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

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