Arrival: Negombo

We were awoken for breakfast, perhaps a little early, with about three hours still to run. I could not resist choosing the supposedly traditional Sri Lankan breakfast of tuna curry, though I simply cannot remember the name of the dish. To be frank, I wasn’t thunderously impressed but perhaps I wasn’t yet hungry enough. A spicy curry for breakfast shows a certain style, though.

After the remaining three hours and an addictively comfortable flight, at 13:00 local time [5½ hours ahead of the UK, BTW] our Sri Lankan Airbus A330 squeaked down onto terra firma at Bandaranaike International Airport, Colombo. We’d arrived. Our electronically applied for 30-day visas got us through immigration quickly, our priority-tagged bags appeared quickly, too, and we were soon walking past a surreal collection of shops selling not only the expected booze and perfumery but also an assortment of cooking pots and, believe it or not, washing machines. “I’ll just pick up a new washing machine on my way back through the airport, sweetheart”. Hmmm? Somewhat slack-jawed, we were soon introducing ourselves to our Explore! guide waiting just outside the arrivals area.

You can’t buy Sri Lankan Rupees back home so it is necessary to get them on arrival. It’s also necessary to change back any remaining Rupees upon departure. We left our bags and brand-spanking-new washing machine in the care of our guide, Sam, while we went to launder some money at one of the many exchange desks. [Couldn’t we have done that in our new washing machine?] There were 224 Rupees to the Pound Sterling so the numbers on the dosh they throw at you are pretty large. Our biggest 5000/- [the Rupee sign is just the same as we used for old pre-decimal shillings with no pence] note is roughly £22 so I thought of them as £25. Our smallest note was 20/- which is like 10p and useful mostly for toilet stops. There are coins, too, which we were told even beggars don’t want.

Companions for the 12-day trip soon began joining us. That didn’t take long, though, there being just another three, one of which was an Explore! employee and Sam’s boss. There was also our attendant professional travel photographer, Renato, so we had three chiefs and four braves.

Our guide, Sam, was accompanied by a modest 20-odd seat coach complete with driver, Hector, and assistant, Samith [silent “h”, we think] who looked after our comfort aboard, including supplying us with cold water. In 30°C and high humidity, a very chipper Samith loaded all our bags and assorted washing machines leaving us just to load ourselves, pockets stuffed with our wads of newly acquired cash. The coach’s air conditioning helped abate our perspiring.

Hector drove us a little way north of Colombo to a hotel right on the beach at Negombo for our first overnight stay. We were presented with a traditional refreshing cold towel as we arrived, followed by a welcome fruit drink which was very sweet. Very sweet drinks were to become the norm in Sri Lanka. We were soon correcting the palate with a cold beer. A large bottle (about 1 pint) of local Lion lager cost 390/- [a shade under £2] here. I could cope with that. Palate rebooted, it was time to investigate.

J18_2758 Crow defences, NegomboOur room had an uninterrupted sea view; uninterrupted, that is, except for wires strung vertically across the front of our balcony and, indeed, all along the floors of the hotel. Francine soon realized that these were to stop the many hundreds of crows that inhabited the beach from landing on and fouling the hotel building – simple but apparently effective.

J18_2717 Bringing home the catch, NegomboLocal fishermen were sailing back and forth just off shore in their traditional boats which were outrigger canoes powered by colourful sails. Francine and I went for a somewhat sweaty wander (walking on sand is hard work) along the beach to get a closer look. Eventually I was lucky enough to watch as one crew came ashore with their catch. The 4-man crew saw me taking pictures and offered to take me out, for money, of course, but I tried to explain the concept of sea-sickness. The main man said it was calm. Remembering the way his craft had pitched its way ashore, I mimed puking and suggested this did not meet my definition of calm.

Franco catching crabsJ18_2738 Sand Crab, NegomboThere was a quite sharp shelving off of the sand towards the water’s edge. Along here were countless tiny sand crabs who scurried away down their excavated burrows at the merest hint of danger. With all the predatory crows flying back and forth, I didn’t blame them. Oddly, I didn’t see a single sea gull so that bears investigation. I was captivated by the tiny crabs, mostly struggling to make 2ins/4cms across, including legs. Getting down at eye level, their eyes being up on stalks but only about 1cm above the sand, would be a challenge without getting smothered. I borrowed a beach towel from the hotel and managed it. The sun was westering behind my subject so I used a fill-in flash to brighten he or she – not good at sexing sand crabs – and put a glint in those wonderful eyes.

_19R2545_19R2582Our attendant pro travel photographer organized a sunset shoot starting at 18:00 that evening. Negombo beach faces directly west over the Indian Ocean and, being a mere 5° north of the equator, the sun drops vertically and very quickly below the horizon. Sunset was 18:30. Now, if those photogenic sailing boats had still been out there with the setting sun, the sunset might have made a very appealing picture. However, the wind drops at about 18:00 forcing sail-powered craft back to shore so all one ends up with is sea and sun; not terribly exciting no matter how well Francine photographed it … and she did. It’s pretty enough, though. You can, however, find some foreground interest ashore, even if it is encroaching on the privacy of of a couple lurking around a fishing canoe.

Posted in 2019 Sri Lanka

Flight UL504

We’re off to Sri Lanka on a photographic tour organized by Explore! [That’s not me falling onto the modern habit of over using exclamation marks, that’s part of the company name.] The UL504 Sri Lankan flight time to Colombo is very civilized, taking off from Heathrow at 20:30, so we didn’t have to be at Heathrow until 17:00. I’d pre-booked parking and planned to arrive at 16:00. Mr. Cautious strikes again.

The 10½-hour flight promised to be civilized, too; we’d splashed out on business class seats, doubling the cost of the holiday. There is no guilt about spending the kids’ inheritance when there are no kids.

Our number plate was recognized at the car park entrance barrier and we found a space almost immediately. We clambered on the rather scruffy shuttle bus and were soon checking in at terminal 3. Well, Francine had already checked in online but there’s still bag drop and the clerk issued proper old-style card boarding passes. Good, it makes it feel more like travelling and is quicker than pratting with a mobile phone. We were also presented with entrance invitations to the business class lounge. [Incidentally, I now realize that first class, for the most part, seems to have fallen by the wayside and business class is now it. There are still odd references to first class in the departure area but I don’t know who still does it.]

The lounges are, of course, great, with food and booze laid on. I grabbed a G&T – Bombay Sapphire and Fever Tree so top marks Heathrow – and settled down at a window seat to watch the planes. [I know, some folks never grow up.] Then the modern business world began to encroach. Listening to one end of several mobile phone conversations held in public is bad enough but having to listen to both ends of a bloody FaceTime video call undertaken in public takes the irritation to a new level. Two guys, one sitting either side of us at the same window, both fired up bloody-Face-bloody-Time. The whole mobile phone culture has made everyone but me, apparently, completely unashamed and unabashed about holding personal conversations in public. I pine for the days of telephone booths when private conversations were just that, private. To be fair to the chap on our right, he eventually did plug in headphones so that we were left with just one side of the conversation. Planes didn’t trump peace, though, so we moved seats to get mostly out of earshot and grabbed another couple of glasses of reality correction fluid.

Boarding was punctual and we were soon familiarizing ourselves with the controls of the posh-class seat. I knew these seats went completely flat – we’ve walked passed them enviously often enough – but at 6’ 1”/1.85m, I thought I may have trouble getting completely flat. Not a bit of it; I’d say the seat went totally flat with sufficient room for someone 6’ 3”/1.87m. This cabin is 1-2-1 rather than the 2-3-2 or even 3-4-3 that we’re used to and the clever arrangement of the seats affords reasonable privacy from fellow travellers. The Sri Lankan stewardesses were a delight and, after another little help from a straight Absolut vodka as an aperitif followed by wine with dinner, I settled down for the overnight flight.

This was the first time I’d slept on a long haul flight since Pan Am was going down the toilet many years ago, their flights being so underutilized that I benefitted from three seats to myself in my more familiar tourist class. This seat was a lot more comfortable than three individual buckets with the intervening arm rests raised, though. Travelling like this could become habit-forming.

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Posted in 2019 Sri Lanka

Delayed Sailing

We awoke to our last shitty day in paradise. The sky was a brilliant blue though not, it has to be said, crystal clear in that there were a few wisps of very thin high altitude cloud adding a bit of variation. We would be heading once again for the Cap Finistère, the Brittany Ferry which had delivered us to Bilbao almost three months ago. There was no rush; today’s sailing was 20:30 so last check-in would be 19:00. A direct run up the autopista would take less than six hours with comfort breaks so we had time to kill. Francine decided we should kill it by investigating a couple of Rioja wine region villages en route, particularly the one containing the Marques de Riscal Hotel designed by Frank Gehry with its external coloured ribbons fashioned in titanium.

I was happy with that plan, being Mr. Cautious when it comes to travel – only 90 minutes from Bilbao, it would get the bulk of our journey over before any dilly-dallying took place. We breakfasted, paid handsomely but contentedly, and set off up the autopista heading for our first landmark, Zaragoza.

My phone binged as I was driving. I’ve just ordered an adapter to use my Canon lenses one my new Olympus camera body. I’d had one text message concerning delivery (Monday back in England) and idly wondered if this was another. We negotiated the roads round Zaragoza without a hitch and pulled in to the next services for a comfort break and coffee. I suddenly remembered my message.  It was from Brittany Ferries and my eyes caught the “ … delayed due to bad weather … last check-in now 20:15.” bits. “Humble apologies.” Bad weather? We looked at the continuing beautifully blue skies surrounding us. Something unpleasant in that darned English Channel, perhaps. Please don’t tell us we’re in for another roller-coaster ride up the Bay of Biscay, like last year. We had an additional two hours to kill.

Our first chosen time-waste was a walled village called Laguardia. Diving off the autopista we followed the signs along quiet twisting roads and approached town. A sign pointed to a parking area. We followed. The parking area was full. All the surrounding roads [few] were also full. I spotted a familiar-looking car which was clearly circling, looking optimistically for a parking spot. Clearly the approach roads had been quiet because all the cars were here already. I drove to a different part of town, eventually finding a single space beside the road at the bottom of the lift into town. Yes, in common with Teruel, some of these fortified towns built on high outcrops as a defence now have lifts to save modern Homo sapiens the effort of walking up too many steps.

View from LaguardiaGiven all those cars, the town itself was naturally absolutely heaving with Spanish tourists, most of whom were now looking for a drink or three and lunch. Of course: a sunny Saturday and all the locals are out looking for weekend diversions. Having pulled off the miracle of parking, neither of us particularly wanted to be there now, certainly not for a crushed lunch. We paused for Francine to snag a decent view of mountains with a road snaking towards them, descended the lift and hillside then un-parked our car to find a pleasant tapas lunch at a much quieter table in a nearby non-touristic village of less note. Much better.

ElciegoMarques de Riscal HotelThe mass of humanity at Laguardia had made us doubtful about visiting Francine’s second time-wasting target, Elciego, in search of the Marques de Riscal Hotel architectural art form. We still needed to kill more time, though, so we went for it. Heck, we had to do something. Elciego was actually rather quiet, perhaps because one cannot get anywhere near the arty-farty hotel past the security guards unless one is booked in. Being an ultra-modern construction more or less dumped on the edge of a more traditionally built village/town, as arty as it might be, to our minds it jars somewhat. Even finding an advantageous observation point proved difficult. With a stroke of luck we did end up on a series of heart-in-mouth farm tracks between some of the surrounding vineyards which did, eventually, breast a hill and afford us something of a view; good enough for a snap, anyway. There’s as good a close up as we could get, too. Pretentious or what?

We’d almost done it – burned up our spare time, that is. We embarked upon the last 90-ish minute stretch to Bilbao taking a few slow roads through another village or two. Finally back on the autopista and with a little time still in hand, we called at the final services for a reviving cup of green tea.

Approaching the ferry port, we began to leave most of Bilbao’s traffic behind. We cruised up to an apparently closed port barrier at about 19:30. Curious. A man appeared and asked if we wanted the ferry tomorrow. “No, today”, we replied. He let us in. Also curious. The place was utterly deserted: no boat, no cars, no people and hardly any light. Deep sinking feelings overcame us. We consulted my message again. My eyes had completely missed the fact that the departure point was, and always had been, Santander. OMG! We were supposed to be going to friggin’ Santander not friggin’ Bilbao. What a complete idiot. I’d booked the sailings about eight months ago and had completely forgotten that I’d picked a different departure point, just because the sailing time suited us. It was the same boat both ways but operating through different ferry ports.

Given our ill-conceived pratting about, by the time we’d realised my embarrassing mistake, exited the wrong port and given Francine time to reprogram the satnav for the correct ferry port of Santander, it was 19:45. It’s a good 45-minute drive to Santander from Bilbao even on a good day; we’d be 15 minutes late for last check-in. Mr. Cautious normally arrives an hour before it’s necessary. Why had I deviated from my norm this time? Where were all those precious minutes that we had casually and intentionally frittered away now that we needed them? Time thieves.

It felt like Mission Impossible but we had to give it a go. The alternative would probably mean driving up through France to get a cross Channel ferry. Francine tried phoning Brittany Ferries, explaining that we’d had a problem [lack of brain] and they said the best they could do would be to add a note on our booking saying we were in transit but late. Francine told them we should be there at 20:30, 15-minutes after the gates closed. It was, of course, now pitch black. I drove as if I was doing Meat Loaf impressions; normally 10-clicks below the limit I was now 5-clicks over – well, all speedos over read to some extent, anyway. I followed locals who seemed to find this speed normal. I didn’t. We shaved a good three minutes off our estimated arrival time. Big deal – that shows you how much good speeding is, doesn’t it?

With one mile to go to the correct port of Santander, the traffic totally seized up; three lanes of solid traffic jam moving only sporadically. ¿Que? It’s 20:30, mas o menos, and Santander is now heaving. Saturday evening frivolities, we presumed. Eventually we edged forward enough and could see the ferry approach road ahead but were still powerless to get to it any faster than the crawling traffic conditions would allow. Eventually, after a bit more crawling, I managed to squeeze through a gap between the kerb and the car in front and shot down the approach road. The port entrance barrier was down but a nice man appeared and let us through saying, “Cap Finistère? Go left”. We went left and found the check-in gates also with “closed” barriers across them. In one booth, though, there were some lights still on and a warm body. A second helpful man opened one barrier for us. I thanked him profusely. Shortly an angelic apparition bent down to my driver’s window, smiled and took our documentation as we again poured out profuse apologies for being late. She disappeared for what seemed like five minutes. Eventually Ms. Delicious returned with our boarding card and cabin keys.

I asked her to marry me.

Well, OK, I didn’t really. I did tell her she was a life-saver, though. We breathed collected sighs of relief, began hallucinating about the vodka I’d bought in Teruel yesterday [must’ve been a premonition], then joined the boarding queues which, of course, were still there and didn’t make any progress for many more minutes. Finally we felt relaxed enough to joke about being 15 minutes late for Brexit.

What an absolute plonker; the dangers of booking asymmetric travel plans then leaving your brain out of gear and not reading everything properly. My mind had not even considered a different departure port, despite having intentionally booked it.

When we finally boarded, I fully expected an announcement saying “welcome aboard this sailing to Plymouth”.

Posted in 2018-2019 Winter

Teruel and Albarracin

Since making visits to Spain by car, part of our route usually includes a stretch between Zaragoza, Teruel and Sagunto on the Mediterranean coast above Valencia. The road in question is the A-23 known as the Autovia Mudéjar. Now we were staying at the Parador in Teruel and that Mudéjar word kept cropping up elsewhere. Teruel is rich with Mudéjar architecture.

I quite like watching historical dramas just for the spectacle but not possessing an historical or political astute mind, I normally end up mightily confused after about five minutes. Such was the case with Mudéjar and it took a while before Francine could hammer it into my skull. I think I’ve got it now.

_19R2259Some time ago, as in the 7th century AD, Spain was conquered by the Moors. The Christians were a bit peeved and set about reconquering Spain themselves, though it seems to have taken a while for them to get their act together. For example, Alfonso II conquered Teruel in 1171 [it says here]. It looks as if Brexit may drag on in similar fashion. Anyway, the Mudéjars were apparently those Moorish folks remaining after the reconquest who did not convert to Christianity. Being skilful chaps, what they did do was build a lot of attractive towers and assorted other piles of stones.

_19R2340There are piles of old stones in Teruel which aren’t Mudéjar, though not quite so old. One such pile is an impressive-looking aqueduct, the Los Arcos aqueduct dating from 1538 [it says here, again]. If you get the angle right you can catch the dome of the cathedral (Mudéjar style – there we go again) framed by one of the aqueduct’s arches. Of course, the modern world being what it is, you’ll also catch a couple of unsightly construction cranes towering above the whole lot but they can be Photoshopped out afterwards.

The other thing that Teruel is famous for is the story of Los Amantes [The Lovers]. In the days of yore, a son and daughter of two important and wealthy families were in love as childhood playmates. However, by the time they were old enough to enjoy an active sex life be married, the chap’s family slipped up and was no longer wealthy enough so the girl’s family forbade the marriage. Cor, gold-diggers in those days, eh? Anyway, young recently impoverished stud popped off for five years to try and make his fortune while his main squeeze came of age so he could finally get his leg over win the bride. Unfortunately, he wasn’t heard from in those five years and squeeze’s daddy, who was impatient and had been counting, married his daughter off to another rich dude eligible bachelor as soon as the 5-year alarm clock ticked down and went off. Right after the wedding, so the story goes, our tragic hero pitched up at the city gates bearing untold riches. A bit late, mate. Having lost his bride by a matter of hours, he dutifully dies of a broken heart. At his funeral, she comes out in sympathy and pops her clogs, too. Curtain. Applause.

This story sounds like a Romeo and Juliet star-crossed lovers rip-off to me. Wait a moment though, this was supposed to have happened in the 13th century; it must’ve been Shakespeare who ripped this off. Crumbs.

_19R2297_19R2310So, this story is made much of in Teruel where there is a mausoleum to Los Amantes tucked away in a narrow alley. With access only through the mausoleum is an attached, attractively decorated church, so Francine coughed up the entrance fee for a visit and some photographic games while I went to buy a bottle of voddie and have a relaxing coffee watching the Teruelian world wander by. [I doubt that’s a word but it should be – I couldn’t find a word for inhabitant of Teruel.]

Albarracin WallI was personally more taken by the piles of old stones at Albarracin, which is where we went in the afternoon. It’s about 35kms from Teruel and it is the first time I’ve seen old, attractive stone architecture in Spain of the sort frequently encountered in old French villages. Spanish architecture so often seems flat and slab-like by comparison. Albarracin is built on on a high outcrop protected on three sides by a severe bend of the Guadalavier river. The remaining side is/was protected by an imposing wall overlooking the town. I couldn’t get enough of it and kept clicking away happily.

Albarracin no entryFrancine had grabbed a map from the tourist office and we made our way to Plaza Mayor where, we got the impression, we would find “myriad bars” for a reviver. We found one. Well, we found one that was open and two that were closed. Either way, even three doesn’t constitute myriad in my book. Anyway we dined on albondigas [meatballs] which we washed down with a caña [draught beer] while we soaked up the mediaeval atmosphere. It felt a bit odd staring at a no entry road sign in a maze of streets that didn’t look suitable for motor vehicles at all. Then a local car turned up and proved us wrong.

Here’s a few more shots that will hopefully give more of a flavour of Albarracin.

Albarracin archwayAlbarracin side streetOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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Posted in 2018-2019 Winter

Spanish Twins

Almost three months ago, Brittany Ferries’ Cap Finistère had dropped us off in Bilbao harbour for the beginning of our escape from another desperate British Xmas and whatever the British winter might hold. If I said we’d had grey skies in Spain totalling about two weeks worth, I might be exaggerating. For the rest of the time we’ve enjoyed clear skies. Since our return ferry is an evening departure on Saturday, it would be possible to do it in one hit but it’s nice to take the opportunity to investigate a little more of Spain en route. So now it’s time to start our journey back.

Francine has always wanted to see Teruel and, what is more, it has a Parador and she’s owes me a couple of Paradores. For one reason and another we left booking late so we’re paying full whack. What’s more, we’ve pushed the boat out on a premium room, which should be fun.

We battened down the hatches in Casa Libélule and made a leisurely departure at about 09:00 designed to miss the worst of the Valencian traffic, then dove off piste to make our way across country towards Teruel.

Francine had spotted a couple of curiosities in Spanish tourism book. There are two oddly named villages which, I would think, give rise a good deal of confusion. Whether or not local rivalries are also created, I know not. The villages are:

  1. Rubieles de Mora;
  2. Mora de Rubieles.

If that ain’t confusing, I don’t know what is.

Puente del DiaboloYou may have noticed that the world is full of bridges associated with the Devil. Most of ours have been in France so were called Pont del Diable. On our way to Rubieles de Mora [I think] we came across a Spanish one, the Puente del Diabolo or Puente de Fonseca. Naturally, the devilish name holds more fascination. We spent some time stretching our legs here before continuing to our first village.

Rubieles de Mora churchRubilees de Mora roofsWe found a good parking spot in Rubieles de Mora [I think] and began wandering around the old town on foot. As we were passing the church an old gentleman approached us and led off in complex Spanish of which we followed little. We gathered that he thought we spoke more Spanish than we did and that he wanted us to fork out 2€ each to visit the church and its tower of which he was justly proud. We did so and clambered up the very dark spiral staircase to the belfry for views across the rooftops of Rubieles de Mora [I think].

Rubieles de Mora bullringSomehow we got down the dark staircase safely and continued our walk without broken legs, eventually stumbling across a particularly rustic old village bull ring. I abhor the concept of Spanish bull fighting but this old village ring was a bit of a curiosity.

Our worms were now biting and, the Teruel area being known for its jamon, we found a sunny local bar to sit and partake of some, along with a helping of tortilla de patates, all washed down by a beer or two.

The second village, Mora de Rubieles [I think], proved to be quite dull after our first stop and, other than its name, didn’t seem particularly noteworthy. We had a quick peek but then decided it was time to go and find our Parador at Teruel.

20190315_192157I’m a fan of Paradores, not only because they are decent quality hotels but also because they have restaurants generally serving food with a local slant. We’ve stayed in a number of other Spanish hotels and found ourselves struggling to find somewhere to eat. This may have been in part due to the Spanish habit of eating late. Our ineptitude may also be a contributing factor. We found one restaurant once that didn’t even think about opening until 21:30. At least the Parador restaurant is on site, requiring no return walk, and opens at 20:30.

20190315_192101Our premium room proved to be more like a small suite with a separate sitting area. It was on the end of the hotel with three separate doors giving out onto a private balcony facing the westering late afternoon sun. It was just the place for a reviving drink or two to unwind before dinner.


Posted in 2018-2019 Winter

An Early Start

No, not for us this time, this is for the dragonflies.

On 2nd March, having checked out the Vall d’Ebo and failed to find any surviving Common Darters (Sympetrum striolatum), we poked our noses into the Marjal de Pego-Oliva. Fairly quickly, Francine spotted a large dragonfly zoom away down the river. From her description, I had to assume the most likely suspect, a Vagrant Emperor (Anax ephippiger). Given favourable conditions, this species can turn up from Africa at almost any time. Indeed, several have been reported from the UK in February and I had spotted one down at the Parque Natural el Hondo recently. Try as we might, we couldn’t find our suspect in the marjal again.

However, on our return wander, another dragonfly, which we both saw this time, flew along the far side of the stream and into the bushes. I couldn’t track it and failed to find that one again, too. I’d had a reasonable look at it, though, and suspected a Clubtail (Gomphus). I know the marsh supports Western Clubtail (Gomphus pulchellus) and, it being Europe’s earliest Gomphid, that was the clearly the most likely suspect.

J19_2432 Newly EmergedOn 4th March, with Francine out with our Monday walking group, I returned to Pego-Oliva to try my luck again. As soon as I arrived, a large dragonfly zoomed down a dead-end arm of the river and flew away. It was not colourful and had to be a Vagrant Emperor again. I wandered, hung around the area we’d seen the Clubtail, wandered again, all without success. I was almost back at the car when I saw the familiar fluttering shiny wings of a teneral dragonfly settle in the bushes immediately to my left. It was intent on drying off and posed brilliantly. It was indeed a softly coloured, recently emerged Western Clubtail.

J19_2440 Booted EagleA park ranger cycled up to me and wondered what I was staring at in the bushes. “Una Libélule”, I explained, in perfect Spanish. He dragged himself and his bicycle closer and scared it away. Professionals, eh? No matter, I’d got my proof. I spotted a Booted Eagle (Hieraaetus pennatus) circling quite close and lower than my recent previous encounters. I managed to snag a half-way reasonable shot of that, too, albeit against a completely featureless sky.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAToday, on 7th March, we both went back to the marsh at Pego-Oliva wondering if we might find a more matured specimen of our Clubtail. What I was never expecting to find, especially as it was a new species to me for this site, was a delightful male Copper Demoiselle (Calopteryx haemorrhoidalis). It was Francine who spotted it in the reed bed on the opposite side of the track to the river. It is, of course, tempting to keep eyes fixed on the water but sometimes it’s wise not to. That put the sun behind the subject so it wasn’t the best of photographic situations but it’s just about recognisable. The book has this species flight season starting in May, so it seemed very early, though the Malaga area in the far south does have records in March. This new find took the site’s species count to 17.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAReturning to the water, I was almost as surprised to see what was obviously a Bluetail (Ischnura) fly into some waterside vegetation. My eyes lost it. we both searched and watched and eventually Francine found it, or another, again. She snapped, then I snapped. What we had is a female Common Bluetail (Ischnura elegans). This is the rufescens colour form. Technically, I think the Iberian Bluetail (Ischnura graellsii) would be possible at this location, this being an area of overlap for the two closely related species, but I’ve never managed to prove it.

So, counting the Vagrant Emperor which is most likely an immigration from Africa, four species in the first week of March. An good early start to the season in Spain, methinks.

Posted in 2018-2019 Winter


[Pronounced “Sha-tee-va”, as near as damn it.]

In search of some entertainment on what was billed to be an essentially cloudy day, we decided to take a run up the road to a town called Xàtiva. It’s a 90km run north-west that would take almost 90 minutes. As we approached Gandia, where we would turn and head inland, our cloud had begun looking more like a sea mist – very odd looking weather conditions in this part of Spain. We arrived at about 11:30 and found a shopping area with plenty of parking space, then took to Shanks’s pony for the short walk into town itself.

Why was I here? Well, largely because Francine said so. Xàtiva has an old town but towering above it atop an imposing hill is an imposing castle, a Borja castle. That name may look more familiar in the English spelling of Borgia, as in Lucrezia Borgia. This and the old town were Francine’s main targets. Well, we had to do something so why not this?

I don’t quite get Spanish towns or, at least, much of the architecture. Most of the buildings look a bit slab-like; rather utilitarian. There was much destruction caused by Franco and the civil war but I doubt that would account for everything. Maybe it’s just the way Spain builds things. Xàtiva was no different but there is an old town area beneath the castle. The old town area seemed even weirder in that much of it seemed abandoned and in a state of disrepair, though there were still businesses – we found a small local bar/restaurant for a coffee.

Xativa - Borgias EpocaXativa - impressionismThe coffee came after Francine had been working her photographic impressionist skills on a sizable abandoned restaurant called the Borgias Época. It had clearly once been a handsome building. It sat on a small square with a couple of trees and benches which seemed to be a pleasant location offering some shade in the summer.  This building’s falling into disuse felt very sad. The trees against the red walls was what had attracted Francine’s attention.

Here’s a couple more examples of shabby chic in the old town that could cause raised eyebrows. Clearly, fish hadn’t been popular, which is unusual for Spain.

Xativa - pescadoXativa fountain

Xativa castleWe made our way up to the castle. There is a tourist road train that would ferry you up and save you the climb up a twisting road with about half a dozen hairpin bends. We, of course, walked, after I declared that I wasn’t going to go up. Actually, I found that for those on foot most of the hairpin bends could be short cut by scrambling up tracks worn straight up the steep-sided hill. For those on foot? Yes, just to make one feel really self-righteous, having clambered up I was faced by free roadside parking at the top. Well done us! As pensionistas [old gits], our entrance fee was a mere 1.25€ each. Still, it is just a pile of old stones. Here’s a view of them.

Descending was much more enjoyable. We got back down to the old town and found a bar/restaurant open in the same square as the abandoned fish shop. There were customers outside, which was a good sign, and a chirpy barkeep inside. A chalk board advertised a 2-course menú del día. We could’ve had paella con habas [paella with beans] followed by calamar a la romana [deep fried squid], with a glass of wine and coffee for a princely 8€ each. How do they do it? I doubt this is why the businesses failed but it makes you think? One glass of wine would cost that [about £7] in the UK. Not wanting that much food at lunchtime, we opted for a couple of tapas instead – boquerones con aceitunas [anchovies with olives] and ensalada rusa [Russian salad]. It cost a little more than the menu but we did have two drinks each.

Posted in 2017-2018 Winter


After being presented with a newspaper cutting suggesting that Giant Orchids (Himantoglossum robertianum) were now in bloom in the Valencia region, we thought we should try to find one, since hitherto we’ve seen only rosettes of leaves on our walks. Francine remembered seeing some in a previous year on a walk around the back of Lliber, a small village in the valley close to Jalón. We were decidedly unsure about the route but set off gamely nonetheless.

Lliber is a sod to drive through, the whole village sitting between a set of traffic lights which frequently get ignored by swarms of regulation-ignoring cyclists (i.e. most of them), but great to park in, especially when you know how to avoid the main street. We abandoned ship beside the vineyards and set off on foot.

_19R1731Vague memories worked and we were soon on the correct walking route out of town. We made a couple more correct guesses following the route before a wrong one that had us back-tracking a short way to correct our minor mistake. I’ve never been a horticulturist but I’ve been put right off large gaudy cultivated blooms by the delightfully delicate, small wild flowers that I’ve seen following Francine’s botanical guidance. We came across several patches of tiny wild daffodils which can only be described as painfully cute. These little chaps are little more than 1cm across.

_19R1737Things looked up on the orchid front as we stumbled across another handful of Dull Ophrys (Ophrys fusca). I still find that common name less than appropriate for such an attractive plant.

JC190226 Himantoglossum robertianumIt was after we’d corrected our wrong turn that the path began looking more like our distant memories of the location for any potential Giant Orchid. As usual, Francine was scanning low down and eventually spotted a rosette of leaves with a flower spike showing, though still more of a bud with no flowers yet formed. As is often the case on the side of a Spanish mountain/hill, there were dry stone bancales forming steps/terracing. Just above where we were initially looking was a more advanced specimen. Lots of clicking ensued.

We included a phone snap to send to our friends that had given us the newspaper cutting that initiated our search.

Posted in 2018-2019 Winter

Incremental Steps

We popped in to Calpe old town for Francine to have a play with her camera. Calpe old town is very hilly and there are several flights of steps. One of these and the most easily arrived at, has risers coloured like the Spanish national flag, orange and yellow. These steps are tricky to photograph, though, firstly because there is nearly always someone on them but also because the sun is frequently high and strong, causing contrast with strong shadows across the steps. As we arrived this time, there was an additional difficulty: The street crossing the base of the steps was being used as the court for what we believe was a game of Valencian Pilota.

_19R1686Many of the walls in the old town sport colourful decoration in paint. We wandered as Francine paused at several of them to see what she could create. Arriving at the square beside the church, a stained glass window held her attention for some time. Being a Sunday, handfuls of worshippers were spilling out of the church but once they had cleared, the window came in for the multiple exposure treatment.

I sat down and started investigating what my new Olympus camera had in the way of multiple exposure capability. Well, it can do it but my, what a pain. You can’t just tell the camera that you want multiple shots in one frame and start clicking. Oh no, you have to go through the menu, select a base image that you’ve already taken and then tell it to overlay the next one you take. If you want more than two, repeat the process again. Agony! Neither are there any interesting blend modes. Canon – set a number of images then click, click, click – definitely has this facility sorted. I won’t be bothering.

JC190166 Straight StepsOur meandering led us to another set of colourful steps. Here is a straight shot from my camera to try and convey the raw material. As a touristy snap, it really doesn’t look very promising. The background above the steps is positively ugly and the higher section has a blasted chromed handrail running down the centre.

_19R1701I spotted the now familiar sideways movement of Francine’s camera as she stood at the bottom of the steps. She’d mounted the variable ND filter to slow the exposure down. Ya can’t just take one shot, of course, you have to blend a couple of shots to get some more interesting colours as Canon’s blending modes step in and mess with them. This is perhaps just about recognisable as steps once you’ve seen the start point.

_19R1700There were more moving clicks but now with an additional wrinkle: a 90° rotation into portrait mode. Hmmm. Now what would result? One has to be prepared to try things and be disappointed, frequently muttering, “well, that didn’t work”, followed by hitting the delete button, even if you wait until you get back to home base. On this occasion, though, Francine seemed delighted with her experimental results.

I’m not surprised, it certainly looks more interesting than the documentary snap of the steps. It may not be suitable material for a travelogue, of course. 😉

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Posted in 2018-2019 Winter

Winter at Hondo

A sunny Saturday seemed like a perfect day to escape Jalon’s rastro [flea market] by visiting the Parque Natural El Hondo just a spit south of Alicante. I was mainly thinking of seeing what birds might be around though, given our recent record-breaking Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) at L’Albarda, I would keep an eye open for any that might have held on at Hondo. Also in the back of my mind were Vagrant Emperors (Anax ephippiger), several of which have recently been reported on the western side of the UK in places such as Cornwall and Anglesey. As the name might imply, given the correct winds, it is a species that can turn up at almost any time of year from Africa.

J19_2362 Northern ShovelerFollowing some leisurely coffee, we began the 90-minute drive at 10:00 arriving at Hondo at 11:30 in time to see a bus load of older folks [Ed: older than you?] leaving. Setting off along the boardwalk, there was a unfamiliar looking duck on the far side of the lake. Fortunately, expecting more distant birds, I’d packed the older camera with the longer lens. Later, we found an information board that identified our friend in several languages, one being English. How considerate; one so often has to work only with the scientific name. This is a Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata).

J19_2391 Black-winged StiltAn altogether more elegant bird provided entertainment next. It took me a while to realize that we’d seen these long legged waders at the lagoon in Calpe in previous years though they seem absent this year. It’s a Black-winged Stilt/Common Stilt (Himantopus himantopus). I shy away from names including “common” so personally I stick to Black-winged Stilt. I spent some time trying to get a shot clear of most reeds and with a reasonable reflection.

J19_2374 Glossy IbisBy now most of the way along the boardwalk, Francine indicated a flight of Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) approaching from behind me. With an older, more familiar camera in my hands, I managed to switch setting fast enough to catch them. We’d met these before at the Marjal de Pego-Oliva. Being black against a bright sky, they are not the easiest of subjects and then I’d failed abysmally. These are much better and show some detail but I have to say they don’t look particularly glossy.

J19_2404 Red-knobbed CootOur final interest in the avian line was very nearly overlooked. I did overlook it, it was Francine who spotted something unusual. There were lots of Coots swimming about. Francine studied a relatively close individual and asked if I’d ever noticed any red above the white shield on a Coot’s head. Well, no, I hadn’t, so I snagged a couple of shots. Our new friend rejoices in the name of Red-knobbed Coot or Crested Coot (Fulica cristata) – naturally I prefer Red-knobbed Coot – and is resident across much of Africa, particularly southern Africa, and southern Spain. We were lucky as regards season because the red knobs are apparently present only in breeding season. At other times it is difficult to distinguish from our more familiar Eurasian Coot (Fulica atra) so we really would have overlooked it. You do have to wonder about some of the folks who coin common names.

We were at the end of the boardwalk watching a few Glossy Ibis foraging in the reeds. They never did move out to give a clear shot. As I turned back to begin wandering back a large dragonfly flew past about half a metre above the water. It had to be a Vagrant Emperor but I didn’t see one again. I did then see a smaller, red-coloured dragonfly flutter into the reeds at some distance and settle. I couldn’t get focus on it, though. Eventually it flew off to a grassy mound where I did mange to get an identification shot. It was a Common Darter, as expected. My latest latest, if you see what I mean.

J19_2417Hawk-eyes Francine was looking down at some nearby reeds and I was surprised when she yelled “damselfly!”. What? Wrong time of year, surely, even in Spain. “What does a Winter Damselfly look like?”, she asked, peering through her lens. I’ve fallen into this trap before, not being present in the UK I forget about the only odonata species in Europe that hibernates over winter as an adult. Actually there are two closely related species but only one in Western Europe, the Common Winter Damselfly (Sympecma fusca). We saw, I think, four individuals including a pair ovipositing, all keeping low down in the more open reeds. Being brown they can be quite difficult to spot in such habitat. I have previously been told there is a colony at a site quite close to Alicante but they were new to me here. One local source has suggested that this may have been the first ever sighting of them at Hondo. If so, that would be quite exciting. What a pity Spanish recording is so poor.

Well spotted Francine.

Posted in 2018-2019 Winter