Andalucia, Spain

 

April 2006

 

Authors: Chris Cameron and Julie Dawson

 

Introduction

 

This was a two-centre holiday to Granada and Tarifa, combining tourism with a little wildlife watching. We wanted to see the activities around Holy Week (Semana Santa) in Granada and hoped to find some time to visit Gibraltar and Morocco. We also wanted to spend some time at the renowned migration watch points near Tarifa, above the Straits of Gibraltar.

 

Logistics

 

We flew with Ryanair into Granada, arriving mid-evening and returned from Jerez de la Frontera on a late afternoon flight. We picked up a hire car from Granada airport that we kept for the whole holiday. Parking in the main tourist areas of Granada is at a premium so we parked just outside the city centre where we were able to get a ticket for a week's parking with unlimited entry/exit for about 25 Euros. The car park is called Severo Ochoa and is slightly closer to the centre than the Hotel Center, which can be reached by leaving the ring road at km 128 (Mendez Nunoz).

 

 

10th April 2006

 

We got a taxi from the car park to the Abaicin where our apartment, Boabdil House (see www.granadainfo.com for details) was situated and were met by the owner who walked with us to the apartment (the last 100 metres is not accessible via motor vehicle). Boabdil House is a very pleasant place to stay for a small group/family with two separate bedrooms and a well-furnished kitchen and comfortable living area. It has a view of part of the Alhambra from the garden. The approach is rather steep and might not be suitable for people with mobility problems.

 

When we had unpacked we decided to go down into the city to find something to eat. It was getting quite late and we soon came face to face with the first of several Easter parades that we were to encounter. After stopping to take lots of photographs we decided that it was too late to sit down to eat so we bought some takeaway kebabs and drinks and sat on a wall below the spectacularly illuminated Alhambra Palace to enjoy the warm evening air and listen to the songs of Nightingales and calls of Scops Owls in the trees below the palace.

 

11th April 2006

 

For our first full day we wanted to start off with a little birding before driving in to the Sierra Nevada. We had heard suggestions that there was a site for Dupont?s Lark south of Granada, near the small town of Padul in an old lake bed that was now covered in peat. Our first attempt to find the site was abortive and we found ourselves in some fairly pleasant dry agricultural land on the wrong side of the motorway. European Bee-eater, Red-billed Chough and Spotless Starlings were abundant in this area.

 

We tried again, taking a right turn from the main road through Padul just south of the town centre and eventually reached what looked like the right area. We didn't see any Dupont's Larks but did find a Thekla Lark along with Zitting Cisticola, Collared Pratincole (over), Cetti's Warbler and Woodchat Shrike. There was considerable evidence of agricultural encroachment onto what was probably marshy ground quite recently, as well as commercial peat extraction which perhaps bodes ill for the Dupont's Larks.

 

For lunch we stopped at the Taberna La Batea in Padul where the 'menu del dia' was a real bargain and then we drove up into the mountains, to the ski resort in the Sierra Nevada. There was still a good deal of snow about at altitude and lots of skiers were enjoying the sunny afternoon. We'd brought warm clothes, gloves and waterproofs because we expected to go quite high but found that we really didn?t need them. Despite the fact that we were above the snow line, it was very warm and comfortable even in the shade.

 

We took one of the paths leading away from the very ugly ski resort and quickly left it behind. Rock Buntings and Lesser Whitethroats were quite abundant but pride of place went to the herds of Ibex that were easily seen against the skyline. A small warbler in pine trees near the resort might have been Western Bonelli?s but we were unable to get a proper look at it.

 

There was a timetable available on the internet detailing the dates, times and routes of the various processions during Semana Santa so we found a restaurant with outside seating on the route of this evening's parade and settled down to watch.

 

Although the different processions have many common elements they all have subtle or not so subtle differences. All involve people in costumes including ladies in traditional Spanish dress and men in long robes with tall pointed hoods. All also involve the carrying of heavy floats with representations of Christ, saints or the Virgin Mary. Some are very sombre affairs, others more light hearted and one or two are positively joyful, with brass bands providing accompaniment to chanting celebrants.

 

12th April 2006

 

Our visit to Granada's famous Alhambra Palace was booked for this morning so we were up early for the 15 minute walk to the entrance. This superb example of Moorish architecture, set high above the city is included in almost every list of  '100 places to see before you die'- and justifiably so. The interiors, mainly lit by natural light, are absolutely stunning with brightly coloured tiles contrasting with ornately carved honey-coloured stonework. In some corners carved stones seem to mimic the ceilings of caves with hundreds of stalactites, pre-figuring Gaudi's work on Barcelona's Sagrada Familia by several hundred years. In fact for anybody familiar with Gaudi it is difficult not to draw comparisons in the much more formal style of the Alhambra.

 

In terms of wildlife, of greatest interest were the Painted Frogs that were present in several of the pools, a pair of Crag Martins nesting within the palace and several Blue Rock Thrushes.

 

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the streets of Granada, stopping from time to time for drinks and tapas. For CC, used to the tapas bars of Barcelona where you order what you want and pay for it, tapas in Granada was something of a revelation. In many places a plate of tapas is provided with each alcoholic drink ordered. If you want something more substantial you can order a racion which will be added to the bill. The tapas can be very variable, from slices of bread with tomato and oil, or olives to a small plate of albondigas (meatballs in sauce) or merguez (sausages) or sliced hams and chorizo. With a bit of application and a willingness to drink half a dozen beers or glasses of wine it would be possible to have enough tapas for an evening meal.

 

The Wednesday before Maundy Thursday is the day of what is often called the procession of the Christ of the Gypsies. If you only see two of the processions in Granada, make sure that this is one of them. Of the ones that we saw, this is the most joyful and exhilarating with lively chanting and music from brass bands. It's also the one that looks to be the most physically challenging, going on into the early hours of the morning and climbing the long steep hill to the church in Sacromonte. Our apartment was near the corner where the road to Sacromonte begins and the first section is one of the steepest. We joined the crowds gathered in the area to see how the huge, heavy float would be manhandled up this incline that made us short of breath each time we climbed it. We were astonished by the speed. To an enormous cheer the float started up the hill and almost sprinted up the gradient. They were passed us in seconds, deserving of all the applause they received.

 

13th April 2006

 

This was a day for exploring and hopefully seeing a few birds so we managed an early start and got out on the motorway to head east. It was a lovely sunny morning but there was a distinct chill in the air. We headed in the direction of Guadix where we hoped to find some raptors, larks and bustards in an area well known to bird-watchers.

 

We stopped for breakfast at Km 286 on the A92 for a bit of breakfast and then headed off for wilder places. On the Garafe road, near Km 5 we noticed quite a lot of birds in the fields so stopped for a look. We found a Short-toed Eagle sitting on a rock in the distance and both Northern and Black-eared Wheatear but didn't get a decent look at the various larks that had been obvious from the car.

 

In the attractive gorge of the Rio Gor there were Whinchats, Nightingales and Bee-eaters and as we drove in a loop back towards the main road, lots of Griffon Vultures were in evidence, along with a single Black Vulture. We stopped on a long, straight section of road with exceptional visibility with areas of quite lush grassland in view and stopped to look for Little Bustards. To our astonishment a police car appeared and the officers got out and ordered us to move on, saying that the car was parked dangerously and could be a hazard to lorries. It was off the road and there was no traffic for miles around but we didn't have much choice. We drove several kilometres to a spot where there was a small off-road area suitable for parking, with the police not far behind. They seemed satisfied that our new parking place, 30 metres from the road was sufficiently far away not to represent a hazard. Unfortunately wed left the good habitat far behind and there really wasn't much to see in the area, so we moved on quite swiftly. We had to be content with a sighting of a flying Little Bustard seen from the moving car.

 

We had a splendid lunch in Guadix in a pizzeria on a back street before we reached the town centre. We had intended to go into the centre but the roads were being worked on and diversions were in place. We were hungry so just tried the first place we found with parking. It turned out to be a good choice.

 

Our map showed a road going over the Sierra Nevada that would take us by a roundabout route back to Granada, so we spent a couple of hours on ever narrower and less well maintained roads until the surface deteriorated to such an extent that we had to admit that we had got lost, so we retraced out tracks and returned on the motorway.

 

Maundy Thursday is the day of the other unmissable event of Semana Santa, the silent procession. The lights on the route are switched off and the whole thing takes place in near darkness, lit only by candles, and silence interrupted only by the insistent beat of a single drum. A solemn and serious affair indeed, compared to the previous night's high spirits.

 

14th April 2006

 

Granada is one of those fortunate places that have a camera obscura. If you've never seen one of these, then you should think about making the effort to take a look at this one. By default, these are often in high places, so it's a bit of a climb, but you might find it worthwhile. Choose a sunny day. If you've already seen one, then you won?t need convincing. 

 

 

By mid-morning we were back on the road to the high Sierra Nevada. We were pleased to spot an Azure-winged Magpie, the only one of the trip and a new bird for JD as we ascended. From the ski resort we followed the path we'd taken a few days before, intending to go for a longer walk this time. On the horizon, perhaps a kilometre in front of us we saw some movement and through the binoculars could make out a couple of small deer that looked rather like Chamois. We looked hard for these when we got to the small crag where we had seen them, but with no luck. Our research since then has provided no evidence of Chamois or similar mammals in the Sierra Nevada, so perhaps what we saw were young ibex.

 

Our best meal in Granada was in the restaurant that we chose for this Good Friday evening. We'd spotted a couple of interesting looking Tapas Bars when walking back from the car park and had picked out a place called Taberna La Casuelita on Almona de San Juan de Dios, just across the road (and down the steps) from the park that contains the Fuente de Triunfo. The place was packed when we arrived and we were lucky to get a table because a party was just leaving. We ordered some drinks which came with excellent tapas and spent the next couple of hours sampling a variety of different raciones, some of which were easily good enough to risk repeat orders. We left several hours later and several pounds heavier, but not much poorer because the bill was really quite small. The restaurant even had a range of local bottled beers, some of which were rather better than the average Eurolager that is sold all over Spain.

 

We stopped to admire the pretty coloured fountains on our way back to Boabdil House. Not quite the spectacle of Barcelona's Font Magica, perhaps, but pleasing nonetheless.

 

15th April 2006

 

This was the day that we were due to transfer from Granada to Tarifa. Mindful of the fact that we would have to carry our luggage for at least some distance both at the start of the trip and at the end, we'd decided the afternoon before to leave any unnecessary items locked in the car. These included our waterproofs, so it goes without saying that it was raining when we woke up. Raining hardly seems fair comment ? it was absolutely pouring down. We debated our options, packed our bags and 'phoned for a taxi. We were told to 'phone again when we had reached a point that a taxi could get to and looked out of the window to find that the rain had more or less stopped, so we carted our bags and cases down the hill as quickly as we could. It had started to drizzle again by the time the cab got to us, but we weren't too wet.

 

With our luggage loaded into the hire car we set off on the longish drive to Tarifa. It was raining properly by the time we left the car park, where we discovered that the windscreen wipers on the car didn't work. We knew the route back to the motorway and worked out a routine of wiping the windscreen manually each time we stopped at traffic lights. This was ok but hardly satisfactory and we weren?t looking forward to the 20km drive back to the car hire depot.

 

Driving on the motorway wasn't too bad, as long as the speed stayed above 90 kph, because the rain blew horizontally across the windscreen a this speed and didn't interfere too much with visibility, but it was with some relief that we arrived back at the rental depot, where they fixed the problem in less than 10 minutes. After this we were back on the motorway and heading for Malaga then all points west.

 

The rain stayed with us for most of the morning but the weather started to improve as we reached the coast and by the time we reached Tarifa the sun was shining and the temperature was beginning to rise. We had booked a two-bedroom apartment in the Los Lances II development on the renowned Los Lances beach, through www.livingtarifa.com. We dropped our luggage off, changed into shorts and walked into town for an initial look around. First impressions were promising. The old town is a maze of narrow streets surrounded by walls and buildings, reached by a limited number of gates. We found a place for a latish lunch and then discovered that whale and dolphin watching trips were being offered. The next trip was due out at 4 p.m. The sea looked calm and the sun was warm so we bought tickets and marched down to the harbour with about 50-odd other visitors.

 

There was a small flock of Turnstones in the harbour and a single Audouin's Gull sat watching us from the harbour wall. Several adult and juvenile Northern Gannets were observed quite close to land. Sea conditions were good and we were soon seeing good numbers of Cory's and Balearic Shearwaters as we headed out from the coast. We also saw a small party of auks that were too distant to ID, heading west, presumably on their way to their breeding grounds.

 

The first dolphins that we saw were Common Dolphins, a small party of which gave reasonable views. These were barely out of sight when we came upon a much larger pod of Long-finned Pilot Whales that were swimming at a leisurely pace in the direction of Gibraltar and the Med. We were able to watch this pod for a considerable length of time with animals often swimming alongside or underneath the vessel. Some commercial dolphin watching companies have a bad reputation for chasing after their targets to obtain better views, but we were quite pleased to see that when there were dolphins nearby the engines were slowed to very low revs and the creatures were allowed to continue undisturbed.

 

Whilst we were enjoying the sight of so many Pilot Whales a pod of Bottlenosed Dolphins arrived from the south east. These were much faster moving than the Pilot Whales but seemed to quite enjoy playing around the boat (and the Pilot Whales) before heading out toward the open ocean.

Dinner was at one of several pleasant and inexpensive restaurants in the area near to the main church in the old town.

 

 

16th April 2006

 

Gibraltar was our target for today, so we made the short, simple drive from Tarifa, stopping a few kilometres outside town at the Mirador del Estrecho to see whether any visible migration was taking place. Africa is easily visible across the strait, so it's obvious why this location is so well known for bird watching. In the spring months, many thousands of large birds make the short trip across the sea from Morocco before dispersing over much of Europe. Add to this the smaller birds and the total is probably in millions. The birds arrive on a fairly broad front but the Mirador is an ideal place to observe them because of it's elevated position overlooking a couple of steep valleys which tend to concentrate the birds coming in off the sea.

 

The first birds in evidence were Griffon Vultures, dozens of them circling above one of the valleys to gain enough height to climb above the huge number of wind turbines that proliferate in the area. These were seen well before we reached the Mirador. Hundreds of swallows, swifts and House Martins surged up the valleys and headed off north and east.

 

Gibraltar was easy to find and easy to get in to. We'd heard stories that there might be long delays getting across the border and had provisionally decided to park in La Linea and walk across, but there was little traffic and so we kept driving until we found ourselves at the border post. After a quick check of credentials we were in this unusual British colony. We found a place to park and went to explore.

 

Alex and James were hungry for a change so we went to look for breakfast. We strolled around the quiet Sunday morning streets until we found a place mentioned in our up to date Lonely Planet guide as providing some of the best cooked breakfasts in the country. They seemed surprised that we were looking for food because they'd stopped serving meals years before. We soon found another English-style pub though, The Horseshoe, just along from Mothercare, and enjoyed plates of bacon, eggs etc. before moving on.

 

Tourist taxis are abundant in Gibraltar. Several drivers had offered to take us up the rock and after a look at the Trafalgar Cemetery we made up our mind to take the next cab as it seemed to offer a quick way to see the main attractions. The price wasn't too bad for four of us, so off we went to explore the siege tunnels, St. Michael's Cave and most importantly see the monkeys.

 

There are several stories about why there are Barbary Apes on Gibraltar. The most convincing explanation is that they are descended from pets of the Moorish residents hundreds of years ago. They might not be as 'wild' as some of the primates we've seen on other continents but for us at least, these animals were a compelling reason to visit Gibraltar. We weren't disappointed because they are easy to find and clearly very used to tourists.

 

High on the rock is also another good place to witness migration - or so it seemed whilst we were there. Storks, Black Kites, a Honey Buzzard, a Peregrine and an Osprey were all noted in the fairly brief time we spent looking, whilst not distracted by the monkeys.

 

After a forgettable lunch on Grand Casemates Square followed by a brief shopping trip to stock up on vodka we headed off west again, passing Tarifa and finishing up in the tiny coastal village of Bolonia. This may be one of those places to see before it disappears. It has a feel rather like the sort of place thousands of people try to find every year in Greece, usually without success. Nothing much happening, a few laid back and very informal tavernas, patronised mainly by laid back and informal people, some classical ruins (Roman, rather than Greek) and a pretty arc of beach with a blue, blue sea.

We set off to walk the length of the beach to the huge sand dunes at the western end and the boys entertained themselves for half an hour launching themselves from the tops of the steepest slopes to see how far they could get before crashing down into the soft sand. Kentish Plovers were in evidence on the beach, especially around the shallow pool, but not much else of note.

 

Our evening meal was in a delightful restaurant, the Patio de Abuela on one of the narrow, traffic-free back streets in Tarifa that was enlivened by a group of itinerant drummers make a loud and enthusiastic noise to pay for their supper. Well worth a few euros. Strolling back along the beach after midnight we could see the lights of Morocco glinting across the water. Morocco is, surprisingly, two hours behind Spain. James observed 'If I look over there I can see yesterday'.

 

17th April 2006

 

JD and CC left the youngsters to have a lie-in and set off for an early morning drive up the tack that leaves the main road near to the Mirador del Estrecho and heads up the Valle de Sanctuario, hoping to see more evidence of migration. We were perhaps unlucky, or maybe we didn't have enough time to make regular stops but to be honest we didn't see much as we left the coast behind. There were plenty of vultures in the first half mile, but we soon stopped seeing them. A Merlin was a surprise, a Hobby less so and Woodchat Shrikes seemed abundant. The road was driveable but care was needed which meant that it was difficult to drive and watch birds. The section before it reached the main road seemed to go on for ever.

 

Alex and James fancied a day on the beach so after breakfast we left them with some cash and headed west to explore. Our first stop was the lighthouse at Cape Trafalgar which is worth a short detour as it's quite a pretty place. Gannets were streaming by the headland in numbers and the numerous Yellow-legged Gulls were supplemented by smaller numbers of Audouins. Next stop was the so-called abandoned fishing village of Sancti Petri that was less fascinating than it sounds because of the huge amount of development going on in the areas. We passed though some of the ugliest and most inappropriate tourist traps that we've ever seen - a real contrast to what we'd been used to and a stark warning of what can happen if proper controls aren't enforced.

 

Heading out from Sancti Petri towards the motorway we took a left turn at a roundabout signposted 'Centro Ciudad' (presumably of Cadiz) and soon found ourselves running alongside an area of marshes and pools with small heathy patches called La Salinas de Carboneros. This looked worth a look and turned out to be full of birds with Yellow Wagtails, lots of waders and a few Garganey. As the day was wearing on we decided it was time to start heading back to see what the kids were up to and to make sure they hadn't run out of money. When were back in the car we drove back to the roundabout, passing a small roadside pool behind a chicken wire fence. On the way down this pool had perhaps a couple of small plovers on it. A few hours later there were several hundred small and medium-sized birds. Sadly we didn't have time to sort through these because there would surely have been something of interest.

 

In the afternoon we bought tickets for a morning sailing to Tangier from one of the booking offices in Tarifa. Another good meal at one of the restaurants near the church was followed by a (for us) reasonably early night.

 

18th April 2006

 

The formalities for the ferry were quite straightforward and the crossing was fast and painless and we arrived in Tangier about 75 minutes before we left Spain. We ran the gauntlet of taxi driver guides who told us that we were not allowed to visit the city without a guide and made our way out of the port area to meet Mohammed who was to be our guide for the day. We had made contact with Mohammed through the language school in Tarifa ( www.hispalense.com). We've seen mixed reviews of the official Tangier guides. Some might be quite good and others are more likely to spend your time trailing around different tourist shops hoping to supplement their incomes with commission on anything you buy. This is not what we got with Mohammed. He can't charge, because he's not an official guide, but it is permissible to offer him a gift. We didn't bother to find out how much the usual guides charge but we think that we made a reasonable donation and Mohammed seemed pleased, but the experience we had was probably worth much more. We had walking tours of the souks and markets with detailed explanations of everything that was going on, a look at the modern city and then a taxi ride to Mohammed?s lovely house in an elevated position on the edge of the city, with stunning views. We passed the PDSA Pet Cemetery and astonishingly, the cricket ground. Mohammed told us that the sport is increasing in popularity in Morocco.

 

We had a lovely traditional lunch with Mohammed and then it was time to visit the Kasbah and take a look at some Roman period graves excavated from bare rock on some cliffs overlooking the sea. A truly evocative place and when we visited it, completely free of tourists.

 

After another walk around the old city we were delivered back to the port in time for an early evening sailing, arriving back in Tarifa just after dark.

 

Best bird of the day was a surprise House Bunting near the port. Although present in Morocco, the range of this species as described in 'Birds of the Western Palaearctic' stops short of Tangiers, but it does discuss a marked northwards extension of the range in the country, so whether this was an escaped cage bird, a pioneer or a member of an already established population we don?t know. If it was a pioneer though, perhaps it will only be a matter of time before they start to occur regularly on the other side of the strait.

 

A few kites and White Storks were also seen, circling to gain height for the crossing to Europe and at the harbour hundreds of Common Swifts seemed to be keen to try and get across but were put off by the strong onshore wind.

 

19th April 2006

 

Our last full day was split in two. In the morning we went into Tarifa, had churros and chocolate at a churreria (where else?), bought some sandwiches and drinks and then drove west a short distance and turned right at a sort of broken arch/modern sculpture. We followed the road inland for a short while, took a couple of turns, found a spot to park and then set of to find a suitable meadow with a picnic. The setting was pretty, the weather beautiful, the birds vocal and the bugs and butterflies abundant. We watched a Golden Eagle soaring overhead and took photos of wild flowers and beetles. We hunted for snakes and scorpions without success. On the way back, JD wanted to stop to get some photographs of some wild flowers. Although there was very little traffic there was no safe place to park so we dropped her off, drove to a point where we could turn around and then went back to pick her up. As well as a few pretty flowers pictures she had also got an excellent shot of a Tawny Pipit, the only one we saw on the trip, that had hopped up on to the tarmac a few feet from her.

 

The afternoon was spent exploring Tarifa in a little more detail, buying t-shirts from the surf shops and enjoying the back streets. We took a walk along the causeway where signs proclaimed that the Mar Mediterraneo washed the beach on one side whilst the Oceano Atlantico was to be found on the other. Unfortunately there was no access to the island at the end of the causeway.

 

We had to make the difficult choice between the Cafe Central and the Bar Restaurant Morilla for our final evening meal in Andalucia but we knew that whichever we chose we wouldn?t be disappointed.

 

20th April 2006

 

The return flight was from Jerez de la Frontera, so we packed up, loaded the car, returned the apartment keys and set off, intending to stop at a few places on the way. It was another exquisite day with barely a cloud in the sky. Our first stop was the small resort town of Conils, where we ended up spending several hours. Parking was fairly easy to find and we left the car down by the sea front then wandered the streets of the town, which were very quiet in the early afternoon, before finally deciding on a restaurant for lunch. After we?d eaten we walked a fair distance along the beach towards Cape Trafalgar before making up our minds to head for the airport. We drove through the city of Jerez, with its plethora of Osborne bulls and other sherry-based paraphernalia and made it to the airport wit plenty of time to spare. The airport food was better than most and cheaper than many.

 

Conclusion

 

All in all we were agreed that this was a very enjoyable holiday, at a cost broadly similar to that of a family package holiday to the Costa del Sol. The contrast between Granada and its Easter celebrations and the sea and surf ambience of Tarifa was marked. Either place would be good for a short break but combining them seemed like a good idea.

 

We could have seen more birds but at the cost of making the holiday less interesting for the kids who are not very interested most of the time. For adult birders with non-birding families, Tarifa at migration time might be a very good option because there will always be birds to find and visits to the Mirador can be done in an hour, which might mean a bit less conflict with those less interested.

 

 

Bibliography:

 

Lots of trip reports from the usual sources

Collins Birds of Britain and Europe - Heinzel, Fitter and Parslow.

Andalucia - Lonely Planet Guide