Fungi season!

The heavy rains of early October have produced spectacular growth of fungi in the pine forests of Guadarrama in recent weeks. Mushrooms and toadstools abound..

Big mushrooms! Fleecy milk-caps (L. vellereus), edible but not very good..

Big mushrooms! Fleecy Milkcaps (L. vellereus), edible though not recommendable..and outstanding in size.

Among the more colourful – and generally spectacular – are the classic toadstool, the pizza fungus, the psychoactive mushroom known as Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria).

Fly agaric, agárico pintada or matamoscas, not one to eat unless you want to..fly!

Fly Agaric, agárico pintada or matamoscas, not one to eat unless you want to..fly!

Never hard to find, this year the Fly Agaric is absolutely abundant among the pines of Fuenfría. They’re everywhere..it’s a day-tripper’s heaven!

Psychedelic pizza party!

Psychedelic pizza party!

Of course you can also find mushrooms that you can eat and enjoy without going on a trip, the classic porcini for example, Boletus edulis, known in English as Ceps or Penny Buns.

Culinary porcini or Ceps, in Spanish sometimes called setas calabaza.

Culinary porcini or Ceps, in Spanish sometimes called setas calabaza.

Even if you don’t want to pick fungi, just the spectacle of seeing them in their wild abundance means that it’s worth getting out for a walk in the woods.

 

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Ireland, part II: the East ain’t so bad either(!)

While the wild West is undoubtedly where it’s at in Ireland if you are looking for natural beauty, it has to be said that the East coast has its attractions too. For most tourists the Irish capital is the obvious starting point. Dublin is a lively, and sometimes pretty, city, and is certainly worth a visit..though here i’m not going to expand on it as this is supposed to be a back to nature blog..

O'Connell Street, Dublin, with wind and rain coming at us.

O’Connell Street, Dublin, with wind and rain coming at us.

Dublin is also a perfect jumping off point for a visit to the Wicklow Mountains to the South, and that’s where we were headed after our tour along the West coast. Our destination was Gleann Dá Loch (Glendalough), the glen of the two lakes, about an hour and a half to the South, and another of Ireland’s major tourist attractions.

Greeted by the morning sun in Gleanndáloch.

Greeted by the morning sun in Gleanndáloch.

Gleanndáloch is another early Christian settlement dating from the 6th century, founded by Saint Kevin, and today conserves a good part of the original monastic site. In particular there is a round tower in an excellent state of preservation. This building – together with its surroundings – holds an absolutely iconic status within the imagery of Ireland.

The evening we arrived in Glendalough the rain was pouring down, and though we passed close to the tower we couldn’t see it. Next morning however, the sun was shining splendidly and we were fortunate to be able to visit the monastic ruins just before the first wave of coach-transported international tourists hit. Glendalough’s relative proximity to Dublin means that it’s a popular day-trip from the capital and dozens of tour buses roll into the Visitor Center car-park every morning.

Gleanndáloch, round tower and monastic site.

Gleanndáloch, round tower and monastic site.

As the body-count began to rocket, we made tracks up the valley towards the lakes and the hills. There were lots of people strolling along the paths under the oaks and walking the trails up the steep sides of the valley. Nevertheless we were soon almost alone. Unfortunately, as we ascended the clouds closed in..and by midday showers of rain began to fall.

High above the valley..with the rain coming down.

High above the valley..with the rain coming down.

Well, that’s how it is in Ireland..it rains frequently! At least it wasn’t continuous rain, just showers, starting and stopping. So we kept on, along the high boardwalk looking down on the glen of the two lakes. This type of boardwalk is a common feature of popular hillwalking areas in the Emerald Isle. It’s designed to prevent deterioration of trails due to heavy traffic.

Looking down on the Upper Lake, as the rain lightened up.

Looking down on the Upper Lake, as the rain lightened up.

The boards are studded to give good grip even when wet, so you don’t have to worry about sliding off the trail and down the hillside! Happily the clouds soon parted and the sun threatened once more..and grumbling voices were quieted. We did however decide to return towards the valley rather than heading further up the mountains.

Heather covered slopes, as hill becomes mountain.

Heather-covered slopes, as hill becomes mountain.

The rest of the afternoon turned out to be quite sunny. Leaving behind the heather, we walked back down to the Upper Lake, thru forests of pine, larch and oak. The European Larch trees, planted in the 19th century, were really impressive, reaching up to 50m. Lower down close to the lakes is the domain of the Sessile Oak.

Oak forest, above the Upper Lake.

Oak forest, above the Upper Lake.

On the shores of the Upper lake we visited another early Christian site, the ruins of Reefert Church. Touching the weathered stone crosses on which it is still just possible to make out the once intricate carving..meditating that another day, maybe ten centuries ago, another like me..had stood before this same stone..working it with his hammer and chisel..brought to me a deep sensation of connection with the past, with others’ lives deep in the past..

By the ruins of Reefert Church, and the ancient Christian stones..

By the ruins of Reefert Church, and the ancient Christian stones.. (Foto: Carmen)

As the sun dropped lower in the sky, we headed back to the International Youth Hostel close to the round tower..after a long day out and about. Despite the rain it had been a memorable day.

If you are visiting Ireland you have to take it for granted that you are going to get rained on and you may even get a little wet, regardless of the time of year. If you don’t, you’re not really getting the spirit of it. I can only recommend it..and, as the title says, the East ain’t so bad either.

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Nature on the ropes..?

Nature vs Humans..? If that’s how it is – and some people would say that’s exactly how it is – then Nature’s in trouble. According to recent data from WWF, wild animal populations have dropped by 52% over the past 40 years. That means that for every 10 wild animals on the planet in 1970, now there are less than 5. Humans in that time have gone up from around 4 billion to over 7 billion in 2014. A century ago there were an estimated 100,000 tigers walking on Earth, in 2014 there are about 3,000. Seven billion humans, three thousand tigers. 7,000,000,000 vs 3,000. Doesn’t look so good for the future of tigers, does it?

More generally, it doesn’t look very good for the future of the planet (that includes humans)..we are using more and more of the planet’s resources, and there will come a moment when this generates really BIG problems. Basically, we are stealing from our children. We are robbing them of their future.

Check out the Living Planet Report 2014. Though some might say that “Dying Planet Report” would be a more appropriate title..

And more numbers here.

On the other hand we humans are not all bad..a video that has been popular on the net the last few weeks shows the two sides: the good guys are seen treating an elephant who has been wounded by a poison arrow shot into the huge animal’s back leg by poachers..obviously the bad guys, though they don’t appear in the video. Of course there are lots of other bad people who don’t appear in the video either, the peeps who buy ivory products, for example. The big market for ivory is newly rich China. But what about the peeps who do business with Chinese companies or buy Chinese products – fomenting Chinese growth and all that new wealth that creates huge demand for ivory and kills elephants – are those peeps good or bad?

See the video embedded in a Natonal Geographic article here.

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Kid climber..and kool Summer

Little rockclimber in action!

Little rockclimber in action!

The end of Summer and early Autumn has always been, for me, the time of year best suited to rock climbing..no snow as in Winter-Spring, no Pyrenean or Alpine trips as in Spring-Summer, generally dry and warm weather in central Spain, some years even up to November.

For various reasons, injury etc, i haven’t done much climbing at all in recent years..but this last month i’ve been getting out on the rocks a bit with my son. Small crags, even boulders, doesn’t matter, it’s all grist to his mill. I know some people think that plastic indoor climbing is in some way more appropriate for small children..and yes, on a wet day, i would probably agree(!) But otherwise.. there’s nothing like being outdoors.

And there’s no reason why a little guy can’t climb happily outdoors. Obviously you have to choose carefully where you’re going to play. Even easy III/IV grade terrain can be challenging for somebody who has a meter less of reach. And even when climbing top-roped you have to take into account fall and pendulum potential. But it’s not that difficult.

Evening light silhouetted rapper (well, he thought he was rapping!)

Little rapper silhouetted in the evening light (well, he thought he was rapping!)

There’s certainly a place for the gym too..but if the atmospheric conditions permit, real rock beats the plastic hands down, any day.

Playing in the outdoor gym.

Playing in the outdoor gym.

Now that Summer’s over, i can conclusively conclude that it has indeed been a truly cool one. At least locally. And not taking into account the several weeks i spent in cooler northern climes. In the Guadarrama area, apart from a couple of brief hot spells in mid to late July and end of August-start of September, temps were very moderate all Summer. Figures for Cercedilla here. A little surprisingly, national data says that the Summer was overall slightly warmer than the norm (defined by period of reference 1971-2000)..but Spain is not a small country, so i guess it can be cooler in one area while warmer in others.

 

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Ireland: the West is the best!

The Wild West..of Éire.

The Wild West..of Éire.

Two weeks spent in Ireland this Summer confirmed several things for me. Firstly, the Greeks and Romans, who surely saw the outer Atlantic island as a dark and wintry place and called it names like Scotia and Hibernia, were right. There’s no doubt about it, if you come from the Mediterranean, Ireland – even in Summer – can seem a dark and wintry place. And secondly, when Jim Morrison said “the West is the best”..he was right too! (I don’t believe for a second that Jim was referring to California..).

After a few days visiting family in the East we headed West..to the Atlantic coast where i was born. More family visits but also getting closer to Nature. We first hit the coast in Cill Chaoi (Kilkee) in SouthWest Clare, where we walked along the cliffs just North of this small seaside town.

Looking out across Kilkee Bay and towards the Atlantic.

Looking out across Kilkee Bay and towards the Atlantic.

It was an afternoon of bright sunshine, but the fresh wind blowing in from the sea meant that jackets stayed mostly on and zipped up. Even my sister and her daughter – who live locally – found it cool.

Family group on the cliffs..in the wind.

Family group on the cliffs..in the wind.

This beautiful, rugged, western coast of Ireland has recently been marketed as the Wild Atlantic Way, and this part of the Clare coast certainly still retains something of wild.

George's Head to the left and the Wild Atlantic stretching away to the horizon.

George’s Head to the left and the Wild Atlantic stretching away to the horizon.

. . .

The following day the weather remained good and we got out on the sea, thanks to an old friend of mine who took us on his boat for a sail across the Shannon estuary, setting out from Cill Rois (Kilrush) and crossing towards the Kerry coast.

Under sail, and working the ropes, on the Shannon.

Under sail, and working the ropes, on the Shannon.

On the way back, we stopped off at a small island known as Inis Cathaigh (Scattery) where you can visit an ancient round tower and the ruins of an early Christian monastery founded in the sixth century by Senán, one of the first fathers of the Irish church.

Inis Cathaigh with its round tower and church ruins.

Inis Cathaigh with its round tower and church ruins.

The island is now uninhabited and despite being very close to the coast is rarely overrun by tourists – overrun by rabbits more like – so a visit to Inis Cathaigh can be a very tranquil experience, offering the opportunity to connect to the deep Christian past..when Christianity still meant something spiritual.

Celtic crosses in the graveyard at Inis Cathaigh.

Celtic crosses in the graveyard at Inis Cathaigh, in the evening light.

. . .

A couple of rainy days later, we headed to North Clare to visit one of Ireland’s biggest natural attractions, the Cliffs of Moher (Aillte an Mhothair). There are cliffs along many parts of the West Clare coast, and indeed all along the western coast of Ireland, but none as spectacular as the Cliffs of Moher.

Aillte an Mhothair - the Cliffs of Moher.

Aillte an Mhothair – the Cliffs of Moher.

My wife and i had done this same walk of about 15km along the top of the cliffs exactly fifteen years ago..so we thought we knew what to expect. Back then, while we were not exactly alone, there were few people walking along the cliffs – hill-walkers, the odd adventurous tourist – outside the central area near the high point of the cliffs where the Visitor Center is located. Even in the middle section, in the Summer of 1999, there were not more than a few hundred tourists. Late August 2014, it was almost like Grafton Street in Dublin, hoards of tourists, literally thousands of people..at least in the paved central stretch of 2km around O’Brien’s Tower. Evidence of the growth of tourism, i guess..so much for the Wild Atlantic Way.

Just a kilometer after the high point of the cliffs..and we were practically alone.

Just a kilometer after the high point of the cliffs..and we were practically alone.

In truth, you really only have to avoid those central two kilometers – or the central part of the day – to have a different experience of the cliffs. More solitary, quieter, wilder. And certainly no less beautiful than the middle part. You can be alone with the wild flowers, the vertiginous drops, the Atlantic breakers..and you can even say ‘hello’ to the people you meet.

Almost total solitude..just us and the wild flowers, a few kilometers on.

Almost total solitude..just us and the wild flowers, a few kilometers on.

As the kilometers pass, the cliffs begin to lose height and you drop down closer to the ocean. The elemental power of the sea is always present, even from 200m above, but as you get nearer to the great waves breaking on the rocks, it becomes really palpable.

Atlantic breakers racing towards the shore..as evening draws in.

Atlantic breakers racing towards the shore..as evening draws in.

However the sea was not the only ‘powerful element’ around that afternoon..if you looked back along the cliffs towards the South – where we were coming from – the view was bucolic and relatively tranquil..

Cliffs, cows, clouds..and people walking thru the landscape.

Great cliffs, grazing cows, cool clouds, crashing waves..and people walking thru the landscape.

..but if you looked forward, northwards, where we were heading, the picture was not so pretty (well, the picture understood literally as an aesthetic entity might even be considered relatively pretty..but the “picture” understood figuratively as our immediate situation was at least a little threatening!)..

The elements to the North didn't look too promising.

The elements to the North didn’t look too promising.

We had suffered a couple of light showers earlier in the afternoon, but what we could see up ahead was no light shower. So we quickened our pace as much we were able to..but having a five-year-old in your group means that there are limitations on how fast you can go.

The sea frothing up a storm near Doolin..but the sky seemed to have calmed down.

The sea frothing up a storm near Doolin..but the sky seemed to have calmed down.

Still we did very well, making good time towards our destination, the small North Clare village of Dúlainn (Doolin), and the clouds appeared to be lightening up as we got nearer. When we arrived in town it even seemed that the storm had passed..

The picturesque town center of Doolin.

The picturesque town center of Doolin.

..but within five minutes it began to rain, softly at first but soon it was lashing down. We were glad to be inside!

. . .

On the boat to Inis Óir.

On the boat to Inis Óir.

The next day was a bit grey and gloomy weatherwise, but at least it wasn’t raining and the forecast promised a more or less dry day. So we took the ferry from Doolin out to Inis Óir (Inisheer), the smallest of the Aran Islands and the nearest to the Clare coast. Again, out on the water on a choppy day, even on a relatively large boat carrying upwards of one hundred people, you really feel the power of the sea. The crossing only takes about 45 minutes but some people were feeling the worse for it. I am always filled with admiration for the spirit of those who took to the sea in small rowboats thousands of years ago in these same waters. Even today the local people still occasionally use the traditional boat, the currach, to cross from the mainland to the islands with nothing more than the power of their arms to propel them. And the classical image is that of a boat with just two or three men, at most four, at the oars. Tough guys!

Approaching Inis Óir, people on deck were hanging onto the railings.

Approaching Inis Óir, people on deck were hanging onto the railings.

We were fortunate enough to see a dolphin playing about the boat as we pulled in to Inis Óir. On the island we spent quite a bit of time in a large playground near the beach, before making the short trek up to the hill to the top of the island where there is an ancient ringfort with a small late medieval castle built inside of it.

Hill top view over the island, with its traditional dry stone wall building.

Hill top view over the island, with its traditional dry stone wall building.

This still left us time to do a slightly longer trek along the eastern coast of the island, before taking the boat back to the mainland, in order to visit a rather unusual – not to say unnatural – tourist attraction. Twenty minutes walking brought us to the wreck of the Plassy, a cargo ship which ran aground on the rocky shore of the island fifty years ago..and remains there today.

Looking across the karst landscape towards the wreck of the Plassy.

Looking across the karst landscape towards the wreck of the Plassy.

But maybe more on that another day..!

Map of Clare.

Map of Ireland.

Coming soon: Ireland, Part 2: The East ain’t so bad either.

PS – if this inspires you to visit the West of Ireland and in particular the Atlantic coast of Clare, be sure to drop in to my sister’s pub – Walsh’s – in the small village of Cree (also Creegh, or An Chríoch), quite close to Kilkee.

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Back..to the furnace!

Just got back to Spain yesterday, after two weeks in Ireland where the temperatures never reached much above 18-19ºC, and..it was the hottest day of the Summer! Ok, it’s normally not too warm in Éire but this year August has also been very mild in Spain, particularly in Cercedilla where maximums barely exceeded 28ºC until the final days of the month – the 27th of August saw 29.7ºC – and where the normal thing would be to have several days well over 3oºC. So, as September and the return to Hispania drew near, i was feeling confident that i had this Summer licked..but was i wrong! 32.2ºC awaited me yesterday, Tuesday the 2nd of September..hot, though happily a stormy downpour cooled things down a bit in the early evening.

Posts coming about the trip to my old country, Hibernia, the country of Winter.

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Valley of Benasque, first visit for my five-year-old

The sun shines over Benasque's valley, flowers and mountains.

The sun shines over Benasque’s valley, flowers and mountains.

Early August we travelled to the North to visit the Pyrenees, a little concerned about the weather forecast which promised serious precipitation over the course of the week. The first days were innocent enough, although the clouds began to threaten during the second afternoon..

Clouds mounting, above Baños de Benasque.

Clouds mounting, above Baños de Benasque.

The friends we had been walking with that day left us in Plan de Senarta where it was our intention to spend a couple of nights camping. I was in a hurry to pitch our little tent just in case the ominous clouds materialised their threat..but in the end they melted away into a clear evening sky.

Late evening in Senarta..almost bedtime!

Late evening in Senarta..almost bedtime!

However, during the night the clouds returned and early in the morning discharged a few heavy storm-showers. By the time we got up the sky had improved a bit, but still looked less than promising. After a couple of hours mulling it over, we finally decided with some reluctance to head back down the valley – instead of up – towards the town of Benasque.

Beautiful "atmospheric" morning in Benasque valley.

Beautiful “atmospheric” morning in Benasque valley.

The clouds came and went thru the morning..making for one of those mountain mornings where the sensations oscillate from magical to menacing. The mountain rivers rushed in torrents, the birds twittered innocently, the crags and peaks towered over us, the clouds swelled up and then receded again..as we walked neither hurriedly nor leisurely down the valley.

Puente de San Chaume, below Tuca de Ixeia.

Ancient wonders of stone, Puente de San Chaume below Tuca de Ixeia.

As we approached the town of Benasque, looking back up the valley, the weather seemed to have improved, the clouds dissipating..and, as i began to sweat in the hot sun, i was feeling a little pissed off – to say the least – with the forecasters. Nevertheless, just half an hour later, the storm seemed set to break over Benasque..

La Villa de Benasque, storm clouds hovering overhead.

La Villa de Benasque, storm clouds hovering overhead.

..but it didn’t. At least not immediately. In any case we continued to retreat, towards Graus, an hour to the South in prepirineo, and the shelter of our friends’ house. The evening continued to be hot and humid until shortly before nightfall..when the sky finally came down, with thunder and lightning, electrical spectacle, the whole shebang. In some areas of the Pyrenees there were intense rainstorms..not the best night to spend in a tent. In fact many campers had to be evacuated. So, in the end, we had made the right decision.

The following days we spent in the region of Graus, in Panillo where our friends live, visiting the ancient and now abandoned hilltop settlement of Muro de Roda, kayaking on the Barasona reservoir, and making an evening visit to the Dag Shang Kagyu Buddhist monastery..some consolation for not quite getting into the High Pyrenees!

 

 

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