Cabra – where the owls sing

Travel

Ending up my day early at work, I was really looking forward to discovering yet a new place in Andalucia, a town called Cabra in the Córdoba Province. The November edition of the Andalucia Bird Society took place there, hosted by the known local bird watching guide, and a great animal and nature lover, Antonio Pestana. I was equally excited as my dear friend, Krzysztof (not to be mistaken as ‘Tristan’) visited me that week, and we planned joint birdwatching and road tripping around Andalucia in search of the rare species shortly after the Field Meeting.

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I was particularly intrigued by the evening activity, which started off around the dusk, when Antonio greeted about 10 ABS members in the Hotel Mitra Crisalida, and guided us to the location near the Cross of Aben Abad, known for the presence of the Eagle Owl, alongside with the Little Owl, and Barn Owl. As the sun and the temperature was going down, the owls started off their chants. Antonio Pestana shared then really fun onomatopoeic stories about the owls in Spanish, calling the Little Owl the most selfish animal (singing ‘mio, mio, mio’ all the time), and the bargaining dialogue between the Barn Owls (‘voy, voy’ = ‘I go, I go’) and Nighjars (‘paga, paga, paga’ = ‘pay, pay, pay’) in the summer. Apart from the owl sounds, we could notice large flocks of Songthrushes which are sadly subject to hunting activity around this time of the year, as well as Starlings. When the sun went down we could briefly see the owls taking off to hunt for their prey but most of the ABS members, used to the summer temperatures, were freezing cold as the European cold stream was notable in Cabra, too!

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In the evening some of the ABS members met up for a dinner, and some, like myself, went to discover the wonders of Cabra, which is a very interesting town full of tapas bars, stunning castle, churches and squares. Funnily enough the name ‘Cabra’ does not come from the Spanish name for a ‘goat’ but for one of the Moorish founders, Al-Qabri. The town has been heavily destroyed during the Civil War in Spain but thankfully, preserved its rich history and Moorish influences. As a sightseeing bonus, on the way back to the hotel, I even spotted a Little Owl hanging around a road sign! Too bad it was too dark to take a picture of her.

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In the morning, we met up for breakfast and greeted familiar and new ABS faces before we headed off to Bailon River Canyon. It was extremely cold for most of us, so I felt grateful to myself for bringing a pair of gloves, and a winter hat. Down by the Canyon, we could mostly spot Starlings and an interesting Iberian Orix family. They seemed to be ready for mating or fighting, who knows. The spot was stunning itself and we could also see some birds of prey from the distance.

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Our next stop was set around the road to Cueva de los Murcielagos, passing by a picturesque town of Zuheros, nominated as the one of the most beautiful White Villages in Spain. There we left off our cars for a short walk where we could greet the pair of Griffon Vultures from a close up location, as well as Stonechats, Common Redstarts and Robins. We were particularly curious about the beautiful bird, a Black Wheatear which is a special friend and specialty sighting of Antonio Pestana.

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To meet up with the Black Wheatears, we moved on from that location to Cabra South, nearby the emblematic Balcón de Andalucia, Ermita Virgen de la Sierra and followed Antonio to his special spot for Black Wheatears. They did not seem to pass by for a long period of time, yet we could see Red Kite and Griffon Vultures once again. When we almost gave up on the Black Wheatear’s sighting, they suddenly appeared, posing to our photographs with their beautiful black tails with a white spot. We also enjoyed greatly them calling each other and hanging around a close up location.

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Happy about the sightings, stunning locations and a great guidance of Antonio Pestana, we all cheered with a glass of vino fino, produced by Antonio’s family and moved to a local venta for lunch. The afternoon activities were dedicated to the Barn Owl Project which I sadly missed, as I moved on to another location, in search of more birds that afternoon.

El Día de Sopas Perotas

Music, Travel

I started off the first weekend of October in the most peculiar, and absolutely fantastic way, at the same time. Woke up with the loud birds and the magic morning sunrise of Malaga, and headed off to catch C1, and later C2 train to go all the way up to Alora, together with my friends who love both DJing and nature. And on that day we would focus on the nature… in theory.

The trip was sponsored by a very thoughtful initiative of the Spanish government, to grant free commuting train ticket from September 2022 until the end of the year. The only requirement to get the ticket for free is to use up the ticket for a minumum of 16 trips, after which 10 EUR of the initial fee is reimbursed. This way, people are incentivised to use the public transportation instead of their own vehicle. Which in the current inflation and gas pricing climate, makes even more sense. Well done, Spain!

On our way we did not plan much, just to see the beautiful pueblo blanco, its surroundings, ermitas, a castle and have some tapas. What we found out though, stepping out from the C2 train, was a GREAT fiesta. This time dedicated to a soup: a famous sopa perota, typical from the mountains of Malaga, made out of vegetables, white wine and bread.

Perota is an adjective describing the inhabitant of Alora, just like maño – maña describes someone from Zaragoza. For centuries, mountains of Malaga have been a rather hostile place to live, with equally hot summers and harsh winters, so the dish had bring enough calories for hard working folks. There is a beautiful homenage to La Faenera, a working class woman carrying heavy buckets, in one of the main streets of Alora.

As I’m writing this, a few day has passed since the Soup Day in Alora, and I am on my way to a completely different destination, Barcelona, on a high-speed bullet train, passing through Alora, Antequera and other familiar places in the mountain range – wondering how stunning it is that Spain combines so much modern advancements and tradition, at the same time.

On the Soup Day, we also witnessed a fascinating journey to the history of Alora, dating back to ancient times where there were no refrigerators and the food, or wine was stored below the ground, in a thickly isolated containers, now available to admire passing by the peculiar Mirilla Pepe Rosas.

My friends also introduced me to the typical, rhytmic music of the mountains of Malaga, los verdiales, famous for its rhytmic crótalo, tambourines and energetic singing and dancing. As we followed the local Panda de los Verdiales of Alora, we thought about the all-encompassing need of humans to unite in the rhythm. Be it verdiales, jungle, or house music. As I attended an open air techno party the day after, I kept hearing verdiales in the background of my thoughts.

It was not all about the sopa perota – there were local stands with wine and olive tasting (the one and only olive from Spain with a DOP signature, aloreña), pitufo con lomo a la manteca colora’a (don’t ask what is it, it’s simply tasty as long as you don’t know!), art work from women’s associations, typical pottery for the soup and much more. Day-drinking from 10 am also sounds like something one could easily do on such a day.

Instead of hiking, we ended up going with the flow of the Soup Day – from stand to stand, interacting with friendly and funny strangers, and even Canal Sur NoticiasThat later my friend’s mom watched.

We were so impressed with the town, its artwork at each step, stunning landscapes and peculiar history. Yet, we did not manage to try the famous soup. The line for 6000 portions went on for hours, making it a great excuse to party, listen to music and spend a lovely, warm October day outside.

What was so special about it? Sharing moments with your friends, spontaneously discovering traditions which have been preserved and celebrated by the generations, in a perfect sunny weather, not too hot anymore. Going to a place A and ending up in a place Z. And that in such a traditional, rural town, there was a safe LGBTQI+ space, same as the elderly, youngsters, guiris, a guy without a T-shirt, or anyone else. This is what I love about Spain: the feeling of belonging, the relaxed inclusion of whomever you are, as long as you’re respectful of others and the place you’re in. There are still so many things which are lacking, more public transportation included, but where we are now, it is not bad either.

Sierra de las Nieves – El hombre, la tierra y las montañas

Music, Travel

January marks my birthday (not to mention a slippery slope from the Dry January resolutions) and since a couple of years, also a surprise trip or retreat related to it. Knowing how much I like unknown destinations, my partner planned this year’s surprise very well, so until the very end I had no idea where I’ll spend celebrating another year of health, prosperity and being alive. After last year’s municipal confinement where we couldn’t really go on any trip beyond Malaga, this year he could take me on a road trip all the way to the high mountain retreat in Andalucia’s Sierra de las Nieves (‘Mountains of the Snow’).

We stayed at the mountain hotel at about 700 m above the picturesque town of Tolox (visited with a local hiking group just before the confinement in 2020) and I considered the road trip up above a part of the exciting surprise, leading through steep and extremely winding camino.

Sierra de las Nieves welcomed us with the fresh, almost dizzying winter air. At the resort, we learned that this area is a well-known retreat for people suffering from respiratory diseases, as well as modern day symptoms of burnout. Not that I currently suffered from it, still we treated the weekend stay as a preventive measure, indulging ourselves into the nature: birdwatching and enjoying ‘0 km’ picnics (eggs, local produce) in the high mountain air.

We met less than 10 people in total, over the three-day stay, and most of them were very active elderly hikers and trail runners. One of them, a local, looking at the majestic landscape, complained that nowadays there is very few birds of prey in the area, while many years ago vultures would be soaring to the sky over the snowy peaks. Truth is, that we didn’t spot a single bird of prey but still, very colourful and exciting species such as: a golden oriole, red crossbills, black redstart, wood nuthatch and a great spotted woodpecker. All in all, there were more birds than humans wandering which made the trip worthwhile. Not to mention the quantity of sheep and goats roaming freely through the mountain ranges.

Sierra de las Nieves inspired us to continue binge watching a series ‘El Hombre y la Tierra‘, discovered earlier this month on Youtube, from the Spanish RTVE archives. The show is presented by Felix Rodriguez de la Fuente, a popular author from the 60s, who lost his life in a plane crush while approaching Alaska for the filming of his new series about the North American nature. He is considered a living memory of many Spaniards, the one who hijacked the theory of evolution to the programme even during Franco dictatorship, and the Youtube documentaries were uploaded during 2020 lockdown, maybe to cheer up everyone at home. Despite the fact that >50 years passed from some of the episodes, the stunning film techniques, the suspenseful narrative (a meme to some, nowadays) and his sheer love for nature prevailed and continues to inspire. I even considered learning an opening theme, which is a challenging symphony piece.

Daylight saving time

Personal

I made it to another springtime! Back in a day, living up East/North, advancing clocks on the last weekend of March announced the long-awaited arrival of longer days, more light and beautiful spring/summer feeling around the corner. Even if snow in April/May is nothing uncommon these days in Berlin or Poland, the ritual of a time change was sacred to me almost like the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. I feel like this transition is much more celebrated by the folks born under a dramatic weather where you never know what to expect. Now, living under more sunny hemisphere where winters look more like springtime, the passage is less dramatic nor awaited, I can’t help but be happier of having more daylight in the evenings. Even more so, after not being able to fully experience the spring last year, due to a home confinement during the first wave of COVID-19 in Spain, this year it makes me wanna dance like the finest Pina Bausch dancers to experience the beauty of it to its fullest. 

This year, still going through various levels of lockdown restrictions, one thing which was not taken away is the possibility of long walks and bike rides within the vicinity. Whenever the restrictions are lifted outside of the province level, I explore the long bike rides, too. Something which I tried last month are more strenuous rides uphill along Costa del Sol, equally satisfying though. Found the magic trick not known to me before – not trying to climb up the same velocity as I use at the plains xD That’s me, always trying to go for the record speed. Also, I managed to find some hidden coastal trails alongside the rocky ‘calas’ of Torrequebrada all the way to Torreblanca, where I can enjoy walking slooowly. Especially if combined with exploring the local and exotic restaurants! I am so happy the opening hours for the gastronomy have expanded this month too.  

Some aficionados of refreshing water try snorkeling and sea baths already – I haven’t been that adventurous yet. I can’t wait to paddle surf again and come back to yachting, too. So far I’ve started with more physical activity on a daily basis. It is hard not to be active when in Malaga! Taking it day by day, step by step at a time, I feel like the fight against the COVID-19 game is unlocking the superpowers to: avoid the virus/not ruin the economy/progress against the infection rate/stay mentally ‘OK-ish’. Quoting almost line by line Roy Ayers, I find myself awaiting for this sweet awakening… 

The daylight in my life is brought by various aspects: apart from keeping the basics of keeping the physical activity/sleep, not compromising on the relationships – both with the closest and more distant ones, only due to the current pandemic circumstances. There have been highlights as well as bringing an acoustic piano home after almost 20 years of living like a nomad without a proper one thanks to my partner’s passion. Hearing those Chopin/Debussy/Rachmaninov notes once again from this beautiful instrument can’t help but make me happy. So, the daylight saving time and daylight in life is here to stay, against all odds. Because, guess what, everybody loves the sunshine! 

Notes from the Giant Rock

Travel

As we’re approaching another wave of COVID-19 in Spain, writing about short getaways when the summer was still around gives me a lot of energy and hope for the better days to come. Here is a short post about my getaway to Gibraltar last month. As we’re approaching another wave of COVID-19 in Spain, writing about short getaways when the summer was still around gives me a lot of energy and hope for the better days to come. Here is a short post about my getaway to Gibraltar last month.

Gibraltar is located about only 80 kms away from Malaga and to get there, you can easily drive or take a bus to the ‘famous’ La Linea de Concepcion, bordering town, allegedly one of the most dangerous places in Spain according to the latest Netflix series. Surely it looked rundown in some parts, and incredibly luxurious in others, which is never a good sign. To get to Gibraltar, you have to pass through a border control within a few steps away from the bus station. To get into the city centre, sometimes you may have to wait to pass through the international Gibraltar airport’s landing stripe, as space is very limited by the Giant Rock.

My first observations were related to the language, indeed both English and Spanish are heard equally often and in various constellations of Spanglish and Englanol. The old town also brings back memories of commercial streets back in the UK and at the same time, has a charm of any Mediterranean town. Beers are served in pints and tapas are counted in pound sterling, which does make a difference from the neighbouring La Linea, where apparently a lot of people eat out. Gibraltar’s location is strategically related to one of the most neuralgic point between Africa and Europe and its history remembers wartime, sieges and endless battles. The remnants of it are visible within almost every step, even in parks in a form of a childlike quiz.

The wildlife of Gibraltar reside in the special zones: Barbary macaques are kept away from the city in the Apes Den and are very much used to being fed by the human beings. They are quick to check one’s rucksack belongings in search of food, causing big havoc. My boyfriend has been confronted with such situation simply passing by, ending up with a macaque sitting on his head, who meticulously performed search for anything else than our camera or bottle of water. Unsatisfied with the result she left – unfortunately this moment has not been recorded. Also butterflies receive their daily portions on the Butterfly Feeding Table, to the amusement of the visitors of the Alameda Park.

Wandering around the Upper Rock Natural Reserve Park you can see two continents and three countries, including Spain and Morocco. If you are lucky, you can notice whales passing by the Gibraltar strait if the ship traffic isn’t too heavy. Looking at the closeness and yet, distance, one can reflect about the relativity of the perspective and history. On that day we spoke to a birdwatcher observing some species trying to cross the Strait for the winter. Possibly a Honey Buzzard, according to the birdwatcher, who struggled with the unfavourable wind conditions, similarly as the BA plane approaching the landing stripe.

Nowadays Gibraltar is home to investment banks and tech companies, and the wartime and ancient history seems to be indeed a distant past. The dine out options and nightlife concentrate around the modern neighbourhood of Ocean Village full of fusion and international food options, as well as very typical pubs. I stayed there for one night only and it was enough to see the National Reserve Park, wander around the city and its historical attractions. The highlight of my stay was the Rock Hotel itself: an emblematic location overlooking the bay, serving English Breakfast on their patio where hundreds of famous people ate out, including Prince Charles, Ernest Hemingway and one mysterious guest, whose picture (next to Prince Andrew’s…) has been removed. Wonder if this may be related, and still thinking of whom could be the persona non grata.

At the Sierra’s feet: Jerez del Marquesado

Travel

New month, new updates from Spain and particularly Andalucia: amidst the pandemic, however in the ‘new normality’ tomorrow, we will be allowed to enter so-called Phase 3. Apart from the freedom to leave home anytime, go to the beach and enjoy the nature, one can also gather up with friends at a safe distance. Hoping for discovering new, remote places nearby, I’m reminiscing a day in Jerez del Marquesado, a charming village at the feet of Sierra Nevada.

What brought me there? A recommendation from the local tourist guide I asked earlier on in Guadix, where to spend a relaxing day as well as hike around without a necessity of renting a car. There was no such place in Guadix opened on that day anyway. Jerez currently counts less than 1000 habitants and this number is sadly, steadily declining. On that day the streets of its beautiful old town were completely empty, apart from the cats laying lazily in the sun.

I took my time to wander around the town, drink tinto de verano in the bar Los Cortijillos. Unlike in touristy places, the drink was followed by a huge portion of migas tapas, famous in this region as high-protein leftover food. The owner must have thought I would be hiking all the way up to Pico de Jerez, while I only took a famous Chestnut Walk all the way to a millenial tree, which could shelter up to 4 adults. 

The mountain range surrounding Jerez is particularly steep and was a place of a US military plane crash in the 60s, where thanks to the brave help of the locals all the crew members miraculously survived.

After all, I spent half a day hiking in Jerez and it stole my heart completely. Blossoming chestnuts, vivid streams and creeks, and a green forest oasis on this Spanish ‘Route 66’ will stay on my mind as one of the perfect days I lived.

Sierra de las Nieves

Travel

February = springtime at its fullest in Andalucia. It is probably one of the best months to experience hiking trips in the Malaga province, and this post is dedicated to describe a gorgeous hiking trip in Sierra de las Nieves, aka Snowy Range near the picturesque town of Tolox.

I was encouraged to take part of this hike thanks to the nature- and outdoor-activity loving community from the tech world of Malaga. I love to meet new people and also get to know them while doing things I enjoy: breathing the fresh mountain air while working out over a moderate 12 km route with over 600 m ascension/descend.

The route starts at the Balneario of Tolox – and in this part of the year is very green. The scent of the forest, multiple birds and water creeks are present throughout the first 3-4 kms. My hiking boots survived walking around the ice trails on Svalbard so I was not worried about their condition.

On the way you can spot at least three waterfalls: the first one is great for taking an actual leap on warmer days, the second one can be noticed from afar – taking winding curves and thus making it the highest waterfall in Andalucia. The last one you are literally walking over a tiny bridge. Unfortunately, as the land is quite arid, it dries out for most of the months. We were very lucky to see it, but we could also be unlucky if it’s too humid: the trail might be slippery when not properly dried out after springtime rainfalls. As in Andalucia rain is rare, when it happens, it is torrential.

After 13 kms the descend starts towards the picturesque village of Tolox, one of the emblematic ‘while villages’ of Andalucia. On a Sunday afternoon, it is the oasis of tranquility. After a straining hike, resting in the local bar overlooking the various mountain ranges, up to El Torcal and Sierra Nevada while eating tapas was the best reward.

To top it up, Tolox is full of actual art, depicting the local art inspirations, naive art and poems of Pablo Neruda. I can’t help falling in love in a place like this.

Montes de Málaga

Travel

Málaga is associated primarily with the sea, and a gateway to the ‘Sunny Coast’ known as Costa del Sol. Nothing more misleading: its province is by far the tallest in Spain, containing of some of the youngest, and highest mountains in the country.

You can easily experience their scope already while approaching the landing at the airport, especially if you take some additional turns around the province. One of the first trips I’ve done when I moved here, was to hike around countless trails of the National Park of Montes de Málaga, just a few kilometers away from the city centre, and within the public transportation reach. I learned though that hiking in June is already too late – it’s too sunny and too dry to truly enjoy it.

Instead, I visited the historical Botanic Garden, home to abundant and exotic flora and fauna. This stunning scenery can be found in the Northern part of the city and is also accessible with the public transportation, followed by a 15 minutes walk. The garden hosts shelter to various bird houses: if you are patient you can spend hours looking at their nesting areas and spot interesting species. It is great that Málaga has made this garden available to public, especially that the city itself lacks green spaces.

Another destination worth mentioning is Mijas Pueblo, a little village located in Costa del Sol, about 45 minutes drive from Málaga and again, accessible with public transportation. It is one of the typical white, Andalusian scenic villages with castle ruins, beautiful town hall square and breathtaking views over the coast.

Also the trip through the winding road can take the breath away, if you are sensitive. I think that the village itself is as touristy as Ronda, and it takes its toll. I was particularly saddened by the use of donkeys for the touristy rides. I escaped the crowded trap quite soon and wandered around the hilly streets followed by eating lunch at an inexpensive, unpretentious place far away from the masses.

I enjoy the little escapes around Málaga, even without having a car for now. I am conscious that the best places are out of my reach for now, but I am trying hard not to own a car – driving though is a good skill to acquire when living on Costa del Sol and is a different story. Looking forward to bringing you more tales from the trips I will take in 2020, to be honest I have not planned anything and have no idea where my imagination will take me.