp teeth and nails, so I tried not to get too close, although that can be a bit hard given how narrow the trails are and how much the monkeys like said trails.

Next, there are tunnels.  2 parts of the tunnels are open for tours, some from the "Great Siege" and some from WWII, but the information said that there are 34 miles of tunnels in the rock.  It even said that in WWII, they weren't just for shooting out of, but there was enough space carved out of the rock to house thousands or 10s of thousands of troups for a year.  That's a bit crazy to think about.  We toured the Great Siege tunnel, which was cool, but alas, most of the tunnels are off limits.  We did happen upon all sorts of proof of the military history of the rock, though; giant chains and rings for hoisting heavy things about, structures that looked like ventilation for those tunnels, even this awesome lookout post near the high-point.
Sasha being a look-out.  I don't think he was very effective with all the fog.
 It is clear that parts of the Rock still are used by the military; I know I couldn't pass up the possibilities that all those tunnels offer, not to mention the strategic location, so it's not surprising.  Needless to say, we didn't poke around too much in these areas.

Sasha can tell you some car stories that I missed by walking, one involving a nice Columbian who knew how to unpark a car pointed up a steep hill when one of the tires is off the road...but I'll let him tell you the details.
After touring the siege tunnels (which were cool, even if the mannequins loading cannons and the talking signs were a bit odd) we needed to press on, so we didn't even get so much as a cuppa tea in Gibraltar, and I had so been looking forward to a proper cup of tea.  Alas.  At least I was able to drink a satisfying amount of mint tea that evening once we had reached Grenada, but it is late, so I will save our last two days in Spain (Grenada and Madrid) for another post.

Sunset over the Atlantic, Matalascana

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Spain, part 1

Hello friends!

We're back from Spain and it was really a great vacation.  We crammed a lot into a week, so perhaps it wasn't the most restful trip, but on the other hand, looking back, there's nothing I wish we'd let out, so I guess we did it right.

We flew into Madrid two Tuesdays ago, rented a car and headed straight out of town.  Our first stop was the town of Trujillo (for those of you not so up on Spanish pronunciation, it's "true-hee-yo"), a small town in the Extremadura region.  Although our guidebook says that Trujillo has a population just under 10,000, it makes up for the quiet feel by being an old city.  It still has its city walls, and the oldest part of the city within the walls is full of churches and homes and such from medieval Spain.  The city was the home of conquistador Francisco Pizarro, and so apparently the town became much richer after he brought back plundered American wealth and a number of churches, etc. were built after his time in Trujillo.  There are carvings and statues of him in the main square, which is cool I guess, but current historical interpretations being what they are, we felt it a bit odd to be commemorating a hero responsible for such wholesale slaughter. 

A view of Trujillo from a church tower.
  By the time we parked and checked into the hotel, it was pretty late, but luckily everything operates on Spanish time, and we were still able to pop into one church and one castle.  And by castle I mean the walls of a 10th century Islamic fortress, called an Alcazaba (a generic name for this sort of Moorish castle; we saw several Alcazabas during our week in Spain, and to be honest, they were pretty similar.  Although I guess in all fairness, it's not surprising that only the walls are left after 1000 years).
Trujillo's Alcazaba, towering over the town
 We got to the Alcazaba 15 minutes before it closed and were given a very clear warning by the gatekeeper that if we weren't in sight at 8, she would have to close up anyway, and since the gate was very large and very metal, and the walls were very high and not so good for scaling down, we were very careful to not get too distracted. But it still was fun to wander around the battlements and the views of the surrounding area were great.  We also enjoyed puzzling over all the random signs of the place's long history; the statue of Mary in the tower's window, the inscriptions in the stones fixed here and there on the walls, so many little details to admire.

Greek? Latin? Ancient Spanish? We couldn't tell, but wondered what this stone could tell us if it could talk (or we could read its inscription)
After leaving the Alcazaba, we wandered aimlessly through the lovely ancient streets, admiring all sorts of things before making our way back to the Pizarro statue and the Plaza Mayor for our first Spanish dinner, which was honestly a bit disappointing. But, we sat outside in a large plaza in Spain watching the storks nesting on top of 500+ year old buildings, which was really great.
Storks nesting on the church roof near the Plaza Mayor
 The next morning, Sasha got up early in an attempt to see Bustards (big brown birds that are exciting both for their size and the fact that the males turn their feathers all about during courtship in a move referred to quite excitingly as a foam bath) but alas, he saw no bustards, foam bathing or otherwise.  He then returned for our first disappointing Spanish hotel breakfast (fruit, packaged pastries and toast with cold tomato smoosh) after which we hit the road for our next stop, the National Park Monfragüe. To be honest, this park was one of the major reasons we flew into Madrid and not somewhere further south, because all of Sasha's books say that Monfragüe is one of the best birding spots in Spain if not Europe and, low-key birder that I am, I actually am rather inclined to agree.  

Before the trip, I had envisioned Spain as being rather flat.  Sure, I had heard of the Sierra Nevadas and the Pyranees, but I assumed that they were the exception rather than the rule, and had pictured terrain more like the Dakotas.  Silly me.  Spain is hilly, even the flatter farmier parts (at least of the parts we visited).  The terrain reminded me much more of Utah or the foothills of Colorado, although in many ways it very clearly was not like anywhere in the States.  We saw multiple spots with snow-capped mountains, even in May.  While they aren't tremendously high, Spain does have a pretty warm climate, so I wasn't expecting to see snow at all.
Now, we didn't go into any real mountains and didn't touch any snow, but the terrain of Monfragüe was still impressive.  The park is basically the land around a river valley, and the river cuts through rocky cliffs, which are gorgeous in their own right.  Add to it very large birds nesting on those cliffs and it becomes national park material. 
Cliffs and river
 Full disclosure: those very large birds that the park is famous for are vultures.  We saw three different species of vulture at Monfragüe.  Sasha's going to post later to tell you all about the birds, so I won't tell you too much about them, but mostly we saw Griffon Vultures, and I never realized how huge vultures could be.  I will admit that I didn't expect to be excited by a bunch of carrion-feeders. I was surprised. Even with their odd bald heads, wheeling about in the sunlight, these guys are majestic and quite impressive.  The place was crawling with birders, too, making my husband feel quite at home.

People watching vultures

My husband watching vultures
I'm sorry we couldn't help you, fox, but you were very pretty.

 At Monfragüe, we also saw our largest wild mammals of the trip, a deer and a very sad looking fox that might have been hit by a car (it was alive, but didn't move off the road even when Sasha honked the horn).

We spent the day driving around looking at birds, and then to take a break, we hiked up a ridge to another Islamic castle to look at more birds.  Standing on the top of a castle tower on top of a ridge with vultures soaring right overhead was definitely a high-point of the trip.  Oh but who am I kidding, this trip had so many high-points it was like a mountain range.
Eventually, we decided it was time to head on, so we drove down to spend a night in Merida before heading to the coast.  Sasha will fill you in on the next part of our adventure when he gets a chance.