Hesperornis

At around eight o’clock in the morning, the sun isn’t quite all the way up yet and the beaches around Arenal d’en Castell are, for the most part, empty of swimmers. A few Speedo-wearing junkies hug the shoreline, and the running girl is back on the boardwalk as she was yesterday, same time, same place. Other than that, the beach is empty – except for one unexpected bather out for a morning swim.

The Mediterranean Shag – perhaps more appropriately dubbed in Spanish as the tufted cormorant – is a diving bird that one normally associates with the rugged cliffs and seabird colonies of the north. The last time I saw these odd-looking snake-necked seabirds I was standing atop the windswept cliffs of Inner Farne, where the birds had built their messy nests mere inches from the footpath. The Farne Islands are magical in their own right with their denizens so fearless and so close at hand, so I suppose I assumed the Farne birds to be a braver sort. In most other parts of the world, birds (and other animals for that matter) know well enough to steer clear of the capricious hand of man. The Great Auk didn’t – and is consequently no longer with us.

Before the tourism industry boomed in the Mediterranean, sea turtles and monk seals swam into the sandy coves to give birth and plovers nested on the shorelines. The human demand for a place in the sun has pushed many of these creatures to local extinction – the Mediterranean monk seal is now one of the rarest mammals on the planet – but some species have decided the only way to cope with the summer surge of noisy humanity is to simply go about their business as though nothing had changed. The shags of Arenal d’en Castell do not appear to mind the presence of their human neighbours in the slightest. The waters of the bay are still teeming with fish, and for this master fisherman, the presence of a few hardy toe-dippers is no obstacle to a morning’s hunting.

There are at least three shags in the bay, not counting those that haunt the rocky cliffs of the headland to the northeast. Like many “urban” animals, they lack the lustre of their wild counterparts. The shining bottle-green feathers of the Farne birds are absent here: Phalacrocorax aristotelis desmarestii dons a more humble suit, with a touch of the sandy-grey “pardel” colour that flecks the coats of all Spain’s beasts, from its mice and rabbits to its bears and wolves.

Or at least, this bunch of townies do.

They really are masterful swimmers. This youngster did an entire length of the bay in a matter of minutes, displaying incredible agility as it darted through the shallows, oftentimes passing within a few feet of the day’s first paddlers, and avoiding what obstacles it encountered with incredible dexterity – with one exception. Perhaps age will bring wisdom.

Every once in a while, nature, that ancient mechanic, finds a form it likes and seems to say to itself ‘yes, that’ll do – no need for further adjustments’. Sharks and sponges and jellyfish have filled an ecological niche since time immemorial, and there is much in the shag that harks back to some of the earliest birds, not least of all the fearsome Hesperornis, a seagoing avian dinosaur with sharp teeth on its beak. There are no teeth on its descendant, but as it floats along the surface of the water, snorkelling often and propelling itself along by its back legs, it seems an ancient creature; and when it finds what it was looking for, it kicks with its powerful legs and dives. And if it looked a capable swimmer on the surface, that is nothing compared to what it can achieve below the waves.

Would that I had an underwater camera and could show you just what I mean! Swimming around the headland this afternoon, I ran into the bird again, paddling only a few metres away without a care in the world. When it dived, I went under and followed it on its underwater hunt. Such speed! The bird moves like a torpedo through the water, powering ahead with powerful kicks of its bright yellow feet. I could only keep up for as long as it allowed; when it had enough of the lumbering tag-along, it kicked harder and took off through the depths. Were the sea calmer I might have watched it go, but the high winds stirred up the sand on the seabed and within seconds it disappeared into the gloom.

It’s moments like this that I wake up for. The flycatchers hawking around the climbing frame in the garden. The hummingbird hawkmoth that visits the hedge every day, the turtle doves that purr from the Aleppo pines, and the blue rock thrushes that warble from the cliffs of every rocky cove – and all of this within five minutes of the flat. Menorca is wild and, for the nature lover for whom a casual swim is simply not enough, it is a truly beautiful place to explore.

The high winds of the last few days are finally on the wane; the waves are not crashing upon the headland as they were this morning. Tomorrow I make for Fornells to explore the reefs on the northernmost cape of the island. I hear there are moray eels to be seen, though I should consider myself more fortunate if I should have the chance to swim with the shags once again. It was a real RSPB moment, up there with the vultures in the mist and the saltpan harrier, and I shall treasure it for years to come. BB x

Stormchasing

It only rained for three minutes this evening – four, at a push – but it was enough. The muggy, sweat-laundering heat that swallowed me body and soul from the moment I stepped out of the plane this morning is over, and with a night breeze blowing and the temperature pleasantly cool, the last three hours of the day are for writing. I’ve not had the time or mental energy to put pen to paper for several months, and I doubt I will at all next year. So tonight, and maybe for the next few nights, the sun is shining and a haymaker am I.

Sweet Caroline is playing on a loudspeaker in the hotel bar down the road. The only other sounds, besides the ever more distant rumblings of thunder, are the chirring of crickets, the metallic ring of a flagpole in the wind and snatches of conversation from the holidaymakers in the surrounding block. I thought tonight might be a night for geckos, but I can’t see or hear any tonight. Not on my balcony, anyway. The rain might have driven them off.

Beach holidays have been late in coming to me. As with so much in my life, I suppose I have been contrary: what appealed to everybody else must therefore be uninspired and dull. I’d love to say I’m still game to throw myself gung-ho into another madcap adventure, but after a year in a boarding school, I’m quite spent, and for once the idea of spending more than a couple of days on the beach isn’t quite as dreary as it once sounded.

Ok, scratch that. The storm that rolled in over the cliffs today lit a fire in my soul and I was up and out the door in a heartbeat.

Standing alone atop the wind-scarred wastes of the Cap des Redoble, I looked out to the west and watched the thunderstorm come rolling in. I have seen displays of grater majesty and covered my ears before more deafening drumrolls, but it felt truly sensational to stand alone, high atop a cliff, as thunderbolts great and small rained down all around me.

Some forked across the sky, skirting beneath the clouds like bubbles under ice, whilst others weaved in and out of the haze as though there were a holes in the clouds. Others still hurtled straight into the sea offshore, some thin and wispy, others monstrous and so bright they lit up the sea in their wake and pulsed in stasis upon the grey canvas of the sky behind before disappearing into the ether – invariably just before I’d pressed down the shutter on my camera.

I love a good thunderstorm. Who doesn’t? It is truly one of nature’s most awesome performances, and who can blame the ancients for believing gods great and wicked were behind such electric devilry. Only weeks ago I wandered out into the grounds at night to watch a silent storm from the hilltop, and stood in equally silent awe for almost half an hour as lightning danced across the sky in flashes of silver and violet, twelve strikes to a minute. And six years before that, in the garden of the bishop’s residence in Boroboro, I watched a similar storm paint the sky shades of purple I had never seen before.

I had planned this first post to be about swimming with tetras and breams and mullets and wrasse, but the thunderstorm that followed somewhat stole its… well. You get the idea.

Nature has always been my elixir. A reliable restorative that works every time, if only I allow myself the time to go out in search of it. That’s part of the draw of working in a rural boarding school, I guess – that at any given moment, if I have an hour or two to spare, I can strap on my walking shoes and be in the heart of an English forest within minutes. My fears are gone, the world is put to rights and my soul is singing. Amman simply couldn’t offer that and I suffered.

In The Power of One, one of Bryce Courtenay’s best and one of my favourite books of all time, the wise and humble Doc tells Peekay that, whatever the question, ‘the answer you shall find in nature‘. Wise words and I swear by ’em. I just wish I were wise enough to act on them more often. Next year is likely to be my greatest hurdle yet, and I will need every trick in my arsenal to pull through.

Four more days in Menorca are just what the doctor ordered. And when Menorca is but a distant memory, a thunderstorm or two like the one I saw today wouldn’t be so bad. BB x

The Strength of Blood

Seat eighty-six, coach two. A sky full of flat-bottomed clouds. The immensity of La Mancha racing by in a haze of olive green, dirty white and wine red, with scarlet carpets of poppies laid out in the tall grass of the wheat-fields. Ruined farmhouses crumbling amongst the endless vineyards, men and women bent double as they work the fields, and a lonely oak tree standing tall. Woodpigeons scattering in the wake of the train; a single kestrel perched high upon a telegraph pole; a pair of harriers wheeling overhead on slender wings, the female a living shadow of the earth below, the male a silver spirit of the sky above. I cannot see the bustards I saw on the way here, nor the rabbits or hares or even the magpies. But far off to the south the land rises, and I can see the blue hills of La Solana and Infantes, the vanguard of the sierras of Andalusia. Andalusia: where all of this began.

It seems strange, now, to imagine this whole Spanish adventure without my family at the heart of it. All those years spent wandering in the shade of the stone pines of Doñana, hiking in the scrubby mountains around Grazalema and anchoring myself in one way or another to an ancient, characterful little corner (literally) of the province of Cádiz… I question why, a cup of café con leche in hand, we did not simply come straight here to La Mancha, where the family is, was and always had been, rather than go chasing the same Andalusian dream that ruined so many British families before us. It would have made a lot more sense, certainly. But such is the way of things, and if we had, would I have half the story to tell? Would I even be where I am today? I think not.

The high sierras of Ronda. The stone pine forests of Huelva. The scent of snow in the Alpujarras, the Arabic lettering on the walls of the Alhambra and the pillared forest of the Great Mosque of Córdoba. And of course, the unspoilt wilds of Extremadura, from the plains of Cáceres to the paradise hills of La Vera. That is the Spain I know. The Spain I have come to love with all of my heart. Just as an athlete needs to warm up before a race, so too did I need to wander before finding my way. My mother chose the destination; I chose the road.

As I continue my wandering in the streets of Alcázar de San Juan, waiting for the connecting train to Madrid, I pass a small and modern church. Families pour out onto the street, shaking hands, exchanging kisses, the children playing chase in the street. I say to myself, aloud, “así habría sido mi vida, quizás…”. I walk in the direction of the windmills, knowing full well I will not make it there and back in the forty minutes at my disposal. I find a small park on the way and stop to eat a semicurado sandwich in a concrete ring decorated with painted tiles telling the story of Don Quijote. I must read that book, I really must. It’s nothing short of a crime to have come this far with my Spanish and not to have read the book.

An hour passes. The train sails through the lush greenery of Aranjuez. My mind races back to an August afternoon, many years ago, when my parents decided to break up the long drive south to our new home with a visit to the royal palace there. Twelve year-old me, with little to no idea what I was getting myself in for, crouched down over a pond staring at pumpkinseed fish. Leaving England behind meant nothing to me, then. I was going to live in a country with pumpkinseed fish, and eagles, and hoopoes, and vultures, and Cola Cao. I knew my priorities. These days I’m not so sure. I know what they are – that much I have learned – but which are the most pressing priorities, the ones I truly cannot live without… that is hard to say.

Without England, I would not have my music. My gospel choir. My a cappella group. My funk band and the chance to pour all my heart and soul into the most powerful necessity on the planet. But without Spain, I would not have my greatest love. I would not have my family, my ever-changing, ever-constant paradise, and the happiness machine that is the Spanish language itself (forgive the overuse of the word “my” – it is so very easy to feel possessive about the things you care the most about). For the last three years I have been forced to choose between the two, and it has done its level best to tear me apart.

Seat forty-eight, coach one. Getafe rises up and out of the fields, heralded by an advance guard of red tower blocks on the horizon. The wilderness is behind us now; the metropolis ahead. Last night I dreamed I was climbing a steep forested hill, when out of nowhere a stag, huge and thunderous with broad antlers, bolted out of the bushes, cleared the fence to my left in a single leap and came to a halt on the other side of the path, looking back at me as though to challenge me. Google says to dream of a stag is an augur of caution against making hasty decisions, and that a running stag foretells a great deal of luck in family life. It sounds like superstitious stuff and nonsense to me, but in truth, I have not had a dream so vivid in a long time. And I have been known to avoid walking under scaffolding.

By eight thirty tonight I will be back at work. With exam season in full swing I could hardly ask for more than I already have. But I return home full of light. Spending the weekend with my family has been everything I wanted it to be and more besides, just like it was this time last year, and the Easter before that. I have never known a happiness quite like it. Seeing the shock, the joy and the tears on my little cousin’s face when he saw me in the church of San Blas… it is a memory I will never forget. Last year it was the novelty of discovery that shook me. Now it is the strength of love and blood, the strongest of all ties. And it will keep me strong until we meet again. That much I know. BB x

Broken Glass

I took a gamble, booking a flight to Barcelona on the day after Brexit was due to happen. Some people said I was mad, that I’d have lost my money, and that I might end up grounded. Some people said there was nothing to worry about. I chose to believe in the latter and did nothing, trusting that Project Fear would only cause a few minor disruptions at best.

And I got lucky. In over ten years of flying to and from Gatwick Airport, I swear I’ve never seen it so empty. Security took all of three minutes, queues, baggage check and the whole taking off and refastening one’s belt charade. In short, no queues at all. Well, none besides the giant queue for the cancelled Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong. I suppose you can’t blame Project Fear for that.

I managed to lose one of my lenses sometime between boarding and takeoff. Fortunately it wasn’t one of my camera lenses, but one of the eyeglasses from my shades. So now I have to spend the holidays looking like a low budget Terminator. Alternatively I could buy some new ones, but that would spoil the magic a little. Stories aren’t so interesting when everything gets mended all the time.

Well, here I am in Barcelona. This hostel doesn’t appear to hand out padlocks for its lockers like some of the ones I’ve stayed in over in western Spain, but no matter. I’m going on a nighttime stroll to take in the city a bit. Catch you later. BB x

Screamers

April isn’t normally a mad month. This one has been, though. Since getting back from La Mancha, I’ve been here, there and everywhere. Performing in the school play. Working at a Language Immersion weekend in Burguillos del Cerro with the local EOI. Attending extra Gospel Choir rehearsals in Zafra. Taking additional classes at school, cancelling my private classes (at last) and doing intensive research in the library. For what is supposed to be a twelve-hour working week, I’ve been rather busy. It’s never anything that I can’t handle, though, and with the end in sight now, lesson planning is becoming easier rather than harder. That’s some small relief.

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Parroquia de Santa Maria de la Encina y San Juan Bautista, Burguillos del Cerro

The weather, though… What is with the weather this year? Ignoring the fact that I’m English and that my first blog post in almost a month should naturally be to talk about the weather, it’s been one of the weirdest years for weather I’ve ever seen. First the cold, then the rain – three and a half weeks of it – then a week of glorious sunshine, then hard rain again, and now summer, with high humidity and thunderstorms forecast over the Puente de Mayo. It’s as though Spain just forgot to do Spring this year.

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I’m wondering whether that Star of David tucked away in there was intentional…

Winter was long, dry and freezing cold here in Tierra de Barros. Spanish houses are designed with the long, sweltering summers in mind, and though they’re well-adapted to shutting out the light and heat in August, they’re lamentably bad at keeping it in during the winter months. You basically need the brasero (a flat heater, often kept beneath a covered table) on every night. It’s a long battle between cold hands, feet and everything, and the bimonthly electricity bill, and the latest invoice that’s been lying on the kitchen table for the last fortnight serves as a reminder of the cost of the season’s war crimes. It’s a pity one can’t live in Spain for half the year and England for the other. You could make a killing on the savings.

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Booted Eagle (aguila calzada) from the castle at Burguillos

On a minor note, it’s impossible to get into a comfortable position on this sofa. There. I’ve acknowledged the elephant in the room. We can move on.

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Painted Lady taking a break on the castle top

I’ve been wondering what to write the next blog post about for a while. A couple of weeks ago the bee-eaters arrived, on the very day I’d commented on their absence, and that brought joy to my heart. Later, I had the Language Immersion, which raised some rather disconcerting news concerning my beloved Extremadura, but that wasn’t strictly blog-worthy. I also dug out the local library’s regional encyclopedias, which were filled to the brim with local information I could only dream about before… but at the risk of boring you all senseless, I’ll wait until I’ve properly processed the information before regurgitating it here and now. No, the answer, my friend, was blowing in the wind.

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Or should I say, screaming.

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The swifts have been here for over a month now, hawking overhead on their way north alongside the hundreds of swallows, martins, kites and storks also bound for northern Europe, but the Villafranca contingent only arrived a few weeks ago. How do I know this? Well, it’s quite simple, really. I know this because the screaming only began a few weeks ago. The collective noun for a flock of swifts varies, with some opting for a box of swifts, or the more alliterative swoop of swifts, though in perfect honesty I’m going to tip my hat to the chappie who coined the phrase a ‘screaming frenzy’ of swifts – because anybody who’s familiar with these peculiar creatures will know that they’re not exactly the most inconspicuous of birds, to put it lightly.

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Swifts are odd-looking birds, to say the least. In flight, they’re right out of a kid’s drawing: long, tapering wings with no trailing fingers, a stubby, featureless face and a cigar-shaped body which makes them look more like a fish that grew feathers and took to the sky. At the same time, their large brown eyes and tiny mouths lend something mousy to their appearance, too. They’re not even that closely related to swallows and martins, with which they share the skies. But whatever they are, they’re endlessly fun to watch, as they duck and weave and scream and perform some of nature’s most endearing acrobatics on a summer evening, seemingly for the sheer thrill of it.

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The saying “one swallow does not a summer make” holds more and more weight here in Spain, especially now that in recent years many swallows never leave at all, opting instead to take their chances with the Spanish winter rather than brave the journey across the Sahara and back. Swifts, on the other hand, are die-hard migrants, spending almost their entire lives on the wing. They eat, sleep, mate and collect all the material they need to build their nests in the air. The ancients believed they never came down at all: their scientific name – apus – derives from the Greek for ‘without feet’. Needless to say they do, like all birds, though they’re small and underdeveloped in comparison to their powerful wings. I’ve only ever seen a swift’s feet once, and that was because I found a dead fledgling beneath the eaves of the village church when I was thirteen. I remember Adisham being a haven for rare birds then: spotted flycatchers, yellow wagtails, corn buntings, grey partridges and even local rumours of a lonely corncrake. I wonder how it’s faring now.

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There are five species of swift in Spain: the common swift (above), the larger brown-and-white Alpine swift and the chunkier pallid swift, and the two newcomers from Africa, the white-rumped and little swifts (you’ll see the latter a lot more readily if you take a wander through the streets of Marrakesh, where they make a habit of weaving between the heads of the shoppers on their way to their nests). It’s the common swifts we get here in Villafranca, the same kind we see back home in England, even though theirs is a sound I have come to associate more and more with Spain than England. Like the cuckoo and the turtle dove, the early summer screams of the swift faded into memory as I grew up and they began to disappear. It can’t be easy, sharing our little island with Man.

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Look close and you’ll see the fly that once was

The older I get, the more I appreciate the simpler things. When I was younger, it was all about the bells and whistles: hoopoes with their punk-rocker crests, rollers with their shiny blue jackets and gallinules in their resplendent purple glory. I’m still mad about the gallinules, but a long detox from the serious bird-watching of my teen years has done me wonders. Swifts and starlings are just as worth watching these days as kites and eagles, with the added bonus being that they can be counted on to be outside my window at any given moment… Although, that being said, it’s a rare moment when I look out the window and don’t find myself picking out a kite, stork or eagle in the blue sky. Yesterday I’d popped my head out for just a minute when a raven flew over. My flat seems to be on the flight path, because most everything I see passes right overhead.

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Time for bed, I think. Well, another chapter of Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One and then bed, anyway. There are some authors I just keep coming back to. Bryce Courtenay is one of them. BB x

Family Reunion: Part Two

When all is said and done, there is surely nothing more important in life than family. I always knew that. A hundred books and films tell you explicitly what your parents don’t have to. But my mother did, in one way or another, and one way or another I set my heart on finding my lost Spanish family years ago. It makes me proud, prouder than I’ve ever been, to say that I’ve done it. It was nerve-wracking and emotional, but I did it. My world just got five sizes larger over the space of a single night. I’m happier than I’ve been in years and not even a third repeat of Charlie Puth’s How Long over the bus radio can dampen my spirits. Not today.

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“How did you know where to find us?” they asked.
“You’re Spanish,” I said. “I knew you wouldn’t have gone anywhere.”

Twenty-four years on and none of my relatives had moved so much as a mile from where they were before. God bless the Spanish and their strong family ties.

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I had so many questions when I pulled into Villarrobledo on Thursday afternoon. I got so many answers that I almost ran out of questions by the end of it all. Now it all makes sense! The great-grandmother from Albacete, the school in Teruel, the letters from Cataluña, the ties to Murcia and the car accident in Alicante. I had all the pieces, but I needed somebody who knew how to assemble them. Luckily for me, my grandfather’s cousin Encarna was just that person. Born in Alicante, raised in La Mancha, educated in Murcia and displaced to Cataluña for a short time, my grandfather Pepe covered in twenty-nine years just about every corner of Spain that I haven’t in twenty-four. Between the two of us we have the whole peninsula in our hands. I still have so much of his world to see, but I’ve made a great start, and that’s always the hardest part.

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It’s hard to know what was the very best moment of the last three days. Rafaelín’s insatiable curiosity. Encarna’s spectacular cooking. Natalia’s “en Semana Santa no se pega”. Hanging out with a generation of cousins I never knew I had. Jokes about vegans, vegetarians and hapless Brits abroad, three spine-tingling saetas, and Jesús brought back to the church in what looked like a body-bag by the Guardia Civil to protect him from the rain. I’ve never felt closer to the spirituality of Semana Santa and the family were only too happy to introduce me. I’ve only ever seen it through the eyes of a curious outsider before, hooked – like so many guiris before me – on the magic of the spectacle. But now it’s closer. It’s not just wishful thinking on my part. Finally, I belong.

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Perhaps the biggest surprise of all came out of my notebook. In all cases but this, I’d have loved to have my family with me for the reunion, but in this instant, I’m glad I came out on my own. Were my mother or father about, they’d have told me not to bring the notebook. They’d have said it was “showing off” or being “unsociable”, perhaps. That was what they always used to say. But if I hadn’t had it on me, I would never have found out that my passion for carrying a notebook everywhere I go is not just a strange quirk of my own – it’s a family affair. You see, my great-grandmother Lucía María Cruz de la Concepción Mercedes – Mercedes for short – was also a prolific notebook keeper, who liked to sit on her balcony on a sunny day with a cigarette, a glass of brandy and the radio on, jotting down whatever she found interesting and penning her thoughts between her doodles. Quite by accident, I’ve been channelling my great-grandmother’s spirit all this time, and I never knew.

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Well… I’m home now. There’s always something a little sad about the end of a great quest. The journey there is filled with hope, excitement and a host of well-wishers who spur you on like a good wind in your sails. Every step is a climb and the end of the road, as short and sweet as it may be, is the most beautiful of rewards by far. But there comes a time when home calls, and every adventurer must gather their things and return to reality, and the road home is quieter. My quest is my family, and it will go on forever.

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It isn’t all too often that you get to be your own wishmaker. But every once in a while you just have to get over your fears and go for it, whatever it is. And if the last week has taught me anything, it’s that whilst something as simple as making a phone call still has the power to cripple me, nothing and nobody will stand in the way of me and my family. Fate tore us apart years ago. My mother gave me the tools, Don Rafael gave me the opportunity, and I have put us back together again. Whatever happens in the remaining nine months, 2018 will go down as one of the greatest years of my life.

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P.S. As if today couldn’t get any better, when I got off the bus I was met with the screams of Villafranca’s swifts, back from the winter in Africa, and when I got home, I found a letter from nothing other than the wonderful Kate Brocklesby waiting in my letterbox. Today has been a very good day!

Family Reunion: Part One

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It begins in Salamanca. It’s not exactly where I thought it was going to begin, but it’s a more auspicious starting point than Villafranca, I guess. The other passengers around me are reshuffling their seats on the bus. The lady on the seat next to me scrolls blindly through her Instagram feed. Flighty pigeons patrol the bus station roof and a few fluffy clouds pepper the sky. Suitcases roll in, buses roll out and people chat about what they’ll be having for lunch. It’s just another day in Salamanca – but not for me. Today’s the day I find my family.

It’s hard to say exactly how I’m feeling right now. Three days ago, when Rafael called, I was nervous. So nervous I waited until the call went through to my answerphone so I could deal with the matter calmly and indirectly. I’d already gone through the business of psyching myself up a couple of weeks ago, when I first made plans to visit. Spurred on by Coco, and some of Bella’s heartbreaking family stories, I decided I could wait no longer. Then Rafael’s sudden hospitalisation put our reunion on hold and I had to wait.

Now I’m racing across the sunny fields of old Castile with the cathedral of Salamanca shrinking into the distance, and my new quest – perhaps the greatest quest of my life so far – has begun.

12:58

The snows on the highest peaks of the Guadarrama seem as smooth as flour. San Rafael, the quiet town that harboured me once when I came down tired and hungry from a sixty kilometre trek across the mountains, looked warm and unfamiliar in the sunlight. I only remember it in the dark of the night. I have left the granite boulders and high sierras of old Castile behind me. Madrid stretches out across the plain with queer mountains of tower blocks and skyscrapers. The Buddenbrooks film they have playing on the monitor is drawing to its sad and depressing finale, a world away from the hopeful sunshine outside. Nineteenth-century Germany and sunlit Madrid could hardly be further apart.

I see a magpie. I count to ten. A second appears. I breathe again.

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Every quest has a dragon to be slain, and today’s is Atocha Station. On the bus I briefly entertained the idea of a small paseo in the Retiro, should I find my way through the station easily. It’s as well that I didn’t. It took me several bewildered attempts to navigate the terminus. Atocha makes London King’s Cross seem like the Dunkeld and Birnam railway station. Stairs criss-crossing each other in all directions. Media distancia here, larga distancia there, high-speed AVE lines elsewhere. The icing on the cake: the platform is not revealed until minutes before the train arrives, or, in this case, withheld until the thing is just pulling in. I was a bag of nerves back there and I’m not proud of it. I love travel, but I don’t like cities. I never have. And it’ll only be harder on the way back when I have half the time to get from Atocha to Estación Sur. But the dragon is slain, and I’m headed south into New Castile and the immense emptiness of La Mancha.

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Where do I begin? What questions do I ask the only man on Earth who knew my grandfather when he was still alive? It’s hard to know where to start. Rafael may be my first cousin twice removed, and his descendants more distant still, but they’re all that’s left of my family and I have to find them. I have to know. It’s what’s been driving this whole Spanish adventure from the very beginning. My grandfather José… When was he born? What was he like? Is there anything left of him in his hometown, or has he passed, like the Moorish kings, into memory? I can only hope for some small detail, a shred of the faintest of proofs. In truth I do not really know what awaits me in Villarrobledo, but I can wait no longer.

15:40

Some etymologists believe the Roman word “Hispania”, from which we derive the modern name of Spain, came via an old Punic-Hebrew cognate “i-shfania”, meaning “Island of Rabbits”. The rabbits are dying out by degrees – I haven’t seen one in months – so perhaps “Island of Magpies” might be a better term today. The kites and the swallows come and go, but I see magpies wherever I go in this country. I used to associate them with the oak tree that grew on the verge by my house when I was growing up. Nowadays I think of Spain when I see them. I’m not sure where we get the word “magpie” from, but the Spanish urraca is supposedly onomatopoeic, like the Arabic ‘āqāq. There was even a Spanish queen called Urraca once. I wonder why they called her that?

The earth is red. We’re rolling into Alcázar de San Juan. Three stops remain. Just to spite me, a pair of rabbits watched our train pass by from the sleepers on the opposite line. Hispania lives on.

17:29

The first words I heard on entering Villarrobledo were not in Spanish at all, but in American English. I’m not sure whether that marred my first experience or not. Villarrobledo looks like a lot like Villafranca, picked up and dropped in the middle of La Mancha. And I thought Extremadura was flat… I’ve never seen such horizons.

The hotel Rafael arranged for me has everything I need, except the little zing of extra courage I could do with right now. To be fair, there’s probably plenty of courage in the couple of Dueros I brought as presents for my family, but if I can soldier through twenty-two years of teetotal trials, I can manage this one sober. I’ve had a shower, freshened up and put today’s date in my journal. There’s nothing left to do but to step out of the hotel room and finish my quest. Some food wouldn’t go amiss, but as it’s Jueves Santo, I doubt anywhere will be open. Besides, needs must: there’s a greater cause at stake. Grandfather, this is for you. It always has been.

Ps. I’ve forward-dated this post, so by the time you read this, I’ll have met my family already. I’ll keep you posted.