Spain has decided to reopen the Altamira cave complex in Cantabria after eight years being closed to visitors, despite scientists warnings’ that heat from human visitors damages the art. Visits are to resume next year on a restricted basis. The main chamber at Altamira features 21 bisons painted in ochre, red and black, which seem to charge against a low, limestone ceiling. The site was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1985. The caves were first restricted and then closed after scientists warned that visitors’ body heat and carbon dioxide from breath were damaging the paintings, estimated to be 14,000 to 20,000 years old. El País
On seeing the paintings of bisons, horses, fawns and wild boars, Picasso famously proclaimed, ‘after Altamira, all is decadence’. A long line of great 20th century artists from Henry Moore to Miquel Barceló have been astonished and inspired by them. See also Altmira cave paintings
The caves are inscribed as masterpieces of creative genius and as the humanity’s earliest accomplished art. UNESCO
George Orwell fought during the Spanish Civil War in the Sierra de Alcubierre in the Monegros on the Aragonese Front, during the freezing winter of 1937 (above photo by batiskafo on Flickr). He famously described his experiences in Homage to Catalonia. Unlike the diaries he wrote in the very late 1930s and 40s, which have a truly remarkable number of entries on natural history, he wrote unsurprisingly little on wildlife during his time in Spain. There are, however, a few interesting nature-related passages:
THE days grew hotter and even the nights grew tolerably warm. On a bullet-chipped tree in front of our parapet thick clusters of cherries were forming. Bathing in the river ceased to be an agony and became almost a pleasure. Wild roses with pink blooms the size of saucers straggled over the shell-holes round Torre Fabian. Behind the line you met peasants wearing wild roses over their ears. In the evenings they used to go out with green nets, hunting quails. You spread the net over the tops of the grasses and then lay down and made a noise like a female quail. Any male quail that was within hearing then came running towards you, and when he was underneath the net you threw a stone to scare him, whereupon he sprang into the air and was entangled in the net. Apparently only male quails were caught, which struck me as unfair.
…and on the geography of the Monegros:
As the road struck into the sierra we branched off to the right and climbed a narrow mule-track that wound round the mountain-side. The hills in that part of Spain are of a queer formation, horseshoe-shaped with flattish tops and very steep sides running down into immense ravines. On the higher slopes nothing grows except stunted shrubs and heath, with the white bones of the limestone sticking out everywhere. The front line here was not a continuous line of trenches, which would have been impossible in such mountainous country; it was simply a chain of fortified posts, always known as ‘positions’, perched on each hill-top. In the distance you could see our ‘position’ at the crown of the horseshoe; a ragged barricade of sand-bags, a red flag fluttering, the smoke of dug-out fires. A little nearer, and you could smell a sickening sweetish stink that lived in my nostrils for weeks afterwards. Into the cleft immediately behind the position all the refuse of months had been tipped–a deep festering bed of breadcrusts, excrement, and rusty tins.
and on the hills and the lack of birds
Often in the mornings the valley was hidden under seas of cloud, out of which the hills rose flat and blue, giving the landscape a strange resemblance to a photographic negative. Beyond Huesca there were more hills of the same formation as our own, streaked with a pattern of snow which altered day by day. In the far distance the monstrous peaks of the Pyrenees, where the snow never melts, seemed to float upon nothing. Even down in the plain everything looked dead and bare. The hills opposite us were grey and wrinkled like the skins of elephants. Almost always the sky was empty of birds. I do not think I have ever seen a country where there were so few birds. The only birds one saw at any time were a kind of magpie, and the coveys of partridges that startled one at night with their sudden whirring, and, very rarely, the flights of eagles that drifted slowly over, generally followed by rifle-shots which they did not deign to notice.
On stripeless tree frogs and snails
Spring was really here at last. The blue in the sky was softer, the air grew suddenly balmy. The frogs were mating noisily in the ditches. Round the drinking-pool that served for the village mules I found exquisite green frogs the size of a penny, so brilliant that the young grass looked dull beside them. Peasant lads went out with buckets hunting for snails, which they roasted alive on sheets of tin.
On the cold, wild crocuses and mountains
The weather was mostly clear and cold; sometimes sunny at midday, but always cold. Here and there in the soil of the hill-sides you found the green beaks of wild crocuses or irises poking through; evidently spring was coming, but coming very slowly. The nights were colder than ever…..
I hate mountains, even from a spectacular point of view. But sometimes the dawn breaking behind the hill-tops in our rear, the first narrow streaks of gold, like swords slitting the darkness, and then the growing light and the seas of carmine cloud stretching away into inconceivable distances, were worth watching even when you had been up all night, when your legs were numb from the knees down, and you were sullenly reflecting that there was no hope of food for another three hours.
Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente, (Poza de la Sal, March 14, 1928), the great Spanish naturalist and broadcaster, died 30 years ago today. He was killed in a helicopter accident while filming in Alaska on his birthday March 14, 1980.
He was an expert in falconry and animal behavior and spent many years studying wolves, but above all he was a great communicator who captivated Spain in the 1970’s, doing more than anybody to promote natural history among the general public. He is best known for the highly successful and influential series El Hombre y la Tierra (1975–1980), which you can watch online here. Millions of homes in Spain were captivated by the series, and there are possibly apocryphal tales of the streets being empty when the episodes were broadcast. The series and his other work played no small part in the change in attitude towards wildlife in general and wolves in particular. Rodríquez de la Fuente used wolves he had raised himself from cubs living in a semi-wild fenced estate for the film. They were different times with inferior cameras than today. But, for all its trickery, the episode on el lobo still stand out as superb and beautiful piece of nature documentary and holds a rightful place in contemporary Spanish folk memory. And his work inspired a whole generation of young Spanish naturalists who work in nature conservation today.
I came across this rather harrowing photo in a book review of Historie de l’ours dans les Pyrénées in El Pireneo Digital. It was taken in 1928 after a hunt in Urdós, Valle de Aspe across the border in France. In 1935, some 200 bears still survived in the Pyrenees and Pre-Pyrenees. The last bear steak was offered in restaurant in French Pyrenees in 1960. A ban on hunting came in Spain in 1967 and in France several years later. Today, with just 20 odd animals in the entire Pyrenees – most of which were brought from the Balkans, further reintroduction is the only way of re-creating a viable population of bears in the range.
Interesting documentary narrating the tragic events of 9th January 1949 when a dam upstream of Lake Sanabria, the largest in lake in Spain, burst. A wall of water swept down the Tera Valley and engulfed the village of Ribadelago. Around 100 people were killed. The Francoist authorities covered up the report on the defective construction of the dam.
More on Sanabria including contemporary news report by Time Magazine (iberianature) “One night last week all was quiet in Ribadelago. In the tavern men were playing cards. At the church Father Plácido Esteban-Gonzalez had just arrived on his motor scooter from the provincial capital of Zamora. An electrician named Rey was working late in his shop. Shortly after midnight the lights in the village flickered out. At the tavern, irritated cardplayers lit candles, went on with their game. Suddenly, a distant, muffled roar was heard..Read
The symbol of Madrid represented by the bear and the strawberry tree is well known, but here’s a much earlier image showing Iberian bears liking for these arbutus cherries. The bear forms part of a C4th AD mosaic found at Villa Fortunatus in Fraga, Zaragoza, and is part of an agricultural calendar, representing the month of November. It can be seen at the Museo Provincial de Zaragoza. Sadly today, bears in Spain no longer gorge on these fruits in autumn to the extent as they did as they are largely absent from the range of the strawberry tree.
Surfing the Net I came across the tiny Pheasant Island, one the world’s four remaining condominiums. The island is on the River Bidassoa and is under the joint sovereignty of France and Spain, and administered by Irun (in Spain) and Hendaye (in France) for alternating periods of six months. It covers 2,000 m2 and is known as Isla de los Faisanes in Spanish, Île des Faisans, Île de l’hôpital or Île de la Conférence in French and Konpantzia in Basque.
The Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed here in 1659 putting an end the Thirty Years’ War, as shown in the painting below, and the site has been used for numerous exchanges of captives and princesses to be wed.
An interesting piece of trivia for geographical nerds like myself. The rest of you may struggle to find any interest. Read the rest of this entry
Spanish Wood Pasture: Origin and Durability of an Historical Wooded Landscape in Mediterranean Europe
Spanish dehesas, the most extensive wood pastures in Mediterranean Europe, are a vivid example for demonstrating that the impact of rural communities on forests has not always been a bad thing. Environmental history is vital for understanding this cultural landscape. This article first analyses the origin of the dehesa. The border logic and the medieval Reconquest are elements that undoubtedly played a decisive part in its genesis; but, for the significance of Roman influence in Spain, it is necessary to consider the question of the possible existence of dehesas in Antiquity. The second aspect concerns the spreading of this landscape from the Middle Ages onwards. Dehesas are usually linked to the large properties owned by military orders, but most of all the spreading of the dehesa was favoured by the rise of transhumance from the thirteenth century onwards. Finally, the article emphasises that the durability of the Spanish wood pasture can be explained by a combination of several factors: insecurity along the border, the fact that transhumance was the most important industry in Spain for many centuries, and the protective laws adopted by the rural communities in order to protect their dehesas. Vincent Clément See also dehesa
The “aurora borealis” is a luminescent meteor, a phenomenon that frequently happens in areas close to the North Pole and which can also be seen in rather exceptional circumstances in regions of Central Europe. So the aurora borealis that could quite clearly be seen from the Pyrenees, and even from the top of the Tibidabo hill in Barcelona, on the 25th of January 1938, was an absolutely unusual occurrence. It was in fact a unique experience. There are no known accounts of any other event of that kind at such meridional latitudes. Furthermore, the phenomenon took place in the midst of war, thus causing terrible confusion and shock among the soldiers who were fighting on the Aragonese front.
It’s a worldwide phenomenon – whether bears investigating trash cans in the US, coyotes roaming New York, or boars exploring Barcelona – wildlife and human territories are increasingly overlapping. Near Vallvidrera railway station, on the outskirts of Barcelona, a mother boar availed herself of the contents of a litter bin in broad daylight. While two […]