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Friday, 31 May 2013

Over the Pyrenees to Southern Catalonia

Day 3 was glorious as you will see in the photos which follow! We took the route which goes to the col de Somport, and rather than take a boring 8.6km long tunnel, of course we took the minor route which went higher to the actual pass at 1,632m altitude. There was one solitary cafe up there just over the border on the Spanish side which allowed us to stop and enjoy being up in the snow line. The snow was melting but the grass was only just beginning to green up in places, so I was most amazed to see two Small Tortoiseshell butterflies, feeding on the only flowers available, a few dandelions! We also saw several bird species never before seen up in these high points. Species list at the end of this post.

Up in the melting snowline at the Col de Somport

Once over the other side the change was so apparent to see. On the French side of the Pyrenees all was lush and green; as soon as you are on the Spanish side the rocky, more barren, aridness is all too apparent. Lovely to see such contrasts. We'd see a few fields here and there where more normal (for us) arable crops were being grown, such as maize and barley, but I think these need some irrigation. 

Further along our route we passed kilometer after kilometer of peach farms. Even when you come down from the mountains, the terrain is never really flat. There are interesting rock formations and strange flat topped mini mountains/hills dotted about here and there. The journey took us most of the day as we were not travelling on motorways, although some roads were dual carriageways. Rather than take a possibly faster coastal route to our destination as we neared the coast, we opted to follow a minor road along the route of the Ebro river. Our destination was the Ebro Delta, a major wetland area renowned as a place for bird watching, as the whole delta area is a major rice growing area, and around the outside of the delta are vast lagoons teeming in bird life.

The Ebro river

It was quite hot here, probably the hottest day of our holiday!

Yours truly with the river in the background

Eventually we arrived at our destination, Sant Carles de la Rapita, which is a small seaside town very close to the edge of the south side of the delta. I chose to splash out a bit on this hotel as we are normally very good, staying in budget hotels. However private parking is important to us, having a car full of 'stuff' to unload, and I have found after our last holiday in Spain that Spanish hotels are better value than French ones. 

Also included in the price is breakfast. Now we are not big breakfast eaters, but we always make a packed lunch from what is available at breakfast, surreptitiously squirreled away into my backpack which always goes to breakfast with me...... this saves us money and also time looking for somewhere to eat in the often remote places we find ourselves during the day!

Hotel Miami Mar at Sant Carles de la Rapita. It really was lovely!

Our first evening here we were a bit shocked to discover that the hotel restaurant didn't even open until 9pm, then realised of course we'd be on Spanish time from now on! In Spain they eat out late. This actually worked out fine as there was no rush to get off early in the mornings as we knew we could be out all day, come back about 7.30pm if we wanted and still plenty of time to relax, and have a shower all before dinner time.

Of our three full days here, two were spent on the Delta itself bird watching, which will be another post, but the second day we decided to go inland a bit to the mountains nearby known as 'Els Ports de Tortosa'. Unfortunately this was the day the car first decided to play up. 

The lower slopes are olive grove country

One thing which saddened me about the olive groves are that they are weedkilled to within an inch of their lives. It's pretty boring driving through miles of olive grove country where the only vegetation are the wildflowers by the side the road. Only the 'overgrown' groves full of grass and flowers looked interesting - the rest was far too barren and sterile to be interesting at all. Sad.

The road leading up to Mont Caro (1,441m high)

Did we get to the summit? Sadly, no.

Grumpy face. You can see the car petered out still partially on the road!
Thankfully there was barely any other traffic and it was wide enough to turn round
here and go back down.

I did find this impromptu pause to my benefit and all the following half hour breaks during the rest of the holiday whilst waiting for the engine to cool down. It gave me a chance to look at the wildflowers and the bugs that I'd so often find on or around them!

Top: unknown beetle, the pretty blue flower I have no idea
but the red beetle is a Leaf Beetle called Clytra 4 punctata

After that fiasco we chose a different route which sounded scenic and not quite so high up, and thought we'd try once again in case the car problem had been just a blip... unfortunately not, so once again, down we came after stopping here for our picnic lunch.

Nice quiet picnic spot. We never did see anyone near that other car!

More time for me to do a bit of wildflower and bug hunting. I couldn't believe I was seeing salties (jumping spiders, but not featured here as a bit too small for my camera to do justice to) just wandering about on the gravel beside the car parking area! It's amazing what you can find in a bit of gravel and 'weeds'.

A few bugs, clockwise from top left:
Wasp Beetle (Clytra arietis), possible solitary wasp or wasp mimic bee,
a grasshopper, and a looper caterpillar. Was really pleased to find this,
just attached to the pebbles by the car parking area!

Some of these plants were growing on the other side of the road in more natural rocky/scree type habitat.

Ummm! Well the top two are the same plant, which is a delicate succulent.
The white flowering plant was beautiful and the one middle right is a Hellebore!
I wish I knew more but I have googled myself silly and there is practially
nothing on the internet regarding wild flowers in Spain.

Coming back down we stopped at this lovely cafe restaurant beside the river Senia. It obviously was once a watermill because inside, to get to the toilets, you had to cross a glass floor which looked down into the old mill workings. For someone like me who suffers from vertigo, it wasn't the easiest thing to cross!

The plane trees gave shade and it was a lovely place to while away the best part of an hour

I bet that water, coming down from the mountains, was cold!

Here, beside the shrine, was a natural spring where
people were collecting water in bottles

On the way back we crossed into Valencia where suddenly the olive trees gave way to loads of orange groves, for a change! When we got back to the hotel, typically the sun was shining on the coast so there was nothing for it but to have a dip in the pool.

Birds seen so far: 
An asterisk denotes a lifer, and I'm not noting every robin or sparrow seen, only the less common birds that we don't see in the garden!

Lurbe St Cristau (hills behind the hotel)
Black Kites
Griffon Vultures
Black Redstarts

Col de Somport
Tree Pipit *
Alpine Swifts *
Pallid Swifts *

During drive to Catalonia (often seen from the car or during a break)
Red Kites
White Stork
Egyptian Vulture
Crag Martin
Black-winged Stilt
Litte Egrets

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Weeds! (a veg patch update)

I knew I'd come home to weeds but was surprised, given that there was only one night of rain totalling 6mm whilst we were away, that everything had grown so much and that all the seeds that I'd sown had germinated. Since coming back there has been far more rain which is a good thing for the garden. I do have so far, potatoes (three varieties), parsnips, shallots, onions, leek and spring onion seedlings and two sowings of various varieties of lettuce.

Somewhere in here are parsnips, shallots and onions!

The after shot after much hand weeding

Many of my weeds are edible: in this mess are magenta orach which is edible, borage, dill, a potato (they haven't been grown in this plot for 4 years so how one still got through I don't know!) and a 'Red Salad Bowl' lettuce....

Can you spot the rogue potato and the self-seeded lettuce?

I found another self seeded lettuce beside my onions
so I had to remove some leaves as the poor onion is a bit stunted!

I have about 5 varieties of lettuce coming up
which we are eating the thinnings of along with the orach

Finally got to weeding my five strawberry beds! Had started spreading straw around and thought there was no rush until I noticed a few already starting to turn red, so fast work has been done over the last two days to get the rest of the straw down and netting over before the birds start helping themselves. I ate that strawberry yesterday and delicious it was too. Actually I ate half, and I'm so nice I gave the other half to my OH. Is that love or what? :-)

Several pollinators doing their job although I'm not sure
if the micromoth was pollinating or just sitting there!

Spuds. The before and after, all nicely hoed and earthed up now.
Just need to watch out for blight and colorado beetle.

Year 2 of my original Wildflowers for Pollinators Meadow. There was one plant which dominated which has grown enormous and burst into flower whilst I was away. I didn't know the plant but was pretty sure it was part of the Brassica family and after a bit of a google managed to ID it as Hesperis matronalis, very pretty and slightly scented, and a hit with the butterflies as well as some bees. There is also Phacelia flowering here now which self seeded from last year's plants during the mild winter and is much loved by the bumble bees.

Butterflies enjoying the Hesperis matronalis - left an Orange Tip
and right I think it's a male Small White but the markings are
not as apparent as normal.

All sorts of bumble bees and solitary bees are enjoying
the flowers on the purple curly kale, which I always leave
to flower especially for them.

Due to a reasonably mild winter some borage and calendula managed to survive so I'm very pleased that they are already flowering. The larger green plant is a flat leafed parsley (I have two here) which I'm leaving to go to seed as I hope the pollinators will enjoy the flowers. Lilac flowering in the background and as usual my ugly propane tank gets in the picture!

The unweedy patch is where I sowed annual seeds for pollinators
which I collected from last year's wildflowers for pollinators meadow.
My pegs indicate where I sowed diagonal lines so I can find the actual
seeds and hoe off the weeds in between!
The rest of the green stuff is just weeds which need hoeing.

Blackcurrants loaded with flowers and fruit as usual.
Currants are a very reliable fruit crop!

Raspberries are flowering away and the thornless cultivated blackberries are looking good but as for the poor young gooseberries, although I checked them a few days ago and they seemed fine, yesterday I found them already with a number of leaves munched by Gooseberry Sawfly larvae which have been squished, so I'll have to be very vigilant!

Overall I'm pleased with my progress in tidying up as I've been working at half my normal energy levels due to having a cold; however one thing I've found is that I feel so much better being out in the fresh air than indoors!

I have now to get to a garden centre to buy my tomatoes and some other veg which is a bit late to start sowing now, such as French haricot beans, courgettes, cucumber and squash/pumpkins, not to mention the bog standard ivy leafed geraniums for my tubs and planters. Just hope there are some left which are not dried out leggy specimens.... but really it's just been too cold here to put those tender plants out anyway, so wasn't worth rushing to get any. With going away when we did, I felt the easiest way was to cheat and buy ready grown young plants. That's also why I have no peas or broad beans this year and even more space being used for wildflower meadows. But they keep me amused and my pollinating friends will be happy!

Friday, 24 May 2013

Oloron Ste Marie and Lurbe St Christau, France

The start of my holiday blog which I'll be interspersing with normal garden posts. The most time consuming thing of course is whittling down all the photos so as not to make my posts too ridiculously long!

We spent our first two nights, after a long drive all down the west coast of France, at a Logis hotel that I'd picked from the internet. It looked attractive in a hilly, woodlandy setting and had a restaurant, which I thought would be a good idea as it was a good ten minutes drive from the nearby town of Oloron Ste Marie. The hotel was lovely with reasonable sized rooms and the restaurant very good - and most amazingly, after 16 years living in France I was served fresh vegetables (don't fall off your chair, those of you who know France!) - real carrots, and get this, real, fresh haricot vert!!! Normally the only vegetable type of thing you get on a plate in France is a few lettuce leaves as a garnish or maybe a half a baked tomato, but as we later found, this is a lot more than you get in Spain, where they don't even automatically serve you chips as your vegetable!

We were very lucky with the weather as it had been pouring with rain here up until the day before our arrival, hence the gardens being rather overgrown, which was to my benefit, as you'll see later on in this post.

Hotel 'Au Bon Coin' in the sleepy hamlet of Lurbe St Christau
and my OH relaxing beside the pool (which was freezing!).

Minimal driving was the order of the day so during the morning we just walked along the lanes with barely a car going past and marvelled at the lovely scenery, the lushness of it all and the trees all covered in leaf - spring here was far more advanced than back home.

Tranquil, green and lush

And with fantastic hills and mountains all around!

Wildflowers were everywere, from the meadows where the cows grazed to the roadside verges.
Here's an male Orange Tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines)
feeding on Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum).

Of course I had to stop to check out this weevil crossing the road!

After a picnic lunch in our hotel room (we take our esky/icebox everwhere with us on our travels as it plugs into both the car and the mains, making it a portable fridge) we headed off to Oloron to have a look around. Being a Sunday afternoon it was very sleepy too. We were pleased about the restaurant at the hotel as we only found 2 restaurants in the town, one of which was closed! It was not the prettiest of towns but there was a high point where we walked for great views and we enjoyed a good mooch about.

In the sleepy town of Oloron Ste Marie we marvelled over this beautiful tree,
which I have now learned is Paulownia tomentosa.

On the wall just beside the tree I noticed this beautiful little lizard.
The flowering plant growing in the wall is Cymbalaria muralis, which is almost a weed at home -
it likes growing out of walls and stony places.

Plane trees pollarded in an unusual fashion, almost pleached
as well as pollarded. From above they were uniformly pruned into a perfect
rectangular shape which must be quite some work
getting up there and achieving that!

In the main part of town there's a hill with a church up the top,
and a scenic walk under what will eventually be shade from the pollarded Plane trees.

Looking towards the Pyrenees in the distance
and Oloron Cathedral on the right towards the back

More Plane trees pollarded in an unusual fashion

The bark of the Plane trees is quite stunning and beautifully decorative

Then it was back to the hotel where we though we'd chill in the garden for a few hours as we had another longish drive the following day. Here I was in my element as not only had the unmown 'lawn' turned into a wildflower meadow, all around the outside of the garden there were even wilder areas full of wildflowers, with lots of butterflies and pollinating insects to keep me occupied with my camera!

Not sure what this bee is but it was happy feeding on Bugle (Ajuga reptens) in the 'lawn'

What happens when Japanese Knotweed takes over,
and then you wish you hadn't planted those young fruit trees there.....

I was happy to see my favourite hoverfly, the Marmalade Hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus),
feeding on a Euphorbia flower

A daytime flying moth that I hadn't encountered before,
the beautiful Burnet Companion Moth (Euclidia glyphica)

Brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni)
I thought this was a female as she seemed much paler than
the yellow male when flying, but now I'm not so sure!

Wood White (Leptidea sinapis), a new species for me, rests on a dandelion seedhead

It was a lovely little break in a beautiful part of France. The Pyrenees Atlantiques has become my favourite department. It's split into 4 provinces, the 3 to the west are the 3 Basque provinces and this area where we stayed was the 4th province, the Bearn. I'd love to see more of it, and a lot more of the Pyrenees in general one day ... albeit in another car though!

The following day we went over the mountains and into sunny Spain, to do some serious birdwatching at the Ebro Delta in southern Catalonia.

Monday, 20 May 2013

I've had a holiday!

So now I'm home with 1500+ photos to sort out, and a jungle in the veg patch. It's cold and drizzly and I've only gone and caught a cold so I'm not doing very much. Even sorting through photos is taking twice as long as my brain has turned to mush.

Here are some photos that sort of sum up my holiday. In good time I will post more, obviously, and probably put some into albums which I'll share. All in all we have had a fantastic time, could have done with a little less breeze/more warmth at times but having come home to about 12C, I am now thinking fondly of those 'cold' days in Spain when the temps dropped to about 17/18C!

Mandy goes bug hunting in SW France

Crosses the Pyrenees into Spain

Spanish bugs come hunting for Mandy (it's some kind of chafer beetle)

Mandy dips her toes into the Med and squeals with the cold

But does manage to have a dip in the hotel pool; first swim since 2000!!!

The Moorhen Lady meets her Spanish cousin, the Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio porphyrio)

Then visits a tropical bird and butterfly park and makes a new BFF

It really didn't want to get off me and pecked me and shrieked whenever I tried to get it
onto my fingers; I got snuggled for about 15 minutes before it finally had enough :-)

Unfortunately our car decided to play up and decided that, although it had crossed the Pyrenees at over 1600m, it would overheat every time we tried to climb a mini mountain after that. It had done this once before in the Basque Country 18 months ago, but after that holiday the garage could find no fault so we had forgotten about it, thinking it was one of those one-off things. Well it started again to the point that we could not trust it one bit, so had to do some hurried rearranging of the last 3 days of our holiday, as the two nights to be spent in a Casa Rurale up high in the mountains was not going to happen! So we stayed on longer in Roses on the coast and came home via the long and boring autoroute going from the Med coast to the Atlantic at Bordeaux then back up via a last night in La Rochelle.

The car is now history and we'll be looking for something more reliable. In the meantime, there are no mountains here, so it works fine....