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Churches and Birds--So Much to Love

Sunday, January 19, 2020

As tourists, it's hard for us to go inside the buildings we so admire from the outside. We are outside people. 
But we ducked into a few cathedrals on our pilgrimage to Spain, and were richly rewarded. 

Cold, drafty, echoey and awe-inspiring,  Santa Maria Mayor, Trujillo's great cathedral, with original paintings stacked up as high as you could see. It was likely built atop a mosque around the 13th century, which in turn had been built atop a Visigoth temple (5th-8th century).  My head is spinning, how's yours? It's that antiquity thing...I have no way to comprehend it. 
The ribbed vault was added in the 16th century, so I'm guessing the paintings are from the 1500's, too.

The paintings are by Fernando Gallego, and they're set in incredibly ornate gilded wood frames. I can't even imagine how this stuff survives the centuries without burning down, but it does, and that's just one thing to be grateful for. The level and meticulousness of curation of these treasures is staggering. It was this cathedral whose tower we climbed in the previous post. Our Air BnB host, Carlos, works at the cathedral, and it was he who heard our voices in the empty street, stuck his head out its great wooden doors, and told us to come in and take a look at the cathedral, on the house! 

We climbed the tower, as chronicled in the previous post, and wandered little roads on the outskirts of the village.

Evening came too soon, and the Christmas lights illuminated the narrow streets, so beautifully cobbled and shining with rain. 

We peeked in the windows of a museum, where there were myriad old tools and vessels. Who even knows how old they are? Recalibrating...

Spain does nativities up right. We saw some really beautiful nativities, including depictions of the entire town of Bethlehem and its outskirts. Setting these dioramas up in churches seems to be a holiday thing, and people were bringing their kids to see them. 

This scene of Bethlehem covered probably the size of a couple pool tables. It was amazing. 

I'm cheating a bit--this one was in the walled city of Caceres.  But you get the idea. Fabulous. The figures were maybe 7" tall.

Having steeped ourselves in the true meaning of Christmas, we did a little frippery around the edges.

This Trujillo bakery, family owned since 1939 (antiquity I can get behind), was the bomb-diggity. We made a little box of goodies to take back to the apartment. Yum! It was so nice to have homemade stuff when we were so far from home. Cookies. That's the thing when you're traveling!

We found a bulk-food store with the most beautiful teas and beans. We bought some exotic rooibos which I am enjoying right now.

Oh these BEANS!! Grown in Asturias, a province (state?) Phoebe has recently visited. That hospital-green color!! I can't stand it. It's too beautiful. My bathroom is painted this shade, only darker. I may borrow this color for another room.

I suspect this "espagueti" (these espaguetis?) has (have)  been colored with squid ink. Can't imagine what else they'd use. I understand that squid ink can stain your teeth and turn your poop black. It's got a rich briny flavor. I'd like to try it! Always up for an experiment, especially one that requires Science Chimpy follow-up.

My kind of shop. Textures and colors and photo ops galore!

The next morning, we headed to Monfragüe National Park, about a half hour from Trujillo. On the outskirts of town, we spotted a colorful flock of Eurasian goldfinches, a bird I had been dying to get a look at. Well, this was all the look we got. They were in constant motion and spooky as hell. We chased them until we realized we were never going to see them sitting still. If you click on the photo you'll see one's red face mask in the lower right corner. I was so hoping for a good shot of one.  On to the park!

We hadn't gotten far when we spotted an enormous bird circling alone in the leaden sky. I am so thankful we jumped out of the car and gave it a really good look. 
Try as I might, I couldn't pick up any color on the head or body other than black. The wedge-shaped tail seemed like a good mark, as did the perfectly flat wing profile. 
Of course, my field guide was inaccessible. I was talking a mile a minute to myself, winging the ID.

"Kids, I do believe this is our first black vulture." (Not in the least the same thing as our New World black vulture Coragyps atratus, the Eurasian black vulture Aegypius monachus is Europe's largest raptorial bird. Its range in Europe is virtually limited to Extremadura in Spain, with a couple of Mediterranean sites. Then it occurs much farther east. It is rare, very rare, dwindled in Europe to perhaps 1,000 pairs, all of them in Extremadura. They don't nest until they're 6, if that tells you anything. Black vultures do life slowly. This would be the only one we would see. Bird every bird. 

What an honor, what a privilege to see a black vulture, especially on such a crummy day for soaring! We quickly learned to look hard at every single bird we saw, because birds were scarce and each one was going to be a lifer for all of us.

Here are those famous Iberian hogs, grazing and looking for acorns beneath cork oaks. And to the left are a couple of cranes. Europe got there first, so they named their crane Crane. No modifier. Just Crane. Grus grus. 
To our disappointment, the cranes were terribly wary and began walking off as soon as our car stopped. This was a theme throughout our Spanish visit. The birds of Extremadura operate on an entirely different approachability scale than do the birds of the New World.
I was glad I brought my scope, for what fleeting looks we got at the cranes. I suspected that these birds, from cranes down to the tiniest songbirds, have been hunted, hunted long and hunted hard, to behave the way they do. The Mediterranean flight corridor is the cruelest of all. People, especially in Malta and Gozo, are still shooting, netting and trapping wild birds to eat, and they should have stopped that horrible nonsense centuries ago. Yet their government supports it, with a "legal limit" of 16,000 rare and protected migratory birds to be killed every year. It's absolutely hideous. You can learn more and help stop it with BirdLife Malta here. 

Perhaps the most common raptor we observed was the gloriously beautiful red kite. Again, it was very difficult to get close enough to get a decent shot, but every once in awhile one would pop up over our car and I'd fire quickly out the window.

One of the famous black fighting bulls for which Extremadura is known. Such a classic outline. We saw some, but not as many as I'd been led to expect. Most of the cattle we saw were cream-colored or brown, and seemed to be raised for meat.

If you look closely, you'll see some griffon vultures sailing over the cork-oak dotted landscape. They are fed on cow carcasses at certain places, which certainly helps keep them healthy, and around.

It was griffon vultures who gave us our biggest birding thrill, after the lone black vulture. At last, a bird that didn't seem to mind being looked at. I don't know what immunity from persecution griffons enjoy, but they were tolerant of my camera and our admiring eyes, and for that I'm grateful. What cool birds. Huge birds. Fairy-tale birds. Vultures have taken an enormous hit, from habitat loss; from poisoning in India (eating cow carcasses contaminated with the arthritis painkiller Diclofenac); and poisoning and shooting in Africa (poachers kill them so they don't betray the location of carcasses). I'm so glad these beautiful, majestic vultures seem to be thriving in Monfragüe National Park. More on them next post!


One of the most vivid memories I have of Spain is of our walking through a cathedral (would have to look up which city) and the whole interior was hung with paintings of all kinds of horrific torture whereby saints had died. It was jaw-dropping and throat gagging. I couldn't imagine being in a worship service with all the gore around.

It's hard to wrap my mind around how truly ancient the "Old World" really is! While here in the US, the oldest buildings are a couple hundred years at best. Buildings start falling apart and have to be torn down and rebuilt because they weren't built as well as the ancient people built theirs. Did they have some secret to building things to last? Or is it just planned obsolescence on our part? (Being a cynic, I think it's the latter; if they are built to last, who's going to hire more builders?)

Posted by mimimanderly January 20, 2020 at 3:56 AM
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Very interesting, especially all the bird info. How do they even survive at all amidst our human ignorance?

Nativities, birds, and special words like frippery! Thank you for this ideal start to the day. Kim in PA

Heh - shouldn't the title be "Churches, Food, and Birds: So Much to Love"?! ;) Your photos of the bakery and bulk foods shop are just as interesting as the photos of birds and churches. As I've aged, I find I'm more interested in local foods (and beverages) when I travel - you can only buy so many souvenirs and "stuff." I remember bringing home a fabulous hunk of cheese from the Netherlands. Did you end up buying some of that squid ink pasta?

Wonderfuln post. Thanks for giving us a chance to vicariously experience your travels.

For some reason your post, Lets see Some Birds, wont load. I love everything you write so dont want to miss a thing.! Do you think it on your end or mine? Caroline

@Caroline, that's because "let's See Some Birds" no longer exists. I changed the title to Churches and Birds, the post you just read. No worries!

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