Ceuta – on the other side of the sea

Travel

Longing (saudade) and curiosity go hand in hand, in my opinion. I remember that experiencing the combination of both, started quite early for me. When as a child I looked at the sea, I was wondering about the distant lands which are far beyond the horizon.

I could not see what is behind the horizon but nowadays, I live in a truly special place, which is the closest strait between European and African continent. When the day is bright, even from my terrace, I can see the Atlas mountains and wonder, if Malaga mountains can be seen from the other side equally well. 

Recently, I decided to cross the Gibraltar strait and visit Ceuta, an autonomous Spanish city on the African shore. Previously, it belonged to many other countries, including Portugal, Reino Nazari, dating back to Romans and Phoenicians. The influences and the long history is visible almost at every step you take on the peninsula.

The name Ceuta derives from Septem > Septa > Sebta describing the seven mountains on its territory. Its architecture is dominated by the fortifications and Portuguese influences, so much so, that I could easily forget I am still in Spain. Also the city centre is so steep it somewhat reminded me of walking around Lisbon

The city walls are very impressive, and you can visit them as well as the rich, complex history and art museum of Ceuta. What I found the most impressive though is the microclimate and the natural variety in the greener parts of the peninsula. Also, as I visited Ceuta in December, the city centre was beautifully decorated around its main monuments and attractions, such as Puerta de Africa, Parque Maritimo and Plaza de España. 

You can get to Ceuta from mainland Spain on the boat, ferry or using a convenient helicopter, connecting the city with Malaga within only 25 minutes! The passage itself is an adventure, especially in the winter when the weather may get stormy. It was stunning to pass by the Gibraltar Rock and leave the European shores behind, and then to cross multiple vessels and migratory birds in the Strait

Arriving to the African shore, you can already experience higher temperatures and humidity, and hear some very new birds around, including bulbuls, hiding around the bushes. I truly recommend a walk around the peninsula and the Hacho fortress where you can smell the blossoming flowers, trees and observe the colonies of Audouine seagulls, nesting around the green shores of Ceuta. 

The circular route will take you around the Santa Catalina isle, Punta Almina lighthouse to San Amaro park which is home to rare bird species, stunning trees and art. Now, since this is not a political blog, I will abstain from commenting the tensions around this location.

Of course, this is a complicated place for multiple reasons and while I am allowed to travel freely around the location, many cannot and lose their lives on the way to the rich Europe.

I choose to cherish the multicultural side of the place, of many religions and backgrounds living next to each other, hopefully in respect and dignity towards each other. And that includes, feeling safe as a woman, travelling solo

 

Tarifa – in between Europe and Africa

Personal, Travel

Last month I returned to Tarifa for a couple of days, where I have already ventured out a while ago, in search of its (pirate) treasures. Also, this time I managed to rent out a beautiful rural apartment in El Pozuelo, a nearby village which is close enough to the historical old town, and sufficiently far away from the civilization, to wake up with the sound of bird songs, and go to sleep hearing the flapping wings of some larger birds like egrets, or cranes.

On my way to the rural apartment, I already met a friendly, fellow birdwatcher who helped me spot a beautiful pair of sanderlings foraging in La Jara river. During this 3,5 km walk I then repeated at least twice a day, I would always keep my camera ready for action, just in case I saw a worthwhile situation to document. October is still such a great month to witness different migration routes in this extraordinary place, just 14 km away from the African shore.

During my stay there were numerous goldfinches gatherings around the Atlantic meadow, before they passed the Gibraltar Strait in search of the warmer temperature, food and water in Africa. Although this bird species is considered an all-year resident in Spain, I could witness that some goldfinch flocks dare to take the passage. Similarly to some other passerines and larks.

I worked pretty intensely during the week and in order to recharge after / before work, I did long hike trails along the shores of the Gibraltar Strait, a magical place where one can see and hear the boats passing by, and look ahead to spot Tanger and Ceuta on the other side. If you are lucky, you can even spot a dolphin or a whale, while for them this passage is often deadly, due to a large number of vessels.

And I realized how the natural landscape always impresses me, especially in the morning and in the evening, when the animals can be seen in the most active situations. Here is a flock of cattle egrets collaborating with the Iberian cow herd. Sometimes, starlings would join them.

It looked like as if, for each cow there was about 2-3 egrets commensals and they would closely mimic each other. I have never seen egrets as close, which gave me a great opportunity to take some very detailed pictures while observing that co-op in real time.

Tarifa is not only a natural paradise (in danger!), but also one of the most strategic locations in Europe, highlighted by the presence of the bunkers and maritime towers from the distant past.

Los Lances lagoon at this time of the year is a fascinating birdwatching site with hundreds of waders of different sizes cohabiting. The lagoon commensals specifically benefit from tiny shrimp species, a local specialty of the Cadiz cuisine for humans, too.

I could speak so much about the magical sunrises in Malaga, and sunsets in Cadiz – that is probably why I am spending so much time in between these both locations, thanks to the benefits of remote working from different parts of Spain. Practically, you can wake up in Malaga and go to sleep in Cadiz, which would be a dream come true.

Finally, I visited La Isla de las Palomas (also known as the Island of Tarifa) thanks to the Andalucian Bird Society field trip. Currently, this Southernmost Continental Europe peninsula remains as a military object and is only subject to Guardia Civil’s admission. Our guide for the day, Javier, identified three types of migratory bird routes: from Europe to Africa (passerines, goldfinches, kites and even a stunning Eurasian Black Vulture), from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean (Balearic Sheawaters, Gannets, Puffins), and vice versa (Cory’s Shearwaters – known to me so well from Ilha das Flores).

The day passed by with some stunning sightings (e.g. mom and baby gannet making their way to the Mediterranean). To top this fantastic trip up, in the afternoon, before leaving to the next stop in Cadiz, I could witness a mysterious haze which overtook Tarifa for a few hours, turning it into a movie scenery, with a very original soundtrack of the ship horns.

Springtime migration

Travel

After the rain comes sun, after the sun comes rain again. While this may be universally true, we’ve been waiting for the rain for over 9 months in Andalusia. Contrary to the other European locations, the percentage of rainy days accounts for 10% tops throughout the year.

This has profound effect on the ecosystem, including summer wild fires and decreasing bird population, especially the migratory species, looking for the rest after the long way to or from Africa through the Gibraltar Strait. The month of March though brought immense amount of water, as well as Sahara sandstorms twice, turning the Andalusian landscape into an orange-ish, muddy moonscape.

I went on a weekend trip to my beloved Conil de la Frontera on the Cadiz coast, also known as Costa de la Luz. The heavy rain was gone by then, leaving vast greenfield areas and welcoming the migratory bird species from Africa which came here for the nesting period, alongside the all-year-round inhabitants.

Conil is situated in between La Janda and seaside lagoons which are a great foraging area for egrets, stilts and other wading birds, previously mentioned.

I took some time to hide and train my amateur photographic eye to witness the common egrets cohabiting these areas with glossy ibis, and even more domestic species like pigeons or sparrows.

Alongside the coastal line I could also spot a curious wagtail observing the agile shore swallows and different gull and shy plover species. As the current changed every couple of hours, I could see their intensifying fishing attempts or giving up and resting on the shore.

I couldn’t miss visiting the glossy ibis colony in the Playa de Castilobo area. I was happy to see the colony growing in number, gracefully flying around the fields and sharing the foraging area with stilts and common egrets.

Around this time of the year, as I walked nearby the Atlantic beach meadow, the cattle was enjoying the company of the cattle egret, smaller in size and gregarious in its nature. I’m fascinated by the cohabitation and comensalism of these two species and since then, anytime I see a bull, a cow or a horse, I look out for the cattle egret around!

Coming back to the ibis colony, I could also see how well they share their territory with crows and rock pigeons, picturing some incredible everyday moments of living on the rocky tower block!

I am very glad that my bird-eye view becomes sharper each time I look around, being able to recognise and take a shot of a resting kestrel, comparing to my previous year’s photos.

Last but not least, among the springtime migration, there was a purple egret – a stunning, colourful bird alongside with terns and gulls, preparing for the nesting season and quite territorial. I won’t forget the bird attack I suffered on Iceland, not knowing about the close nesting location of the Arctic tern.

So, happy springtime birding and remember about the safety of the birds, yourself and distance to the nesting areas. Don’t joke with the tern!

Vulture Culture – around Estepona and Casares

Travel

This autumn we had a lot of reasons to discover our fascinating Costa del Sol region further, thanks to our friends who moved to Estepona for a few months. Willing to spend some time with them, we headed for a weekend there, combining the urban, coastal and hiking highlights, including birdwatching some of the most impressive species out there: a Griffon Vulture (Buitre Leonado in Spanish).

Estepona is a ‘garden town’ of Andalucia, influenced heavily by its coastal location nearby the Gibraltar Strait. Founded its first civilisation during the Bronze Age, nowadays it is a picturesque Andalucian town with a lot of vegetation, flower plants and art all over the place.

There is about 14 km of a coastal path meandering around various gardens. About 30 buildings in Estepona are painted with the original murals, or encrypted with of some piece of poetry on its elevations. The beauty of it soothes so much, that we felt relaxed as soon as we found a parking slot. Probably the only stressful part of staying in Estepona. You can also choose to arrive by bus, frequently passing from Malaga or Cadiz/Algeciras/La Linea.

We took a stroll around the city centre, watched the orange trees grow their first fruits of this season, and took a lot of new pictures from different angles. Estepona offers a lot of daytime attractions apart from being a very picturesque town (an Orchidarium, Selwo Aventura among others), while during the night, there is a lot of romantic restaurants offering wine tastings and tapas.

The proximity of the Gibraltar Strait creates an interesting microclimate and marks a historically important location of Estepona in between the continents and the seas. During our long walk with our friends, I was able to catch some magic moments of the sun setting down somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, on the other side of the Strait, and some interesting seagull flocks too.

The next day, we drove a very pleasurable, winding road all the way up to Casares, a picturesque ‘white town’ in the mountain range of Sierra de Bermeja. It is famous for various reasons: a birthplace of Blas Infante, a staging ‘sponge town’ in Mario Bros 64 from 1996, and for being inhabited by a large group of Griffon Vultures.

We took a circular hiking path around the town, where we admired magnificent views over Gibraltar Strait, as well as Sierra de Bermeja, heavily affected by a large wildfire this year. The damage took over 100 000 m2 and lasted for over a month until its full extinction. The saddest thing of all is that it was not a simple effect of the climate change (wildfires happen in this region quite often). It was set on purpose by some monstrous beings, who knew how difficult the extinction may be in the steep mountain range, in the weather conditions of a strong wind blowing from the West. A single drop did not fall during 10 initial days of the extinction and only thanks to a heavy fall which happened afterwards, the fire got under control. It is a very painful memory of this summer 2021, knowing that one brave firefighter lost his life, among hundreds of wild animals inhabiting the forest and thousands of the inhabitants had to be evacuated to a temporary shelter.

Fortunately, we could see how the nature recuperates, after all. The trees and the whole ecosystem, although so heavily damaged, seem to be recovering slowly. The aftermath of that fire may still affect Costa del Sol in many unpleasant ways – making the winters colder and the summers hotter, reducing the mild  microclimate known around the world.

We were fortunate also for another reason: on that day, several couples of the Griffon Vulture were hovering in the air surrounding Casares. Because of the proximity of a few motorway junctions and local roads, the local ornithologists created a special Vulture Feeding Stations where the birds can safely enjoy their prey. One of these stations is located close to Casares and this is why we could notice these powerful and very helpful animals. The town of Casares seem to like them as well, decorating various outposts (e.g. the church towers) with the vulture silhouettes.

Looking at the vultures a bit more closely, we could observe a special nuptial flight, when the male flies above the female, just before the mating. Hopefully next year there will be more of them welcoming us. This weekend trip was one of those mini breaks, when you can focus and appreciate the nature around you, and nothing else. Especially in the good company of your friends, spending their autumn in such a pleasant, special part of the world.