A Lazy Day

On Monday we’d joined our walking group to ascend a mountain called El Cau, which overlooks the Jalón valley. It’s a long, more or less continuous climb going up about 525m. There are several false summits – you think you’ve got to the top only to see another peak that was hiding behind the one you just walked up – so it can be a bit frustrating for some. Incidentally, once you get to the true peak, you’re smack on the Greenwich meridian.

The descent begins quite steeply but is mostly down a narrow track lined with very scratchy bushes. Unfortunately one of Francine’s tendons around one knee seemed to take exception to the descent and began grumbling. So today we took it easy to aid recovery – a little stress-free light exercise to keep things moving but not do any further damage.

We chose to go to Altea for a wander on the flat. It was a good decision because it turned out to be 3°C warmer than Jalón and sunnier. It’s a bit too touristy in that most voices overheard are either English or Dutch but I did hear one or two Spanish. The promenade is flat with lots of bar/restaurants that were doing a brisk trade. The most interesting area for us, though is the mouth of the Algar river which runs through some reed beds as it spills out into the Mediterranean.

Chrysanthemum coronarium discolorThere were plenty of flowers on the rough ground beside the reed beds and I was taken with a flower with bi-coloured petals. Francine, of course, spotted a family resemblance and correctly placed it in the chrysanthemum family. I really should learn more about plants. It’s a so-called Crown Daisy (Chrysanthemum coronarium) and this bicolored job (with a slightly badly behaved petal) is known as discolor. At least I’ll remember that one, now.

Purple Swamp-henThat’s the flora interest, now onto the fauna. Francine spotted a large Moorhen-like bird disappearing around some reeds. We waited, discussing sizes relative to a Coot, and eventually it reappeared, not minding that we approached a little closer. It was purple-ish, with red legs and huge red feet and sported a red plate structure above its bill. I remembered seeing something very similar in Australia previously and names featuring “swamp” and “hen” sprang to the fore. Sure enough, this was a Purple Swamp-hen (Porphyrio porphyrio). It is a relative of our familiar Coot and Moorhen.

That’s it. Lazy day over.

Posted in 2018-2019 Winter

Almost Abortive

A quickie, somewhat late to press.

J18_1002 Sky Blue PinkWe embarked on a trip down towards Torrevieja, about 150km south. Torrevieja has an “interesting” reputation, or so we believe, but the draw was two lakes, one of which is pink and the other of which is blue/green. Large quantities of salt are harvested at the pink lake, which is what causes the pink coloration. What we were hoping for was something like this picture, which was taken at what we thought was a similar salt lake at Gruissan in France last year. What we got was a tour around the lake in the car with no sign of any decent access point. Someone knows how to get to it ‘cos there are photographs but how to get to it eluded us.

There is easy access to the blue/green lake but we couldn’t see any wildlife, which would have given a reason to access it. We stuck our nose into a part of Torrevieja and pretty swiftly stuck it straight back out again. Our coastal trip was saved by a pleasant pause at a bar in Guardamar for an interesting tapa of scrambled eggs with morcilla [black pudding], pine nuts and a yoghurt dressing. Francine opted for an avocado and prawn salad.

J19_2350 Booted EagleThe wildlife interest was saved by a sighting above a fuel station that we used for a comfort break as we approached Torrevieja. Three raptors were circling around above and behind the fuel station. They were a bit far away for anything a good shot but I managed one (with the old Canon 7D mk I and 100-400 lens) that was good enough to identify them as Booted Eagles (Hieraaetus pennatus). My old Collins Guide shows central Spain as a breeding ground but the coastal margin, as here, as a migration route back from over-wintering in Africa. So, maybe these were on their way back.

Posted in 2018-2019 Winter

Coming Out of the Doldrums

The winter doldrums, that is. So far this season, the weather in Spain has been terrific, better than last year, so it has been great to escape the British winter. There have always been some butterflies around – more than the flight seasons in the books would have had me believe – and, until very recently I’ve seen Common Darters (Sympetrum striolatum). The latter will soon die out, though, and it will be late March until the new dragonfly season begins in Spain – a similar date to the UK. Nonetheless, even with the handful of critters for entertainment I do have difficulties keeping my spirits up during winter, though the walks in the mountains certainly help.

Today marked something of an upturn, though. We decided to revisit the mountain/hill behind Senija, largely in search of orchids; there’s a patch we know of about half way up. The path up the  lower slopes was strewn with scrub which had been cut from the bushes at the side. There’s been a lot of that on walking routes, recently. Someone suggested that this might be as a fire break but I think not. To create a fire break the cuttings would need to be tidied up. As it had been left, it would now form very effective tinder that any fire would jump across in no time flat. I think it is simply to keep the walking routes open. Still useful, though.

Unfortunately, as we approached our known orchid patch the sound of a petrol-driven brushwood cutter became louder. Sure enough a workman was slashing the bushes right where the orchids are and litter was falling over the side of the track that would be home to the patch. More worryingly, his boots were necessarily treading the same ground in order for him to get close enough to the bushes he was targeting. “Bother!”, said Pooh, very crossly, and continued.

The top of the mountain was equally a shock. Here, many bushes had been scythed to the ground. Our jaws dropped. Fortunately not everything had been cut and there were still some bushes for the butterflies. Butterflies, of course, can fly away and escape whereas orchids are rather rooted to the spot and their fate.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy spirits lifted when I spotted a Swallowtail (Papilio machaon) zoom by. I spotted a second. They were tending to settle on the rock-strewn ground but eventually I did catch one on a bush and on the right side of the light. ground shots are a last resort but now I was happy with what I’d got. The spring species had started.

_19R1366I heard a little yelp and turned to see Francine with her camera pointed downwards. She’d found a consolation prize Dull Ophrys (Ophrys fusca). It looked a rather lonely specimen, slightly nibbled, but was better than nothing given our disappointment on the way up. We probably wouldn’t have seen it had some of the scrub not been cut.

There was quite a bit of butterfly activity in the sunshine on the hilltop. The usual winter specimen of Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera) was still there but it had been joined by Some fresh looking Red Admirals (Vanessa atalanta)  and I also spotted a Marbled White (Melanargia galathea) flutter by.

Lang's Short-tailed BlueThroughout winter on our mountain walks I’ve been seeing many specimens of the charming little Lang’s Short-tailed Blue (). They were here agian but the m=numbers seemed greater and the activity levels certainly seemed higher. For once, it took me a while to snag a (bad) picture of the underside to confirm the species but oddly I did get a good shot of a topside, which is usually the more tricky subject.

The scrub cutter had gone when we made our way back down and Francine was able to get a better look at the orchid ground. There was certainly a lot a tinder around from the scrub cutting but she did find some rosettes, at least one showing a central spike shooting, so hopefully the orchids will have survived the onslaught.

The French are good at mowing down verges that are home to orchids. Sympathetic habitat management is a tricky subject.

Posted in 2018-2019 Winter

Roadflock Ahead

On an earlier trip up the mountain road to the Bernia basecamp, we’d spotted a rough track through some almond trees that created an avenue of sorts. Being a mountain road it’s narrow, i.e. almost wide enough for two vehicles, with frequent blind hairpin bends so parking safely is tricky. Now that the almond blossom was peaking on some trees, though, Francine was keen to have a go. That is, she was keen to have a go at the almond blossom and keen for me to have a go at parking safely.

On our way up we past a threesome taking pictures of each other in an almond orchard. I’d noticed some folks on our almond blossom walk posing family members in the trees for a photo. Find some attractive blossom, then spoil it by draping an arm casually from a bough. Curious.

We were surprised to note that some almond trees were now coming into leaf and showing a green flush. This constitutes “gone over” in almond blossom photographers’ speak.

Almond Avenue croppedWe did find our avenue again. I managed to find a relatively straight stretch of road to drop Francine off safely with her camera. Furthermore, a little further up I found a track in which I could park the car safely while I wandered back to observe. As I observed, a chap on a mountain bike paused for a rest, a leg-stretch and a natter. His wife was apparently behind on an e-bike. He had a conventional bike using leg power. His wife was behind because she was stopping at every almond tree en route. Eventually he remounted and continued. I suggested he try to find some e-legs.

His wife turned up on her e-bike and, of course, stopped at our avenue for yet more almond blossom pictures. We had another natter. This was about midday. She mentioned going up to do the walk around the Bernia. It would take them at least another 30 minutes to get up to basecamp. A bit late to start the walk, we thought, but it wasn’t our day to watch them. Eventually she spun her electrically assisted pedals and continued.

_19R1282_19R1283The trip back down was much more exciting from my point of view. There are a couple of single track bridges, edged with concrete blocks, on bends with restricted visibility. Traffic priority is noted by suitable road signs. Generally, traffic descending has to give way to traffic coming up the mountain. In our case it was certainly necessary to give way to a flock of about 100+ sheep led by a determined sheepdog and shepherd. I pulled over as far to the side of the road as I could without scraping the car against the rocks and we sat waiting to be flocked. A handful of the sheep still managed to squeeze themselves between our car and the rocks. Happily they all kept their horns to themselves, too.

Posted in 2017-2018 Winter

Almond Blossom Festival

Today would have been my mother’s 101st birthday. I’m not given to noting birthdays of the deceased but I couldn’t help but think about mother’s today. She absolutely hated having her birthday in February because it’s usually the worst month for weather in the UK. She wanted to follow the example set by the Queen and have an official birthday at a more pleasant time of year.

Today in Jalón was the kind of day that you almost never get in the UK at any time of year. If we do get one, it would most likely be in winter, when the atmospheric conditions seem to be more conducive to very clear conditions. Today in Jalón the sky was a carpet of brilliant, unbroken cerulean blue with never a cloud in sight. Our recent battering high winds had gone, in the early afternoon the temperature was forecast to be nudging 17°C and it looked like being a perfect day for the Costa Blanca Mountain Talkers Walkers so-called Almond Blossom Festival.

February is almond blossom time in Spain. Had she got to see it, the blossom would have cheered mother’s heart in her least favourite time of year. CBMW arrange four walks of varying degrees of severity, on the same day, culminating in a tapas lunch at what is probably our favourite local Spanish venue, Casa Aleluja. The two more severe walks, being longer and with a greater degree of climbing, kick off at 09:30. Ours, the moderate walk, together with the gentler option for those that want/need it, set off at 10:30.

Timing the so-called festival is a challenge. Whilst February might be the month, given the variability of weather conditions and season, knowing just when in February is something of a lottery. Last year, just before the blossom would have reached its peak, Jalón suffered some heavy rain followed by high winds which stripped a lot of the blossom off the trees. This year we seemed to be a little early; the valley was not yet the carpet that almond blossom tourists might expect. Another factor is, we’re told, the way the trees are managed, pruned trees coming into flower later than those which have not been pruned. We’ve even seen folks pruning off branches in blossom, which is said to concentrate more growing energy on the remaining branches giving larger almonds.

Recently nature has produced another unwelcome problem. There is a disease affecting some of the almond plantations. The official “fix” requires that, if you have a diseased tree, all the trees within a 100m radius be felled. Essentially, the poor old almond farmer stands to lose an entire orchard. Consequently, the valley is now less densely planted with almond trees than it used to be.

There are three different species of almond, the blossom being almost white on one, with the two others being pale pink and a deeper pink. There were trees/orchards in blossom but we suspect a week later could have been beneficial. Certainly, looking down on the valley from above didn’t show much in the way of pink. Given the absolutely perfect weather conditions, it was a pleasant walk, even if there were 60 souls on it enforcing a very gentle pace. Lugging proper camera gear at such times isn’t the best of ideas so Francine made do with her phone camera to grab a snap or two from the more photogenic of the orchards that we passed on our descent back into the valley.

Almond Orchard

Hallucinations of beer were now drifting before my eyes. Eventually my thirst was quenched and the tapas lunch was most enjoyable. I have to admire the way three ladies managed serving six courses to 80 diners – very well done, indeed.

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Posted in 2018-2019 Winter

Madrid Retrospective

Cities are not my natural habitat. [Ed: Quelle surprise!] Much of my feelings about cities have naturally been shaped by London which is an over-priced, over-populated metropolis with no architectural integrity that I’d rather avoid. Crowds aside, I am not a fan of traditional art galleries, museums, stage shows or shopping, which seem to be largely what cities are about. So what was I doing in Madrid, pray tell? Well, I went along for the ride on an advanced, high speed rail network to see a 30-minute Van Gogh Alive experience. Both of these were enjoyable and successful experiences.

Hold on too your hats: skipping to the punchline first, I really quite enjoyed Madrid. We didn’t do any shopping and I found I was quite happy to pound the paving slabs walking around the city gawping at some of the sights. It did not feel crowded and I wasn’t constantly avoiding a crush of bodies. I could walk comfortably. We must note, though, that this was off-season. We’ve been told, by a Madrid football fan, that in summer, Madrid can be baking hot, most of the Spanish leave and it is crawling with tourists. In addition to our Van Gogh show, we did visit two traditional art galleries, one of which housed a pair of Canalettos [Canaletti?] which is the kind of art I can appreciate. There should’ve been three but one was off being restored. Darn! There were a couple of Picassos, too. He’s one who was having a laugh. Oh, speaking of having a laugh, there was a Rothko, potentially the biggest joker of them all. Jeez!

We had stayed at a so-called hostal, the Hostal Bruña, which was family run and very conveniently placed in the heart of Madrid, within easy walking distance of the train station (Puerta de Atocha), the Prado Museum and a maze of narrower streets leading up to Plaza Major. From what I can make out, a hostal offers rooms but no restaurant/food service. Our little 2-roomed apartment was on the 4th floor of a building and was a fully equipped self-catering apartment, though I wasn’t about to start cooking, with en-suite facilities. The room was cleaned and tidied daily for us. My only downside was sheets and blankets which I really don’t get on well with in these days of duvets. I imagine it makes the laundry service simpler, though. Francine and I paid 238€ for three nights.

El HechoWe tried a few of the local bars, of course. We had to get used to big city prices paying about 2.50€ for a beer instead of the 1.50€ that we’re used to in Jalón. My favourite bar, other than when it was invaded by the remnants of a prison service protest [more later], was El Hecho [H completely silent]. Our first visit was great and, in common with most of Spain, each drink ordered comes with a tapa of one kind or another. This is not a luxury that we enjoy in our Costa Blanca region, for some reason. In much of Spain, you can probably get away with just ordering drinks and not bothering to order food at all, just take the tapas. One of our acquaintances figured out that it was bad practice to order a tanke [large beer] ‘cos you only got one tapa whereas with two cañas [smaller beer] you got a tapa with each. Honestly, some people. 🙂

The best food we had by far was in the cosy (<12 tables) Taberna el Sur. Initially, we just went in for a drink. Then, having already given us olives with our drinks, they brought out a beautiful tapa of padron peppers with morcilla. I’m afraid Spanish morcilla has completely ruined British black pudding for me. I’m thoroughly hooked. Well, that did its job and hooked us again; we ordered our dinner there. Jim and I both had the solomillo [fillet steak] stuffed with goats cheese which was simply superb. Francine opted for a prawn risotto but declared mine to be better. [Gloat] I rarely eat beef and even more rarely do I order it in a restaurant but I’m glad I did. Interestingly, there was no “how do you want that cooked?” question; you just got it the way the chef liked it which was probably medium-rare(ish) and suited me fine. Decisions were off, mercifully. I don’t care for the assault course of questions that can accompany ordering a meal. Just bring me some good food, goddamit. 🙂 We returned a second time for lunch and ate well again, though rather too much.

ProtestWe’d seen two protests in Madrid, too. They seem to be timetabled/booked, there being almost one a day. We’d wanted to find kilometre zero, the start of the distances in Spain, at the Plaza Puerta del Sol but a crowd were setting off explosions and waving Basque flags. Being chickens, we went another way. Then we found a demonstration by the prison service complaining about something killing their jobs. These were the weary protesters who later invaded Bar El Hecho on our second visit. They were behaving perfectly well but the sheer number of them made it too difficult to get served so we moved on. There had been a protest against Uber by taxi drivers, too. This is a modern technical revolution, an equivalent of the industrial revolution. Along with shops being World Wide Webbed out of business, the fabric of society is changing.

Francine RothkoKilling our last morning, Francine had been taken by the complete external wrapping, in multicolored canvases, of the Prado Museum. There are folks who regard wrapping parts of the coastline as art so perhaps this, too, was art? Francine rarely takes a straightforward picture these days, preferring a more impressionist approach using the techniques of ICM and/or multiple exposure. Enter Francine Rothko and one of her multiple exposure impressions of the wrapped Prado.

Monk ParakeetWe’re into poor season as regards wildlife but we did see some parakeets flying around outside the Prado. Initially I glibly assumed these were the Ring-necked Parakeets that we’ve see spreading across England recently. Francine did take a straight shot which made us realize that these were different, there being no ring around the neck. These were Monk Parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus), a South American native and a monotypic genus, for those that care about such things.

Our AVE train ride back was swift, on time and comfortable. Nothing like an English rail service, then. Being mid-week, instead of being accompanied by the rugrats we’d shared the carriage with on our Sunday journey out, we were now accompanied by the almost constant bings, bongs and musical ring tones of messages, emails and phone calls that is a part of the modern world we have created. No wonder I crave silence and wildlife.

So, I quite enjoyed Madrid, though I wouldn’t necessarily rush back for a repeat visit. I quite like Valencia, too. Maybe it’s not generically cities that are unappealing, maybe it’s British cities that are unappealing.

Posted in 2018-2019 Winter

The Van Gogh Experience

And so to the driving force for our trip to Madrid, the Van Gogh Alive experience – an audio-visual show. We’d scouted the location yesterday so knew where we were going. Our entry tickets were for the first publicly bookable slot at 11:30. After a leisurely breakfast avoiding more chocolate and churros, we joined the queue to wait. There seemed to be an 11:00 slot but that was filled with a school party and, even though Spanish school kids seem far better behaved and controlled than do ours, we were pleased not to be in there with ‘em. This should be interesting.

It was interesting. We tramped three floors up an imposing marble staircase and came to a man who scanned our tickets and led off in a complex stream of Spanish. Our blank stares soon made him switch to English – what a guy. Photography is permitted as long as it’s without flash, of course, which would ruin the show.

Van Gogh RoomUnlike the Carrière de Lumières show in France, this large area included a static exhibition of some of Van Gogh’s paintings with accompanying explanation/discussion. If you felt like it, you could entertain yourself reading these before the audio-visual component commenced. I, of course, didn’t. Oh, there was a slightly bizarre mock up of Van Gogh’s room, too.

Leap of faith time: Francine had used ISO 3200 on her Canon 5D mk III successfully in the Carrière de Lumières so I opted to copy that on my new Olympus. I’d tried an even higher ISO 6400 shot once and that looked reasonably successful so maybe this would be OK, too. My Canon 7D, even the mkII, would be utterly hopeless at that ISO. I should’ve learned how to kill my in-focus beep, too, but it was too late now. When the projection and music began, I beeped away intermittently.

As expected, the scale wasn’t quite that of the Carrière de Lumières with its bauxite mine walls but the projections were still large and quite impressive. The accompanying music, a mix of classical pieces, went along nicely and one screen projected a series of quotes and snippets, should anyone want to read them between looking at Van Gogh’s paintings. One quote, which I now learn is well known, caught my eye:

I would rather die of passion than boredom.

Francine and I were in different areas of the exhibition for most of the time so hoped to get a varied representative sample of images. Given the dramatic colour changes, white balance setting proved also to be a leap of faith. There were a few benches on which to sit but mostly one has to stand and wander around the various sections of projection, which surround you. Some projections are even on the floor. Hopefully these will give a flavour.

Van Gogh #1Van Gogh #2Van Gogh #3Van Gogh #4

This appears to be a bit of a Marmite show in that people seem to either love it or dislike it, so much so that I almost called this post The Marmite Experience. The first set of your standard Internet reviews, which must always be taken with a hefty pinch of salt, that I saw had the vast majority of votes being either 5 or 1, with 1 winning  by a head. There were just a few 2 and 4 votes and no 3 votes at all. I began reading some of the reviews and the most frequent negative comment I found appeared to revolve around ticket price. Entry was 15€ and the AV show lasted about 30 minutes. There were, of course, also the static exhibits if you were interested. Full price entry to the Prado Museum costs the same amount, 15€, but you can stay all day should you have the stamina. So, several reviewers considered the Van Gogh Alive experience to be poor value. Some complained because there was little seating and they had to stand but to me, wandering to different sections of the sizable display arena is part of its appeal.

Personally, I like to be spoon fed my art in small doses with no effort required on my part. Being a slow reader, I’m not good at trying to absorb information in a traditional museum with static exhibits and printed words, even when it is a subject close to my heart, such as science or wildlife. So, this AV type of entertainment suits me perfectly and I would happily pay 15€ for a repeat visit here instead of going back into the Prado. If you are one who takes well to a traditional museum, wandering, browsing and reading about the exhibits yourself, then I can perhaps understand a negative sense due to the cost comparison. It does take a lot of quality projection equipment and precise installation of that equipment to put on a show such as this, though, so I think considering it expensive is a little harsh.

We all enjoyed it and left content.

Posted in 2018-2019 Winter

The Devil Wears Prado

Our first full day in Madrid was forecast to be sunny and so it was; cool, though, topping out at about 8°C. We fortified ourselves at a local café with chocolate y churros – cups of hot chocolate accompanied by deep fried doughnut-like creations. Banish from your mind any thoughts of insipid, thin Cadbury’s Drinking Chocolate still with the smack of powder. I have no idea what the raw ingredient was for this cup of rib-lining chocolate but I did see the café proprietor steaming the chocolate with the nozzle of a barista machine. The result was a cupful of indulgent luxury as dark and thick as crude oil. The churros, oddly unsweetened, are clearly extruded through a star-shaped nozzle and have plenty of deep furrows to hold onto the chocolate when dunked, which is, of course, the whole point. The accepted portion for one person was four churros. That should keep out the cold.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOddly, despite my guise of self-confessed art numbskull, I was quite looking forward to our first encounter. We were heading about 1km east to the southern end of the Parque del Buen Retiro to a glorieta [roundabout]. In the middle of the roundabout is a fountain topped by an unusual statue by Ricardo Bellver called the Ángel Caído [Fallen Angel]. Yes, it’s a depiction of Lucifer falling from Heaven and is supposedly the foremost of very few statues dedicated to the Devil. Having a perverse side, there are number of aspects which appeal to me. First and foremost is the unusual subject matter but another, I’ve only just realized, is a statue of the devil being positioned in something that the Spanish call a glorieta, which seems a bit ironic. There’s better, though: here is a statue of the Devil at 666m above sea level. How cool is that? [Well, in winter, it’s quite cool.] I had at least to try to check it with my phone’s GPS. Madrid’s altitude is usually quoted as 667m and that’s where my GPS began when it fired up. It did wander up to 676m, as I stood there beside Lucifer, though. Maybe the Almighty was interfering. Still, within the bounds of GPS accuracy,  I just love it. I liked the statue, too. Well done Señor Bellver.

Los InvisiblesPalacio de Cristal del RetiroWe headed up through the park where we encountered another art work, this one unexpected. We were expecting to find the Palacio de Cristal Del Retiro, a Spanish Crystal Palace, though I’m not sure I expected such a structure to be empty, which is how it appeared as we approached. Once inside, however, it proved to be not quite empty. Suspended from the ceiling were three enormous heads fashioned from interwoven stainless steel strands. The heads each have a finger to their lips in “shhh” gesture. It wasn’t easy to get the light right such that they showed up well on pixels; they certainly deserved their name of Los Invisibles. The artist is Jaume Plensa.

Puerta de AlcalaAll the coffee shops in the park were closed. One looked as if it were preparing to open up but it was beside the large, exposed boating lake with a biting wind cutting across it. We left the park in search of warmth and coffee elsewhere, crossing what appears to be the Spanish equivalent of Marble Arch, also known as the Puerta de Alcalá at the Plaza de la Independencia [it says here]. It is a so-called triumphal arch which predates the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin [it says here, again]. Marble Arch is a mere babe. Educational stuff, visiting a city.

We found our warming coffee near the arch and wandered about gawping at a few more statues, which weren’t going to challenge the interest of seeing Lucifer, and buildings on our way to locating our venue for tomorrow’s visit to the Van Gogh Alive experience. Then we headed for the Museo Nacional del Prado, the Prado Museum. Here, advancing years come in handy. We played the age card, supported by our passports, and got tickets for 7.50€ instead of the normal 15€.

_19R0896The Prado is a big museum. It is a 200m long building with galleries on three floors. Outside, the whole lot was scaffolded and wrapped in protective, multi-coloured canvass. Inside, there is an awful lot of oil on an awful lot of artists’ canvass. The vast majority of said oil appears to depict either scenes from the bible or scenes from Greek mythology. There were countless renditions of Christ on the cross and Christ’s body being lamented over having been taken down from the cross. I found a little light entertainment with one of the renditions of Christ amongst the doctors ‘cos Christ appeared to be flipping them the bird, until I realized it was the wrong finger. Drat! There was a particularly graphic image of Saturn devouring one of his sons, biting a chunk out of his chest while the hapless infant was still screaming. Apparently, Jupiter was the only one of Saturn’s sons not to became daddy’s dinner. Getting back to the bible, I lost count of the Adams and Eves. There were a pair of almost identical Adam and Eves, side by side, where one artist had copied another. Plagiarism in the art world. One had a Macaw added to a tree, though, probably to avoid copyright issues. In another, Adam was fondling Eve’s right breast, though her nipple was still visible. It made it look as if Adam couldn’t wait to get started. Well, they did have a whole planet to populate, after all. In addition to the gratuitous sex and violence, which gave a little light relief, there were, of course, a bunch of portraits of people I’d never heard of.

The Prado is so vast, one can’t take it all in and it all begins to blur into one. I suspect even those interested would need targeted visits. I couldn’t find a picture that I’d hang on my wall. If I liked anything, it was a sculpture of Hermaphroditus lying seductively, face down on a cushion but clearly sporting both a penis and breasts. The cushion was so well sculpted that it looked soft enough to touch.

Educational but tiring.

Posted in 2018-2019 Winter

AVE Madrid

Well, it was too close to Ave Maria to resist. I’ll explain in a minute.

Francine has been playing tour organizer again; we’re off on a trip to Madrid [big city, scary spiders] for three days. There’s safety in numbers and we are not going alone; our pal Jim, who has not only put up with attempts to roast a sucking pig, is coming along to make sure we don’t destroy the Spanish capital.

There are a couple of main attractions for us.

In an abandoned bauxite mine in Provence, France, we have seen a couple of shows that I think the French might refer to as son et lumière, though I’m now seeing the term “immersive experience”. The first French incarnation was called the Cathédrale Des Images but that was closed for health and safety reasons … most un-French. The second incarnation, presumably safer because it’s been running for a few years now, is known as Carrière De Lumières. The mining of bauxite leaves vast white-ish, almost perfectly flat vertical surfaces underground. These surfaces are used as the screens upon which images are projected accompanied by classical music. The last show we saw there was Klimt et Vienne opening to the grandiose musical accompaniment of Wagner’s Tannhäuser. The scale of the surfaces, 10m or more high, makes the experience very impressive.

There is now a similar show on the road, currently in the Circulo de Bellas Artes in Madrid. This time the subject is Van Gogh Alive and Francine’s got tickets that she booked online ahead of time. There are 30-minute admission slots though apparently you can stay in and watch again should you wish. [When I was a kid they used to let you do that in a cinema.] Having a building as a venue will make an interesting comparison to a bauxite mine.

Another attraction is a trip on the Spanish high speed train, the Alta Velocidad Española. I was surprised to learn that the Spanish high speed rail network is the longest in Europe and the 2nd longest in the world after China. Who’d’ve thunk it? The trains hit speeds “up to” 310kmh or 190mph. We’ve got tickets with allocated seating on the high speed service from Alicante to Madrid and back, the journey one way taking about 2½ hrs with two or three stops en route.

Jim organized the parking at Alicante station and kindly drove us, prepaying to make a decent saving on the parking fees, so Francine and I didn’t have to deal with an unfamiliar city.

I’ve missed an advance in rail technology. The train was smooth, almost like riding along a carpet – minus the carpet burns, of course. Gone is the familiar, comforting clickety-clack as the wheels cross the expansion joints between the lengths of rail. OK, so here we have 500kms of track reacting to summer temperatures reaching the high 30sC so how is metal expansion now dealt with? It beats me. It was a very comfortable ride, anyway,  and with a film shown, too, though we simply sat and watched the hardly changing Spanish countryside rush past. Given the seats and the film, I felt as if I should have been strapping myself in.

Arriving in Madrid soon after 15:00, we walked the half kilometre or so to our well chosen hostal and checked in. Our rooms were not only close to the train station, Puerta de Atocha, but were also only a spit, about 200m, from the Prado Museum, which was on Jim’s hit list.

We soon found a handy-dandy hostelry for a reviving beer close to our rooms. Thus refreshed, we embarked on an orientation route march around parts of the city. Ignoring all the regular tourist stuff, I was particularly taken with the artistic approach to many of the no entry signs adorning some of the lanes in the vicinity. Why should a road sign be boring, after all? The Flintstones depiction is my particular favourite.

no entry signs

_19R0731_19R0738After a kilometre our route took us first to Plaza Mayor, the main square. It is overlooked on the residential sides by over 200 balconies from which, at one time, you could take in a darn good execution, or maybe watch the Inquisition at work. Now they were overlooking a large, fake Christmas Tree that should’ve been taken down a few weeks ago, together with the usual array of street entertainers wearing various costumes, including what I can only describe as Homer Simpson dressed in a Spiderman costume. This was clearly Spiderman in his twilight years. Such was his paunch that I couldn’t help but christen him Spiderlump. I’ve no idea what his purpose was – he’d only recently turned up – but he had a small effigy of Spiderlump on the ground beside him. Curious.

Palacio RealHalf a kilometre further on was the cathedral, Catedral de la Almudena, which stands, somewhat uninspiringly, I thought, in front of the much more impressive Royal Palace, Palacio Real.

_19R0775After another half kilometre we came to the Temple of Debod in the Parque de la Montaña. It’s an ancient Egyptian temple, built around 200BC, that was dismantled and reassembled in Madrid, as a gift of thanks to Spain for its help saving various relics from the Aswan Dam development. Francine had been keen to see it because it has a water-filled moat around it for some fancy reflections. Or, at least, sometimes it has a water-filled moat around it. As we approached, the moat was clearly woefully devoid of any water, much to Francine’s disappointment since reflections were there none. I wondered if the moat got drained over winter lest the water freeze.

That’s enough tourism for one day, time for the more serious pastime of drinking and eating.

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Posted in 2018-2019 Winter

Up the Montgo

On Monday our walking group, numbering eight, had gone up a couple of mountains that gave us great views of the mountain known as the Montgo towering above Dénia and Jávea. Today, our Wednesday walking group, the Costa Blanca Mountain Walkers, was heading up the Montgo itself. That should give us a different perspective. Another aspect was going to give us a different perspective, too: there were 40 of us. Strewth, a busload!

Happily, a much recovered Francine was with me. We began with the usual briefing about walking at your own risk and warnings that the initial ascent of almost 400m was a bit narrow, quite challenging and, being up a gulley still in the shade, would be damp and slippery.

Montgo AscentThey weren’t kidding. Getting 40 souls up a narrow, slippery gulley takes quite a time and we, now walking near the back for some peace and quiet, were forced to stop and wait in the cold shade a number of times and for several minutes. As we’d left the car park at the beginning, I’d been following two ladies who, after half a kilometre or so had not stopped talking, hence my dropping back to join the back marker.

Frankly this many people on a walk was too many. There was too much stopping and waiting and a lot of talking. I renamed the group the Costa Blanca Mountain Talkers. Our back marker enjoyed that and confided that he had thought of arranging some “silent walks” where the only people allowed to talk would be the leader and back marker to give instructions. We’d discussed limiting the size of the groups but that seems a tad too difficult – it’s free form and members are free to just turn up or not.

There had been a couple of slips and stumbles, fortunately nothing serious, on the way up. As we were approaching the top, one lady was heard to mutter, “almost there, the end’s in sight”. Our back marker was less than pleased and explained how dangerous such an attitude could be – the going is still uneven and potentially slippery; you must keep concentrating.

Once up, safely, we could look back down the gulley, with a sense of achievement, up which we had come.

Montgo Gulley

OphrysWalking along the track on top of the Montgo in the warm sun was very pleasant. With some slower talkers about half way down the group, it broke quite naturally into two chains of about 20 each. We were happy to continue near the rear. Francine was delighted to spot an Ophrys orchid in flower very early right up on top. It wasn’t in the greatest of condition – there didn’t appear to be a lip – but we didn’t know if it may have been nibbled or was, perhaps, malformed.

Further round the high path we got expansive views of Dénia and its harbour beneath.

Denia from above

Before our descent there was the CBMW/CBMT lunch stop, which I’d personally rather not have, preferring to keep the legs going, but we finally continued and descended a wider track strewn with loose stones requiring more concentration and care.

Our route eventually finished up on a paved track before returning on the flat through the woods to the cars. It’s tempting to switch the brain off at this point but to do so is dangerous. Right in front of me a lady was regaling Francine with stories. Quite suddenly she pitched forward and fell, heavily, flat on her face (the other lady, not Francine). She had caught her foot under an aerial root anchored at both ends in the woodland floor beside the path – a very effective trip wire. Blood poured from a flap of skin torn on her thumb. She was shaken and feeling a little queasy but not seriously injured. One of our number was a retired doctor who checked her over before another helpful chap got a car close by so she could be driven off to the current professionals in Dénia hospital.

There were far too many people to contemplate queuing for a beer with the remainder in a bar.

Walking in the mountains is uplifting but can be risky. It really is best to continue concentrating all the time – more walking and less talking.

Posted in 2018-2019 Winter