Friday, April 10, 2015

Easter Explorations

Our Easter Holiday was lovely. Mine started on the 27th and went till the 6th. Nice and loooong. Tall Guy's was a little shorter, starting on the first, but still a good break. We went to that most wonderful of all wonderful places, according to any Spaniard you'll ask: "My bilidge" - my village. Of course, it's Tall Guy's village, and even that is a stretch (he's never lived there and his mom only lived there a short time, and the last person to live there full time was his grandfather). Still, it's in his blood.

We headed out early in the morning. I've been waking up pretty early these days, and Tall Guy was on work hours still, so we were actually on our way shortly after nine even after a leisurely morning at home. That, for the non-Spaniards, is the equivalent of waking up in the middle of the night and leaving at the crack of dawn.
boardwalk through the park
I'd wanted for some time to make a stop on our way. You see, we drive right past this sign that says "Parque Natural Tablas de Daimiel". Intriguing, right? Especially when neither your husband nor his mother, despite a lifetime of driving past the same sign, have ever checked it out! So, with time on our hands and a perfect weather day, plus confirmation of flat, easy trails, we took the exit and visited this lovely wetland preserve.

To find it, you've got to stick to good, old-fashioned paying attention and follow the signs. The website fortunately mentions that the GPS coordinates and entrance location are incorrect. There's a good visitor centre with decent maps and clean restrooms by the parking lot at the start of the trails. The trails are well-marked and short enough that you can't get lost anyway. We walked along the "Isla del Pan" - Bread Island trail. It was flat and mostly along a boardwalk. I'd been hoping to see some herons, who nest there, but we were a little early. We did see lots of carp though, pretty impressive for a place that not long ago didn't have enough water to support any fish. There are a couple other trails, including one with a lookout tower, which maybe we'll be able to check out on another visit.

It's the smallest of Spain's national parks, and since the 1980s has been a UNESCO site and an EU Special Protection for Birds zone. Whether you're looking for hardcore bird-watching or simply a perfect picnic destination, Las Tablas is worth a visit.
the refinery
Our next outing was to another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Mining Park of Almaden (Parque Minero de Almaden). Again, close to the village but as yet unvisited. We met up with friends who were in their "bilidge", with Almaden about halfway between us. It was fascinating! This site has been mined for cinnabar for thousands of years: by Romans, which they used for pigment; Arabs, who used it for medicine and alchemy; and more recently, for mercury. The Almaden mine deposits have produced the most liquid mercury of any mine in the world, and while the mine closed in 2000 due to falling mercury prices, it is still one of the world's most plentiful mercury resources. 

the mine was once under the sea
The mine is now a museum and guided visits are led by retired miners. And can I just say, aren't miners just the friendliest? Despite their physically and psychologically demanding jobs, they somehow remain pretty jolly (we've only been to a couple of mines, but still...). Most of the signage is in English and Spanish, and if you call ahead, you can arrange to have an English-speaking guide. This is a full morning, and potentially all day visit if you add on Almaden's other sites. You start in the visitor's centre, where miners are on hand to answer questions. Then a miner takes you to a converted equipment storage facility, where you can get a handle on the history of mining in the area. Now it's time to go down the mine shaft to -50 metres! Our trip through the mines ended with a train ride that took us to yet another museum, with more hands-on exhibitions showing different uses for mercury. Finally, we were bused back up to the visitor's centre.

On Friday, we took the day off, not wanting too much activity to wear me out or provoke Baby into arriving early, but on Saturday we were back at it. This time, we drove to the outskirts of Cordoba, to the ruins of Medina Azahara, a medieval palace-city that incredibly only took four years, from 936 to 940, to build. During it's splendor, it was the capital of Al-Andalous. Unfortuantely, the city was sacked in 1010 and fell into ruin and oblivion until the early 20th century. By all historical accounts, it was a beautiful city (and linked to Almaden - liquid mercury was used in reflecting pools here). 

Sadly, only about 10% of the site has been excavated, and one of the most beautiful parts, the reception hall, is currently off-limits to visitors. The other 90% is worked on in fits and starts according to funding and politics, and is threatened by illegal land development. Consequently, it's not nearly as impressive as the Alhambra palace in Granada in terms of restoration/preservation, but it is stately in its own way. 

The visitor's centre, housed in an underground museum at the foot of the mountain, does a good job painting a picture of the city in it's full glory. Why are some places protected and others fall by the wayside? I don't know. It would apparently take 100 more years to uncover the full site (this place was huge!), but if you're in Cordoba, what's there is worth a look.

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