‘The Sacred Made Real’ at the National Gallery

To quote their own blurb:

The Sacred Made Real’ presents a landmark reappraisal of religious art from the Spanish Golden Age with works created to shock the senses and stir the soul.

Paintings, including masterpieces by Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Zurbarán, are displayed for the very first time alongside Spain’s remarkable polychrome wooden sculptures.

By ‘polychrome wooden sculptures’ they mean things like this, Christ as the Man of Sorrows, 1673, by Pedro de Mena (I’ve had to take the picture from the Guardian, which has a good selection, because the NG has got no images on the exhibition website at all):

Sacred-Made-Real-Christ-a-016

I find this business of coloured sculpture intriguing, because of course if you’re aiming for verisimilitude it makes perfect sense; and yet, largely by historical accident, we have come to expect sculpture in the fine art tradition to be in the bare material, whether marble, bronze or whatever.

These works looks especially foreign from a Protestant perspective. And yes, I know I keep going on about being an atheist, but I’m clearly a Church of England atheist when it comes to my religious sensibilities. And the Protestant aesthetic of whitewashed churches and plain glass is explicitly intended to contrast with this kind of art; it is sculptures like these that are processed through the streets of Seville in Holy Week by masked penitents, which must be the apotheosis of the bells and smells side of Catholicism. Protestants over the years have found that either tawdry and vulgar or solemn, dignified and mysterious, according to taste, but one way or the other it has a fascinatingly exotic quality for those of us brought up with the tea and biscuits kind of Christianity.

My initial reaction to these sculptures was ambivalent; there was something spooky or creepy or just a bit odd about them. And I don’t mean the gore; the head of John the Baptist where the cross section of the neck looks like something from the butcher’s, or Christ bruised and dripping with blood. No, even the statues of saints and the Virgin seemed a bit creepy at first encounter. St Ignatius Loyola, with his dark robes, looks like something that might lurch out of the dark at a carnival ghost train.

I’m tempted to invoke the uncanny valley, but actually I think it’s mainly simple unfamiliarity. The sculptures only seem like something from Madame Tussauds — something other than fine art — because of my expectations. Eventually, once I had been in the exhibition for a while, that sense of novelty wore off a bit; and eventually I was able to stop overthinking it and start to respond to the works as pieces of art.

And once that happened I did start to appreciate them and find them quite effective. They are not my new favourite thing, and I’m still not sure I’d say I really like them, even. But I’m certainly glad I went. Thought-provoking stuff.

There are also some fine paintings in the show as well, incidentally, by Velázquez and Zurburán particularly; but those were more familiar and less interesting to me, except in the way they provide a context for the sculptures. It is interesting, for example, that although they are recognisably part of the same religious culture, the paintings are immediately and obviously ‘art’, while my reaction to the sculptures was so much more difficult.

Congratulations Spain

A much deserved win.

Which, incidentally, means that there are now 10 countries who have won a major international football tournament since England last did it. Germany, Italy and Brazil have won 10 between them in that period.

» Winners Spain, uploaded to Flickr by mwboeckmann and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

thoughts on England vs Spain

If Peter Crouch didn’t spend the first half hour of a game treating defenders to his best imitation of a mountaineer trying to swarm up the north face of the Eiger, he might be more likely to get decisions going in his favour later.

Shaun Wright-Phillips and Kieron Dyer have both still got the qualities that made them exciting when you first saw them, but I think we’re going to have to give up on the hope that one them will suddenly turn into Christiano Ronaldo.

I’m really sick of hearing Alan Hansen come out with some version of “Well, obviously they’re better than us at actually using a foot to control a ball, but maybe if we run around fast enough and relentlessly enough, we’ll distract them.” it’s not that I think he’s wrong, I just want it to be England who are, in that weirdly double-edged phrase, a ‘good technical side’. Of course technique isn’t enough on its own, and there are other quailities that go into making a successful sportsman, but there must be some degree of correlation between technical excellence and, you know, winning stuff.

bird of the year 2006: best performances in a supporting role

Best Plant

All those rainforest plants were nice, and I enjoyed taking wildflower photos while I was in Spain. But, not least because it’s nice to pick a winner that I can actually identify, I’m going for the Galapagos Prickly Pear, Opuntia echios. On islands where there are giant tortoises and land iguanas, they’ve evolved woody trunks and have fierce spines; on other islands they don’t have the trunks and they have soft bendy spines. And I enjoyed taking macro pictures of them, like this bit of trunk:

Best Insect

There were some great butterflies in the jungle – notably spectacular blue morphos – and a particularly striking leaf-mimicking moth, but my winner is the Painted Locust.

Best Invertebrate (other)

The shortlist would include the tarantula I saw in the rainforest – a first for me – the Chocolate Chip Sea Star and Galapagos Slipper Lobster (curious-looking and tasty), but the undoubted star in this category was the Sally Lightfoot Crab.

Best Fish

Piranha deserves a mention, even if I didn’t see one actually in the water, and it was very gratifying to see sharks swimming long with just their fins sticking out of the water, like what they do in the movies. But I had two special fish in the Galapagos this year. For the first, we were anchored off an island at night. Lots of fish had been attracted to the boat’s lights, and they in turn had attracted sea-lions and turtles, so we were watching them splashing around in the phosphorescence. Every so often there would be a splash where one of the sea-lions was swimming and a trail of phosphorescence would shoot off, zig-zagging over the water. It took me a few occasions to realise that they were flying fish. Which was cool.

The other came when I was trying to track down something splashing in the distance — I thought it was probably a dolphin, but I kept missing it or not seeing it well enough to identify. When I finally got binoculars on it, I was stunned to realise it was a manta ray leaping clear of the water. Later on in the trip we saw them a bit closer, and it was an absolute thrill. They don’t look like the most aerodynamic beasties, and it’s extraordinary seeing them launch themselves and twist in midair before crashing back into the water. Manta ray and flying fish are both species I’ve wanted to see for a very long time, but the manta wins the award for best fish of 2006.

Best Amphibian

A teeny-weeny poison arrow frog in the rainforest.

Best Reptile

It’s all Galapagos in this category: the shortlist is Green Turtle, Land Iguana, Marine Iguana and Giant Tortoise. It’s always nice to see turtles, and especially to swim with them, but I’ve seen them before. The three Galapagos specialities are all among the most desirable reptile species in the world. The tortoises are fun, and even bigger than you expect; the land iguana is a striking-looking beast. But it’s the marine iguanas which really stand out.

The fact that they’re lizards which swim out to sea to feed would almost be enough to win them the category, but they’re one of the continual pleasures of visiting the islands; you have to be careful not to step on them, they’re so indifferent to your presence. And you see them in great scaly drifts draped all over the lava, occasionally sneezing out the excess salt or aggressively nodding their heads at each other but mainly spending their time basking in the sun like hungover English tourists. They have a rugged, rock-hewn saurian quality that makes them seem like survivors from a distant epoch, which is misleading since in fact the islands, by evolutionary standards, are relatively young.

Best Mammal

I saw squirrels and monkeys in the jungle, and in another year those might be in contention for Best Mammal. And then there was the dozens and dozens of Bottle-nosed Dolphins and False Killer Whales that turned up unexpectedly one morning and which swam around the dinghy for us to see, or the dolphins that rode the bow-wave of the ship, jumping and twisting. But there can be no doubt that the Galapagos Sea Lion is the winner this year. It’s such a treat to be able to just wander past these animals and have them pay you no attention but just get on with playing, suckling their pups (cubs?) or most often just lying around.

The babies are fantastically cute, and the males are imposing, but the general impression is big furry bolsters — until you’re snorkelling along and suddenly a sea lion swims past underneath and looks up at you, and you realise that they’re sleek, graceful, muscular, and quite large. I found having a sea lion stick it’s nose up to my snorkel mask exciting but just a little bit intimidating. I think that’s a good thing; it’s good to be reminded from time to time that animals are not toys or pets or little furry people, but something quite alien. We tend to see animals in a human context, as food, pests, entertainment, ‘endangered species’; it’s good to feel like the outsider in their environment.

Best Ecosystem

Andalusia in spring was gorgeous. The marsh itself, with nightingales and Cetti’s warblers singing in every bush, and the sun on the water; the dry scrubby stuff with Dartford Warblers and Red-legged Partridge, and possibly best of all, sandy pine woodlands, with the amazing contrast between the glare of the noon sun and the deep shade, and the noise of bees and crickets in the heat.

And the lava fields of the Galapagos are like nowhere else on earth. It’s not a gentle landscape — uneven, sunbaked rock with the occasional cactus or thornbush hanging on as best it can — but the ripples and flows of the lava are endlessly fascinating. It’s geology made ridiculously simple; you can just look at it and see how it formed. And it brings home the endless capacity of life to find a way to live in unpromising places; the cacti colonising the bare rock before soil has a chance to form, the mangroves on the beach, and sea lions, seabirds, iguanas, sea stars, crabs and fish on the little fringe where the land meets the sea. And it’s not just interesting; it has a real beauty to it. It’s dramatic and odd and textured.

But my ecosystem of the year was none of those; it was the Ecuadorian cloudforest. I mean, it’s a rainforest with spectacular mountain views: how can you go wrong? The birds are actually sometimes at eye-level, unlike the lowland forest, and the temperatures are very moderate, even chilly sometimes. The humidity is such that plants just grow everywhere; you get the feeling that if you nodded off up on the mountain, you’d wake up covered in moss. There are trees up there which are so covered in epiphytes, bromeliads, moss, ferns and creepers that you can only roughly tell where the trunk and branches are. And every so often the cloud closes in, and instead of spectacular vistas, the world shrinks right down so it’s just you and the mist and a lot of weird calls from invisible birds.

I don’t have a photo which does justice to the vegetation (my camera batteries died), but here are some mountains:

(my) bird of the year, 2006

While I’m rounding up 2006.

2006 was a pretty good birding year for me, mainly because of my trip to Andalusia at Easter and Galapagos/Ecuador in the autumn. But I did get one lifer in Britain this year, which for a rather occasional, fair weather birder like me was very exciting. That was Horned Grebe (what used to be called Slavonian Grebe), which I saw in the sea off Hampshire when I was visiting my sister last month. But a winter-plumage grebe some way out to sea isn’t going to be my bird of the year, nice though it was (and the grebes are a great family of birds).

The new birds I saw in Spain were particularly exciting because I’ve been using European bird guides for 20 years now, and the birds in the guide which are not found in the UK have a particular glamour for me. However gorgeous the bird, if you’ve never heard of it before you see it, it’s not as exciting as something you’ve wanted to see for decades.

The three best birds on that trip were probably Collared Pratincole, Azure-winged Magpie, and Royal Tern. For once, I can illustrate a bird with a picture of my own. This is a Collared Pratincole:

It’s one of those appealing animals that has rather obviously evolved away from the standard model of its ancestors into a different niche. As I said about this photo on Flickr, “Runs like a plover, flies like a tern.” Pratincoles are waders, like plovers and sandpipers, but at some point in their evolutionary history they took to catching insects on the wing. Perched they look like rather stretched plovers; in flight their long, pointed wings and agile flight make them look like terns or swallows.

Azure-winged Magpie is just a beautiful bird. Like most crows, they have a bit of personality, but it’s those incredible blue wings and tail that make them special. And Royal Tern is a rarity; a basically new world species that also breeds on the Atlantic coast of Africa (Mauritania, I think, but don’t quote me on it) and occasionally turns up on the south coast of Spain, where I saw it. So that was cool.

The Galapagos was full of good stuff, of course. The total list wasn’t that huge (53), but there were some classy birds on it.

Some species worthy of note:

Everyone’s favourite Galapagos bird, the Blue-footed Booby. It has blue feet! And a silly name! Flightless Cormorant – for me, the name says it all. Woodpecker Finch – the least finch-like of the ‘Darwin finches’, and so the most striking example of adaptive radiation. Swallow-tailed Gull- the world’s only nocturnal gull. And frigatebirds, which I’ve seen a few times before but are just one of my favourite families of birds.

It was also just a pleasure to be at sea for a week and be able to watch real marine species, the kind that only come to land to breed: shearwaters, petrels and storm petrels. I’ve seen other shearwater species a few times before, and they’re great things. They ride the air currents just above the waves, whipping along stiff-winged with one wing-tip practically touching the water surface and occasionally swivelling from one side to the other. But to see storm petrels was one of various lifetime ambitions fulfilled on that trip (I have a lot of wildlife-related lifetime ambitions, so I’m not going to run out anytime soon), and they weren’t a disappointment. Whereas shearwaters seem perfectly suited to the rigours of the open ocean — all wing, seeming to travel effortlessly with just the tiniest movements — storm petrels are delicate little fluttery birds. The Japanese call them umi-tsubame: sea swallows. Their cutest habit is ‘walking’ on the water – flying just above the sea with their feet pattering on the surface whille they look for food. I could happily watch them for hours.

And so to Ecuador. Birding in the tropics is just extraordinary: the sheer number of species makes it quite unlike birding up here in the north. And so many of them are colourful (parrots, toucans, hummingbirds, trogons, quetzals, tanagers) or just excitingly different (woodcreepers, spinetails, antbirds, antpittas, tapaculos). The birds that stand out in memory include Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, Yellow-rumped Cacique, Long-billed Woodcreeper, Grass-green Tanager, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, and perhaps the cutest bird in the whole world, the Booted Racket-tail.

But for my bird of year, we’re going back to the Galapagos and the Waved Albatross:

To see albatross was another lifetime ambition. They are the epitome of wildness; breeding on remote rocky islands in the southern oceans and spending most of their time out at sea. And they’re big; Waved isn’t the biggest species, but it still has a 7′ 7″ wingspan. When one of those flies low overhead, as they did when we were on the island where they breed, it’s a special moment. It was great to see them on land and get a really good view of them, and particularly to see them ‘dancing’: the pair mirrors each other movements and go through a whole repertoire of posing, beak-rattling, throwing their heads back, leaning one way and the other. But for me it was especially satisfying that I saw my first one at sea. We were out on deck looking for whales and the albatross went past quite unexpectedly — it was the opposite end of the archipelago from where they breed — and as soon as I was sure I screamed ‘Albatross! Albatross!’; largely, it has to be said, to the bemusement of all the non-birders around me. That moment, when you suddenly see a bird you really want, is such a rush. I’m sure it taps into millions of years of our ancestors’ hunting instincts. But I’m not picking Waved Albatross as my bird of the year just because it gave me an adrenaline hit. It was a special bird.

Scallops with serrano ham and sherry

Based loosely on ‘angels on horseback’ and a Spanish dish. No pictures, I’m afraid.

Mix up a little olive oil, lemon juice and pepper. Dip each scallop in the mix and wrap it in a narrow strip of ham. Fry the hammy scallops until just done. Deglaze the pan with dry sherry and pour over the scallops.

I actually cooked it in a frying pan on the barbecue, but only because the kitchen is so hot at the moment.

It was a tad too salty but delicious. A thinner-cut, less salty ham (prosciutto, if you don’t mind dropping the Spanish theme) would probably sort that out.

Menu drollery

An Indian takeaway menu put through my door had this:

Biryanis
This elaborate form of cooking involves baking layers of meat or vegetables such that the flavours and aromas enthuse the rice; enhanced with saffron and spices.

Which reminded me of a couple of phonetic attempts at English from a menu in Spain. Since I can speak, read or write no languages other than my own, I always feel a bit embarrassed finding amusement in other people’s broken English, but these are just fabulous:

Fraid in bredcams praws

Could mits

Spain Bird List

I’ve divided the list into not-very-taxonomically-coherent chunks to make it easier to read.

Little Grebe
Great-crested Grebe
?Mediterranean Shearwater
Cormorant

Little Bittern
Cattle Egret
Squacco Heron
Little Egret
Grey Heron
Purple Heron

White Stork
Glossy Ibis
Spoonbill
Flamingo

Greylag Goose
Mallard
Gadwall
Shoveler
Garganey
Pochard
Red-crested Pochard

Griffon Vulture
Short-toed Eagle
Booted Eagle
Black Kite
Marsh Harrier
Kestrel
Lesser Kestrel
Peregrine

Red-legged Partridge
Moorhen
Coot
Purple Swamphen

Avocet
Black-winged Stilt
Collared Pratincole
Ringed Plover
Kentish Plover
Grey Plover
Sanderling
Dunlin
Curlew Sandpiper
Common Sandpiper
Redshank
Black-tailed Godwit
Bar-tailed Godwit
Whimbrel

Black-headed Gull
Yellow-legged Gull
Audouin’s Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Little Tern
Gull-billed Tern
Royal Tern (!!)
Whiskered Tern

Wood Pigeon
Collared Dove
Cuckoo
Great Spotted Cuckoo
Little Owl
Swift
Pallid Swift
Hoopoe
Bee-eater
Ring-necked Parakeet
?Blue-crowned Parakeet

Crested Lark
Calandra Lark
Sand Martin
Swallow
House Martin
Tawny Pipit
White Wagtail
Yellow Wagtail
Wren
Robin
Nightingale
Wheatear
Stonechat
Blackbird

Garden Warbler
Blackcap
Sardinian Warbler
Whitethroat
Dartford Warbler
Sedge Warbler
Zitting Cisticola
Savi’s Warbler
Cetti’s Warbler
Reed Warbler
Great Reed Warbler
Melodious Warbler
Chiffchaff

Spotted Flycatcher
Pied Flycatcher
Great Tit
Blue Tit
Long-tailed Tit
Short-toed Treecreeper

Woodchat Shrike
Azure-winged Magpie
Magpie
Jackdaw
Carrion Crow
Raven

Spotless Starling
Golden Oriole (heard)
House Sparrow
Tree Sparrow
Chaffinch
Linnet
Goldfinch
Greenfinch
Serin
Corn Bunting

Whales watched.

The whales behaved very prettily – a group of Long-finned Pilot Whales came over and swam around the boat so we could see them. Also Common Dolphin and Striped Dolphin. They saw the first Sperm Whale of the season yesterday, apparently, but no such luck for us.

Also saw what I’m pretty sure must have been a pair of Balearic Shearwaters – the proportions seem wrong for Cory’s and the pale underside wasn’t that striking – but not being familiar with either species and only seeing them fleetingly, I don’t know if I can count it.

whale-watching

I’ve booked a whale-watching trip for tomorrow. I suspect this means a few dolphins and a pilot whale if you’re lucky, rather than enormous skeins of sperm whales stretching as far as the eye can see. But I figure it will also be a good way to see some pelagic birds – skuas, shearwaters, petrels and suchlike. It certainly seems worth a punt.

I am slightly worried that the famous local windiness will result in a trip mostly memorable for the vomiting, but hey-ho, the wind and the rain.

Tarifa

I’m in Tarifa. Tarifa is the southernmost point in Europe – or at least the point closest to Africa or something – which is why I’m here. Migration. Huge flocks of raptors flying across the straits on their way north. Theoretically. It’s also the kite-surfing capital of Europe, so if I suddenly get the urge to get a tattoo or a pair of baggy shorts, I’m in the right place.

The kite-surfing thing is because of the wind system created by the meeting of the Med and the Atlantic. So I may also end up a bit sand-blasted.

humph.

I actually came in to check my email, but for some reason this computer won’t let me access it. Some stupid security setup I expect. So I’ll anecdotalise instead.

I went into a restaurant for lunch today – Easter Sunday – and they were playing the ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ soundtrack on the stereo. Sly satire?

Sevilla

Seville! City of tiny platesful of food!

The food has indeed been yummy. Garlic prawns, morcilla (the local version of black pudding), scrambled eggs with garlic shoots and ham, etc etc. I haven’t been getting my 5 servings of fruit and vegetable a day, mind you. Even if you count bread and breadsticklets as seperate vegetables. The trouble is, you order a half portion of ham or prawns or something and they bring loads of bread with it, and that’s pretty much a reasonable meal. Being Easter, it’s also the city of men in pointy hats. With, on the one hand, men in loafers, neat blue jeans, smart shirts, cashmere jumpers tied around their shoulders and designer sunglasses, and on the other, long parades of people in penitential hoods marching through the streets, it feels a bit like turning up to a party and realising no one told you the dresscode was ’80s or KKK’.

I can’t quite get around the sheer number of people taking part in the parades. Each one seems to have hundreds of participants, in pointy hoods carrying candles, in floppy hoods carrying crosses, a few carrying incense or the main figures of Christ or the Virgin, and a largish band to play dirges and thump drums. Since each church in Seville has a parade, and there are a lot of churches in Seville, it must represent a significant proportion of the city population every year. I’m sure the degree of real religious feeling varies – it seems like it’s as much an expression of local tradition now as a display of penitence – but a lot of it must be heartfelt. It gives me the creeps rather. An upbringing in a country where people who deny the literal truth of the resurrection get chosen as bishops is no preparation for mass displays of fervour.

On Maundy Thursday, lots of women appeared wearing mantillas. And dark glasses.

Trivia of the day: one of the statues of the Virgin is called the Macarena, after the area of Seville where the church is, many Seville women get named Macarena after the Virgin; the cheesy pop classic is named after one of these women.

If you’re ever in Seville, I’d definitely recommend the Real Alcazar, the Islamic/Renaissance palace started by the Almohads, and continued both in the Moorish and classical styles by the Spanish kings after the reconquest. It has large and rather lovely gardens which are almost as good as the palace itself. It’s a kind of second-rate version of Alhambra, but Alhambra sets such a high standard that second-rate is pretty good. I’ve always loved the idea of a house built around a central courtyard, but of course in Britain you wouldn’t be building a shady oasis, you’d be building a dingy hole that, at best, spent much of the year acting as a windbreak.

El Rocio

OK, I can’t get to my hotel because there’s a procession in the way, which seems like a good opportunity to blog the first week of my trip. Or to go to a bar and have a beer and a little tapa of something, but blogging it is.

I went to a town on the borders of the Coto Doñana National Park called El Rocio. Next to the town there’s a huge lagoon called Madre de las Marismas (mother of the marshes) where there are lots of birds, and there are some convenient other birding spots nearby, including a mix of habitats: pinewoods, scrub, deciduous trees along the rivers. So it’s a good place for birding on foot. I did pretty well on the bird front, getting most of the things I would have said were target species – Azure-winged Magpie, Great-spotted Cuckoo, Purple Heron – as well as some rather less glamorous lifers like Great Reed Warbler. Oh, and flamingo, spoonbill, stork and so on. So that was good. I hope I’ve got some quite nice birdy photos out of it, but those may have to wait until I get back to my own computer before you see them.

It also had enormous numbers of nightingales. Really a lot. I got quite annoyed with them after a while, because I rather hoped one would be a Penduline Tit or something. Nightingales are famous for the beauty of their song, or course, but actually I think they’re really famous because they’re very loud and completely indefatigable. Not only do they sing at night, they sing all day as well, absolutely belting it out. They do make some quite nice noises, to be fair – including Coleridge’s ‘one low piping sound more sweet than all’ – but they also make some very peculiar squawks, rattles, grunts and so on.

El Roco is quite an interesting place – all one-storey white buildings and sand-covered roads. Very pictureskew. All the guidebooks accuse it of looking like the set of a cowboy film. On the other hand, after a long day on your feet, carrying a telescope, birdbook, water, binoculars, camera, suncream etc, walking on sand really saps the strength out of you. The locals get around on horses, dirtbikes or 4-wheel drive.

El Rocio’s other claim to fame is that it’s the site of Spain’s biggest annual pilgrimage. A million people come, apparently, many on horseback or in oxcarts, and much piety, drinking, eating and generally debauching around the campfire ensues. In flamenco costumes. So there are whole streets of buildings marked with ‘Hermandad de Sevilla’ or whatever – a different brotherhood for every town in Andalucía. There must be hundreds of them and, of course, they’re all empty for the 51 weeks of the year when they’re not hosting pilgrims.

Anyway, I was mostly birding and I won’t bore you with too many details about that. I’ve now been in Seville for a day and a bit, but I think that my Seville thoughts can wait for a moment.

… and annoyingly I haven’t brought out my bit of paper with email addresses on it, so I can’t email my friends and family. Oh well, that too will have to wait.

Hiatus

Tomorrow I’m going to Spain for three weeks. I expect I’ll get to an internet café and blog something sooner or later, but I don’t know when that’s likely to be. I’m planning to keep napowrimoing, and I’ll post them when I get the chance.

Birds, history and stuff

When I started planning a trip to Andalucía, I posted a message to BirdForum asking whether my plans were practical. One of the people who replied was John Butler, who, I’ve since discovered, not only runs bird tours there but actually wrote the book on birding in the area. One of the things he said was:

Do not miss Sevilla. It is a beautiful city and well worth visiting for the sights of the city, but there are also lots of birds to be seen. Lesser Kestrels live in large numbers around the cathedral and these will be joined by Pallid Swifts from late March onwards. Lots of good birding can also be done in the Maria Louisa gardens, less than a km from the historic centre of the city.

I can’t tell you how much it made me smile to read that “Lesser Kestrels live in large numbers around the cathedral”. There’s something special about going to a place for the history and architecture, and seeing good birds there. Partially it’s just because it’s double the pleasure, but also the bird makes the place more memorable and the place makes the bird more memorable. And because birds play a large part in my sense of place, they can bring somewhere to life beyond its historical context.

Some examples – White Storks nesting on the top of marble columns in the ruins of Ephesus; a pair of Scops Owls in a tree outside the museum at Corinth; Cirl Bunting at Mycenae, Long-legged Buzzard at Troy. Perhaps the best of the lot – swirling flocks of thousands of Alpine Swifts coming in to roost in the walls of Fez in Morocco.

hable despacio por favor

I’ve been trying to learn a little Spanish before going on holiday. I have no illusions that a few weeks of cramming will enable me to walk alongside the Rio Guadalquivir reading Lorca in the original – or even make small talk about the weather – but at least it might give me a starting point when reading menus and trying to find the right bus. My vestigial French and Latin seem to be even less useful than I expected, although trying to learn the verb forms in the present tense did give me flashbacks of doing my amo amas amat, amamus amatis amant.

I’ve been using an excellent open-source javascript flashcard program called jMemorize. You gotta love the open-source people.

EDIT: I just realised I that I even got the title of this post wrong. That doesn’t bode well for me developing mad skillz in conversational Spanish.

holiday reading suggestions, please

When I go on holiday, I like to take reading matter which is appropriate to the place I’m going. The theory is that both the book and the place are enhanced by each other. A couple of years ago, I went to Tivoli and greatly enjoyed Howard‘s recommendation – Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography. Really, read it, if you haven’t.

This time I’m going to Andalucía, and I’m looking for suggestions again. So, something related to Andalucía, or Spain more generally; could be biography, fiction, history, poetry or whatever. Any ideas?

The cruellest month. Not.

Three days ago I started planning a holiday with nothing more specific than a vague thought that I wanted to go to Seville last time I was in Spain (8 or 9 years ago) and never made it.

Now I’ve pretty much organised a trip this April that starts in a hotel with a view of the marshes where I should, *fingers crossed* be able to watch flamingos from my bedroom; Seville during the festivities at Holy Week; then down to Tarifa, where Europe is closest to Africa and spring migration should be in full flow, with eagles, storks and loads of other stuff flying in for the summer.

This should *fingers crossed* be a fabulous holiday.

Viva España

I’m just in the process of organising a holiday in Spain, and I’ve excitingly managed to book a room with a marsh view for the first part of my trip.

It’s a birdy thing.

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