56. Matalascañas, Doñana – Andalucia, Spain


An old stone pine tree, Mazagon

We left Morocco as it was playing havoc with our attempts to learn Spanish!

We weren’t overly impressed with Tangiers – there are many people there simply sitting outside cafes, staring at the world going by. Don’t get me wrong, I like that sort of stuff normally but with two, important provisos: 1. The people walking by are really only interesting if they look different from each other, and, 2. There’s only so much coffee/mint tea you can drink. Somehow, beer or wine make the experience more fulfilling.


We left the unhelpful hotel and taxied down to the ferry port for our cross-straits trip back to Europe. The lack of signs at this place creates the ideal opportunity for the local chancers to insist they ‘help’ you. After ‘helping’ us to the right places for tickets/embarkation cards, etc., our ‘helper’ now needs some money – not just the generous amount I was offering, ‘No, I need more than that!’ Ungrateful git.


Driving from Algeciras the following day we were thrilled to see a huge colony of Griffon Vultures riding the thermals above the city.


I vowed a few years ago that I would never again try to negotiate the motorway system around Sevilla but couldn’t avoid it; every few hundred meters there are large imposing road signs saying: ‘Dangerous road, you have less than a 50% chance of getting through this’ (or something like that, my Spanish translation may be subject to some hyperbole). This is not surprising, given that, in places, you leave and join motorways in the fast lane!


P1090952Anyway, we found an apartment in the seaside resort of Matalascañas; it’s deserted at this time of year but we’ve been immersed in some amazing temperatures – reaching 30 degrees. The apartment has a typical Spanish bathroom bog/basin combo: the wash basin being directly in front of the bog, allowing the squatter to do their business and chunder into the sink at the same time. Surely, says something about the Spanish diet.


We moved to this area to do some birding in the beautiful Doñana national park. I have a separate birding blog here for those of you who are interested in that sort of thing. I promise I’ll only mention one or two interesting things here.



The Azure-Winged Magpie

This large area is protected and well looked after by the government. And it’s free! There are many beautiful walks through woodland, scrubland and wetlands. It’s a haven for bird life and is deemed the most important area for migrating birds in Europe with over 350 species recorded. You may be unable to contain your excitement now so you can jump to our full birdlist in the birding blog, here. But, just a taster, the park is full of Azure-winged magpies – a welcome relief for those of you fed up with the bog-standard common magpie. We also bagged a great lifer: the Short-toed Treecreeper – instantly distinguished from its cousin, the Eurasian Treecreeper, on account of its having a hind claw a full millimetre shorter. I also like the name of this bird as it would be pronounced in my native dialect (Hull, in East Yorkshire): the Short Turd Treecreeper!


Thirty or so kilometres away is the delightfully named Marismas del Odiel (marshes of the Odiel river) near Huelva. Here there are hundreds of flamingos and spoonbills and, a special treat, they have introduced ospreys. We got another lifer (we think!): the Curlew Sandpiper.



El Rocio

We’re staying very close to a weird old town called El Rocío; it’s like a Wild West town. Roads are all sand; some people are on horseback; bars like saloons – it’s quite magical.


Friday 13th – early morning start, before Venus and Jupiter had a chance to set. The mist came in from the sea but fortunately it burnt off while we were in Acebuche (‘old olive trees’) where we bagged our third lifer: the Firecrest, a rare relative of the Goldcrest, Britain’s smallest bird.


We’ve now moved on, once more having to negotiate the Sevilla ring road system. They really need to build a ring road around this ring road system! We’ll be staying for a month in Ciudad Real, south of Madrid, as, for no other reason, we’ve never been there before and I know some students who live there who, inexplicably, want us to be their English teachers again!


I think Helen wasn’t too displeased – she was bitten to buggery by mosquitos, a treat that is usually mine.


Andy, 21 November 2015

Ciudad Real


55. Malaga, Gibraltar and Tangiers

Having worked all summer, teaching mainly Spanish and Italian students in Leeds, we decided that we needed to spend some time in Spain to refresh our Spanish.

We went to Malaga once more. We were there about 5 years ago and really liked the place. Most UK travellers come here merely as a transit place before going on to the resorts of Torremolinas, etc., which is a shame because the place really does have a lot to offer. We installed ourselves in an apartment in the middle of what appeared to be a large housing estate; we soon found the local bar which was having a ‘churros fest’. For those unaware of this delicacy, churros are simply sticks of fried dough that you typically dip in a chocolate sauce. All washed down with lashings of beer they make the ideal slimmers’ meal.

The main pedestrian drag, Malaga

The main pedestrian drag, Malaga

Most mornings we walked down into town and had a traditional Andalucian breakfast called ‘Rustica’. This is simply toast with olive oil and tomatoes and milky coffee – all for €2 each.

One reason we like Malaga is that the locals seem to speak a form of Spanish that is intelligible to outsiders. This was useful as our apartment was well away from the tourist area and only Spanish would do.

Classic Gib shot

Classic Gib shot

A day trip to Gibraltar was called for. Of course, it’s exactly what you expect: a big rock, sunny, lots of tourists and marauding macaques. Oddly, a surfeit of Black Redstarts had made their home on the rock.

After a couple of weeks, having mastered Spanish, it was time to move on. We bought bus tickets to Tangiers in Morocco. The slight downside was that the bus left Malaga at 5 in the morning so we had to book a cab for about 4 from our apartment. Helen did this admirably over the phone – the cab actually turned up at the time requested! The bus station was rather quiet at that time of day and we got chatting to a Moroccan guy waiting there also. It seemed as though we were the only 3 people getting on the bus – great! we thought, we’ll be able to spread out and sleep. In one of life’s thoroughly disappointing moments, the bus arrived, already full to the rafters with sleeping travellers, strewn across all the seats. Christ knows where this bus had come from but as you can guess we were both subjected to sitting next to classic manspreaders! 62 years I’ve been on this planet and I’m still shocked at how rude and inconsiderate people can be, especially on public transport.

Anyway, we got to Algeciras, on the ferry, crossed the straits and arrived at some way-out port, 30 miles or so east of Tangiers where we had the usual shenanigans associated with cross-border travel: on and off the bus, showing passports, etc. The guy was announcing stuff on the bus but all in Arabic so our understanding was limited. A fight almost broke out when the driver wouldn’t let some guy back on the bus.

Market ladies. Tangiers Oct. 2015

Market ladies. Tangiers Oct. 2015

Tangiers is a dirty and busy city. It’s back to the old ‘If I honk my horn enough, this traffic jam’s bound to clear’ mentality. On the high street there are cafés everywhere almost entirely full of guys looking out onto the street, watching the world go by, drinking the standard local tipple: sweet mint tea. About the only places to get a proper drink are in the hotels and you can get fleeced there: we went into the posh Hotel Minzah, had a couple of glasses of wine and an orange juice for the grand sum of 200 dirhams (almost €20!). We did bag a few Spotless Starlings on the lawn so it wasn’t a complete disaster.

Of course, here I’m being besieged by every beggar in town (‘Oh look, there’s Andy Parkin, the guy from England who always gives away his entire savings to jokers like us, I read about him in Suckers International’).

Apart from Arabic, the local lingo here is French, and Helen and I are having to dig deep in our time-encrusted memories to retrieve what little we know. Even the locals get confused! More than once we’ve heard ourselves say something like: ‘Sen᷈or, l’addition… shukran, bye’.

Candle demo

Candle demo

There was an extraordinary demonstration on the Saturday night. It seems that the Moroccan electricity company has recently put up the price of its supply by a whopping amount, prompting much outrage. A large protest march through the city was held simultaneously with a ‘lights out’ policy – all the buildings in the city, including our hotel, were ‘candle-lit’ only. Quite romantic!

Over the weekend, through the night, cars speed through the main streets honking their horns continually – so much like Libya.

In the old Soccos, you can get lost in all the alleyways. Motorbikes and small trucks weave perilously through these backstreets and passages, barely missing the surprised tourists. Lots of fruit and veg stalls (pomegranates feature largely, as well as walnuts, figs and dates). The bread is really cheap and tasty. The cafes are plenty; it’s quite a shock to see people smoking indoors in cafes and restaurants nowadays. This is, however, probably the worst place in the world to have your atheist, vegetarian stag party!

We worked our way up to the Kasbah. All the helpful locals continually badger you with advice: ’You want Kasbah?’, ‘Kasbah this way’ etc. I call them the ‘Befriend/Pretend’ guys. The starting point is usually, ‘Hi. Welcome to Morocco. You from England… London?’ And it goes on from there – I’m sure you’ve encountered these pests before. We manage to brush most of them off but finally one attached and dragged us up there, pointing out the bleeding obvious: ‘Here is a shop… shop…yes?’, ‘Here, (pointing to a door under a sign saying ‘Museum’), here is the museum’, etc. However, the visit turned out to be a real plus, for, in the garden, we not only spotted two Common Bulbuls but bagged a lifer: a House Bunting. Yay! What a result! I still don’t know what a Kasbah is, though.

It’s now time to move on, back to Spain. The olives here are great but I’m getting a bit sick of Margarita pizzas!

photos: https://goo.gl/photos/9ZNhdoBp1GgV8u219

Andy, 2 November 2015

54. Northern Spain, Feb. 2015

Guggenheim Museum

Guggenheim Museum

Pictures: here

It’s been quite some time since I wrote my last blog and there’s a gap currently awaiting completion for our trips to Greece and Bulgaria last year.

However, we have recently come back from a 3 week reccie mission to northern Spain with the intention of finding an area we like to return to to teach there.

We spent about a week in each of the three major cities in north east Spain:


It rains a lot!

It rains a lot!

This seemed a reasonable place to start: cheapish flights from Stansted, I already knew one or two Spanish students from the area (who, unsurprisingly, told me it was a wonderful city!) and no problem finding a bank! We were quite surprised, however, to find that when we landed the area was in the grip of one of the worst winters on record. We had horizontal, biting sleet and the news reports showed cars stranded in the snow in the hills nearby. ‘We could have got this by staying at home’ we thought! It soon became apparent that everyone in this area carries an umbrella and when I next hear a foreign student stereotype the UK with phrases such as: “Yeah… the UK… it’s always raining, isn’t it?” I’ll direct them here with the message: “Well, you should visit this place”.

Having said that, we really enjoyed the city. It’s not particularly touristy and we found a splendid and cheap place to stay, the Estudios Aránzazu just off the main drag. All the bars in this area were really friendly and gave free tapas (‘pinchos’) with every drink. On the cold days, the bars supplied punters with a free cup of some kind of meaty broth which Helen said was rather nice.

One interesting idiosyncrasy of the area is the penchant for Vermouth. Every bar has bottles of the stuff, the full range. You probably thought there was Martini and that’s it. How wrong you are! We tried several varieties if only to see the ritual with which this drink is poured. Pieces of orange peel are ritualistically dabbed over the rim of the glass in a flamboyant manner by the server that reminds one of a strutting flamenco dancer. Ice and vermouth are then added followed by an olive and a cherry. Bizarrely, for this rain-soaked region, there is no decorative umbrella to finish off the ensemble! And, as with all drinks that you buy in situ, it tastes so much better than it ever did in Blighty! You’re probably aware of the useful way in which the Spanish language attaches the suffix ‘eria’ to the end of many words to indicate that this place is a purveyor of said objects. Places that sell churros (sweet, fried dough sticks that you dunk in hot chocolate) are called ‘Churrerias’. Well, yes, you guessed it, places that specialise in this tipple are called ‘Vermooterias’!

Food wise, the ubiquitous tortilla is everywhere and slices are usually available on bars. There is also a local sweet cake called Quesada Paisaje which was like a large egg custard – yummy!


Travelators on the steep paths

One other thing that struck me about Santander was its cleanliness. The place is immaculate: the pavements spotless, the beaches pristine – it could certainly give Austria a run for its money!

An interesting touch here (and in Bilbao) is the street travelator. The moving walkways that you sometimes see in airports are installed on some street pavements where there is a steep hill. What an excellent idea?!

A lovely walk around the periphery of the city rewarded us with a black redstart and a gorgeous little goldcrest. What could be better?


Two hours’ bus journey from Santander and we arrive in Bilbao. This city is somewhat dominated by the magnificent Guggenheim Museum. When you come in along the river, the first view of this imposing edifice takes your breath away – it’s unlike any building you’ve probably seen before.

Helen in the Guggenheim

Helen in the Guggenheim

Thousands of titanium panels adorn the exterior and merge with the limestone blocks and glass to create a shape that defies description. I don’t usually go all gooey about buildings but… The inside is a bit of a disappointment but then, we don’t get excited about museums. Still, it keeps you out of the rain!

Public transport is incredibly cheap and easy – we bought a single ‘Barik tarjeta’ card and put 50 Euros on it. It lasted us the week and we used it on trams, metro, buses and even had two days out on the local railway to the countryside to do some birding.

The Basque language (‘Euskara’) is more prominent here: although Castilian Spanish is the chief spoken language, most signs have Euskara first and the kids use it as the first language in the local schools. Sadly, this is likely to put us off returning to this area to teach: we’re desperately trying to improve our Spanish and the complication of an additional language just confuses us old farts!

Oscar and Maite, Bilbao, Feb. 2015

Oscar and Maite, in Bilbao, in a pub!

We met two of my old students from Leeds, Maite and Oscar, who were excellent tour guides for our first day in Bilbao. We were acquainted with many bars and witnessed yet another local ritual, the pouring of the region’s white wine, ‘Txakoli’ (pron.: ‘chakoli’) which is always done from the bottle into a glass but from a height – as far as the arms can stretch apart. Helen got excited when our hosts said we were going to try some txakoli as she thought she was going to get some hot chocolate!

Many years ago I read about the Spanish Civil War and the horrific bombing of the town of Guernica in 1937, and had always wanted to visit the place. At the behest of Franco and the Nationalist forces, the Nazi Luftwaffe was called in to carpet bomb the town during market day to bring it to its knees. It was seen as a gateway to Bilbao and the submission of the republican forces who had a stronghold in the area. The moment was commemorated by Picasso in a now famous painting in Madrid and a mural of the same is found in the town. It’s a stirring reminder of the stupidity of war. Our Barik tickets allowed us to get there and we could walk on to a rather delightful nature reserve with its resident celebrity stork.


Another couple of hours away on the bus and we arrive in San Sebastian with its picture-postcard ‘La concha’ bay and quaint old town. It’s more touristy here and consequently the pintxos are no longer free! It’s a lovely place but rather more expensive than where we’ve been. With its sister town of Biarritz just over the French border, this has become something of a trendy area for the wealthier classes; I’m still smarting over the 5 quid I paid for a pint of lager in Biarritz 20 years ago.

Readers of my previous blogs may remember one day when we visited Siracusa in Sicily and got 3 enormous Glen Grant malts and a bottle of water for 5 Euros. Well, in San Seb, we bought two normal size Glen Grants and paid 14 Euros for the pleasure. Bargain!

We walked along the seafront to the place where the sea meets the river in a maelstrom of conflicting forces. In an unusual moment of Schadenfreude I decided I wanted to get a shot of that big wave that crashes against the promenade wall drenching all those poor saps who happen to be standing there at the time. I never stood a chance. The big wave came and targeted exactly where we were standing. We couldn’t have got any wetter if we’d jumped into the sea. We sloshed back through the town to our hotel pretending to be oblivious to the strange looks and remarks we were getting. Never have I been gladder of that spare pair of strides.

La Concha bay, San Sebastian

La Concha bay, San Sebastian

Despite these gripes, the place is very pleasant. Our second day there, the weather was glorious and we went up the overlooking mountain on the funicular railway and spent a few hours on a bench, shirt-sleeved, peering over the stunning, bejewelled bay sprawling below us.

A delightful tradition in this town can be found every Sunday morning when a group of singers gather in the old town and perform, a capella, a repertoire of Euskara folk songs. Moving from street to street they attract a retinue of like-minded individuals, singing their hearts out. It was extraordinarily moving.

So, it’s back to Santander for an evening for some free pinchos and vermouth before our flight back to Blighty.

Yes, it was peeing it down all day!


March 2015

38. Sweden


Sunset, very late, over Riddarfjarden

Picture album: here

We left Moscow behind to meet up with our dear old friend Jan in an area of the world where we’d never been before: reason enough to go there. We’re keyless and homeless once more and our lives are held in two suitcases; the taxi driver in Stockholm asked us where we lived and we had to say: ‘Well, actually, at this moment, in your cab – hope you don’t mind’. Helen had managed to find us a small floating hotel close to the town centre and, despite the unbelievably small ‘room’, it’s been a good find – 15 minutes’ walk to the old town of Gamla Stan with splendidly picturesque cobbled streets and quaint shops.

Beautiful Hanseatic-style houses in the old town

The place is quite delightful with clean streets, eye-pleasing architecture, bridges and waterways, nooks and crannies and all within easy walking. The weather wasn’t too kind (see piccies) but this didn’t dampen our spirits.

People here are really friendly and calm. I watched the England Sweden match in the bar of our hotel together with about 60 or so Swedish supporters; they were passionate and loud but completely unaggressive. I didn’t feel at all vulnerable, cheering as England scored (and won). People-watching over a few beers in the old town reveals a very easy-going public, unconcerned about making fashion statements, happy within themselves. A number of people have stopped to chat and ask us if we need help (we must clearly look helpless!) and yesterday we met a couple of birders who gave us lots of info about where to go in Sweden at this time of year.

Things are a bit expensive here but, as long as you don’t convert any price into your own currency, you can manage – supermarket food and booze is always a good standby. In fact, the expensive booze, I’m sure, keeps away the ‘stag-do riffraff’ that would inevitably stagger here from the UK.

We had three full days in Stockholm and really loved it. Then we were off to the airport to pick up a car and drive off to a remote part of central Sweden to get down to some serious birding.

Next picture album: https://picasaweb.google.com/100342402825089704103/20120620HorydaGard

It’s a long drive from Stockholm to our new home at Höryda Gård (yes, unbelievably, ‘Hurdy Gurdy’!) and

New owner of ‘The Captain’s Wife’ in Lyrestad

we passed by some splendidly-named places: Sneby, Skogstibble and the unbeatable ‘Slappersdag’ which really does conjure up an unsavoury image. After about three hours we stopped off at a lovely little place called Lyrestad and had a coffee in a new café – here’s the chatty proprietress, Cecilia, who explained that she had recently left the rat race in Stockholm and moved out into the sticks and bought a villa for 300K Krone ($50,000) – a bargain.

We chose this part of central Sweden as it is a haven for birders in spring. Naturally, when the birds discovered we were coming, they made their way to somewhere else but normally you can see hundreds of ‘Dancing Cranes’ here in Lake Hornborga (immortalised, of course, by Abba: ‘… you are the dancing crane, young and sweet, only 17…’). Yesterday, however, we hit pay dirt, bagging 5 raptors around the Hornborga Lake: Buzzard, Red Kite, Marsh Harrier, Hobby and the best of all, two Ospreys catching fish. Birding blog to follow.

The villages around here are so well-kept and pretty – it reminded us of Austria where every garden is neat and tidy. We drove through one picturesque hamlet called ‘Skogsbolet’ – it really was the Skog’s Bolets!

Erecting the maypole

Yesterday, we found our way to a local summer solstice festival. This day is a national holiday in Sweden and is taken very seriously. The locals gather in the early afternoon in their best party gear, many of the little girls wearing wreaths around their heads and join in decorating the maypole with lupins and other wild flowers. The maypole is then erected and all dance around it to the tunes of weird old folk songs, somewhat like Morris dancing in England. There are a few stalls (darts, lottery, locally-made produce) but, disappointingly, no beer tent. Indeed, the Swedes seem to have a very restrictive attitude towards booze: no supermarket sells alcohol stronger than 3.5% and you don’t see drunks anywhere. As you know, in England, you have to be totally bladdered to perform Morris dancing in public but this Dutch courage is not needed here. Everyone was happy and polite and it was a marvellous spectacle.

See short video here.

During our week in the Swedish heartlands we visited Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city on the west coast. It has many students, an extensive tram system and the massive sea-front is home to large Baltic and North Sea ferries. As usual, the waitress in the café we stopped at was smiling and helpful. I’ve decided that a useful measure of the health of a society can be taken by the welcome one gets in cafes and shops. In Russia, for example, you are invariably met with a scowl and a look that says: ‘What do think you’re doing in my shop? Just leave, this second, and never darken my doors again’. Whereas here, everywhere we’ve been we’ve been met by smiles and helpfulness. If you have mountains of cash, this really may be the place to live although, for us, it was just a little bit too perfect.

Today, we’re driving back to Stockholm to catch our flight to the UK. We’ll see where life takes us in a few weeks’ time.

Central Sweden, 23.6.12