What kind of story can I tell with my photographs? Each adventure shows me something new about the world and myself, and reminds me that I have yet to learn about the many wonderful cultures and their lifestyles, how people interact with their environment, and the personal connection I can discover.
Almost five years have elapsed since I embarked on a journey through southern Spain in search a new perspective. It had been a while since I had pursued a joint ecological and cultural immersion adventure, and perhaps this was to be the perfect chance to experience both in a landscape I had long anticipated. Having studied the Spanish language and culture from elementary school until college, I could hardly wait to see how my impression of the country might stack up with reality, from the beaches to the plains, mountains and cities.
Sierra NevadaIt began with a trek from the sea to the mountains, with a first destination of the "pueblos blancos" in la Parque Nacional de Sierra Nevada of Andalusia. The drive through windy roads soon revealed villages of clustered white houses, glowing brightly under the Mediterranean sunshine. Their charm stemmed not just from the unique exterior, but fundamentally from the quiet lifestyle in the isolation of their terraced lands. All around, lush vegetation blanketed the landscape in solid greenery, with the exception of a single winding road. This lifeline connected each village with a seemingly infinite collection of turns, aptly described by locals as "spaghetti".
There were numerous towns along the mountainous highway, but the one of greatest interest was Trevélez, located centrally in the region. Unlike the other towns I had passed along the way, this one was larger, nestled along the sides of a ravine. Peering from building to building, house to house, I could see the age of the town increase as they stretched farther from the highway. New window shutters gave way to more modest housing, all equally quiet in the fading afternoon sun. Restaurants with painted advertisements for their local speciality ham stood out against the white backdrop, but it was unclear which ones were open or closed simply based on the absence of foot traffic.
With the last rays of the sun giving way to the night, I found myself at a quaint restaurant with but a few tables and a sincerely charming feel. Unsurprisingly, the food was impeccably tasty with an understated grandeur usually only found in home-style cooking.
Although this trip was not organized to be an outdoor extravaganza, I was motivated to include a side quest in the form of scaling Mulhacén, the peak of Spain and Western Europe. The non-technical route combined with favorable conditions opened a window of opportunity to complete the hike and return by morning. Clearly more daunting than I was planning to admit, the exhilaration of prancing outdoors in the darkness of the early morning drove me briskly through the necessary preparations. With four hours of sleep, I stepped back into Trevélez, navigating the dark and tranquil streets up to the trailhead. The night was cool and calm, and no one was in sight. I could see the mountains take shape in front of a breathlessly clear night sky. My headlamp illuminated only a few steps of the path ahead of me, and the rest I left to my imagination. Livestock shifted in the darkness behind fenced fields; I could not see them, but their eyes glistened fleetingly in all directions.
A turn to the northwest, and I was now traversing the topographic contours to gain altitude toward the peak. The constant breeze soon grew into a strong wind, and consumed all ability to listen to the environment. Every so often, the wind would pause for a second, and I would hear extra footsteps. As the pace of the climb slowed, I could tell that the multitude of lighter steps meant that whichever creature had joined me on this trail pranced on more than two feet and bore a lighter weight. I continued, all the while, sifting through the memorized wildlife guide book to determine plausible species. Finally, I needed to confirm my hypothesis; I suddenly stopped and turned around to shine my flashlight and gain visual insight into this companion. It was caught off guard, and I could see its eyes gleam in the reflected light beam before the small fox-like figure scampered behind a rock and out of sight. I paused for a break behind a boulder for a meager shelter from the wind, all the while keeping tabs on this particularly interested set of eyes circling me at a distance.
First light ever so slightly crested over the mountainside, and I began to see the colors of the landscape. Hints of wildflowers emerged all around me while still below a starry sky. Despite the support of the pending daylight, progress began to slow as the wind rapidly increased. Clouds unfurled above the peak, and billowed down toward me; it seemed all but certain that a storm was building rapidly. Without sufficient gear nor suitable natural shelters along the exposed path, I bunkered down to watch the night sky just a while longer before retreating down the mountainside en route back to town.
With the newfound sunlight, flowers of red, white and yellow popped open like shopkeepers, ushering insects, tailed closely by hungry songbirds. There was so much to see now, small pueblos of stacked rocks, cattle, abandoned shacks, and finally, the sleepy town of Trevélez and the winding road.
One, two, and three steps more, and I found myself a pleasant breakfast, and was already on my way.
GranadaIn the northwestern portion of the Sierra Nevada mountains lies a small town called Monachil. I chose this locale for the unique terrain of gorges and rivers, significantly distinct from the southern section I explored the day before. An early start, once more, proved rewarding; the brisk morning air smelled fresh, and the affable songs of waking birds filled the sky.
I followed the sandy path past homes and ranches, alongside horses, inquisitive cats and yipping dogs until I could see the gorge extend below my feet. Suspended bridges and wooden railings led me on the prepared path down to the river, where I so excitedly photographed the many frolicking birds, most of which I had never seen before. It was, however, not a birding trip nor even a wildlife photography one, and I was soon on my way.
The first bustling city on my map was Granada, a city famous for its Moorish underpinnings, especially as found in the architecture of the prominent Alhambra fortress. I spent a brief few hours exploring the streets under the midday sun before heading to western edge of the province.
Just beyond Loja is the tiny town of Riofrio, which directly translates into "cold river", known for its organic Adriatic sturgeon caviar production. It seemed intriguing, and I made a short pit stop to see for myself. The fishery was closed when I arrived, but I was content wandering around the park and photographing birds.
There was still more ground to cover today, but before I left, my curiosity of the local cuisine got the better of me.I ended up ordering snails, without first getting clarification on exactly what it would entail. Despite all the Spanish vocabulary I had learned, I seemed flustered to find the right questions to ask, and in the end, the direct translation of what I asked was: "are these snails from the sea or the garden?" This, of course, was prompted by the fact that these snails tasted very much like I would imagine garden snails would taste in soup.
The landscape sweeping past beyond the car window was exceedingly gorgeous. Groves of trees extended to the horizon where they met cottony clouds on canvases of blues. Farm houses, some small, some big and some abandoned, popped up momentarily and disappeared in a blink.
Before I knew it, I was outside Mollina at la Reserva Natural de la Laguna de Fuente de Piedra, a key destination to appease my wildlife photography inclinations.
The lagoon is a key breeding location for greater flamingo, a bird I had never seen in its natural environment. Moreover, this location is also a haven for many migratory and nesting species. The afternoon drifted by, with the hours spent searching for and identifying birds; I had had few opportunities to go birding in Europe, and thus, almost every species was excitingly new to me.
Sierra de GrazalemaAscending to the mountains once again, my next stops were in la Parque Natural de la Sierra de Grazalema. Although these mountains were also impeccably blanketed in greenery, the geographic features and flora were notably different. In the distance, I could see clusters of "pueblos blancos", settled quietly in their isolation.
Everything seemed perpetually clean through the frequent and ephemeral rain showers; flowers emerged from cracks in walls and the air was kept with a smell of fresh lightness. Such impressive views could be seen in every direction, and it felt as if an infinite number of pictures could be taken from any place at any time under the perpetually dancing light as it pierced through the cumulus clouds.
Four towns were visited on this route: Ronda, Grazalema, El Bosque and Arcos de la Frontera. Ronda featured an impressive bridge, Puente Nuevo, that towered over the gorge of el Río Guadalevín, leading to a grand square. I hardly completed a short walk along the fortress walls before I found myself back into the busy tourist scene.
Higher in the mountains, Grazalema was found nestled just below the clouds; tightly packed white structures with orange-brown shingled roofs surrounded the towering Iglesia de San José. The clouds poured over the mountain intermittently obscuring the view as the winding road led me westward.
At the edge of the national park is El Bosque, which provided a pleasant lunch venue. The town was eerily quiet and particularly accessible. Finally, Arcos de la Frontera was by far the most fortified one, defensively poised upon a plateau. I stood in many neighboring fields trying to frame the photograph under the strong midday sun. In the end, inspiration was granted by a herd of goats.
I did encounter a few delays on the road to Grazalema, and the majority were for birding (and one was for inspecting the local cork trees). On one particularly lengthy stop, I stood in the constant drizzle to look for a blue rock thrush with another birder, similarly equipped and just as persistent to document it. Unfortunately, neither of us ended up seeing it again or capturing a photograph despite our enduring patience and waterproofing. Due to the delays I sadly had to abandon a detour to Zahara de la Sierra to see Griffon vultures on the ledges of the rugged mountain pass.
Cádiz and SevillaThe calming ocean breeze swept past as I arrived in Cádiz. A pleasant temperature greeted me as I took a stroll down the boardwalk to see the Atlantic Ocean, sit on the sandy beach and look out toward the open expanse between myself and home.
Few tourists were to be found on the nearly empty beach in front of the long stretch of towering resorts. The stroll continued to the edge of town where I luckily happened upon a small restaurant that offered such an incredible menu that I simply forgot to take pictures.
Full and content, I progressed north to Sevilla for the night. Before the night was over, I had one more funny incident to take with me. The chosen route traversed a toll road, and having paid, I requested a receipt from the booth attendant. With a second to think up the relevant vocabulary, I experienced a malapropism, wherein I asked for "una receta" which would be a recipe, instead of "un recibo". I realized the mistake when I saw him chuckle and hand me the receipt, but I'm glad this still counted as effective communication.
The day began early with a return of the rental car and a walking tour through residential neighborhoods. There was a calm and comforting feeling to walk along an avenue before the day had started, to see the early birds emerge from their dwellings to walk eager dogs, or pass alongside parks taking in the renewed smell of flowers blooming under the first rays of sunshine.
I meandered through town until reaching el Parque de María Luisa. Ornate fountains with iridescent tiles, lion sculptures and decorative egg-shaped vases adorned the historic setting, from el Pabellon Mudejar (the Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions) to la Plaza de España. Rose-ringed parakeets fluttered through the pungent citrus-sweetened air, their light green pastel plumage contrasting with the blue skies and deep oranges of the native orange trees.
Between historic landmarks, I would find myself at a modern road, a reminder of where I actually was in space and time. The juxtaposition was sometimes more comical than expected, such as when I saw the sleekly dressed streetcar sporting a Tio Pepe (a local sherry brand) livery, complete with its Cordovan hat. And with just a few more steps, I returned back in time.
I approached the clay-colored fortress walls, lined with lively street vendors of art and trinkets. Just beyond was el Palacio de Pedro I in el Real Alcázar de Sevilla, decorated in extravagance.
Rooms were all so unique, filled with mesmerizing patterns, especially in the tiling that reflected different colors and hues as the sun moved through the afternoon sky. My favorite room was the Hall of Ambassadors; the overt flow and glow of golden colors kept me as a moth to candlelight.
With the evening on the doorstep, modern art was on my mind. The first stop was las Setas de Sevilla, a honeycomb-like art installation in el Plaza Major. Depending on the changing sunlight, the wavy structure would cast patterned shadows on neighboring buildings and on the ground beneath it. I continued on in search of more art: across overly designed bridges, past talented graffiti art representative of the local industries, and finally, el Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo, a historic building now housing contemporary artwork. Exploration through Andalusia was coming to a close, but there was still one last stop on the trip.
BarcelonaThe full urban experience of my trip was to be found here in Barcelona. Markets, churches, beaches, shops and epic architectures all fell into place on the itinerary. But where to start?
Sometimes it was fun to just take a walk without a map, to see where the path might take me. Perhaps I would find unique bookstores or fancy cafes, maybe locals in the midst of their everyday lives, or perhaps just a reminder to open my eyes to the opportunities as they emerge before the camera lens.
I explored from the busy tourist centers and outward into residential neighborhoods to get the larger picture of life in this city. Following the locals, I stumbled upon specialized markets with carefully organized storefronts offering collections of foods, from meats to seafood to vegetables, nuts, spices and even a dedicated egg shop.
The flow of tourists led be back to the heart of the city, where I enjoyed the quirkiest of stores: a themed rubber duck store, a hipster bespoke donut vendor, a furniture store with a particularly amusing painting and a chill bookstore featuring local Spanish books and comic strips.
In addition to all the central hustle and bustle, there was much to be enjoyed outdoors, at the beaches and resorts, the relaxed environment of open-air cafes under the late afternoon sun, and in the mountains, taking in the stunning views of the city amidst the architecture and art of Park Güell.
Of the many places I visited, one of the most notable ones was La Sagrada Família, a basilica designed by Antoni Gaudí. This modernist architecture, derived from neo-Gothic influences, exhibits keen detail to small and large features alike, from incredibly ornate spires to geometrically embellished vaults, and the simplicity of straight lines had just about been replaced with undulating and unexpected designs, such that neighboring motifs are not repeated. Even the columns were anything but ordinary; rising up through the gallery, they split apart, alike branches of a tree, into multiple smaller columns, up until they blended into the vaulting.
The greatest highlight, however, was the extraordinarily epic food to be tasted. Whether it was a fulfilling breakfast, or perhaps a casual afternoon pastry, a full steak dinner or endless seafood tapas, each meal was noteworthy in itself, imprinting a lasting memory of how elegant culinary creations can be had in such casual settings. Of all the food experiences, there was one tapas restaurant that stood above the rest, surrounded by a crowd fitting for its repute. After a considerable wait, the best I could manage was a bar seat amidst a sea of gregarious conversations. But from the first plate to the last, the roaring sounds dulled out to silence as my mind focused on only the unique collection of taste profiles upon my palette.
Before I knew it, the week was over. With thousands of pictures, and more importantly, countless indelible memories to be reminisced, I was on the flight home. I thought of what this trip meant to me, beyond the obvious benefits of relaxation and excitement to be had on an international adventure. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was the reminder to keep an open mind, to actively see the world with child-like wonder. There is so much left to experience, from my perspective well as others' perspectives, especially in recognizing the priorities in life that truly make a difference. The conversations replayed in my mind: passing salutations with locals, evening discussions with hotel staff and innkeepers, and quick chats with taxi drivers. I could see that what they had in common was happiness derived from honest priorities, and that happiness itself was the measure of success. The part that had taken me a while longer to appreciate was the stark simplicity of these thoughts.
As I tried to consider life in this mindset, given all that I had experienced thus far, I realized that I had the tendency to overcomplicate my thoughts, and that the truth was and is really that simple. As I took the much-needed nap, en-route high above the Atlantic, I could picture the Spanish countryside with the rolling hills and open plains, and the warm beaches and green mountains, and I could feel myself smiling. I hope to return to Spain again, and that these photographs will encourage you to as visit as well.
And of course, here is the bird list:
|azure-winged magpie||European blue tit|
|barn swallow||European goldfinch|
|black redstart||European serin|
|black-bellied sandgrouse||gray wagtail|
|black-headed gull||greater flamingo|
|black-winged stilt||grey wagtail|
|blue rock thrush||gull-billed tern|
|cirl bunting||little egret|
|common blackbird||little ringed plover|
|common house martin||marbled duck|
|common pochard||Moltoni's warbler|
|common ringed plower||monk parakeet|
|common sandpiper||red-billed chough|
|Eurasian black vulture||red-crested pochard|
|Eurasian blackbird||red-legged partridge|
|Eurasian blackcap||rose-ringed parakeet|
|Eurasian blue tit||sanderling|
|Eurasian collared dove||Sardinian warbler|
|Eurasian coot||slender-billed gull|
|Eurasian hobby||tufted duck|
|Eurasian jackdaw||wood sandpiper|