30 Aug 2009

Halfway there... I HATE TRAFFIC!

Whew, I made it!

Well, to the (just past) halfway point at least (~1200km)! I'm in Lyon (gateway to the Alps and some fabulous skiing!), getting ready to head out to the next stop where I'll be visiting a friend and her newborn for a day: Nancy.

Only a 4h-day ahead of me... if the traffic behaves! Why oh WHY?!?! did I choose this weekend to go up? WORST traffic weekend of the year!!! All the people on holiday in Spain and the South of France heading back up North... I ran into 5 traffic jams on the highway yesterday between Barcelona and Lyon (and one on Friday between Alicante and Barcelona). We were moving so slowly in some stretches, and even stopped long enough... that I actually managed to read 2 chapters of a book while behind the wheel!!! It took me 9h for this part of the trip instead of the 6h it should have! Add to that 1h driving around in circles in the city (nice buildings all lit up at night! but where's my hotel?!), and the fact that Friday night in Barcelona was a fiesta night (neighbourhood party, lots of live music, dancing and FUN! we didn't stay out late, was in bed by 2h30)... and it's no surprise the 8h I slept last night weren't enough. If I didn't have to check out in 1/2h I'd be sleeping some more! :p

I did get to see some beautiful scenery on the road though! Catalonia is part of the "green Spain", and the Languedoc and Roussillon are also gorgeous! I had a picnic lunch at a rest stop alongside the highway, and check out the view:

Not bad eh?! Was incredibly windy throughout the whole south of France, the type of weather you're clutching onto the steering wheel for dear life... kind of scary. Add to that some crazy drivers in a hurry to get home (on stretches where the speed limit was already a more than decent 130kph, they were doing at least 150 and zipping through lanes)... no wonder I was so tense! Today should be better, and Monday no worries.

Time to head out. I had hoped to get here early enough yesterday to go wander around Lyon a bit, but it will have to wait 'till I come back in December. I'd warrant this city deserves a couple of days anyways! But on foot or in public transportation, there are too many one-way streets for me to feel comfortable behind a wheel! :p

28 Aug 2009

On the road


So I'm currently on my way north for a 3-month stay in Belgium!
I'm currently finishing packing and in a couple of hours I'll be hopping in the car and exchanging the Mediterranean for the Ardennes.

Here's my route:

View Larger Map

It's about 2000km and could be done in two crazy 10-11h days, or 3 more reasonable 7h ones. But as I'm driving alone I'll be taking it "easy" and doing it in 4 and stopping in to say hi to friends along the way (except in Lyon where I don't know anyone). Barcelona tonight (6h), Lyon tomorrow (6h), Nancy on Sunday (4h) and finally Liège on Monday (4h)!

Should be fun but I'm also stressed out about doing all this driving by myself! I've never done a real "road trip" (except as a backseat passenger when a kid)... Any case I'm ready for another adventure! And am looking forward to some slightly cooler weather! :p Although I've put in an order for sunshine, I really don't feel like being greeted by storm clouds when I roll into Liège on Monday!

Ok, I'm going to go pack now! :p

23 Aug 2009

Alicante Summers

So, was really starting to wonder about what this weekend's post on Alicante summers would be... when all of the sudden the answer made itself known right outside my window (thanks to a party at some dude's house across the street):


Definitely an integral element to the Alicante summer, you can't avoid them anywhere in this province! And even less here in town where we get our regular dose of fireworks, local neighbourhoods adding in an extra dollop, the occasional party that decides to launch a few... and then every weekend you hear some booms! from some town close by (and sometimes you can make out the lights). The closest city (Elche) actually has an hour-long fireworks show on the night of August 14th, all set off by local people from their rooftops (I'll try and go next year, I've been twice and it's neck-cringing and amazing!).

Of course the biggest and the best are those that jump start the summer at the end of June, a lovely 5-day competition (of minimum a 20' show) at the Playa del Postiguet downtown. I saw 3 out 5 nights, one from home and two from the beach (boom! noisy when you're right under them!)

Here's a shot from the rooftop of my building:

Not bad eh?! I remember one year a friend and I got all geeky by trying to calculate the distance based on the difference between how long the light and sound took to reach us (or something like that). It is a bit odd to see the lights and then a second later hear the boom! boom! BOOM!

They're much more impressive when you're at the beach:

It so much fun down there these nights. Just fashion yourself a sand couch, cover it with your towel, and keep a bottle of wine and some jamón serrano and queso manchego handy and you're definitely in for a delightful and explosive evening!

Look ma! It's raining fire! ;o)

This is the signature firework in this region, a "palmera" or palm tree:

Hmmm... sound effects are needed for this post, don't you think? Ok, so here go two fragments for you!

This one is part of the series that were launched from a sandbar and so it looked like they were exploding out of the water, very cool!

19 Aug 2009

Royal Baths

This post is for Rhonda over at Shellbelle's Tikki Hut. If you want to feel the breeze rolling of the Gulf of Mexico coast, or would like to see some beautiful flowers and sea shells... then head on over to her place!

The reason I'm writing this one is because Rhonda has been doing a series of posts on vintage beach photos, and a while back I received an e-mail forward I thought she'd be interested in. I have no idea where this e-mail started out from (the problem with forwards), but here's the text which I've translated (from Spanish). The photos apparently did have a website associated with them so at least they get credit.

I hope Rhonda won't be the only one to enjoy this! ;o)


Image: George Eastman House

Although it resembles the palazzo of an eccentric vizier on the coast of the Indian Ocean, the building you see in the photo was built towards the end of the 19th century on the beach of La Concha in San Sebastián (Spain) and remained there several years for the enjoyment of King Alfonso XIII, who became one of the oddest swimmers in history.

Image: George Eastman House

The palace, built in wood, could move along two rails that split the beach in two. Thanks to the power of a steam engine, the apparatus transported the monarch and his entourage from the sand to the water, where they could bathe protected from curious glances.

Image: George Eastman House

As the author of Prunsed explains, the existence of these "bath houses" fits into the Victorian morals of the times, which considered bathing in public or being seen in a bathing suit to be of poor taste. Competing with the Spas, the so-called "wave baths" became quite the fashion thanks to these "rolling houses", where ladies and gentlemen could enter and exit the water discreetly.

Image: George Eastman House

Image: skyscrapercity.com

The more aristocratic beaches, like those of San Sebastián and Santander, soon filled up with these contraptions, that moved to and from the front lines depending on the tides. The donostiarra Siro Alcain numbers 242 bath houses in the Concha beach by the end of the century, to which you need to add Alfonso XIII's enormous construction which you can admire in these postcards. According to the tale, the palace was built in 1894 and was regularly used until 1911 when a stone building was built in the beach.

Image: numisjoya.com

Image: numisjoya.com

16 Aug 2009

Alicante Summers

Música maestro!
Summer is a very musical time in Alicante. Didn't used to be, but about 10 years ago City Hall started promoting various cultural activities over the summer. The first was an annual Jazz Festival, 5 concerts over two consecutive weekends by some pretty well-known artists (for example Maceo Parker last year). They used to construct a stage and seating areas in a plaza in the Alicante Harbour but for the past couple years have switched it to an area amongst the ruins of the original Roman town of Lucentum (about 10' from where I live).

This stage in the archaeological site gets quite a bit more action over the summer as there are a series of 3-5 shows along the various themes: "Voces en Lucentum" (singing), "Danza en Lucentum" (dancing, this year mainly Flamenco, last year I saw the National Dance Company, amazing!), "Teatro Clásico en Lucentum" (so classical -i.e. 16th - 17th century etc- theatre) and "Zarzuela en Lucentum" (I don't quite know how to describe Zarzuela, I've never been to one. I believe an apt description would be the Spanish equivalent to Opera?). And whereas the Jazz Festival is quite expensive, these are either cheap (5-10€ depending on seats) or even free! If my mom is up for it I'll be taking her to see a Zarzuela this coming week...

(esplanade where the stage is set up)

What else? Oh yes! Last year they started up a new music festival: "Festival de Músicas del Mundo" (so world music). I wasn't too caught up in it this year, but last year I had trouble choosing just the one (also expensive), but I enjoyed a glorious two hour concert, listening to Loreena Mckennit sing her beautiful songs and explain the inspiration behind several of them. Open air concerts last year, this year they moved it indoors to the main theatre.

There's also a stage set up along the long sandy beach Playa de San Juan where various orchestras come and play some Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons. PLus you'll hear music from all the bar terraces, and frequently groups set up shop at the beach "chiringuitos" (kiosks?) to just play the night away! Kind of like these guys:

Here's a look with the lights (flash) on:

Summers are definitely a lot livelier than when I first moved here! :o)

14 Aug 2009

Benidorm Island - Under!

Welcome back to Benidorm Island!

So, the outing you joined me on yesterday (birding) was pretty intensive... what with the sun beating down, heat and stink in the caves, scrambling up and down the island on hands and knees... whew! I'm tired and sweaty just thinking about it! :p

Time for something a bit more refreshing, don't you think? ;o)

Let's see what's UNDER the island! Two weeks ago my sister and I hopped on a boat in Villajoyosa (yes, with a dive club, AliSub if you're ever in the neighbourhood, great club!) and jumped into the water at the southern point of Benidorm Island known as Punta Garbí (N.B.: all these underwater pics were taken by my sister Gabby -except for a couple I took but I don't remember exactly which ones- she also did all the editing in photoshop. If some look a bit fuzzy around the edges that's because some humidity in the casing caused the lens to fog up a bit due to the temperature difference. There was also a flash problem as she lost her flash diffuser a while back and apparently hasn't found anyplace to sell her just that little piece of plastic!)

Let's start by looking down in here:

a moray eel! O.k., I know, it's just a tail, but trust me on this one! I wouldn't put such a oops! shot in here, except that was the only moray we saw and since they're (usually) such a frequent visitor in Benidorm dives I couldn't illustrate this without one! :p

Ahhh, this fellah isn't too afraid to show himself! And not much later we saw 2 more of his cousins...

Methinks this is red coral... (but not sure) or a cousin.

Used to be abundant in the Mediterranean, but as it's been exploited since the Romans well.... not much is left!

This will give you an idea of the route we followed on this (50') dive:

We dove straight down to the seabed from the boat (~20m) and spent about 20' exploring down there among the algae and boulders, looking for octopi, morays etc.

Then we got closer to the wall (that goes on up to the platform around the island where people go snorkling)

and spent quite a bit of time examing little sections here and there, admiring starfish,


sponges, little fish nibbling on algae... you name it! No scorpionfish (Scorpaena scrofus) unfortunately this time (a Mediterranean delicacy, key ingredient to boullabaisse).

My! I love looking up at the surface:

Sometimes you can see the silhouette of a barracuda among the schooling fish, not this time, This was just a big school of one of the most abundant fish in the region:

the damselfish Chromis chromis (in Spanish = Castañuela, in French Castagnole). Want to know a little secret about this fellah? He changes colours!!! Well, at least from chocolate brown to chestnut brown, when scared or caught in a fishing net (not recommended, not good for food!). It's a defense mechanism. Say you're part of a damselfish school, and the guy next to you switches colour... you do quickly the same to pass along the danger message to the rest of of the school (think domino effect) and then everyone drops to the seabed to hide among the algae .

Here he is again in a little hollow among the rocks:

and he found some friends! Those red fish with the big eyes are Apogon imberbis, you'll only ever see them hiding in "grottos" like that. More coral on the bottom there. And if you look at the right hand side, in the middle you'll see a red tunicate. It's a barrel-shaped invertebrate with two tube-like siphons on its end to filter water.

Further along the wall we were lucky enough to catch a shot of this polychaete, a tube worm:

If you have good eyes you can spot quite a few of them while diving (but smaller). Only thing is they're very shy so if they sense a difference in the current (like you swimming next to them) they'll "swoosh" back into they're tube and the diver behind you will only see and empty tube sticking out.

I believe this guy is a Sargo, or white seabream (Diplodus sargus). One of the medium-to-large fish you see quite frequently around here.

And here's another anemone! I can't remember if it was truly black or if the colour is just the result of our flash problems.

Did you notice the empty polychaete tube in the upper left-hand corner? ;o)

Hmmm... our air supply seems to be nearing the reserve point! Time to go up a bit more, closer to the sunlight and play around on the platform a bit...

So up along this wall we go...

...stopping to admire the sea urchins

When we reach one part of the platform (about 7-10m) we're greeted by schools of salpas (Sarpa salpa), a fish we're more used to seeing around the seagrass beds since they're basically little underwater cows who spend their time munching on those plants! :p

Hmmm... my sister thinks this is a good spot to stop for a drink...

Oh my! That beer must have been "heavy" and gone to her head!

(no, I didn't turn the photo up-side down!)

Look at us, we're goofy (regular crazyness, not narcosis! lol!)!

Ok, time to head up further into the light.

Aha! A male wrasse (Spanish = doncella, French = girelle, Coris julis):

How can I tell it's a male (you usually can't with fish unless you dissect them)? Well in this photo below there are 2 females (ignore the green guy for now), can you see the difference?

Want another fishy story? Wrasses live in harems, and are hermaphrodites! If that male dies, one of "his" females will go hide in the sand for a few days, and when she comes out, SHE will be a HE! :p Who says sex-changes aren't Natural? (although to be honest these guys were born with both sets of equipment, the dominance of one over the other is all hormonal, they almost all start out at sexual maturity as females, and not all of them will get the chance to become males.)

Ok, remember that green guy above I told you to ignore? Well you can stop ignoring him now! He's a rainbow wrasse (fredi or doncella in Spanish, girelle paon in French; Thalassoma pavo). And he's a sign of global warming! Here's a female:

Global warming I said? Well these colourful guys are much more typical of the warmer waters along the north African Mediterreanean coast... and they've been slowly making their way north and starting to breed along Spanish and Italian coasts. Now fish are rather picky when it comes to temperature... so if they feel comfortable enough to breed around here it's because it's gotten warm enough.

Problem is... they've kind of been kicking out the regular wrasses (they share the same habitat) so we've been seeing some ecological shifts... Oh well, nothing much we can do to stop underwater "invaders" but at least they're pretty, right? :p

Hmmm... you know one thing I like about being in shallower waters? There's less absorption in the light spectrum and you can see my flaming red hair! lol!

So, you had enough with those pictures? Or would you like to add in some movement and sound? Ok, ok... here you go!

This first one starts with a school of damselfish and a lone white seabream, then finished peering at an anemone in the rocks, surrounded by baby damselfish (little bright blue fishies).

And I'll say goodbye with this one, in which I wanted my sister to catch a shot of that elusive male rainbow wrasse (the green guy)!

Hope you enjoyed the visit and are feeling refreshed! I must say though, this isn't the nicest place on the island to dive. Los Arcos or La Llosa are MUCH better! But dive sites are often chosen based on the weather conditions... and it was a bit choppy out there (in fact they cancelled their afternoon dives) and it was deemed safer as close to the island as possible.

For those interested in dive specs, we went down to 21m max, spent a total of 50' in the water (yay!) just hitting the reserve of our 12l air tanks; were wearing 5mm wetsuits, seawater temperature was 27ºC at the surface, dropped to 24ºC around 17m. Visibility was ok, but you could tell the waters were a bit churned up as there was quite a bit of particulate matter floating around (visibility is much better here in winter).

13 Aug 2009

Benidorm Island - Over...

Time for a bit of local tourism!

So, we have this big UGLY town just up the coast north from Alicante. You've probably heard of it? Does the name Benidorm ring a bell? Well if not then you're lucky! My mom likes to say that when she was a girl the only town between Altea (where she was born, nicest town on the coast of course!) and Alicante was Villajoyosa, and that Benidorm was just a collection of fishermen's huts. Anyone who has sailed down the coast probably wishes it had stayed that way... :p It's just a massive grouping of skyrises. A collection of hotels and appartment buildings destined to inexpensive tourism (which is a good thing for the tourists I guess). A traffic nightmare... and doesn't feel at all like you're in Spain! If you walk around the streets or along the beach you'll see signs in English, German, Dutch... but not much Spanish! In many restaurants and bars you might actually have a hard time finding someone who can speak Spanish! Sadly there are quite a few places like this (like Playa de los Cristianos in southern Tenerife...) all around the Spanish coast) and they make me nervous and/or angry... Trust me, you haven't been to Spain if all you've been to is one of these places!

Ok, but let's veer away from the negative! The one good thing I REALLY like about Benidorm (other than a great traumatologist / chiropracter my Dad and I go see who can do miracles with our backs!) is the little island that sits peacefully in the bay in front of the city.

If you look back behind the town you might see an odd mountain top... one with a square hole in it!

Legend has it that an angry giant tried to squash an annoying hero up there, and ended up kicking a bit of the mountain into the sea, creating the island! Well geological studies have proven that the rocks are of the same age/material/origin on the island and the mountain... plus it's just the right shape so... who knows? ;o)

So you can hop on a ferry from Benidorm Harbour to go over there (it ain't cheap, but they will also take you around in a glass-bottom boat), if you do be sure to take snorkling mask/tube/fins and pack a picnic lunch (the one bar/restaurant charges insane prices). You can walk around the seagulls on top for a while (or look for other birds like cormorants or storm petrels in the caves if you're there during breeding months), or jump in the water and enjoy the damselfish, wrasses etc you'll see swimming and nibbling on the algae on the shelf.

More on the underwater aspect in the next post. I want to share a few secrets hidden within the Island first! ;o)

So, last June I was lucky enough to be able to participate as a volunteer to help with an ongoing (over 15 years) census of Storm Petrels (or paiños in the local lingo). These are small birds who travel far and wide spending most of their lives in the skies, dipping into the waves for food. But like all birds they have to come to land once in a while, basically to breed! There are just a few spots along the coast here where they have breeding colonies, and the Island of Benidorm is one of them!

We walked across and then around the back of the island until we had gone about 3/4 around from the landing platform. The beginning of the walk was easy as pie (there's even an area with a gravel path), still quite easy once we started cutting across the brush (avoiding seagulls and trying to ignore the scrapes of the sharp bushes on our calves).

But petrels nest in caves... so that required a lot of scrambling and using hands, knees and butts in some areas (so my hands were to busy to get pictures)! lol! Our first destination was a rather large cave with several hundred nests in it.

Those metal cages you see are to trap seagulls (they've done this in previous years to try and control the seagull population, apparently they've grown to such numbers they're considered pests, plus they kill the rare petrels so a threat). Can you spot the nest hidden in a crag in the roof of the cave? If you click for a bigger picture you just might make out the bird in the centre:

The tasks were to complete the petrel census (as much as possible) by going through each nest (they're numbered) where petrels hadn't been counted yet, see if there are chicks or eggs present, write down the ring number of the adults or if they're not tagged then ring them. Here's an egg that never hatched and was abandoned:

And here's a storm petrel carcass as we also had to count those to help determine mortality levels. Our guide was a bit worried because several of the carcasses we found had no heads, more a sign of death by rat than seagull... a rat here would be disastrous!

Speaking of our guide, Ana, she's done her PhD studying this colony and another in Mallorca, and although she's finished (and looking for a job like so many biologists) she's still devoted to this colony and these birds and came several times throughout the season to help the park rangers out! Want to see how devoted? Well she'll do what it takes to get at a nest and get the job done:

And here's our bird, the storm petrel:

As you can see, they're small birds (so easy prey for gulls). The other volunteer, Stephen, also studies petrels in England and Scotland, and came over just to help out for a couple of days (now there's a motivated person!). Among other things he was interested in measuring beak sizes:

If you're worried about these birds having their necks squeezed like that (I was!) don't be, apparently that's the proper way to immobilize them. Here one bird is getting ringed:

And here are a few more relaxing on their nests (easy to access for once!):

Want to see a chick? ;o)

aren't they adorable?!?!?!

Once you get past the smell (ugh!) this cave is quite impressive from the inside:

but even better is the view looking out towards La Sierra Gelada natural park:

Once we finished off in the big cave (several hours later), we made our way back across the island to the second, smaller cave. To give you an idea of how easy it WASN'T to get to these things... take a look, the cave's down at the bottom:

nearing the entrance:

look! a guardian watching over his buffet? (young seagull) :p

I was too tired to get any photos in this cave (and it wasn't as interesting as the first and stank more), but boy was it refreshing to be right on the water like this!

And voilà! You've had a glimpse into areas of the island that only park rangers and biologists usually get to see! Hope you enjoyed it. Mañana how about a view of what's under those waves? ;o)