A short summer jaunt to Andalusia

August 7th, 2009 Written by Simon Rice

It’s a long way from Catalonia to Andalusia so it’s no wonder it’s easy to feel that they are completely different countries. But after a fourteen-hour journey, including six hours on the Talgo, from the Pyrenees to the small Almerian town of Albox I was beginning to feel that they are in different continents! A warm Andalusian welcome at the hotel, “there’s no kind of hurry, settle yourself in and you can eat anytime you like!” restored me though and early the following morning, with a midday train to catch, I explored the pretty town centre.

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But my real interest was up in the sierra. I haven’t been to this part of Andalusia before but found it very similar to the western Alpujarra region around Motril, where we spent one warm Christmas in the early ‘nineties, that is to say, several years before Chris Stewart made the region famous! Here just beyond its eastern extreme the region is notably drier. La Alpujarra is proud of its Moorish roots and atmosphere, indeed the landscape and land use was strikingly similar to those in the Anti-Atlas ranges on Morocco, where my wife studied the indigenous Berber agriculture.

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The ‘Rambla’ de Albox is a dry riverbed that runs up into the mountains for several miles, giving ‘road’ access to the numerous small houses and their surrounding orchards and gardens. These tiny, irrigated plots are a classic feature of this landscape, as are the one or at most two story ‘cubist’ houses. It was curious to note that about half of these had been done-up, evidently by their British or other foreign owners, complete with ornamental gardens, while the remainder reserved their efforts entirely for fruit and vegetables!

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The agriculture here would appear to be based on use of marginal land and I presume that this is owner occupied, rather than the great estates that one otherwise associates with Andalusia and much of central Spain. The distribution of the dwelling all about the valley couldn’t be more different than that of my home in Catalonia, where isolated houses are very rare indeed and the history and pattern of property ownership is different on both counts, being based around a system of familial ownership of farmland; the tradition here is for the eldest offspring to ‘inherit’ and run the family farm, while the other siblings is set up with a cash lump sum, which is often used to gain an education and/or capitalise a business, hence the notorious Catalan flair for entrepreneurialism! But I also saw the impact of new, large-scale agriculture, as huge plantations of olives crises crossed the mountainsides on reclaimed land.

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Meanwhile, it is curious to speculate the impact of such a large influx of extranjeros on such a remote and rural community. The extent of which became apparent after inspecting post-boxes that line the roadside; the names here are: Grainger, Casa ‘Jack’, Smith & Hanrahan, unreadable, and finally Marshall!

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The head of the valley is dominated by the huge XVIII century temple of the Sanctuaries de Nuestra Señora del Buen Retiro de los Desamparados del Saliente, one of the most important pilgrimage sites in south-eastern Spain. Pilgrims from all over the region, travelling on foot or horseback, converge on the site on September the 8th each year, progressing up the last leg during the previous night. Today though, in late June, it is deserted.

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Crossing over the Sierra de las Estancias the outlook changes completely, however, as huge plantations of olive and almond trees completely cover the landscape while the inhabitants are huddled together in compact villages like Los Cerricos.

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This is a vast, somewhat intimidating landscape, difficult to catch on camera. In the very far distant, out of the picture, the peaks of the Sierra Nevada shimmer in the haze – or is it my imagination!

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I was glad to be over the great plain, and near to the autovia that would which me off to catch my midday train home, but it was market day in Chirivel and after a long, lonely trip I couldn’t resist stopping to bask in the warmth of human company!

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Jurassic Park – a week in La Garrotxa

May 24th, 2009 Written by Simon Rice

I’d noticed the droppings and marks on the ground near our tent late in the evening, too late to consider changing location, and sure enough the wild boar snuffled through the camp at about four in the morning. In the dim luminescent light of the tent I saw the dogs’ ears prick up briefly. Lucky, my lupine husky-cross stirred and looked at me across the groundsheet while Streak rolled over in his half-sleep, grunting in the process. The boars stopped and silence reigned for a moment, then the night air was shattered by a huge braying sound – deep in the primordial forest one of the larger inhabitants of was on the hoof once more! I couldn’t help wondering whether the story about large game not entering tents was apocryphal, but the next thing I knew it was morning, and a damp one at that. We had survived our first night in Jurassic Park!

The title ‘Jurassic Park’ is a joke, of course. In fact La Garrotxa is about as far removed from the Jurassic period as can be, the region’s volcanic origins make it one of the most contemporary landscapes possible; the last large activity was about 15,000 years ago, not 150,000,000! And our camp, even though it felt like being in the jungle, was in a well-organised and officially registered site – albeit a very distinctive one – owned and run by Dutch ex-pat Stendert Dekker and partner Maria Tamayo. Can Banal is located just off the upper Llierca valley in a narrow, densely wooded defile. It was the primordial appearance of the forest, together with the echoic quality of the landform, that inspired the nickname; the braying wasn’t a sauropod ploughing its way through the jungle, but a distraught male donkey, or ‘jack’, imploring Stendert’s four ‘jennies’ to allow it to mount them. As well as the camping Stendert has owned and managed about 90 hectares of forest since coming to the area in the mid nineteen-eighties. Can Banal is in the Alta Garrotxa district, just to the north of the more well-known Parc Natural de la Zona Volcànica de la Garrotxa. He grazes cattle in areas where he has been able to clear the dense woods; a problem here since progressive waves of rural depopulation since the end of the nineteenth century has reduced human impact here.

Talking with Stendert gives a fascinating insight into woodland conservation issues. As well a grazing livestock, the woods were used for forestry activities like charcoal production, wood products like withies or osiers, etc. as well as for timber. Left to itself, however, the woodland has become too dense for use and is being damaged by invasive species like Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) and European black pine (Pinus nigra), which outgrow the predominant native deciduous trees such as oaks, especially Downy oak (Quercus pubescens) and common beech (Fagus sylvatica). The problem is that as well as the pines starving the forest floor micro-systems of light, the autochthonous trees must compete for access to sunlight in the canopy and grow too tall and thin as a result. Stendert has to thin sections of forest gradually, otherwise the affected trees can’t withstand winds, and it can take over ten years of husbandry to restore the forest (this was music to ears for Mrs Simon, who is somewhat of an expert in the field, albeit her specialism is in humid tropical environments!). Fortunately, under the auspices of the new Plan per a l’Espais d’Interes Natural (the plan for areas of special natural interest or P.E.I.N.) the Generalitat (Catalan Government) has come round to the view that this intervention is necessary and gives the necessary permissions, and grants, for sustainable forestry practises. Another current issue, however, is the growing trend for second home ownership; managed tended forest is sparse compared to ‘natural’ wilderness and can appear ugly to urban eyes – supported by the myth that the natural environment is in stasis and that there exists a ‘pristine’ ideal form.

But La Garrotxa certainly does appear pristine and idyllic. The extent of the forest is truly astonishing and its undulating hills are dotted with beautiful masias, the traditional Catalan family homesteads. Although some of these are still farmed the agricultural economy needs input from urban spin-off such as rural tourism. We felt that the area was more like France than Spain and but for the lack of British ex-pat population it appeared more reminiscent of the Dordogne than the Dordogne itself! In fact we much preferred the Alta Garrotxa to the Pac Natural itself. We felt that there the villages have suffered from the impact of tourism and that there is a sense of being ‘over managed’. This is very laudable, of course, but it seemed to isolate one from the natural environment and villages like Santa Pau, beautifully situated in the heart of the Parc, was positively twee!

Much more to our taste was to walk around the immediate vicinity of Can Banal, where Stendert has marked numerous walks that take in the nearby section of the GR1 trans-Pyrenean route. Much more to our liking!

Snowmelt fills the Noguera Pallaresa

May 23rd, 2009 Written by Simon Rice

It’s been a record breaking winter for rain and snow – and not before time after three years of drought. But even though the snow held on for longer than usual the seasons follow their eternal path, and a warm, early spring ensured a dramatic melting up in the high Pyrenees. It was a slightly unnerving night, camping in a watermeadow on the riverbank, and certainly a noisy one! But a dawn walk along the bankside path was certainly worthwhile. I’ve read that the Noguera Pallaresa is the most powerful river in the Pyrenees. Although I’m not sure how this is measured, it’s certainly easy to beleive at this time of year.

After breakfast we decided to retrace our steps along one of our favourite stretches of the river, the Congost de Collegats. Here, the old road that links the Pallars Jussà to the neighbouring comarca of Pallars Sobirà has been bypassed by long tunels, leaving the riverside to its own devices. For a change it was the river’s turn to grab one’s attention, rather than the magnificent scenery of the ravine.

Further upstream a stop at the picturesque and historical village of Gerri de la Sal, where salt has been extracted from springs at least since 807 when Benedictine monks founded the monastery here, was rewarded with a new discovery.

With a mission to educate and inform, the Planter de Gerri uses rehabilitated terraced gardens to grow a wide range of autoctonous plant species. It will be good to return here in furture years when the installation has matured.

Stormy Weather – Springtime in the Ebro Delta

May 8th, 2009 Written by Simon Rice

I’ve been spending a lot of time in flatlands of late, ranging from the plateau ‘desert’ of Los Monegros* to the Fens of East Anglia. Wetlands have a strange beauty all of their own. The rice paddies, called ‘arrossars’ in Catalan, of the Ebro Delta brought back memories of Guyana, where we studied the huge Mahaica Mahaicony Abary (MMA) water management project back in the mid-nineties. There we gained a great deal of practical knowledge about the arcane subtleties of rice cultivation.

* Los Monegros is certainly not a desert

The increasing intensity of the rising thunderstorm and the humidity of the afternoon were atmospheric reminders of those days.

For all the technology, rice production is labour intensive, involving huge maintenance of the land’s drainage and irrigation channels. The odd big installation like a pump house or sluice, are the tip of the iceberg – the real work involves slopping around in the mud, trousers rolled up, attending to the thousands of miles of ditches – but that afternoon the farmers fled the impending tempest and headed home!

Typical of cultivated wetlands like the Fens or on the Guyanese coast, the Delta is far from uniformly flat. Tiny settlements, some ugly, some with a neat cosiness, are found squeezed onto patches of higher ground.

The mosquitoes make camping here a reckless activity, and many tiny Cases de Pages offer snug accommodation.

But for us the dream would be to stay in a ‘Barraca’, the traditional hovels that still dot an ever more wild land/seascape.

Los Monegros

April 28th, 2009 Written by Simon Rice

I’ve been doing a lot of research into the issue of Los Monegros and the proposed Gran Scala casino development. In fairness I still have a totally open mind; taking on board the environmental concerns but also the social issues, which are complicated to say the least. But in the meantime I was able to actually go there last week – something that I feel few of the protagonists are actually doing right now!

It’s been over twenty years since I was last here, and lately I just seem to view Los Monegros from the luxury of the High Speed Trains that wizz through the region at over 300 kilometres per hour. What I see is that the term ‘desert’, often used by protagonists on both sides of the debate, is far from the truth; the region is farmland, although the living there is clearly very hard.

We drove through Otiñena, one of the key villages in the controversy, but didn’t stop as it was clear that the World’s press had been there before us. But a quick appraisal showed that the poverty in the district is real enough – it reminded us strongly of villages in the Western Sahara; is this modern Spain, we asked ourselves?

But the region has a stark beauty all of its own, and I feel for the environmentalists who are afraid that this will be lost or severely damaged by the development. Most of us have a feeling for the sense of ‘wilderness’ but how many know, or care, what that term actualluy means, I wonder?

I want to write a serious feature article on Los Monegros and would welcome views from all sides of the debate. But in the meantime I just want to share a few images of a landscape that could soon change forever.

Calçotada!

March 25th, 2009 Written by Simon Rice

It’s the first weekend of spring and, paradoxically, the last calçotada of the winter!

Eating calçots is unique to Catalonia, in fact it’s even more specific, belonging to the Camp de Tarragona. Although the ‘capital’ of the calçotada is the small town of Valls, which even has a D.O. (Denominació d’origen) for calçots, the trend, or craze perhaps, for eating them has spread far and wide – I’ve even heard of them on flash restaurant menus in Madrid! But to fer calçotada one really has to be in the country, specifically a farm or garden where all the necessary materials are on hand: a big fire pit, firewood and kindling, chairs, tables and above all – no need to worry about the mess!

I’ve given details of the process on the Iberianature web page so here I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves! The Catalans are noted for their sense of ‘seny‘, a sort of canny sensibility, but the reverse is ‘rauxa‘, a word that’s impossible to translate succinctly but which has overtones of riot, raucous and just plain rowdy! Food obsessions such as hunting wild mushrooms or vast trays of snails baked over an open fire are examples of rauxa, but the calçotada has perhaps the most rauxa of all!

Careful attention to detail is all important, of course; good seny ensures that there are plenty of willing hands available to do the ‘man’s’ work!

As always more ‘volunteers’ turn up when all is up and running!

Meanwhile the party gets under way . . .

While yet more go onto the blaze, each batch of calçots is wapped up to keep warm – just like fish and chips!

A slight ‘technical hitch’ causes a brief moment of concern . . .

. . . but all’s well . . .

. . . that ends well . . .

. . .until the second course is ready!

Followed by dessert, coffee and refined parlour games for the ‘children’!

Until it’s time to wave goodbye – and to wash your hands!

There’s a bitter-sweet irony about this calçotada – as the masia is slowly being swallowed up by the city’s inexorable growth. But the integration of urban and rural life is very much a Catalan specialism – with thier long history of migration to centres such as Barcelona, Catalans have learnt to keep thier roots alive by living the culture. Although a calçotada doesn’t quite come off outside of a bucolic location, it’s more about a way of seeing things than the actual event, participation and friendship are at the heart of such festes!

You can always spot an otter . . .

February 6th, 2009 Written by Simon Rice

There could hardly seem a less promising place to go naturalising than the stretch of the Noguera Pallaresa just downstream from Tremp, ‘capital’ of the Pallars Jussà comarca in the Catalan pre-Pyrenees. The river here passes through a wide flood plain and is flanked with large banks of shaley gravel; in fact the numerous irrigated fields that take advantage of the level ground are interspersed with several gravel pits. The river itself is contained within large levees that run in a dead straight line for several miles. But in its wisdom the Ajuntament, or town hall, has developed the west bank with leisure facilities and a nature trail; as well as equipment for circuit training of the sit-up, press-up variety (which I studiously ignore!) and the track itself has been prepared for walkers and runners, complete with kilometre posts and some very welcome benches, with notices pointing out the flora and fauna – plus strict instructions about not damaging them!

The river itself has a life of its own, however, as in recent years the water authorities have guaranteed a constant flow of running water, rather than siphoning the whole lot off upstream for irrigation as happened in the past, and this has led to the development of lots of habitat between the drearily imposing levees. Islets have formed amid the reed beds and there are stretches of rapids where the course narrows between them. In other places these islets have grown large enough to support trees and there are torpid backwaters oozing with waterweed. These islets are a small miracle as they have to be stable enough to face some serious flooding when the massive San Antoni reservoir just upstream has to ‘let go’. But on closer examination there was something even more interesting!

The facility is surprisingly popular and we find ourselves using it a lot, especially recently during that no-man’s-land time between going to the builders’ merchant before it is inundated with chaps in little white vans, and five-thirty when the proper shops open. This was the first time in weeks that this lowest part of the Conca de Tremp wasn’t still swathed in freezing fog even at that time, and there were plenty of people taking the opportunity for a paseo. That, coupled with the fact that we were, as always, accompanied by our two lupine husky dogs would preclude any great interest in the wildlife but there it was; an beautiful otter in a fishing frenzy just about ten metres away!

It must have been a combination of the noisily rushing water, the animal’s obsession with the task in hand and the fact that we were downwind, but we were able to watch it for well over five minutes (the camera timed this, a handy tool!), moving around to get better camera angles, even flagging down a jogger to look (he stayed in iPodland, however, so maybe this was a more common sight than we’d imagined!) and generally doing the kinds of thing David Attenborough would shudder at! Otter caught at least five fish during this time, appearing to steady itself against a boulder whilst lining up the fish, each about 4-6 oz I would guess, to be swallowed in one gulp.

The last time, almost the only time in fact, I’d seen an otter was in Jerez Zoo, of all places, in the company of the denizens of the Iberianaure Forum which held a ‘summit’ nearby in April last year. As the ‘experts’ carried on their tour of the rare and exotic species I remained at the otter enclosure, struck by its repetitive behaviour, swimming up and down, up and down, in a manner that reminded me of inmates in an institution. But as time went on I realized that the otter was playing a game, swimming upside down at times and turning against the banks of its little pool in numerous different ways, making a seemingly endless variation. Was it romantic of me, or worse still anthropomorphic, to be reminded of Ken Kesey, Henri Charrière or even Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn! In fact ‘our’ otter did very much the same, swimming dexterously between the boulders using numerous different twists and turns. With its head under the water searching for prey its powerful shoulders made a striking bow wave that reminded me, unpleasantly, of that of a nuclear submarine, whose ‘bows’ are underwater several yards ahead of the visible portion.

Leaving those unpleasant reflections we walked back into town as the dusk settled, glad to be back in the human world of street lighting, the babble, not of flowing water but flowing conversation, and more fish, this time neatly arrayed on the peixeteria’s white marble slab!

Postscript: despite the problems I subsequetly had with the camera, it’s obvious that having it to hand generated some memorable, if completely amateur, images. However I feel the more important aspect of our brief encounter was in its unexpected, spontaneous nature. I developed this theme elsewhere last year in the Iberianature Forum following a similarly sighting of a fox. Unencumbered with gadgets our little party, incuding a professional ‘media’ person, were simply spellbound by the close proximity of a wild animal in its own domain. This time the impression was heightened, perhaps, due to the unprepossessing location and inauspicious circumstances!

Autumn along the Noguera Pallaresa

November 21st, 2008 Written by Simon Rice

It’s only a few weeks ago now but with the recent wintry weather makes it seem as if autumn has passed us by. Mid October gave us what was probably the most perfect weeks to explore the upper limits of the River Noguera Pallaresa, high in the Pyrenees upstream of the town of Esterri d’Aneau –the last township on the southern side of the central cordillera.

The main road heads northwest in its quest for the Port de Bonaigüa and the Val d’Aran that lies beyond. But we headed due north, seeking the source of the river before it was cut off until spring. The valley of the Noguera seems to dive between towering slopes on either side, passing the tiny villages of Borén and Isil (above) before petering out altogether at Alos d’Isil. Beyond the Refugi de Fornet the track gets too rough for our car and besides the huskies are by now getting decidedly fractious.

The proximity of dense forest mean that we are all trussed up together – once huskies get loose in the range there’s little chance of them heeding our calls. So we spend time dawdling among the water meadows, exploring the ruined bordas along the way and simply admiring the stunning colours of the autumn tints.

Along the way we find a memorial plaque commemorating the guides who helped allied airmen escape into Spain during the Second World War, just alongside the present day Grande Route trail over the Porte d’Aulan, lost among the peaks high above us.

The sky begins to turn threatening as we press on, checking watches and beginning to realise that we weren’t going to get far enough. As if to remind us we encountered herds of cattle heading down from the summer pastures.

The following week the autumn seemed to shut like a barn door – blizzards and freezing weather engulfed much of Northern Spain, and the Catalan Pyrenees were no exception. Looking at the scene from a walk near to Casa Rafela we couldn’t help but notice the dogs’ yearning to return to thier ‘native’ habitat!

This time we too took the Port de Bonaigüa road and passed through the ugly ski resort of Baqueira Beret, turning sharply uphill through the snow to the Pla de Beret. Here we nearly drove into the source of the river, neatly sealed off from passing tourists by a picket fence!

The river flows constantly direct from the font and all but the heaviest snow falls fail to settle there so we could see the course meander off across the almost dead flat pla.

Its curious to think that just a few metres away the neighbouring brook tumbles northwards to join the Garona, the French river Garonne, in the Val d’Aran far below.

After a bit of an anticlimax we pressed on beyond the ski station and tried to walk down towards the abandoned monastery of Mare de Diu de Montgarri which bears silent witness to the warm climate that existed here before the mini ice age of the XVII century – nowadays life here would be unimaginable in winter!

It was frustrating to see the settlement far below, but once again we had underestimated the distances in the huge landscape!