Morito

Little Moor. That’s one translation for one of Spain’s most beautiful natural treasures, a gaudy creature of swamps and marshes that we know as the glossy ibis. Dressed as it is in chocolate brown with feathers that flash green and purple in the sunlight, it’s easy to see how this characterful bird got its name: its very being evokes another world, one that lies across the Mediterranean sea, of men of small stature dressed in jewels and shimmering silks. The Moors and their Spanish kingdom are long gone, but there are hints of that world all around to this day – if you know where to look.

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You can spot a flock of ibises from a long way off by their colour alone. The wetlands in which they live, such as the Doñana National Park, teem with white herons, egrets, spoonbills and flamingos, all of which stand out a mile against the Spanish skies. Down on the ground, however, the ibis is a good deal more conspicuous, rummaging around in the water in groups that can number as much as a hundred strong. Like their wading cousins, ibises fly in a loose V-formation. It’s quite a sight to watch them going to and from their roosts as the sun sets at the end of the day, with flocks departing in waves for the security of the trees. I’ve lost count of the number of times I used to stand on the rusty fences that border the village of El Rocío to watch hundreds of ibises, egrets, herons and ducks all making their way into the park interior.

You might think a bird as beautiful as the ibis would have a beautiful voice to match. You’d be wrong. As is so often the case in the world of birds, the best feathers do not necessarily mean the best voice. Ibises, like flamingoes, have a very inelegant call, low and grunting, not too dissimilar to a cow on helium. They make a whole host of other sounds at their roost sites, but I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself. It’s quite the experience. And, I might add, quite the smell, too.

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These are the ibises that the Egyptians worshipped. Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom, was often portrayed with an ibis’ head. According to one legend, a plague of winged serpents descended upon Egypt every spring, only to be stopped at a mountain pass by scores of ‘ibis birds’ which devoured them all. Herodotus claimed that the birds of this particular legend were jet-black, which points towards the morito. This leaves their close cousins, the stately sacred ibises, in a bit of a fix; and if you have ever seen their kind rummaging around in refuse dumps as they are wont to do, their smaller, darker morito appears far more worthy of worship.

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Morito surely is a fitting name for such a princely creature. Spain has a long love-hate relationship with its African past, which centuries of church doctrine and cultural genocide have failed to quell. Al-Andalus faded into the fabric of history centuries ago, but it left behind the ibis, and it soothes my heart a little to think that maybe, just maybe, I am watching the spirits of that most beautiful and industrious past when I see a flock of moritos flying by.

BB x

A New Christmas

I’m back in Villafranca after a five-day sojourn in Córdoba. It was sunny when I left. The skies are grey and heavy with cloud now. There’s a strong wind in the air, and it’s blowing against the blinds, which are rattling all through the house. Olivia Ong’s bossa nova vocals fill the room, and keys click and thump intermittently as I type. Cars pass by. My family are so close and so far away. I find myself wishing I was back in Córdoba.

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There’s something truly special about Córdoba at any time of year. Granada is undeniably beautiful, Málaga has plenty of charm and Seville needs no introduction, but Córdoba is, surely, the jewel in the southern crown. After all, few other cities in Andalusia – or Spain, for that matter – can claim to have been one of the world’s greatest in their heyday. Like Granada, it’s been raped and meddled with over the centuries, but what remains is shadowy and beautiful in its fusion. I still get the shivers when I wander along the winding streets of the Jewish quarter, and if you stand on the Roman bridge after sunset and look towards the city from the south bank, the mosque shines like liquid gold in the river.

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(No weddings this year, I took that one six years ago on a research trip here)

Normally on Christmas Eve I’d go to Midnight Mass with my mother. I could have done so here, but for me, the Great Mosque of Córdoba (or so-called Mosque-Cathedral) is like setting foot in the Holy Land. It’s an intensely emotional experience every time and I could not bring myself to open my heart in a place denied to those for whom it was far more important (have a read of this article to dig a little deeper). So I stayed at home instead, surrounded by a thousand babies on red carpets.

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Christmas Day in Spain came with the ringing of the bells across the city. Clouds drifted in from across the Sierra Morena, but as the day went by, sunlight came streaming down through the odd pocket here and there. I’ve never had a Christmas quite like it, but it was wonderful in a new way, seeing Christmas Day celebrated from start to finish in a very different family. We get glimpses into Christmastime when we visit friends and family, but it isn’t often you get treated to the whole twenty-four hour affair.

Doubly so, perhaps, when the food is also very different, too.

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Roast chicken with fios de ovos –

Córdoba is one of those cities that is well worth a prolonged stay. That’s where AirBnB comes up trumps. For a short time, it’s as though I was living in the former capital of al-Andalus. Like most Spanish flats, the building looked unimpressive and samey on the outside – many of them are so identical as to fool you into thinking they’re carbon copies – but on the inside it was dreamily homey. Just what you need at Christmastime!

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A short distance to the west of Córdoba, perched atop a formidable hill overlooking the Guadalquivir valley, is the castle of Almodóvar del Río. At a half-hour’s drive from town, and just ten minutes beyond the ruins of Medina Azahara, it’s well worth the trip for the day. Lovingly restored at the savvy hands of Adolfo Fernánez Casanova, it makes a welcome change from the rubble of the surrounding ruins. There’s also a fantastic asador at its feet that provides the perfect opportunity to wait out the hours until the sunset. I recommend the brocheta. It’s nothing short of divine.

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And that, of course, is precisely what we did. And we timed it just right to catch the winter sun as it was on its way down over the hills to the west.

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The fields around Almodóvar made Tierra de Barros feel like a barren wasteland. Crag martins zoomed about the castle walls, soaking in the last of the sun’s heat on the buttresses. Egrets and herons stalked the river, a single vulture flapped lazily overhead and I swear I heard the piping trill of a kingfisher. Best of all, within the space of five minutes I saw three black-shouldered kites on the road to the castle, a delicate, stunning little hawk I’ve never laid eyes upon with certainty before. I might just have to come back in search of them one day. In my books, vultures will always be king, but kites are the princes of my feathery kingdom. And what princes they are!

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A couple of trains shuttled back and forth as we waited for the sun to go down. I haven’t travelled much on Spain’s train network. Besides the short trip I took with Kate in Cantabria last time I was here, the only train ride I’ve ever taken here was the one from Ávila to Madrid. I’m told the railroad passes through some truly stunning scenery. Perhaps I should give it a go someday. It’s something that yet to come our way (see the Tren Digno Ya cause for more) but in other parts of Spain, it’s a doozy.

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Winter sunsets. Moorish castles. Mosque-cathedrals. Rolling hills. Night herons, kingfishers and cranes in the cornfields in their hundreds. The entire province of Córdoba is a jewel. If I could say for certain that I’d have a shot at being placed here, I’d be sorely tempted to put Andalucía higher up on my list for next year. But I stand by my beliefs: comfort is dangerous. It’s time I thought about moving on, before I take for granted what I have here. Spain is more than one city. She is more than one province. And, if the last few months have taught us anything, she is, quite clearly, more than one country. The city of Córdoba alone is proof enough of that. Vamos, kid. It’s time to see the rest of this land. BB x

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Withdrawal

My school has a band, now. Secondary school or not, I have to admit I was a little excited when I found out. It consists of a piano, a guitar, a trombone, two saxophones, a drummer and a singer. Three guesses who that last one is. Better still, the music they thrust into my hands upon my return was by none other than Stevie Wonder. It’s For Once in my Life – in my opinion, not one of his best (I WishSuperstition and Uptight are in a godly league of their own), but better than a poke in the eye.

The first rehearsal was a bit touch-and-go. The drummer had an egg-shaker and I had to explain the concept of counting in.

The withdrawal is real. I’ve written two and a half arrangements for my old a cappella group in three days. I’ve had Marvin Gaye’s greatest hits on repeat and I threw myself at the Concha Velasco Band as their most avid supporter at their gig in Villafranca last night. I lost my voice from shouting the lyrics so much. That’s probably a good thing. My Romanian neighbours are spared another day of me wandering in and out of the house keeping my unused tenor voice exercised. Saturday morning means gym for a lot of folks here, time to work on their bodies. My voice isn’t getting the workout it used to. I have to keep practising.

This week, perhaps more than ever before, the blow of severing ties with the musical world has come down hard. Perhaps doubly so because almost all of my old Lights buddies will be back in Durham this weekend for a reunion gig of sorts. I made the decision not to go, even though it’s the Puente del Pilar this week and I haven’t been at work since two o’clock on Wednesday afternoon. It didn’t break my heart as it might once have done, but the aftermath hurts. We all have to make tough decisions, sometimes. It’s got a lot to do with growing up and moving on. The collegiate music scene, brimming with talented musicians from near and far, is behind me. I’m here now, in a country which a friend of mind once described as simply having no ‘afán’ (desire) for music for its own sake. Even my holdfast, the Concha Velasco Band, are set to disband soon. Real life, work and responsibilities have risen like the tide, and as is so often the case, it’s only the lead singer who’s pushing blindly for unity in the wake of disarray. It’s as much a reflection of how things could have been had I not let go of the group I loved the most. I needed that.

If I haven’t said it before, I’m saying it again now. Spain is not ideal for the musician. I laughed at the notion that it would get to me like it did to my parents, thinking that with twenty-odd years’ less immersion than them, I’d be alright. I was wrong. The lack of a music scene hurts. It hurts a lot. I think I’ve done more listening to music here in the last week than I did in an entire term at Durham, discounting the obligatory use of my essay-writing playlist. Granted, I’ve compounded my situation by living not just in Spain but in the sticks. But even so, music isn’t as much a part of this world as it is in England. In a class the other day we were discussing activities you might do at a youth club, and I genuinely had to spell it out that music was or could be an option. One of the brightest girls gave me a nonplussed look and said, very matter-of-factually, ‘music is only extracurricular’. Make of that what you will.

Flamenco is more than music. Flamenco is an art form which, like so many, has its masters and its endless amateurs. And so much of it is tied up with dance. The joy of making music for its own sake is lost here. As the son of two music teachers, it hurts. Having been in choirs, groups and bands my whole life, it cuts deep. I feel lost, and more than a little distant recently.

On the way back from the library, I saw something in the sky and I looked up. It was a vulture. I’d just been writing about them in my book, so I felt pretty fortunate to see my own material brought to life before my eyes. Riding the thermals on wings spread wide, with tapering fingers splayed in the current, it circled the park for a few minutes. Within a minute there was another one, closer. They rode higher and higher until, finally, they tucked their wings into that upside-down W shape and, like spinning disks, soared motionlessly from the top of their spiral to the west.

I could have cried. I love this country. I love it so much. I love the language, the people and the food, and I especially love the animals that live here. Especially the vultures. Music lifts me high, but nothing lifts me higher than being where I want to be, in a land where such magnificent creatures still roam the skies on your way to and from the supermarket. My heart bleeds a little. I had to give a queen to take the king. I may yet regret my decision. Or, I may find some new wellspring of energy in this country. I may not have my music, but I still have hope. That’s all I can ask for. BB x

Song of Autumn

I usually walk home across the Bailey after lectures, but today I turned left at the end of Kingsgate Bridge and took the path along the river Weir. It was the goosanders that did it, I suppose. The one constant of my three years at Durham University has been that, come winter, there’s a family of three goosanders on the Weir (don’t know what a goosander is? Look it up, they’re beautiful). I was done for the day and everybody else had gone their separate ways to study, so I thought I’d treat myself to a half-hour’s isolation.

I don’t think I ever forgot how beautiful England is in the autumn. In fact, I think I grew to appreciate all the more for being so far away from it last year. There’s nothing like thirteen consecutive months of almost total sunshine to give you a real heartache for a cold, crisp autumn morning. Well, it’s certainly been cold recently, even if the frost hasn’t settled in yet, but now that our boiler’s fully functional, I’m not complaining. Even so, after the madcap nature of the last two months – I really have had something to do every day, come to think of it – something I really had forgotten to do was to make time for myself. And I’m not talking the lying-in-bed-watching-Youtube kind of me-time. Everybody has something that fills them up again when they’re feeling low. Maybe it’s good food, maybe it’s a hearty jog, or that song that never fails to put a smile on your face. For me, it’s nature. Between DELE revision, rehearsals with the Lights and this many other commitments, I’ve scarcely had the time to think straight. I’ve waxed lyrical about the importance of being busy and having people around you that radiate good energy, but for me, there’s no substitute for a good hour or so in nature’s arms.

Mrs Goosander wasn’t about this afternoon. She sometimes goes fishing further downstream. Mr Goosander and his rather shabby-looking youngster (still moulting, but more impressively, still here) were going about their business in their usual spot. The father looks especially impressive at the moment, with his feathers flushed that special shade of salmon-pink that is so particular to his kind. I think I saw him catch about three or four fish whilst I was there. Sit long enough in a sheltered spot and the little world accustoms itself to you…

An inquisitive little coal tit came to have a look-in on one of the trees overhanging the river. A couple of blackbirds were making a lot of noise rummaging around in the undergrowth as is their fashion. The soundscape was so autumnal, I only wish I could have recorded it for you. Words will have to do: the cooing of a woodpigeon in the trees; the machine-gun twittering of a roving party of nuthatches; the high-pitched seee of redwings overhead; the cawing of crows coming in to roost. The pitch-pitch, pitch-pitch-pitch of a chaffinch, tea-cher tea-cher of a great tit, and, once or twice, the distant shriek of a jay.

I don’t tend to talk about my favourite pastime all that often. Sometimes you don’t have to: the things that matter most are plain to see. Besides, who’d want to listen? I learned a long time ago that there are precious few who care about the distinction between wrens and robins, crows and jackdaws, mallards and goosanders. And, I suppose, the names are not important. What matters is that people know that they’re there. Planet Earth II seems to be extremely popular up here, and I hope it’s encouraging people to look around more when they’re out and about. 

So that’s my advice. The next time you’re out for a walk, whether you’re on your way to or from work, or just to kill some time, unplug yourself from the noise, find a quiet spot to sit down, shut your eyes and just let the world let you in. You won’t regret it. There’s no better music (and believe me, I’ve looked – my whole family are musicians).

Blackbirds, crows and redwings. The wind in the trees and the splash of diving ducks in the silent river. These are the sounds of my childhood. Of all the things life has taught me, I am no happier than in my knowledge of the world around me. I have my mother to thank for that, I think. That and my obsessive habit of chasing the details. I should probably have given journalism a little more thought. Then again… BB x

An old photo of mine from 2008, when I had nothing on my mind but birds!

Two Men Skilled in Climbing Mountains

We did it. We conquered Ghorghez. It’s been staring us in the face for all of six weeks but now I can put my hand on my heart and say with all honesty that the beast has been vanquished. Call it the human desire to tame the wild in me, but I could never have left Tetouan with my head held high if I’d never managed to tackle that mountain.

Fortunately, Alex was of a similar opinion, so at nine o’clock this morning we hailed a cab and off we went.

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King of Tetouan (or that obligatory tourist photo)

We didn’t have the best of starts. My host father very kindly gave me the use of his topographic map and took me up to the roof to explain the route we could take; he would have come with us, if his wife was not still hospitalized from the accident. But when he asked how many of us were going, I had to lie and say five. If I’d told him the truth – that Alex and I alone were going – he’d probably have tried to stop us. The last time he went on a fossil-hunting excursion up in the mountains, he was attacked by a group of thugs and severely injured.

In that knowledge, Alex and I arrived at Ain Bou Anane and set off on our journey.

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Don’t be fooled… It wasn’t anywhere near as easy it looks

For the first ascent we had it easy, as there was a reliable, well-trodden path to begin with. Emphasis on ‘begin with’; after a hundred metres or so it vanished into the sea of thorns and scrub that covers most of Ghorghez and we were forced to resort to free-navigating the mountainside, cutting from goat track to goat track with the occasional wayward boulder as a bridge between the paths. And just as well: the tracks often vanished into thin air like fireflies in the night, leaving us stranded in the scrub.

The mountain wasn’t entirely wild. What I took at first for bird calls turned out to be the Ghorghez shepherds out on the slopes with their flocks. I’d quite forgotten how far sound travels in the mountains. More than once I thought we’d been followed, only to see the source of the noise sitting atop a boulder watching over his goats on the far side of the valley. I must admit, due to my host father’s tales, I was more wary than usual around these hill-folk. Seeing their silhoettes appearing and disappearing between the rocks set my teeth on edge. More than once I let slip that we might have to make a break for it if they ‘came back with reinforcements’.

But they didn’t, and Alex smiled and waved at them, and some of them waved back. I think we could all do with a reminder from time to time that, at the end of the day, everybody’s human. A smile and a wave could change everything.

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Now that’s what I call a hike!

As for their fences… Seriously. Fuck fences. The amount of backtracking we had to do to find a way around the vast sections of the mountainside that had been cordoned off was unfair, unhelpful and unnecessary. Who even builds fences on a mountain anyway? I guess they’re for the few cows we saw munching through the scrub, but what kind of a sadistic individual drives their cattle up into the mountains and then fences them in with barbed wire and brambles? Fuck those fences.

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You’ve got to hand it to Maroc Telecom. Fully functional 3G up in the mountains is impressive

Delaying our hike by one day was one of my better decisions. Not only was Alex fully recovered from his late late Friday night, but the weather couldn’t have been better. The sun shone out from behind the clouds all morning, and the wind, though strong, was cool and refreshing. Compared to the Azla trek, it was a much easier ascent. Which is jammy, for double the height.

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Ghorghez’ summit in the clouds

Alex had a run-in with a rather large snake on the way down. I know because one minute I was powering ahead with my trusty bamboo cane, and the next he was racing past, raving about snakes and putting about as much distance as he could between the cliff and himself. ‘I don’t like snakes. No one likes snakes. There isn’t a culture in the works that likes snakes. There’s just some things that nobody likes. Donald Trump, snakes… Oh, it was more than a metre long, easily.’ Ladies and gentlemen, Indiana Jones. ‘We don’t even have any antidote’. True, when I was packing this morning, I didn’t really think about preparing for a snake attack. I was too busy filling up five water bottles.

Five. I’d like to emphasize that five. Ben’s clearly learned his lesson from last year’s Dana disaster (you can read about that here).

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The coolest overhang in geology (or possibly the Wall from Game of Thrones)

Not sure about the snakes, but the cicadas were absolutely massive. Blood-dripping-from-their-fangs massive, as my parents would put it.

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Who needs Pokémon Go? I found a Ninjask without my mobile, thank-you-very-much

Besides the creepy crawlies, the mountain was spectacular for wildlife. That’s probably my favourite thing about mountains: the wonderful creatures it brings you into contact with. Mountains are some of the last truly wild bastions on the earth. Especially for birds, and birds of prey in particular. For a city, Tetouan’s got its fair share of wildlife, namely the local kestrels and cattle egret colonies, as well as the flyover storks and kites, but if you want a really wild experience, you have to go out into the sticks. I watched a pair of booted eagles wheeling and diving and whistling overhead from the summit, as well as clocking a flyby peregrine, a couple of kestrels, a few buzzards, five or six kites, ten ravens and an Isengard-level swarm of choughs. Saruman the White couldn’t summon such a flock.

The scenery up at the top might have been taken from that very scene from The Fellowship of the Ring, strewn with jagged rocks and sparse bushes. But if Saruman was indeed watching our passage south, he must have tired of his vigil before long and gone for a coffee break because, as is the way with mountaineering, coming down was three times harder than going up.

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‘Let’s not throw ourselves to our deaths just yet.’

Finding our way up the mountain had been easy enough, since the next crest was always in sight. You’d think that the same might be said for the descent, but mountains are fickle. Not only do they play with sound, they also throw your perspective off frequently. More than once we followed the latest road/path/goat-track/dry river to its end only to find ourselves staring into abyss as it plunged fifty feet down over the edge of a cliff we’d never seen coming.

The resulting backtracking led us back into bramble country, which didn’t bother me and my long sleeves too much, but it ripped Alex’s exposed limbs to shreds. By the time we made it to open country again he looked as though he’d been mauled by a particularly savage beast. We couldn’t even use the wild boar we’d seen as an excuse, as it took off into the scrub as soon as it heard us coming. Nope, that’s just the bush at work.

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Ain Zarqa at the feet of the Great Pyramid and Saddle Mountain

Seven hours since setting out from Ain Bou Anane we found our way back down the mountain to the village of Wargane, completing the arc that had taken us around most of the Ghorghez ridge. I left my trusty bamboo cane at the side of the road (again) and Alex flagged down a cab to take us back to Tetouan. Three mountains in one. All in a day’s work.

Ghorghez is down. Mission accomplished. BB x

Griffonheart

Sometimes, when a bird flies low over your head, you can hear the rush of wind through its wings. Swifts do that, from time to time. Swifts and pigeons. It’s a quiet, singing sound like a sudden release of breath, over and gone by the time you’ve worked out where it came from. Now try to picture the same scenario with a nine-foot wingspan. The result sounds something like a gale, a genuine roar of wind, every bit as impressive as those giant wings. This is Monfragüe and this is a griffon, truly one of the most spectacular creatures on the planet.

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I don’t really know what it is that attracts me to vultures so much. They’re not the most attractive creatures on the planet. Their heads are snake-like and feather-bare, their eyes are cold and sinister and they spend their entire lives feeding on dead things. If birds are supposed to sing, vultures sound like they have a bellyful of iron filings when they make a sound – and that isn’t often. But for some reason, I’m obsessed with the damned things, and always have been.

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Extremadura is a very special part of the world, but doubly so if you’re as much of a bird nut as I am. The immense blue skies are almost always dotted somewhere in the middle with a black speck wheeling round and round on the thermals: kite, eagle or vulture. I grew up in the south of England where the largest soaring bird you’re likely to see is a rook, and I still remember the sheer thrill of seeing my very first vulture when I was about nine years old. For me they represented Valmik Thapir’s India, of cliff-forts and desert kingdoms. To see them wheeling lazily about the Spanish sky was like something out of a dream. And so the love affair with the griffons began.

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Since then, they’ve got me stranded in the mountains, terrified my little brother, warned me of thunderstorms and – in quite possibly my favourite travel anecdote to date – they even got me arrested by the Spanish military police. I kid you not. Apparently photographing vultures isn’t a believable excuse for wandering about the countryside alone at fifteen without one’s passport…

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(Not even for results like this…?)

If I’d had any idea what kind of scrapes my passion for vultures would get me into, I wonder whether I’d have had second thoughts. Somehow I doubt it. Something tells me I’d have found my way to the same spot sooner or later.

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There are four kinds of vultures in Europe, and all four of them can be found in Spain – if you know where to look. The griffons are the most obvious and by far the most numerous, nesting in colonies that can number as many as a thousand strong. The other resident is the far rarer black vulture, recognisable by its sheer size alone; fully-grown adults measure three metres from wingtip to wingtip, making them one of the largest birds in the world. The Egyptian vulture is a smaller summer visitor from Africa, where they eat ostrich eggs by smashing them open with stones. But it is the fourth and final that is the most famous: the lammergeyer, a golden-bodied, diamond-tailed king of the skies that feeds almost entirely on bones. I’ve only ever seen one once, at an incredible distance, whilst in the French Pyrenees some seven years ago. It remains one of my greatest dreams to go chasing after the legendary quebrantahuesos, ‘the one that breaks bones’.

Like I said, I’m hooked on the creatures.

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I have to admit, they do have some seriously menacing eyes…

Dad was in a grouchy mood and didn’t let us stay very long. Must be something to do with the distance from Villafranca to Monfragüe (which, I should point out, is as beautifully in the middle of absolutely nowhere as are all of my favourite destinations). I could happily have spent five hours and more just stood atop the castle with the vultures wheeling about all around me, or sitting under the cliff and watching them plummeting out of the sky and onto the rock in a fierce rush of thunder.

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Needless to say I will be back. Everyone has their vice. Some like their drink, some like their fast cars, others have difficulty sitting still. I have this peculiar fascination with vultures and I’m not even close to understanding them. Yet. BB x

Paradise Lost and Found

I wish I could tell you I’d read Milton’s poems, from which I’ve shamelessly adopted the title of this post. I haven’t. But even if I had, I doubt a throwaway quote here or there would be necessary. I’m in a place that fills me right up to the top with pure and simple happiness, gives an edge to my writing hand and recharges my well-worn batteries. Paradise has a name and though this one may sound like a cross between a stud and an aviary and smell like a sweet mixture of manure and marshwater, it’s perfection for a country boy like me.

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El Rocío. More correctly known as Aldea del Rocío, as that is exactly what it is: a village. It may be the size of a small town, but looks can be deceiving: over half of the townhouses are empty for the larger part of the year. Once a year in May, El Rocío plays host to one of the largest, loudest and more colourful celebrations of the Iberian peninsula, the Romería deal Rocío. As many as a million Spaniards, dressed to the nines in rustic splendour, descend upon the village from all over the country to pay homage to the Madre de las Marismas, El Rocío’s very own Virgin Mary.

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This is a very big deal. Accommodation in that week is normally booked out months in advance, if not years. To give you some kind of idea, have a look at the price hike in this particular hostel below:


My mental maths isn’t brilliant, but I’d say that’s at least ten times the price I’m paying per night, if not twenty. That gives you an idea as to just how popular the festival is.

Semana Santa, on the other hand, is a minimal affair. A couple of special Masses and a single daytime procession on Holy Friday. So what on earth am I doing here now?

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The answer is all around me. El Rocío is drop-dead gorgeous, but better still is the countryside that surrounds it: the skirts of Doñana National Park, one of Europe’s most beautiful remaining wildernesses. Sandy forests of stone-pines stretching into the infinite. Scrubby heaths awash with colourful spring flowers of yellow and white and powder blue. Shimmering lakes and marshes teeming with flocks of noisy flamingoes and an eternally blue sky that almost always has at least one kite whirling about in the distance, whistling a beautiful trill into the mix of carriage bells, chattering swallows, whirrupping bee-eaters and the incessant oop-oop-oop of a hoopoe. This place is as close to paradise as this world allows. It’s also a place where absolutely everyone wears a cap or riding boots or both, so it suits me down to a T. Especially now, when my hair is a triple-crown disaster of a birds’ nest and in bad need of a cut – and therefore hidden under my very own flat ‘at.

I won’t bore you to death with five hundred words about my birdwatching adventures. It’s not a passion that everybody understands. What I will say about it is that it is deeply rewarding, endlessly unpredictable and that Doñana National Park is the very embodiment of that unpredictability. I swear that it’s different every single year, and I’ve been coming here for the best part of a decade now. In some years it’s half-drowned in rainwater, in others mild after a dry winter. I’ve seen boar, deer and mongooses in one year and never again since. The same goes for the gallinules, herons, pratincoles, harriers and marsh terns; each of them in one good year apiece, but never together. This year’s treasure is the glossy ibis, a Doñana regular that I’ve never been able to get that close to… until now.

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Doñana is one of those places where I can sit and do nothing and watch the world go by without feeling in the least bit guilty. Time just seems to stand still here. That the entire populace of El Rocío seems to prefer the saddle to the driving seat goes a long way to entrenching that romanticism, naturally, but there’s a similarly timeless feeling to be found in sitting in the shade of a stone-pine on the Raya Real and listening to the wind. Every once in a while the blue-winged magpies cease their chattering, the hoopoe calls it a day and all that you can hear is the dry whisper of the wind. It’s spellbinding. Like Merlin to Morgana, I’m ensnared. But it is a very beautiful enchantment.

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At some point I’m going to have to turn my feet back in the direction of town and head for the bus stop (this town’s not big enough for a bus station, especially since they diverted the main road). This morning I was almost keen to move on, in that snug-in-bed-with-a-good-book way – this one’s Shadow of the Moon by my favourite author, M.M. Kaye – but three steps outside and I was entranced once again. Oh, to live here and to spend my days in the saddle! I get romantic notions of owning an Andalusian stallion called Suleiman and riding about the stone-pine woods with the One, whoever and wherever she may be.

That’s quite enough of that. I’ll see you in Seville. BB x