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Carved into the Rock
12 April 2018

 

This strange sight looks like something straight out of Tolkien’s Rivendell. What resembles an ancient, mythical village is carved into the rock, complete with elegant arches that lead into ornate corridors.
Perhaps disappointingly, this random roadside scene is not at all related to the fictional Elven realm. In reality, it’s the work of a 20th-century Spanish priest.

 


Don Aurelio, the priest of nearby Valderrebollo, Spain, constructed this curious hamlet in the 1960s. Almost every day after mass, he and local volunteers would carve their way through the soft karst. They created elaborate doors and banisters and a network of tunnels that wind through a labyrinth of hidden chambers. Supposedly, one of the lower caves even held a bar frequented by local fishermen.


Now, the intriguing hamlet is abandoned. Some of the inner walls have collapsed, and plants are slowly beginning to blanket parts of the space. But amazingly, a little fountain nestled amid the structures still gurgles with life. Fed from a natural spring, the crystal-clear water cascades out of small set of brass spigots and pools within a trough, waiting to quench the thirst of any animals that happen to wander by.

 

 



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The Stone Monastery - a heavenly complex
05 April 2018

Since May 20, 1194 when Alfonso II of Aragon donated an old Moorish castle to a handful of monks in order to found the Monasterio de Piedra, this spot in Spain’s mostly barren reaches has been home to a divine paradise here on Earth.

Though officially secularized in 1835, during the reign of Isabella II, visitors to the monastery today will still find the remaining Gothic and Baroque buildings as heavily fortified as they were in the days of the monastery’s founding. Its cloisters remain intact, surrounded by immaculately landscaped gardens, though the main church was irreparably damaged in the aforementioned secularization and subsequent period of abandonment.

These ruins have an eerie, beautiful air about them, as they remain half-triumphant in their unwillingness to fall after so many years. Heavily fortified since its conception, visitors to the monastery will find the compound’s original cloisters intact, albeit reincarnated as a hotel and guesthouse.

 

Just slightly farther afield from civilization, ancient and contemporary, is the Piedra River, which is responsible for the conjoining nature park’s legendary, remarkable waterfalls. Created through the dissolution of limestone in a phenomenon geologists refer to as “karstification,” these standout cataracts include the 50-meter-tall Cola del Caballo (named such for its resemblance to a horse’s tail), and a handful of others which seem to bell into a million tiny rivulets running over the shoulder of huge boulders.

Clearly marked trails wend visitors on a five-kilometer path through the park’s most famed sights, including a natural reflecting pool trapped in a canyon called Mirror Lake. The natural park also has several caves, into which shepherds have built shelters for their flocks, as well as a raptor center that’s open to the public.

 

As of February 16, 1983, Monasterio de Piedra — natural park and all — was declared a national monument, which should ensure the protection of this little slice of the divine for another 800 years to come. 

 

 



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The Biospheres of Asturias
27 March 2018

One thing Asturians are proud of is their region's nature: its mysterious forests and coastline left unscathed by the whirlwind of property developments, its salmon rivers and steep mountains, ideal for rock climbers and hikers. Arising from this pride is a magnificent conservation that has led to more than a third of Asturias' territory being declared as national and international protected areas and the best-preserved coastline in Spain.


The exploration begins with the 6 UNESCO-listed Biosphere Reserves in the Principality.


The Picos de Europa's reserve was Spain's first National Park, protected since 1918. Rising up in the centre of this park is the Picu Urriellu, a real magnet for rock climbers, which then opens onto the Lakes of Covadonga. Fuentes del Narcea, Degaña and Ibias is a Nature Park with totemic fauna including the brown bear and capercaillie. Within this park you will also find the Muniellos Forest Nature Reserve and El Cueto de Arbás Partial Nature Reserve.

Only 20 people per day can enjoy the experience of travelling through the Muniellos Forest, the largest oak grove in Spain and one of the best-preserved in Europe. You need to book far enough in advance. The route is mapped out, is circular and is 20 kilometres long. It's free but you can pay for a guide. It takes about seven hours and covers an ascent of 600 m. 


The brown bear's habitat extends up to Somiedo which, as well as being a Biosphere Reserve, became the first Nature Park in Asturias (1988). Its lake, El Valle, is the biggest in the region and its brañas (high-mountain pasture areas) are dotted with teitos (thatched roof cottages). Las Ubiñas - La Mesa Nature Park contains the second largest mountain range in the region, the Peña Ubiña Massif and is full of natural monuments, such as the Huerta Cave, home to a large bat hibernation colony, or the Puertos de Marabio, with its peculiar karst complex. Redes is a refuge for all species native to northern regions, from the brown bear to the capercaillie or the wolf. Its complex terrain, also recognised as a Nature Park, is combined with spectacular mountains, valleys and limestone gorges that can be discovered on the River Alba Trail or in Los Arrudos.

Oscos-Eo  (GPS:+43.515568,-7.043293) is the biggest UNESCO-listed Biosphere Reserve. Running through this territory is the river corridor of the Eo River, a special area for bird watching.

Other networks of international protected areas are the European Union's Red Natura 2000 and Sites of Community Importance (SCIs). Following their trace, you can discover the Sueve Range, the Oneta Waterfalls, the Esva Basin, the Deboyo Cave, the Santiuste Blowhole, the Villaviciosa Estuary, the Caldoveiro Peak, the Pastur or Barayo Yew. Ponga Nature Park is made up of gorges such as the Ponga or Beyos gorges and lies within the Partial Nature Park of Peloño.

 

 

Hiking is possibly the best way to admire these lush spots In Asturias, there are trails suitable for all physical conditions and tastes and for those looking for only short excursions. And you don't even need to park the car. The intricate network of regional motorways allows you to combine visits and organise unforgettable excursions. Other options are cycling along the sign-posted and well-preserved greenways or taking a journey on one of the routes travelled by giant dinosaurs, using their ichnites carved on rocks as a guide. 

Wildlife watching tourism has opened up a new door of experiences: set off on an ornithological route, follow the footsteps of the brown bear, get a taste of nature on an excursion collecting plants that are used in cookery workshops or travel through folds used by shepherds keeping your eye on the sky to spot the bearded vulture, reintroduced into Picos de Europa, in flight. This way you will be able to experience the passion for  Asturian nature first hand.



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The Roundabout
22 March 2018

 

An exact replica of a colossal Olmec head sits atop a pyramid in Madrid. 

A large head, perched atop a stepped pyramid, keeps an unblinking eye on drivers as they whirl around a roundabout in Madrid. The odd sight looks as though it should be behind glass in a museum, not plopped outside and encircled by a steady stream of cars.

The looming roadside structure is actually an exact replica of an Olmec head known as “Colossal Head 8” which was carved sometime between 1200 and 900 BC. Also called “The King,” the ancient boulder that inspired this new version is one of 17 colossal heads discovered throughout Mexico.

 

 

The heads are a hallmark relic of the Olmec civilization, which once flourished across ancient Mesoamerica. Archaeologists are still unclear as to what the giant heads represent, or how the big boulders were transported across vast distances.

The Olmec head above the Madrid traffic circle was made in 2005 by the Mexican sculptor Ignacio Pérez Solano. It was donated by the Mexican state of Veracruz in 2007.

The roundabout 'head' is the same size and weight as the colossal head it’s modelled after. The sculptor spent about three months working to carve it.

The big Olmec head is in the centre of the Ensanche de Vallecas neighbourhood, located southeast of the city centre.

The 'Cabeza Olmeca' an approximately half-mile walk from the tube station Congosto. Walk along the street Peña Sorrapia until you reach the park, where you can see the monument.



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Marenostrum isn't what you might think it is...
05 March 2018

What used to be a divine place of worship is now the home of the Barcelona Supercomputing Center. The Torre Girona church houses what could possibly be the most beautiful computer in the world if computers can actually be beautiful, and it fills the expansive main hall with banks of futuristic computer equipment within a glass box. 

Marenostrum, as it is named, has been housed in this former church since 2005. It is one of the most powerful supercomputers in Europe that was instrumental in developing modern microchip technology. The giant machine is used to calculate the massively complex calculations involved in such fields of research as human genome mapping, astrophysics, and weather prediction. Physically the computer consists of a number of black computing racks that are all encased in a giant glass box, which itself sits in the romantically-styled main hall of Torre Girona.

 

 

Rebuilt after the Spanish Civil War, the Torre Girona is a 19th-century church that sits on the campus of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia. The space was actually in use as a Catholic church until at least until 1960 but was since deconsecrated and used for more functional purposes until finally being inhabited in full by the supercomputer and its attendant offices. 


MareNostrum is one of the most powerful supercomputers in Europe. To put MareNostrum’s original calculating capacity into terms a typical PC owner can appreciate; it has 10,240 IBM 2.3 GHz processors and 20 Terabytes of main memory. That doesn’t, however, mean that – if you went out and bought 10,240 PCs and joined them together, you would have the power of a MareNostrum. Those 10,240 PCs would, putting it very simply, work rather like a production line producing, for example, a car silencer – the first person would weld a seam on a rolled form, the second would insert one end plate and weld it in, the third would insert a pipe and so on; one job would follow on another, so nothing would be completed until the final person/processor in the chain had finished its allocated job.

MareNostrum’s processors don’t work like that! The architecture of this super computer is such that all those 10240 2.3 GHz processors work together, sharing the work of producing the end product, rather than passing each phase of the process on, the result is a capacity to perform a staggering 94.21 trillion operations per second!

It has since been upgraded. Now MareNostrum has a peak performance of 1,1 Petaflops, with 48,896 Intel Sandy Bridge processors in 3,056 nodes, and 84 Xeon Phi 5110P in 42 nodes, with more than 104.6 TB of main memory and 2 PB of GPFS disk storage. God knows what that is in everyday English but for those who understand computers, you might find it interesting!

MareNostrum may not be the most powerful computer in the world any longer, but it will likely remain the most visually appealing for many years to come. 



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Local Cuisine - Ibiza
01 March 2018

The gastronomy of Ibiza is a true reflection of the island: sea and mountain landscapes where different cultures and civilisations have left their mark. As a result of this combination you can sample delicious dishes made from traditional recipes. They feature fish, particularly grouper, and meat, predominantly pork, from which products as exquisite as the famous Balearic sobrasada are made. 

The island's recipes are based on using its resources and the legacy of the different people who have inhabited the island throughout history. The sea, of course, is the main larder for the ingredients used in Ibiza's cuisine. One of the specialities here is the guisat de peix (a fish and seafood stew with potatoes and garlic mayonnaise) and peix sec (sun-dried fish by the sea breeze and seasoned with spices by the fishermen themselves). Grouper is the star ingredient, accompanied by swordfish, lobster, prawns, ray and sole, and cooked in a greixonera (clay pot typical of the Balearic Islands). 

Also popular in Ibiza is tonyina a l'eivissenca (tuna seasoned with pine nuts, eggs, spices, lemon juice and dry white wine); and estufat de tonyina (tuna stew). Borrida, from the village of Rajada, is a local version of a recipe deeply rooted in the Mediterranean culture, made with marinated ray that is roasted in the oven, accompanied with potatoes and covered with an egg, parsley, garlic, fried bread, toasted almonds, saffron and olive oil sauce. Seafood is also abundant and clams are always a good recommendation.


While the distances are not very great, the gastronomy in the interior of the island differs from that of the coast. If you travel to this area, we recommend trying the hearty dishes with chicken, pork and lamb. The most popular recipes include sofrit pagés (lamb and chicken stew paired with a typical Balearic sobrasada).

        
 

And although it will be difficult with any of the dishes mentioned so far, you must leave space for dessert. In addition to the famous ensaimadas, normally associated with Mallorca, which are at the top of the list of local confectionary, tradition also offers unique, delicious creations associated with certain dates and festivals, to such an extent there is almost one dessert for each occasion.

At the time of the All Saints celebrations you can try panellets, small, differently-shaped marzipan cakes with nuts, sugar, honey and spices. 

At Easter, the patisseries offer rich rubiols (sweet, half moon-shaped cakes filled with anything from jam, cream and angel hair paste, to chocolate or cottage cheese). Another Holy Week dessert is the traditional flaó, a round sweet made with eggs and fresh cheese, similar to crème caramel. We're lucky that today you can try them at any time of year, just like the orelletes (with aniseed liqueur) or greixonera, a pudding made with leftover ensaimadas.



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The Pilgram
21 February 2018

Every night in a corner under the baroque clock tower in the Plaza de la Quintana, a hunched pilgrim appears. He stands life-sized and wears the traditional garb of the religious pilgrim: cloak, broad-brimmed hat, and a staff top-heavy with a gourd for water and the traditional scallop shell, which is the symbol of the pilgrim.

Upon closer inspection, the pilgrim is a trick of the light - and an unintentional one. His body is the shadow cast by the lightning rod pillar in the corner, and his staff is the shadow of the support column of the Berenguela clock tower. There are dozens of these lighting rods and hundreds of vertical supports in the cathedral exterior, but only one pilgrim.

According to local legend, the pilgrim is a local priest, who had fallen in love with a nun of the convent of San Paio, across the plaza. They met every night secretly, travelling through a secret passage under the Quintana stairs that join the convent to the cathedral. The two lovers planned to elope, and he promised to meet her in the plaza dressed as a pilgrim to conceal his identity. On the appointed evening, he waited in the shadows, but she never came. Since then, every night he returns, hoping to see her.

Dressing as a pilgrim is a good disguise in a city that has historically been flooded with them. Pilgrims have been coming to Santiago de Compostela for more than a thousand years, walking the miles from France through the well-worn route of the Camino de Santiago. They came to receive the blessings and forgiveness of sins from the body of the Apostle James, purportedly buried in the cathedral.

The story of the discovery of the bones of St. James (Sant-Iago) has the flavour of medieval fervor: In the year 813, when most of Spain was under Islamic rule, a hermit, guided by heavenly light (the Campus Stellae, or field of stars in the city name), discovered the previously unknown tomb of the apostle, somewhat improbably in far Northern Spain. The bishop at the time determined that the bones had arrived in 44 AD by an unmanned, rudderless boat following the decapitation of James in Palestine. A shrine, and then a church, and finally a cathedral was built over the site of the discovery, and the pilgrimages began.

 



If in Santiago de Compostela.....Walking from the north-east corner of the cathedral complex through the Plaza de la Quintana, towards the front of the cathedral, walk down the first set of stairs into the large plaza area. Look for the deep corner between the base of the clock tower and the Royal Door. The pilgrim is behind the lightning pillar as you can see int he photo.

 



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A pilgram's guide
15 February 2018

The scallop shell is one of the most iconic symbols of the Camino de Santiago and today it is used, along with the yellow arrow, to guide pilgrims heading to Santiago de Compostela along its many different routes. Painted on trees, sidewalks, tiles, etc… the scallop shell (or ‘vieira’ in Galician and Spanish) will help travellers find their way.

There are many stories, legends and myths trying to explain the ancient link between the scallop shell and the Saint James Way. It is no coincidence that in French the scallop is called Coquille Saint Jacques, while in German scallops are called ‘Jakobsmuscheln’ (James mussels).

The scallop shell is said to be a metaphor, its lines representing the different routes pilgrims travel from all over the world, all walking trails leading to one point: the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela. However, it is open to interpretation. Which side points to Santiago? In some regions, the scallop’s longest line is considered the one pointing towards Santiago. This is the case in Asturias, for example, if you are walking the Camino Primitivo or the  Camino del Norte, and some parts of the Camino Portugues.

But don’t let this fact confuse you,  take the scallop shell as a symbol of the Camino, reassuring you are on the right path! The scallops are most of the time placed next to a yellow arrow so always follow the arrows (no confusion here!), as they are the most accurate ‘road signs’ to follow.

Medieval pilgrims often wore a scallop shell attached to their cloaks or hats during their journey to Santiago. More than being just a symbol or a pilgrim badge, the scallop shells also had a practical purpose: they were a handy and light replacement for a bowl so the pilgrims could use them to hold their food and drink on their long journey. Pilgrims would also be given food at churches and other establishments, and a scallop shell scoop was the measure for the food they would be donated.

Since the scallop is native to the coast of Galicia, the shell also became a memento, a physical proof of having completed the pilgrimage to Santiago (and quite often walked to or via Fisterra, on the Costa da Morte). The shells could be picked up at the very end of the journey in Fisterra but also became a popular souvenir and source of business for the shops near the Cathedral in Santiago and other establishments along the way.

 

  

 

There are many legends trying to source this old association of Saint James with the scallop shell: one of those legends says the apostle once rescued a knight covered in scallop shells, while a similar version of the same story explains that a knight’s horse fell into the water and emerged covered in scallop shells, while the remains of Saint James were being taken from Jerusalem to Galicia.

There are also many stories about the scallop shell believed to have a much earlier origin, dating to pre-Christian times. It is understood the Camino de Santiago had also become a kind of fertility pilgrimage, taken by couples in need of help to have children. This could be related to the fact that the scallop shell might have been a pagan symbol of fertility, originally.

The shape of the scallop shell also resembles the setting sun, which would have been an important daily event, full of symbolism in pre-Christian societies. It is probably not just a mere coincidence that the Saint James Way is a journey to the West, finishing at the ‘end of the world’ (the name given to Fisterra – Finis Terrae) and the setting sun.

 



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Olvera Castle
08 February 2018

Olvera Castle, locally known as Castillo de Olvera, lies on a rocky cliff in the centre of the town with the same name in the province of Cádiz. It is one of the most characteristic towns in the mountains of Cadiz, lying between the Sierra de Líjar and the Sierra de las Harinas mountains. Olvera is an excellent entry point from the north to the mountains of Cadiz and is set among woody hills and olive fields.

The first fortress at this site was built by the Moors, probably during the 12th century to defend the border of the Nasrid Emirate of Granada against the Kingdom of Castile. Around it, the medieval town of Olvera grew up.

In 1327 Olvera Castle was taken by the King of Castile, Alfonso XI. The Christians then completely rebuilt the old Moorish fortress into the castle we see today. The castle has an irregular plan, adapted to the shape of the cliff, resembling an elongated triangle. The rectangular keep has two storeys covered by barrel vaulted ceiling. The castle is also equipped with a gateway protected by a barbican, curtain walls with a parapet walkway and turrets, a subterranean enclosure and two cisterns.

 

In 1492 the War of Granada ended in a victory for the Kingdom of Castile and Olvera Castle lost its military value.

Olvera Castle can be visited for a small fee. Other sites of undoubted interest are the convent of Caños Santos, the sanctuary of Los Remedios and the Casa de la Cilla building, the current site of the “La Frontera y Los Castillos" Museum of Olvera.

 

 



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A Labyrinth of Rocks
25 January 2018

 

To the south of Antequera is Torcal, a limestone mountain range where erosion has sculpted a formidable labyrinth of rocks with fantastic shapes such as the Tornillo, which looks just like an immense screw threaded halfway into the planet. It was in the Jurassic Age, 150 million years ago, that these surprising rocks formed on the sea bed, as a result of the deposit and compacting of corals, mollusc shells and other shellfish of the era. Subsequently, time and geology worked together patiently, designing this landscape of narrow corridors. Its intersections opened to craters, basins and 'torcas' (clay-bottomed depressions), which give the place its name, and the boulders were shaped leading to tapering channels and the unique shapes of the Torcal which, rather than screws, look like hamburgers with many layers.

 

 

The repertoire of picturesque formations is completed with caves and chasms typical of a limestone enclave, with wild rose bushes, ivy, honeysuckle and 30 varieties of orchids. That is what the most beautiful and peculiar natural part of Andalusia is like.

 

 

The interpretation centre recommends that visitors begin with the green route, a 1.5 km well-signposted pathway that covers the highest and most impressive area of the Torcal in under an hour. If you have the opportunity you must pay it a visit.



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