4th January 2023: It’s a trap! (Tendilla, Spain)

It was not really a trap, but a hike. A very unexpected hike, as my family decided that hiking was the best thing to do to get rid of camel-riding soreness. Tendilla is a small village in Spain, dating back from Medieval times. It holds a yearly traditional fair, there are some ruins and historical buildings… It also has a pine forest that was planted in order to control the soil that used to landslide onto the village, and back in the day, a sort of ‘emergency gorge’ was built, in order to channel water in case of a flash flood.

With the years, the pine forest grew. In the 1980s, it was really well-kept, but politics change, and the forest stopped being cleaned and taken care for. These days, the artificial gorge is overgrown with plants and only some dams are seen. Recently, people from the village have tried to create a few hiking routes throughout it, using the fountains and streams that spring as landmarks, called the “Fountain Route” Ruta de las Fuentes. These fountains are old watering holes that were refurbished and some of them re-decorated recently.

The ground was covered with fallen leaves, the sky was bright blue, and the moss was growing – moss takes a long time to grow, so it’s protected. For a while, it was endangered in the area, but now it seems to be doing much better. Unfortunately, both leaves and moss were humid and frosty (literally) – and my shoes were definitely not waterproof.

Collage - a mossy fountain on a leaf-covered ground; a pine forest in dull winter colours; an excavated gorge from the container dam, the gorge is overgrown with green-grey plants

I was very happy when we walked out of the forest and into the trail where the sun was shine. We hiked up to see the brand-new weather vane Veleta, from where we could see the whole village and actually watch sunset, as these days the sun sets early. Then we walked back to the village, not before catching some fallow deer hoof prints, and getting hung on hunting for gypsum crystals, something I used to love when I was a child.

Collage - a pine tree foreest, in golden colours as the setting sun is hitting them, the sky is cleawr blue; a weather pointing southeast

Collage - a fallow's deer hoof print next to a fifty-cent coin for reference- the coin is about half the size of the hoof print; a few gypsum crystals on reddish sandstone

Sunset picture. The sun is sinking behind a low mountain. The mountain gives way to a valley where the village is peeking. On the foreground, there is a capricious-looking grey rock. The sun is a big gold ball flaring on everything

Afterwards, we just sat down to chat and eat leftover Christmas food until it was time to go back home. Not the most exciting thing, one might think, but I had a lot of fun.

20th November 2022: Naturaleza Encendida – Origen (Real Jardín Botánico, Madrid, Spain)

It seems that the Madrid exhibits in the month of December are not being the most successful ones – this time, the weather did not help. After ten day’s worth of rain, it cleared out, but then, on Tuesday, the skies opened yet again. It was raining like there was no tomorrow by the time my train got to Madrid. Boo.

Just after sunset, my sibling and I went to the botanical garden Real Jardín Botánico to see the light show Naturaleza Encendida: Origen (Lit-up Nature: Origins). There had been some issues about the promoter cancelling the activity due to rain with little advance notice, so they decided not to close it. They instead resorted to close parts of the exhibit at random, and herding all the visitors in the same corridors, despite the puddles forming on the uneven ground. After two weeks of rain, something should have been done about it. Moreover, a few of the exhibits were turned off – not sure if just off or high wired. I wish I had some good boots, because I ended up pretty soaked, despite the raincoat and the umbrella. At least I did not ended up in a random puddle.

In 2021, the topic was sea life, and in 2022 the topic is… mushrooms. So there were spores, moulds and… mushrooms. Big mushrooms with lights, or made with small lights, or… just blown with hot air. Lots of mushrooms. The music was a bit creepy though, even if the mushrooms lit up and down with the beat. There is also an exhibit about moulds, with huge screens showing pictures of spores and microorganisms under the microscope.

Most people were antsy and cranky in the rain, and everybody wanted you to move out of the way – in different directions at the same time. A really good thing about it was the cup of hot chocolate that we had booked with the ticket. It was really nice to get in the middle of the cold and rain because it was warm and sweet. We drank it on our way out to the train, and just as we stepped out of the botanical garden… it just stopped raining.

Light display collage: on the upper left, giant red spores; on the lower left a wavy line of lights. On the right, a giant bunch mushrooms illuminated in green from inside the umbrella

Collage of lights display. A mushroom made of little yellow and white lights; a bunch of name mushrooms in red; a hanging mould-like string of lights between two dark trees

All in all, I was not too impressed. I really think that the organisers should have figured out something about the cancellations and the pathways, since they obviously could not do anything about the weather. My favourite display were the “Baymax mushrooms”, even if most of them had lost their illumination, which was actually kind of the point…

A blow-up mushroom made from plastic, looking like it's floating. The  lights inside make it glow green and pink. In the background there is a building gate in red, and a pond between the two.

6th December 2022: Tim Burton’s Labyrinth (Madrid, Spain)

Despite having decided that immersive exhibits were not for me and the fact that I’m not a Tim Burton fan, here I found myself in Madrid to see this one: Tim Burton’s Labyrinth El Laberinto de Tim Burton. Truth be told, I was only there because my sibling asked me to accompany them. I did not find premium tickets for any of the dates either of us was available, but the 6th of December is a national holiday in Spain, and I calculated that if we were there at opening times it might not be too busy, and we would not come across too many kids.

Tim Burton is an American film-maker born in 1958. His first “hit” may have been Stalk of the Celery Monster, which he wrote, directed and animated when he was a student in the California Institute of Arts, in 1979. It presumably earned him a good grade, but more importantly, an animator’s apprenticeship at Disney Animation Studios. With time, he developed a shrill eerie style, with lots of colours and creepy designs that have increased as years have passed, sometimes defined as “gothic fantasy” – I would refer to it as strident and macabre at times, to be honest. His greatest or most famous works include Beetlejuice, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare before Christmas, and the first two Batman films.

The exhibition is hosted in a weird place in Madrid, Espacio Ibercaja Delicias, which might look less… abandoned… when it hasn’t been raining for days, I guess. The space consists on a big tent – where we were not going, it might be designed for circuses or so, some kind of bar / cafeteria, and the monster-like building that hosts the exhibit. It is called a labyrinth because out of the thirty-ish wards, you have to go around choosing doors to see different rooms of the exhibit, insomuch that you would need four rounds to see the complete thing. In the end, you choose 15 rooms to see, out of which some are common, and you reach them from whichever previous place you were in. Others are “less common” and you can reach them through several doors, but not all. You enter the labyrinth through a toothy monster’s mouth, then there’s a big button that “decides” on the first room for you.

Collage: exterior of the Labyrinth, which looks like a one-eyed tentacle monster, and the inner entrance monster whose mouth is the curtain you have to cross to enter the different rooms.

In the rooms there are sculptures that represent the characters, some of them with the original clothes that were designed for them (if the film is a live-action), the plain clothes, and on the walls sketches and animations, some original, some “inspired”, and some made specifically for the exhibit. Some rooms are small and rather empty, others are decorated like the movie sets. There are tricks with lights, and some mirrors, but nothing “immersive” about it, and way too many people around considering the size of some rooms.

The idea of a labyrinth is interesting, but I don’t think the price warrants just seeing half of the exhibit, especially considering the big “misses” of not seeing all the The Nightmare before Christmas. We took about 40 – 45 minutes to go through the 15 rooms.

What I am aware we saw included:

  • Beetlejuice
  • Edward Scissorhands
  • Batman and Batman returns
  • Mars attacks!
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  • Alice in Wonderland or Alice Through the Looking Glass
  • Corpse Bride
  • Frankenweenie
  • Jack from The Nightmare before Christmas

Collage of Tim Burton's characters: Batman's Pengun, Edward Scissorhands, Emily from Corpse Bride

Collage of Tim Burton's characters: Alien from Mars Attack; the clothing from the Chocolatier (I think) in Charlie and the Chocolate factory, surrounded by twirling candy canes; Beetlejuice

Collage of Tim Burton's characters: Jack from The Nightmare before Christmas; The Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland, with some giant mushrooms behind; the boy and the dog of Frankenweenie

I think this is an exhibit for die-hard fans that are willing to pay for the premium ticket and see the whole thing twice. What it’s not, and that’s for sure, is for kids.

On both ways, we had some train trouble – delays and technical problems, but nothing too dramatic, and I was home before sunset – but after buying a stack of Christmas candy canes! And my sibling enjoyed, which was the goal anyway.

2nd December 2022: “Tutankhamun Immersive Exhibition” in Madrid (Spain)

In 1922, an archaeologist named Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt. Tutankhamun belonged to the Eighteenth Dynasty. He reigned over Egypt around 1330 BCE, and restored the Ancient Egyptian religion. When he died, he was buried in a smaller-than-expected tomb, probably because his death was sudden and unexpected – for a while, it was hypothesised that he had been murdered, but it seems that he died from a combination of an infection and several previous pathologies (nothing to do with the fact that his parents were brother and sister, I’m sure).

The tomb was robbed and restored twice within a few years of Tutankhamun’s death, but it was eventually buried by alluvium brought by flash floods, and the debris from other tombs being built nearby. Thus, when Carter found it in 1922, it was mostly untouched and unspoilt. The death of Carter’s sponsor George Helbert, five months after visiting the tomb, sparked the rumour about a Curse of the Pharaohs, which has inspired countless works of fiction.

In 2022, Spain is living through a fad of “immersive exhibitions”, heavily based on technology, virtual reality and computer games. I was curious about what it would be about, exactly, so I decided to celebrate the end of work season by hitting the exhibit. I was early as the day before there had been a bit of public transport trouble and you usually have more chances of getting in if you’re early rather than late. Thus, I reached Centro Cultural Matadero in Madrid about half an hour earlier than my ticket read, and I was let in without any issue.

The “immersive exhibit” Tutankamón: La Exposición Inmersiva was devised by MAD, Madrid Artes Digitales, which specialises in digital creation and immersive experiences such a this. The exhibit has been designed in cooperation with the History Channel.

The first bit was a number of panels, explaining the “Egyptmania” that swept the world after the discovery of the mummy, the process of mummification, or life in ancient Egypt. The second held a replica of the inner and outer sarcophagus, along with the mummy, then replicas a few artefacts that had been found in the tomb, including the famous golden mask the pharaoh was buried with.

Three part collage: The upper picture shows the mummy of Tutankhamun suspended from the floor, imitating an open sarcophagus with the lid open on top of that. Bottom left: reproduction of the mortuary mask, in gold and blue, it has the typical Egyptian hair and beard. Lower right: reproductions of small objects found in the grave: estelae and human-like small sculptures.

Afterwards, you go into a huge ward with a projection on all four walls plus the floor, which is very spectacular but does not tell you much about the real history of either Tutankhamun or the tomb, it was just a cool video of flashy images with a narration in first person, showing the interior of the tomb, yes, but mostly vaguely-related imaginary, including some of the Egyptian gods. What it did have, and that was neat, was an original newsreel about the opening of the tomb, including Howard’s voice.

Collage of a 3D projection. Left, from top to bottom, views of Tutankhamun's grave: the outer area, in sandstone with sculptures, and two views of the inner painting an decoration, showing figures and hyeroglyphs. On the right, a projection of lotus flowers blooming and turning into gold, representing the soul of the pharaoh.

A large ward with a projection of a starry sky on the walls. At the front, a view of Tutankhamun's mortuary mask, eyes glowing.

A projection of Tutankhamun's mortuary mask, eyes glowing. Around it, golden writing symbols, maybe hyeroglyphs.

The following area had an augmented reality game, which I won (didn’t get anything though), a photo booth that I skipped and some “I bet you didn’t know” facts – about one third of them were common knowledge, and another third was information from previous panels though.

Finally, there was a room with virtual reality glasses and headphones, but my headphones wouldn’t work – I later realised they were not plugged into anything. This represented – I think – the trip to the Egyptian underworld, as I “started” at Tutankhamun’s tomb, then there were volcanoes, and I ended up in front of Anubis, who weighed a heart against a plume – the Judgement of the Dead.

The VR experience there was the last spot in the exhibition – because I skipped the photo booth – before one went into the shop. In the end, I was there for about an hour and a half, but it almost took me two hours to arrive and an hour and half to come back.

Though I don’t regret the mental break, I have decided that immersive experiences are not for me.

9th October 2022: Atémpora, Sigüenza (Spain)

Sigüenza a Medieval town in the centre of Spain that is currently trying to gain the status of Unesco World Heritage Site. It has a castle, a protected historical centre, and in the heart of it stands the cathedral Catedral de Santa María La Mayor de Sigüenza . The cathedral dates back to 1124, when the original Romanesque building was was erected. The construction finished in 1326 , with remodelling and decoration elapsed several centuries, with different add-ons, until it was “declared” finished after the Spanish Civil War, with later works being just conservation.

Cathedral in Siguenza, a late-Romanesque / early-Gothic building, in a reddish colour. Left: side view, showing the bell tower. Right: façade, with two side towers.

In summer and autumn 2022, there is an exhibition in the cathedral – Atémpora. Sigüenza entre el Poder y la Gloria, which translated to something akin to “Timeless. Sigüenza between Power and Glory”. It displays some of the treasures of the cathedral and the museum, along with a few archaeological devices. We had seen most of the religious artefacts in a previous visit, but the historical chronicle was rather interesting.

The first block, around the cloister, deals with Celtiberian (the Arevaci tribe) and Roman weapons and everyday life. The second block deals with the Goth conquer and the newfound Christianity.

Upper Left: entrance to Atempora, flanked by two angels. Upper right: Celtiberian Daggers. Bottom left: oil lamp looking like a bird. Bottom left: clay bowl.

Interwoven with the exhibition are the treasures of the cathedral, including two collection of Flemish tapestries, one focused on Athena, the other on the story of Romulus and Remus. Another highlight is an Annunciation painting by Domḗnikos Theotokópoulos “El Greco” a Greek artist of the Spanish Renaissance (since he moved to Toledo in his prime). Of course, the cloister is fantastic. There is a tiny gothic altarpiece in one of the chapels that is delicious. The problem? As always, Baroque trends building choirs in the middle of the naves, blocking the view, and overdecorated altarpieces. The wooden ceilings are extremely beautiful where they have been preserved.

Upper left: tapestry collection, hanging from walls. Bottom right: Annunciation by El Greco. Bottom left: decorated wooden ceiling. Bottom right: Cloister of the cathedral.

The three final blocks present different Christian symbols and pieces of art from the Middle Ages onwards, and interestingly enough, a watermill from the old salt marshes. The exhibit makes a particular emphasis on Wilgefortis, a Catholic folk saint which is supposed to be buried in the cathedral, with the silver arch where her body lies brought from the altar. Other pieces include coins, sceptres, and even a few elements from the times when there was a Medieval university in town – one of them being a human skull with “anatomy notes” on it. There are also late Medieval sculptures, most importantly crucified Christ representations and Virgins with the Child, though probably the nicest one is the one which is permanently at the entrance of the cathedral. Next to it, a mill from the nearby salt mines (Salinas de Imón) has been brought – I really want to visit those at some point too, so great reminder.

Altar of St. Wilgefortis on the left. On the right, a coin, a scepter and half of a skull with writings on it.

Top left: Romanesque virging with child. Bottom left: watermill. Right: Crucified Christ with four nails on his hands and feet.

The most important monument, or area, in the Sigüenza cathedral is the chapel called Capilla del Doncel. It holds the tombs of Martín Vázquez de Arce and his parents. The de Arce men participated in the war against Granada Muslims during the 15th century, where the son was killed in an ambush, as the Muslims created a flash flood from the watering system they had to control the waters of River Genil. Though he was already 25 years old, too old to be called a doncel, teenage boy, the name has stuck for centuries. The parents’ tombs are traditional burials, however, the Doncel’s grave is an arcosolium, with the decorative sculpture showing the young man awake and reading a book, rather than lying in death as it is the typical representation.

Chapel of"El Doncel", showing the traditional burials in the foreground, and the Doncel's tomb in the background.

We went to have lunch after the visit, we went to have lunch at La Taberna Seguntina, where we shared some typical cheese, sausage, and roasted pork before we went home.

Typical Siguenza Dishes. Top: sausages and cheese. Bottom: roasted pork leg with potatoes.

25th September 2022: Ruta de las Caras (Buendía, Spain)

As I had a visitor, I proposed a hiking route I had heard about as a silly adventure. The area around the reservoir Pantano de Buendía is home to an… interesting hiking route.

In the early 1990s, a couple of friends called Eulogio Reguillo and Jorge Juan Maldonado, a builder and a pottery maker, got the idea to create a sculpture on the rock. That, which in other circumstances could have be just been considered “defiling nature” became a Land art project – the two “artists” have carved gigantic faces into the sandstone, and the route has become a tourist spot – the Route of the Faces or Ruta de las Caras.

The route has been on my radar for a while (but I’d been feeling lazy about the drive) and I thought it would be a fun bizarre thing we could do together. It did not disappoint. You can do the complete route from the nearby village of Buendía, which is around 9 km, or drive up to the beginning of the route at the edge of the reservoir and hike around 2 km. We decided to do this, as the complete route did not offer much else to do / see.

The route features a lot of official and unofficial sculptures, along with graffiti on the rocks. It is circular and runs through a pine forest which makes it suitable for both warm and cold weather – as long as the roads to get to the village are not frozen. Though temperature had plopped down compared to the previous day, it was still mostly over 20 ºC, so nice enough to be out in a sweatshirt.

Pine trees with a bit of water in the background - the reservoir

The rock carvings vary in size, style and elaboration. There are some religious motives, such a couple of Christian Virgin Marys, and some figures from Indian (Hindu and Buddhist) inspiration, but the ideas are so all over the place that they probably just let the artists do whatever they felt like. While the first carvings date from the 1990s, the route is still being carved, and we missed one of the faces as it is in a “new” area which is still not signalled. Some of the sculptures we did see include:

  • Moneda de Vida – The Coin of Life
  • Cruz Templaria – Templar Cross
  • Krishna (Hindu deity)
  • Maitreya (future Buddha in Buddhist eschatology)
  • Arjuna (a character in one of the Hindu epics)
  • Espiral del brujo – The Male Witch’s Spiral
  • Chemary (short for the name “José María”, Joseph Mary)
  • Sin nombre – Unnamed (and unfinished)
  • La monja – The nun
  • Chamán – Shamman
  • Beethoven (the composer, yes)
  • Duende de la grieta – Goblin in the Crack
  • Dama del pantano – Lady of the Reservoir
  • Virgen de la flor de Lis – Virgin of the Fleur-de-lis
  • Virgen de las caras – Virgin of the Faces

Different faces and shapes carved in sandstone

Different faces and shapes carved in sandstone

Our favourite was the skull overlooking the reservoir, called De muerte – Deadly – which one could actually climb – noooot absolutely sure it was “legal”, but the rules only said “do not carve or alter the rocks” and the sculptures are coated in a protective liquid. And after all, this started as a random art-vandalism thing.

Large skull carving (top) + the look from the viewpoint - the reservoir is pretty depleted, there is a lot of sand, but also some green trees (bottom)

On the way back we stopped at the dam that closes off the Reservoir Presa del Pantano de Buendía, where we played with the echo.

Massive concrete dam, and the water behind it, a rich azure. The water looks cool.

Then, we moved on and once again stopped at the dam in the Entrepeñas reservoir Presa del Pantano de Entrepeñas – and I got the exit wrong again afterwards, exactly like the previous time. We saw a flock of vultures, and as they were circling in search for prey, they were a ‘kettle’.

The silhouette of two vultures circling

To end the day with befor my friend was off to the airport, we headed back and stopped to have lunch at a tiny Mexican place in the shopping centre on our way. And there I discovered that yes, there is such a thing as too much cheese on nachos. In the end, we walked around 4.11 km (6464 steps), so I think we were allowed to deal with the junk-y food.

Nachos + tacos. Everything looks a bit greasy.

10th July 2022: Reservoirs (Buendía & Entrepeñas, Spain)

I tried going for a hike because I was feeling cooped up, and tried to make the most out of the draught Spain is going through. The centre of Spain is sprinkled with large reservoirs, a lot of them built during Franco’s dictatorship as part of the efforts to get the country to recover from the war. The reservoir Embalse de Buendía is fed by the river Guadiela and it was finished in the year 1958. Before that, there used to be a bathing complex used by the royals, along with a village there. I have wanted to get there for a while, but it is tricky because the trail is reported to be in bad condition. So I decided to walk down the trail Camino de La Isabela to gauge whether my small city car would make it. Thus, think about this as a recognisance mission.

I parked the car at the beginning of the trail around 8:10 in the morning and started walking. I saw a small lizard which had shed off its tail, and some footprints – birds, canid, and I’m pretty sure a deer.

Close-up of a brown lizard which is growing its tail back.

Collage of animal footprints: paws, tallons and hooves

The temperature was nice at that time and I walked for about an hour until I got to the shore of the reservoir, then another 20 minutes or so until I got to see the derelict settlement. The water was still too high so I decided not to walk there.

A view of the reservoir. The sun is shining and there are some green / yellow plants ashore.

The reservoir. On one of the inlets you can guess the ruins, along with some columns that peek over the water.

I just hung out at the shore and found a bunch of dragonflies (I think Sympetrum fonscolombii red-veined darters (female and male)). Then I started walking back, because the temperature was rising fast.

A yellow and a red dragonfly.

I made it back to the car around 11:00 and drove off towards a second reservoir in the area, Embalse de Entrepeñas. I have driven by more than a few times, and I would always be drawn to a little side road that seemed to overlook the reservoir. It is actually the beginning of a hiking trail, but it was already too hot to keep going. Instead, I peered around the actual dam and hydroelectric station.

A white-grey dam closes the reservoir. There are trees in the foregrond and the water looks almost turquoise.

The electricity power-plant that is fed by the water behind the dam. There are a lot of wires coming out at different heights.

It was too hot to do anything, the beginning of the heat wave, so I just drove off and made a stop to see some friends on the way. I’ll keep an eye on the water level of the reservoir Embalse de Buendía in case I can come back to the area, now that I’ve figured out how far I can reach with the car.

Walking distance: 16846 steps / 11.76 km

14th December 2021: Navilandia (Guadalajara, Spain)

Back when I visited Torrejón de Ardoz in November, they were already preparing their Christmas display, which is famous in the area. In a smart way to curve attendance though, this year the town hall decided to charge non-locals to enter. Towns around quickly noted this and decided to organise their own magnificent displays, and in the case of Guadalajara, give a hand to the people who live off the carnivals and fairs, as most regional summer festivals have been cancelled for the last two years. They called it Navilandia (Christmasland), the biggest “Christmas Theme Park” in the region.

The “theme park” is divided in several areas. The first one is the palace Palacio del Infantado, its gardens and the adjacent square. The Palace features the same Christmas tree as last year, and the gardens have been decorated with lights, Disney characters, a Zeus sculpture, music and… dinosaurs. I have no idea what dinosaurs have got to do with Christmas, but you won’t hear me complaining about dinosaurs. They are called the magical gardens Jardines Mágicos del Infantado. There is also a small flea market.

A gothic façade with a Christmas Tree made out of green and gold lights in front, along with some more decorations: Felices Fiestas, another tree, a reindeer made out of light

As I walked up Main Street I saw the traditional Playmobil Nativity they always set in one of the shops. However… I’ve never been able to spot the actual Nativity scene here. It is rather cool, though.

A Nativity made out of Playobil figurines, the stable is on the left and a bunch of toys are coming towards it through the desert. There a lots of dromedaries.

The second “Christmas hotspot” is the town hall square Plaza Mayor had a tasteful light decoration, a childish representation of the Three Wise Men, and a very beautiful – and lit up – carousel. I really wanted to ride it, but there were too many toddlers. It would have looked… weird. I need to find out when it closes so I sneak in after the kiddies have gone home (≧▽≦).

A caroussel with bright lights on in a square. Hanging above the square there are lots of lights and stars in gold colours. There are also four Christmas trees

Third spot was half-closed but that is okay. The square Plaza de Santo Domingo hosts another flea market, that was not open – they are setting three rotating markets there, basically one each weekend, and we were between them. There was a big walk-in Christmas tree and the “monumental Nativity” there.

Collage: A Christmas tree made out of eye-shaped lights in blue, purple, red and yellow. A picture of the classical nativity with realistic figures. The Holy Family is illuminated in white - Joseph is placing the Child on a crib that Mary is holding.

The final area extends along the parks Parque de la Concordia and Parque de las Adoratrices. The entrance is flanked by two nutcrackers; it hosts a talking tree, lights, food trucks, yet another flea market, and rides that again… are only Christmassy by name. There is another Nativity, this time an “abstract one”, a cute train and a “Polar Express” ride, some lights and… a “talking tree”, which broke into telling some tales out all of a sudden. Then, there was a bunch of rides, but they looked like your average travelling carnival rides, and I was not going to go onto any of those, so I made my way back. Also, I was strong and did not buy any cotton candy nor similar treats, though I was tempted to get some roasted chestnuts.

Bizarre Christmas decorations and motifs in the park: A giant nutcracker / soldier, an abstract nativity, some gingerbread-house-shaped shops, a Polar Express mini train, and a... something that looks like a tree with a face on the trunk and leaves made from green lights.

It was weird because for the second time in a couple of months I’ve been asked if I’m an actual photographer. True, this time it was a drunk guy who then proceeded to yell fascist slogans. I decided it was the right time to call it an evening and go home for the day…

30th November 2021: Naturaleza Encendida – Explorium. Royal Botanical Garden in Madrid (Spain)

After being in semi-lock down last year, my sibling, who loves Christmas lights, asked me to accompany them to the Real Jardín Botánico, the botanical garden in Madrid. The Botanical garden was founded in 1755, adjacent to the planned museum of Natural Science, which would later become the art gallery Prado Museum. Today, it is a research centre. The garden is divided into four terraces, a main building (Edificio Villanueva), and a back terrace, and it serves as museum of live plants of sorts.

For the last few years (at least three that I’m aware), the botanical garden has spiced up its winter downtime with light shows and displays. This year, the display is called “Lit Nature: Explorium”: Naturaleza Encendida: Explorium by the company Let’s go. The topic is ocean explorers and exploration, spread throughout the three main terraces and an extra exhibit in the building.

In order to have flexibility, I got us Premium tickets in case we needed to cancel last minute, which had the extra advantage that spared us from any queues, as we had full-access between 18:00 and 19:00. We also got to see the extra exhibit without paying extra. I drove up to a mid-way train station that allowed me better schedule flexibility – and my sibling lives close-by so it gave us the option to have dinner afterwards. I took the first train and we met at the botanical garden station at 17:30. We wandered around for a little while we waited until twilight faded, and we got in, avoiding all the lines – I did a bit of astronomy maths when planning this, regarding latest sunset and shortest twilight.

The exhibit is organised so you are free to wander around each terrace, but you can only cross from the lower to the upper terraces upwards, you cannot backtrack, in order to control capacity and people in each area. It only felt a bit crowded at a couple of points, mostly around the checkpoints, as it was very difficult to hear the staff.

The whole display has thousands of little blue LEDs to get you on the ‘ocean’ scenery. The first terrace sets the mood – there are Christmas-tree looking build-ups and different types of colour-changing sculptures: turtles, pufferfish, and sea horses. The second focuses on laser and smoke, and reflection displays, and some serious-looking grouper. On the third, where the building stands, there is a little pond from where a few gigantic tentacles rise, and jellyfish hanging from the trees. The exhibit in the building itself is similar to the projections done by Team Lab.

Collage. A garden lit up at night, with different shapes: pufferfish, seahorses, a turtle... The trees and bushes are decorated with thousands of tiny blue leds

Collage. Light flashes in a dark garden, along with a colour gouper fish

Collage. Huge tentacles coming out of a pond, illuminated in red and blue; and blue jellyfish lamps hanging from trees

Collage. Light effects repeating the same patterns: a pineapple, a thisle, a khaki

We wandered around for a couple of hours, and believe me or not… the lights went out at some point! This was like climbing up (rope-way-ing up, to be honest) aaall the way up to see Nagasaki’s lights from Inasayama and getting caught in the clouds, but fortunately shorter (≧▽≦).

We left the botanical garden and took a train back. There were a few places to grab a bite around the station, so we ended up at a cosy Italian place and shared some stuff – too much to then grab some dessert though. When we left it was so cold that my car gave me the first heart attack of the winter by bleeping and showing me an orange alarm in the dashboard that means “the roads might be frosty” but scares me to death whenever I see it for the first time in the winter season. I drove off home, had a shower, went straight into work at 23:00 because how was I going to manage a free Tuesday evening without consequences?

Final waking distance: 8.50 km (though I really think that the wristband confuses my stress-driving with activity.

15th October 2021: Torija & Brihuega (Spain)

The castle of Torija is another of those things I’ve regularly driven by and thought ‘I have to visit one day’. Even though I had been warned that it might be disappointing as it had nothing inside but some touristic promo. Boy, was I in for a ride.

I arrived in Torija at around 10:30 in the morning and upon entrance I saw the demand that a reservation had to be made using a QR – the thing was free but it did not allow for 10:00 or 10:30 reservations – you had to pick it up for 11:00.

The castle Castillo de Torija was built in the 14th century, during a time of strife among all the factions and kingdoms of Spain. Later, in the 19th century, it was taken over by the French during the so-called Peninsular War against Napoleon’s troops, after basically the king Ferdinand VII gave Napoleon Spain wrapped in a bow. Napoleon made the king abdicate and installed his brother on the Spanish throne. There was a popular uprising in 1808 to fight off “the French”, who did not like this new attitude. During the war, the castle was occupied and then blown up. The current reconstruction dates back from 1962.

So there I was. The castle was empty – literally – but nobody was allowed before the reservation time because of ‘capacity rules’. So everybody in the castle was in the hall – yours truly, two other tourists, and four employees. All in the hall. Rules are rules again, but in the times of Covid, it feels utterly stupid to do this to ‘control capacity’ – since the rest of the castle was empty.

There was nothing really worthwhile to see in the castle – none of the interiors were even interesting and some of them were almost embarrassingly bad. Just a few pictures and models and mentions of the famous regional honey. I had been warned that it was going to be ‘disappointing’ but this was utterly ridiculous.

Thus, I continued off on my drive and I reached the village of Brihuega, which aside the lavender fields has a number of historical buildings and curiosities and was declared historical site in 1973. I had left the visit to this village for Friday because there were online tickets for the castle on sale, and therefore I had gathered that it was visitable that day. Right? Wrong, but that comes later.

After being unable to find the spot I wanted my Sat-Nav to take me due to blocked streets, I dropped the car at a public parking lot at the edge of the village, then I walked towards the medieval core of the city. The first item I came across was one of the gates to the medieval wall Puerta de la Cadena.

I strolled towards the centre but after a block or so I saw an archway that drew my attention. Upon turning towards it I found myself in front of the church of Saint Philip, Iglesia de San Felipe, which I had seen in my previous flash-trip. The church dates back from the 13th century, and it is a ‘transition’ church from the Romanesque to the Gothic building styles.

I backtracked towards the main street and reached the main square where the tourist information office stands. Here I learnt that there was going to be a popular festival the following day and that explained why some of the streets were blocked. After a quick stop at the tourist information office, where I got a map and a pamphlet, then I check about the process I had read for visiting the Arab caves – Cuevas Árabes. What the Internet told me was that I had to go to the butcher’s and ask the owner to let me in.

It was true – it turns out that the caves are private property and only he has decided to open up his. The Cuevas Árabes are a number of tunnels excavated into the rocky bed in the 10th and 11th centuries. They run around 8 km underneath the village, but only around 700 metres can be visited. The temperature is constant throughout the year at around 12ºC, so it is thought that they were used for food storage, and several sites say for wine. There are a number of large earthenware jars that are indeed used by winegrowers, but Arabs historical Arabs wouldn’t be drinking wine? I’d put my money on oil, but I really don’t have information to make more than a guess.

The butcher asked me what I wanted, I answered that I wanted to visit the caves. Then he proceeded to ask if I wouldn’t be scared – I paid (2.50€) and I went in after reassuring the guy I would be okay and he explained that I would also find some Visigoth archways, older than the Arab caves themselves and probably a starting point for them. The caves were the highlight of the day, really cool and mystifying, although I kept half-expeciting the owner to jump at me and try to scare me.

After the caves I headed out to the castle area, for which I had to cross another of the wall gates Arco de la Guía.

I found myself in a small square with the castle Castillo de la Peña Bermeja to my left. The castle is mixed with the graveyard in a very strange organisation. Unfortunately, it was closed (despite the fact that the website was selling tickets for the day – so glad I did not want to pay almost double in advance!). The castle is of Arab origin, built between the first and third centuries, and it gathers its name from the reddish colour of the mountain it stands on (Peña Bermeja means Vermillion Crag).

I also got to visit the inside of the church of Saint Mary, Iglesia de Santa María de la Peña by pure chance. The church was built during the 13th century, and it hosts the image of the patron virgin of the village.

Then I walked back towards the car, passing by the corridor they were building for the running of the bulls, I saw some more buildings, such as the convent of Saint Joseph, and the traditional fountains. Then I deviated towards the medieval walls Murallas de Brihuega, which was the last spot for my three-day on-and-off adventure.

Driving distance: Around 68 km (without counting the Sat-Nav merry-go-round)
Walking distance: 7.33 km

14th October 2021: Roman city of Complutum (Alcalá de Henares, Spain)

Around this time in 2020 I took a small tour around Alcalá de Henares. However, the Roman ruins were not near the town centre, and we exchanged walking there for a walking tour the university and the archaeological museum. This time I exclusively drove to the ruins (or tried to, somehow my phone and my GPS have different layouts, so ended up parking 15 minutes away when I should have parked… right by it).

Complutum was founded as a Roman town in the first century BCE, when the locals moved in looking for fertile lands for crops and cattle. The area, near the Roman road and at the bank of the river, was great – and who cared about the original Iberian settlers anyway? The city grew and a newer town started being built in the first century CE. Soon, the town became a religious (dedicated to the goddess Diana and the water nymphs), economic and strategic hub, so that several Roman roads (viae Romanae) started and died there. The town’s influence expanded for kilometres until the 8th century, when the Islamic population took over the city and the population re-settled to what is now the centre of Alcalá.

The city was eventually lost as the town developed around and over it, but part of it was excavated in the 19th century. The modern excavation was organised in the 1970s trying to salvage as much as could be from the urban developments. Most of the mosaics from the archaeological museum are from this time, apparently.

In the 1980s, the city of Alcalá decided to protect and excavate the town and as of now there are two areas that can be visited. However, they are separated and you have to walk or drive from one to the other.

I first visited a building called Casa de Hippolytus, Hippolytus’ House, which was a school dormitory for boys. The building hosts a thermal area, a bathroom, and a garden.

The key part of the house is the “fish mosaic”, commissioned by the rich family who sponsored the school (Anios) to the merchant Hippolytus, who signed the mosaic. The mosaic. is thought to have been a teaching tool as it depicts with a lot of detail a number of aquatic species from the Mediterranean Sea (in contrast with the people in the boat) – there is a dolphin, a sea urchin, a lobster, a cuttlefish, a moray eel, a sea bream…

I walked to the other site afterwards, Foro y Regio II, and it’s divided in several parts – it has a residential neighbourhood, some public buildings (therms, curia, basilica…), and the oracle building, along with remains of the sewers and water supplies.

The most important building, called ‘the house of griffin’ due to to the decoration, was unfortunately closed. But you can be sure that the place is kept safe by the kitty queen on call and her dutiful apprentice.

Driving distance: around 64 km
Walking distance: 6.79 km

13th October 2021: Poblado de Villaflores (Spain)

Poblado de Villaflores (Settlement of Villaflores) is a long-abandoned farm settlement was erected between 1886 and 1887. In 1882, María Diega Desmaissières y Sevillano, countess of Vega del Pozo and duchess of Sevillano (among other titles) came to own the land where the village now stands. She was known for her philanthropy and ordering several buildings be built. The settlement was one of these – the duchess commissioned architect Ricardo Velázquez Bosco to design a ‘rural colony’. The buildings were erected in limestone masonry and exposed brick, and the most important items in the settlement were the main hamlet, a dovecote, four several-family houses and a hermit church. There is confusing information on whether it has been declared an “interesting” or talks of the the declaration were finally archived.

I have driven by the settlement several times, but at one point I made up my mind to visit, even if the area has been in decline for years – as a matter of fact, a clock tower that used to be part of the hamlet collapsed in 2016, and the first alarms had been rung as early as 1980. Since then, most of the buildings have had the entrances either boarded up or walled, and the collapsed areas seem to unstable to come in explore. I wish I had decided to visit earlier, when real urbex was doable, but oh well.

The actual entrance to the area – which is paved – has been fenced off since at least 2011, despite the different announcements about recovering and restoring the settlement. However, next to the settlement there is an official cattle way (Cañada real ), used to guide the herds from winter to summer pastures (the practice of transhumance). This was a common practice in the Middle Ages, but it died away with time, and today most of them have been turned into hiking trails. The key thing is that as they cross roads, there are big clearings where you can park, and that is the way to go in this particular case. The area is named Cañada Real de las Matas (Área Recreativa Francisco Rodríguez).

At the edge of the holm oak (Quercus rotundifolia) forest, Chaparral de Villaflores someone installed a children recreational area and some tables and benches, maybe mid-1990s, and called it a park Parque del Sotillo. While the tables are still in use – judging by the rubbish around it – the swings and other elements have been plundered.

As I approached the hamlet, antigua casa de labranza, I saw the chicken wire fences but most of them were actually open and torn down, so I guess I just decided to wing it. The hamlet was open but I decided not to enter it, just in case I broke an ankle or something. This is the building that lost the clock tower, and the only one whose property is private – it belongs to a real estate company which at some point planned to develop the area, but backed out for some reason.

I went on to the church, which used to be consecrated to Saint Didacus of Alcalá – antigua ermita de San Diego de Alcalá.

I deviated towards the mill, then backtracked to the houses, crossing the actual road that is blocked. It is weird, seeing roundabouts in such a dilapidated place (≧▽≦). As I was exploring the houses, I heard shots and saw ducks try to fly away, so the cars I had come across, which I expected to belong to people looking for mushrooms ended up belonging to hunters.

That made me a bit apprehensive, but I was finally close to the most attention-grabbing building of the whole settlement – the dovecote, called La Tabalta in Spanish. It has two floors and it could home ten thousand doves – which were kept for recreative hunting in the 1880s.

I did not try to enter the winery because it was too dilapidated, nor the more modern barn, but this was a fun little visit that thankfully did not end up with me getting shot! I might try to visit this again in winter when there is less vegetation. Though since it is in the middle of nowhere the wind will be freezing…

Walking distance: 4.48 km

8th October 2021: Tamajón & Cogolludo (Spain)

When I went to the waterfalls of the Aljibe I drove past a little village I had never heard of before – Tamajón, and a side sign reading “Pequeña Ciudad Encantada de Tamajón”. The term “Cuidad Encantada”, meaning Enchanted or Magic City, is used in Spanish to refer to karst formations. Karst is the name of a particular topography, created by the dissolution and chemical weathering of soluble rocks, chiefly but not just limestone.

The particular Spanish karst landscapes were formed by precipitation of salts – calcium carbonate – in the quiet waters of the Tethys Ocean during the Mesozoic Era (251-66 million years ago). Plate tectonics made central Spanish arise during the Cretaceous (the later subdivision of the Mesozoic, 140-66 million years ago) emerge, and the calcium carbonate became exposed to the elements, which started the erosion process. The most famous karst landscape in Spain is the Ciudad Encantada near Cuenca, which I guess spread the name.

Tamajón has a short hiking route around its karst formation, and while it is true that they are on the relatively smaller size, there are different shapes. I started my hiking route at the Ermita de la Virgen de los Enebrales, hermitage church dedicated to the Virgin of the Juniper Forest – the current building was reformed in the Renaissance style, thought the actual dates are shaky.

I started on the hiking route from the hermitage, along the road, and there were no markings there, so I kind of winged it for a while. After I took the first turn and started going up the rocks, I found the painting marking the routes – I had a handmade map because someone had shared it online, so I just went along it, and when I finished I redid about a fourth of it to take a detour to the other side of the road. There are cracks, arches, caves, cavities and capricious forms. I spent about an hour and a half walking around almost completely alone, which was awesome.

On my way back I stopped by the Church of the Assumption Iglesia de la Asunción, also a Romanesque – Renaissance mixture. The porch is typical of Romanesque churches in the Camino de Santiago (St. James’ Way), to shelter pilgrims.

As it was still early and I was relatively close, instead of driving home I headed off to another village called Cogolludo. I parked the car at the edge of the village and walked towards the main square, where there is a famous Renaissance palace Palacio de los Duques de Medinaceli. It is considered the first Renaissance Palace built in Spain, and it is reported to have been finished in 1492. The palace was designed by Lorenzo Vázquez de Segovia, with exquisite decoration, and the blaring lack of towers, which were very popular at the time. If I’m ever in the area again I might want to try to see the interior, which is only open in the guided visits.

The Palace stands in the main square Plaza Mayor which has a typical Castilian arcade with stone columns (unfortunately workers, sun and cars made it hard to take a good picture of it).

Cogolludo has two churches, Iglesia de Santa María de los Remedios (Our Lady of Remedies) and Iglesia de San Pedro (Saint Peter), both dating from the 16th century, but both completely closed down.

Finally, there are also the ruins of the Medieval Castle Castillo de Cogolludo, but there was not much incentive to climb up. All in all, it was a short but interesting morning – though I glad I teamed the two visits up, going to Cogolludo on its own would have not felt productive.

Driven distance: around 115 km
Walking distance: 7.27 km

8th September 2021: Impromptu Madrid Run! (Spain)

This was oh my god so unplanned that I kept improvising throughout the whole day! It all started because a Spanish publisher decided to translate a non-fiction book I’ve loved for ages – Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein. The publisher flew the author in for interviews, and I guess I was disappointed that no signing event was organised. I asked the author once and the publisher another time, then shrugged it off when I got no answer. There were some interviews scheduled for him, and a book fair coming up. I guessed it was just not meant to be, but I did feel disappointed.

And then, on the 7th, Mr Adelstein shot me a message that he would sign my book if I could go to Madrid and meet him at one of his breaks. As you can imagine I just… said yes (I could not meet him that very same evening because of travel times, but I could make it on the 8th. And there I went).

It was the first time taking the train since the whole pandemic thing (hell, I had not even been on a train since Paris 2020), and a weekday so I chose the times carefully to hopefully get close to as few people as possible – it worked, as both rides nobody sat next to me.

I arrived in Madrid and transferred easily, then got out at a new station in the area of Gran Vía. The Tokyo Vice book came out that day, so I wanted to go to a big book store that would hopefully have it already. My first stop, FNAC, failed miserably, so I went to La Casa del Libro, where they told me I would find the book in a completely different section where I actually did. But at least I had it in my hands, even if I had apparently not used my credit card for so long, I got the right PIN for the wrong card (≧▽≦).

After I had the book in Spanish – I’ve owned a first edition copy in English since 2010 – I had thought that I should get a small detail for the author as he was making time for me. As he had to continue on his travelling, I decided to do something small and “consumable”, so I came up with buying some typical Madrid candy – violet sweets from La Violeta. I’d never been inside the shop, but it’s an adorable little place dating back to 1915.

It was still early for my appointment at 14:00, so I decided to head towards a square that hosts an Egyptian temple of all things. On the way I made a stop at a Starbucks for a Vanilla Frappucino, I figured out that the amount of calories would get me going and I would not have to eat until I was back – looking back it was a weird thing, but it made sense in my head at the time. I strolled around the park next to the palace Palacio Real.

The way to the temple was completely blocked off due to construction, so I decided to backtrack. I walked up the great avenue in the middle of the city Gran Vía. As I walked around, minding my business and listening to music, I kept remembering a comic by Sarah Sanders, in which she makes fun of how people won’t leave you alone when you’re wearing headphones and, well, minding your own business.

I reached the square with the fountain to the goddess Cybele Fuente de la Cibeles and the related Palace. The fountain dates back to the 18th century, when king Carlos III revamped a lot of Madrid trying to make it more beautiful and similar to other European capitals.

Carlos III is also responsible for the design of the modern version of one of the former wall gates, called the gate to Alcalá, the nearby town, Puerta de Alcalá. This area was declared Unesco World Heritage Site in summer 2021 as Paisaje de la Luz, so Madrid was in a celebratory mood.

I headed into the park Parque del Retiro, which is also included in the Heritage declaration. The park was initially built in the first half of the 17th century, as part of the royal recreational areas. Carlos III opened it up as public park a hundred years later. Aside from the obvious green areas, the park features fountains, palaces and sculptures. I walked past some of them. First I came across the fountain “of the turtles” Fuente de los Galápagos.

There is also a large pond, aptly called the big pond Estanque Grande del Retiro populated by carps, to whose side stands the monument to Alfonso XII – Monumento a Alfonso XII.

Nearby the pond stands the fountain called the artichoke fountain, Fuente de la alcachofa.

I walked to the fountain that depicts the fall of Lucifer from Heaven, Fuente del Ángel Caído. The fountain itself was built in order to exhibit the sculpture by Ricardo Bellve, who originally created it in plaster. The figure would then be cast in iron for the World Exhibit of 1878 in Paris, and eventually placed in the Retiro.

I strolled back towards one of my favourite points in the park, but that’s because I like iron-and-glass architecture – a little building called Palacio de Cristal, which has a small pond around.

Finally I headed over the little café where I had arranged to meet with Mr Adelstein. He arrived shortly after. He signed my book, but truth be told, I had also brought my first-edition copy, which happens to be full of post-its from the first time I read it. He was happy to sign that one too, and to my eternal mortification… he went over all the notes. I almost died right then and there. We chatted for a little, I gave him the violet candy and he had some umeboshi sweets for me too. I babbled that I was very happy that he had made some time for me, and he told me “but you were so polite on twitter and the publisher said no signatures!” and I kind of died again.

In the end, our meeting was only 15 minutes, but I have not felt so happy in a very long time – that he specifically took time felt amazing. We took pictures and even had a safe mask-hug. Afterwards I headed towards the nearest train station so I could be on my way before the afternoon rush came through, so that was it for the day.

Walking distance: 12.39 km

19th July 2021: The Lavender fields of Brihuega (Spain)

Brihuega is located towards the centre of Spain, in an area known as La Alcarria. The dates back to pre-Roman times, and although it claims to have a long and rich history, and it has been related to a few battles due to its strategic location. It received the denomination of historical site in 1973 due to the Medieval buildings that remain, among them the church of St. Philip. Today, that belligerent history is past, and Brihuega prides itself in being the the garden of La Alcarria, el Jardín de la Alcarria. The village and its related neighbourhoods are home to thousands of lavender flowers – the so called Campos de lavanda.

There are over one thousand hectares of lavender fields in the village. Lavender (genus Latifolia) does not need a high-quality soil to grow, so it adapts perfectly to the area. The flowers are widely used in cosmetics (distilled into an essential oil) , and also dried up for scent. Furthermore, the fields feed the bees in the area, also famous for its honey.

Lavender flowers in June – July and it’s harvested at the beginning of August, so it was a good moment to drop by and see the fields. The town hall advises not to visit the fields at the weekend, ad I thought it might be a nice place to see the sunset – how many people may there be around the fields on a random Monday evening?

Way more than I expected. Nevertheless, when I reached the parking lot I made the lucky decision to walk to the smaller fields and not the ones most visitors seemed to be heading for. They may have yielded to less impressive pictures, but it felt a bit safer – and far enough from other visitors so I could take off the my face mask and – literally – smell the flowers, while I tried hard not to disturb the bees at work.

I left just as the sun was about to set because I did not want to be caught in a jam as all the cars came out of the parking lot, and did enjoy catching a glimpse of the sun going down as I drove back. No pictures of that, obviously.

19th June 2021: Dino World Expo in Madrid (Spain)

Upon finding that the exhibit Dino World Expo was opening in Madrid on the 18th, I decided to book myself a ticket for the first pass on Saturday morning, 10 AM. I guessed that it would not be too full since it was the first weekend, early, and before school was out for the summer and all the reviews popped up so everyone found about it and brought their kids.

The exhibit was held in Madrid’s fair grounds, IFEMA Espacio 5.1, a short drive away, and aside a small mishap with setting the Sat-Nav. When I arrived, about 15 minutes later there were about ten families with little kids. I walked around for a little and came back when the doors opened. There were several types of tickets, the basic one was 13.50€. The exhibit included an extra “Virtual Reality experience for 3€” (it was 4€ if you bought it during the exhibit itself), so I decided to get the “premium entry ticket” which for 23.50€ included entry, a printed picture (10€ otherwise), the VR experience, a lanyard and a poster – both of which have been distributed around kids who might have want them.

When my ticket was scanned, the system roared and I was given my “VIP lanyard”, and told that I just had to show it around. Then again, let me tell you that I almost called this post “normalise people doing stuff alone” but that would go into the ranting territory and I did not want to do that – it is enough to say that from the beginning to the end of this exhibit, every staff member gaped at me for being in a dinosaur exhibition alone / without kids.

Upon entrance I got my picture taken, then had to wait a little with a couple of families before me until the first room cleared. We got an explanation about the audio-guide app and the exhibit rules. The exhibition itself was composed mostly of animatronics that moved and roared – when they had remembered to turn them on, some of them were still asleep. Aside from the life-sized animatronics, there was a CGI film and at the end of it, the VR experience which… was okay I guess. I learnt that I am not a VR person, as I got more than a bit queasy from the “flying” with the pterodactyl, swimming with a few anachronic species, and then following the T-Rex hunting.

From the shop I got my picture and the promised poster, although I had to show my ticket, not only the pass, in order to do so. All in all it was a cute little experience, but not really worth a detour if you are not in the area – one day I’ll learn that “for all the family” means “kid-oriented”, but that day was not today. On the way back the Sat-Nav got me confused and I took the wrong exit (“stay left on exit 9A” is not the same as “take exit 9A and then 9B to the left” in my books), but I was home by noon, and of course I took a lot of pictures.

Approach

Entrance

dinosaur animatronics: diplodocus

dinosaur animatronics: carnotasaurus and brontosaurus

dinosaur animatronics: pteranodoon

dinosaur animatronics: iguanodoon and Eustreptospondylus

dinosaur animatronics: feathered dinos

dinosaur animatronics: T-rex and triceratops

3rd June 2021: Hike to the Aljibe Waterfalls (Spain)

The Ayllón Mountain Range or Sierra de Ayllón is the of the chains that conforms the Spanish Central System Sistema Central, on its easternmost edge.

The Central System was formed during the early Cenozoic Era (the current geological era) in a process called the Alpine orogeny – when the African tectonic plate crashed against the Eurasian plate, a geological event that gave way to the main European and Asian mountain ranges, from Spain in the west to Java in the east.

It rests on a granite base that became first folded, then fractured during the formation of the system. As the rocks eroded, the sediments deposited and formed new sedimentary socks. Other processes that influenced the formation and shape of the ranges have been the action of glaciers and rivers and the subsequent weathering of the exposed rock.

The most common rocks in the Ayllón Range are granite, as expected, gneiss, and slates, some of the latest mixed with clays. For centuries, the villages of the area have been known as “black villages” (pueblos negros) as slate has been extracted to build them. One of such villages is Campillo de Ranas, which translates to something akin to “Little Field of Frogs”, and one of the neighbourhoods adjoined to them is Roblelacasa (literally Oak-the-House).

Roblelacasa happens to be the start of a hiking route to one of the highlights of the range – the Pozas del Aljibe (Aljibe Pools), with Aljibe being a word of Arab origin that means “cistern” or “well”, so not that original a name, I guess. I had been wanting to see these pools – also called a waterfall – for a while, so I decided to drive off and hike the route to see the Aljibe, which is considered one of the most beautiful in the centre of Spain. The hike is about 3.3 km each way – but guess what? I ended up taking a detour or two (≧▽≦). The pools are formed by the Soto Creek, Arroyo del Soto, a tributary to the river Jarama which in turn flows into the river Tagus.

Off I went. The drive took about an hour and twenty minutes. I left home around 8.20 and arrived in Roblelacasa around 9:40. The drive went well, most of the road was a nice national road, and as it was a local holiday traffic was scarce. Some people were in a great hurry though, ignoring speed limits. This was my first time driving on my own with the Sat-Nav, and it went all right. However, as I drove towards the range, there was a dark cloud I did not like one bit.

Just after reaching the “village”, I found a parking spot right behind the panels, as the expected parking lot was closed off. I had packed some frozen water, biscuits, the camera and my cap – but I had forgotten the umbrella, and it was a bit grey. I decided to leave taking pictures of the village for later, and I started walking just behind a couple who had arrived virtually at the same time, but I passed them as they stopped to take pictures.

Information

Roblelacasa

The route is officially named “PR-GU 09: Sendero de los pozos del Aljibe” and it is part of the natural park Parque Natural de la Sierra Norte de Guadalajara. Upon leaving Roblelacasa, the first couple of hundred metres crossed fractured and weathered rock before crossing a symbolic gate that marks official the beginning of the trail with a white and yellow double-line. Then, I walked onto a gravel path flanked by the remains of old fences. To the left opens a valley, and looking back I could see the village, in black.

Start of the route

Old slate fences

Valley

Valley and village

The route widens into a dirt track that is obviously travelled by car sometimes, as the range peaks stand in front of you. There are no trees but a lot of bushes and aromatic herbs, and as you walk the scent is very pleasant. Then there is a small forest and a second barrier, which marks the turn where you are going to start climbing a new hill – slowly, the terrain rises to your left while it lowers on your right, giving way to the creek’s valley. Just before reaching this I passed a family who had started walking before me.

Mountain Range in front

Mountain Range around

Eventually, you reach a fork in the trail, with the choices of going left towards the waterfall or right down the valley to see a former dam-turned-bridge. I went to the waterfalls, figuring out that I could always go down to the dam on my way back. The track became narrower and rocks started popping up again.

Fork on the way

Valley

Creek in the valley

Geological formations

I wandered off the trail (you can see the markings on the upper picture) a couple of times because the views were neat, but a few minutes later I crossed a little bridge to get access to the waterfalls viewpoint on the left-hand-side bank… which was closed. Believe it or not, the actual waterfall area had quite a few “do not walk, falling risk” signs that… okay, I have to be honest… I pretended not to see. I hiked up to the viewpoint and sneaked a little to the side to see both waterfalls. As it has been storming, there was a good amount of water flowing, so the view was pretty cool.

Wooden Bridge

First waterfall

The upper waterfall is about three metres high, and the easier one to see, without needing to ignore any warning sings. When I walked up to the viewpoint I got an amazing view of both the upper and lower waterfalls, the latter being about 7 metres high. It is easy to see how they are called either waterfalls or pools.

Both waterfalls from the left bank

Both waterfalls from the right bank

Remember that I said that I passed a family on my way up? This is kind of important because it means that I was basically alone in the waterfall area for about ten minutes, enough to take a good bunch of pictures from both banks of the creek without having to edit people out. I was however very cautious about cracks and faults. I think most of the rocks in the area are quartzes but my geology skills are a bit rusty.

Cracks on the rock

As I decided to turn around, the family arrived, and so did the couple I had first passed and another group that must have started behind me. That was okay because I was done, and on my way back I could stop for a lot of pictures that I had not taken before. Here you can see the difference between the quartz /gneiss (surrounding the flowers) and the slate (in the middle).

Flowers growing from the rock

Also, at some point before I started my return hike, it cleared up. All of a sudden it was hot so first I shed off my sweatshirt and when I reached the crossroads again I really needed a drink and some shade – but I had packed water and the cap, so everything was fine, and I could divert to see the old dam, Presa de Matallana over the creek Soto – from both sides. This must have been around 11 am.

Valley on the way back

Presa de Matallana from the left bank

Presa de Matallana from the right bank

I turned back towards Roblelacasa and I noticed that the wide track was a bit more “upwards” than I had noticed the “downwards”. I had a bit of a tired moment as I adjusted to hiking up in the heat – why is it that normal hills tire me more than uneven paths? But it was over in five minutes and I was back in the village a bit before twelve. On the way now I stopped to take pictures of the flowers and bushes around, and of the valley that Roblelacasa overlooks – and ran into four or five more groups / couples who must have started walking around 11, so it was a good call to get there early.

The track back

Roblelacasa from the outskirts

Flowers on the way

This is how the village looks in the light of day, just before I took the car and drove back around noon. I decided that I would go back to the area some other time to explore other villages around, mainly Tamajón, which is reported to have an interesting geological area, and some other black villages.

The village

Oh, and a the pictureless anecdote of the trip, for obvious reasons. There were a lot, and I mean a lot of “caution wildlife” traffic signals, and on the drive there I thought that I had very rarely encountered any wildlife crossing the road. I had also not come across any wild (or domestic) on the trail, aside from some little lizards and a few pet dogs with their owners. Well, good thing I was driving a good 10 kph under the speed limit, because on the drive back I had to yield to a wild boar! Live and learn (to drive slowly in wildlife areas)!

Driven distance: around 130 km (2h 30min)
Hiked distance: 6.7 km / 11,106 steps (2h 20min)

9th June 2019: Gold fields and bull billboard (Guadalajara, Spain)

A friend was over and she was curious about the huge black bull billboard that stands next to the entrance to Guadalajara, so we headed there. We had a big Chinese late lunch, and afterwards we decided to walk to the bull.

The so-called Toro de Osborne (Osborne bull, and… hm… you can tell… he’s a male, right?) was conceived as a publicity billboard for the Osborne winery. The bulls were originally designed in 1956 as by-road advertisement for one of the winery’s drinks. The first set of bulls was installed in 1958, and the current ones date back to 1962, made with metal, and around 14 metres high. In 1988 the lettering was removed. Although in compliance to the 1994, laws the bulls should have been removed, but a motion was filed to keep them as ‘cultural items’ as people had grown fond of them. In 1997 a law was passed ordaining that the bulls were to remain due to “cultural and visual interest”. There used to be about 500 bulls throughout all of Spain, but today only 91 remain, although there are others around the world. For example, there is one in Japan, because… Japan, I guess. The area with most of them is the one where the winery headquarters stand.

The Guadalajara bull stands next to the N-320 exit number 53. you can reach it by car or on foot. We took a walk around the area and we got to see the wheat and barley fields that give the area its typical brown / gold colours in summer. These are called the Calstillian fields, Campos de Castilla.

When we finally got to the bull, we were expecting nobody around, but there were a bunch of people, mostly drinking and smoking weed. Apparently it had also been vandalised and used for target practice, because people are civilised and all that. If you squint, you can actually see the word “Osborne” on the billboard.

26th May 2019: “Komeko Sin Gluten” event in Madrid (Spain)

After almost literally everybody and their dogs ditched me for a cooking workshop in Madrid, literally the day before I decided to bite the bullet and go by myself, so I bought my ticket on Saturday night, barely 12 hours before the event, a promotion of a Japanese-Spanish shop and its products based on rice flour. The shop is called “Komeko Sin Gluten”, which translates as “Gluten-Free Rice Flour”.

Evenbrite ticket for the event: Taller de Cocina de Komeko: crepe, helado y tarta 10 euro

The event happened in a venue-for-hire in Madrid, and consisted in three distinct parts: a small market in which I would have spent a lot if I had not got a few samples with my ticket, a cooking workshop and a taiko concert. I arrived early due to Sunday having awful public-transport connections, and I arrived in Madrid an hour before the event even opened, and then we got a delay with the start of the workshop because someone was missing. During that time I got to sit around among aaaall the Japanese people around, including the head drummer of the taiko group, , whom I admired a lot since I watched him in HA·YA·TO: Drum Masters.

The small market was comprised, of course, of gluten-free products, especially Japanese ones, most of them can be found online, yay. I decided not to buy things upfront as the workshop included a sample of products, and I wanted to buy what I did not get. In the end, I did not have to buy anything because I got next to everything!

Pictures of the rice flour items - flour, noodles, snacks...

Anyway, the cooking workshop:

  1. Komeko crêpes: We made the crêpes on portable pans. There was a mini drama as the cook refused to start until we had chopsticks to flip the crêpes, and I was amused at first until I realised how convenient they actually were. While he was worried that I ahd any problems with the chopsticks, I’m happy to report that I was not the clumsiest in the class! After they were cool, we filled one up with ‘pastry cream’, banana and whipped cream for presentation – but we got to take the rest home and I tried them with chocolate. Serious improvement!
  2. Steamed banana sponge cake: this was really interesting to make, and also really easy – it involved mixing all the ingredients in a plastic bag, and then cutting a corner off the bag to pour that into little trays so we could steam it. That was… neat, and a team effort.
  3. Japanese green tea (matcha) ice-cream: Double team effort! (≧▽≦). As the paste needed time to freeze, we actually observed the chef prepare the ingredients and ate the one that had been prepared in the previous workshop.

Collage. Chef preparing crepes, and a picture of the materials, the matcha ice cream and my own creppes and banana spongecake

We had a snack with our crêpes and the matcha ice-cream. Then we got the haul of goodies: ramen and spaghetti noodles, komeko, komeko with glutinous rice, and komeko with cocoa, well worth the price (10€) I had paid for the whole workshop… Talk about promotion ☆⌒(ゝ。∂).

Different flours and noodles I got as present

Afterwards, I headed downstairs for the taiko concert. Enishi Taiko is a Spanish group, and Keita Kanazashi usually collaborates with them rather often. The concert was, of course, more humble than the one with HA·YA·TO, but it was still a lot of fun.

Taiko group playing and having a lot of fun

Afterwards, I got Kanazashi to sign the HA·YA·TO DVD and the picture I had with him from that time, which was really cool. Furthermore, the main drummer in Enishi Taiko remembered me from the X Gran Exposición de Ikebana y Semana Cultural Japonesa session, and another session I took at their headquarters.

I had thought that I would be eating in Madrid but as I had snacked on the komeko products I was not hungry at all, so I decided to head home. On the way towards the station I found this really cool fountain.

Urban waterfall. The fountain looks like a massive bench, with a thin layer of water dripping from the top

3rd November 2018: Samurai Spirit in Madrid (Spain)

The event took place in the theatre Teatro Fernando de Rojas in the Círculo de Bellas Artes, in Madrid. A friend sent me the info for it a few weeks before, and I bought my tickets immediately.

Kamui x Mika Kobayashi: Utakatana Sekai – Samurai Spirit is a joint project between the musician and singer Mika Kobayashi and the Samurai artis group Kamui, a troupe lead by the sword expert and fight choreographer Tetsuro Shimaguchi. Through acting and music, the show represented a story about the old samurai ways giving way to a new world.

Pretty cool, if you ask me. Next time, though, I’d need a better seat, as my angle made me see all the stunts… stunty (≧▽≦). Then again, I managed to get pictures with the crew, and Mika Kobayashi’s autograph on her CDs…