Sunday, May 24, 2015

Spanish Bird Watching

While we were away, I didn't forgo my birdwatching ... though I wasn't able to upload anything to my Birds app because it covers North American birds only. Such is life. First off, let me say that Madrid is overrun with swallows. In fact, their presence rivals that of pigeons. Every park, every plaza, even the inner courtyard of my cousin's building was bombarded with swallows. Unfortunately, I was never able to capture a single picture; those birds were in constant motion.

We spotted many of these large birds searching the grass in parks and near the Museo del Prado. It's a Eurasian Magpie, with white and dark blue feathers.

This is a Common Wood Pigeon, according to what I read online. They co-mingled with the Rock Pigeons in most of the plazas and grassy parks we visited.

This is a Common Blackbird. The stuck to the grassy parks, same as the magpies.

An Indian Peafowl resting on the back steps of the Palacio Real.

We took a day trip outside of Madrid to see the Castillo de Manzanares el Real, and in the small town just below the castle, dozens of these White Storks made their nest atop buildings and the local church tower.

And that's your brief nature class for the day.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Travelogue, pt. II

The adventure continues....

Day 4:

Monday morning we decided to check out the Palacio Real since all the museums were closed ... well, except for the Reina Sofia. A quick trip on the metro to the Puerta del Sol, another short walk, and we were standing before the Palacio. Which, unfortunately for us, was closed for the day due to a state event. That threw a small wrench into our morning, but I had an idea and steered Caesar to a small park to the west of the Palacio. In this small park stood an Egyptian temple (the Temple of Debod) presented to Spain as a gift for their help in building the Aswan Dam. The inside is covered in hieroglyphs that I thought he would find interesting, but that, too, was closed. So...we leisurely walked around that part of the city and found the Plaza de España with a monument to Cervantes and statues of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. From there, we made our way to the Reina Sofia—a large museum filled with modern art: Warhol, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Dali, Rothko, Jasper Johns, and many pieces by Picasso (including Guernica). After an hour or two, we walked uphill along a street lined with used bookstores (recommended by my cousin) en route to the Parque de El Retiro, which is a huge park with lakes, Victorian buildings, and statues--including one of the few statues of the Fallen Angel. The Retiro was one of the few places in which we stopped—sat on benches to enjoy the cool breeze, snacking on a waffle topped with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce, strolled instead of power walked. The picture: the statue of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Day 5:

Today we made it inside the Palacio Real and tried to bypass the many tour groups who were making up for the previous day. Each room of the palace was elegantly filled with art or royal furniture (including both the old and new thrones). One room was decorated completely in porcelain, from the walls to the ceiling. We even took a peek at the armory and the myriad suits of armor for men, children, even horses. Across the plaza from the palace stands the Catedral de la Almudena. We walked all the way up the many steps upwards, perusing the many religious artifacts from previous archbishops to popes, passed paintings and photographs, to the cupola. A short path lead us outside for some stunning views of Madrid. We met with my cousin a short time later for a tour of the cathedral's crypt and a view of the oldest structure in the city--a Moorish wall from the 11th Century. He then lead us to La Latina, the oldest district of Madrid. We visited another museum about the history of Madrid, then ate lunch at a Russian restaurant (turkey stuffed with apples and plums!). On the way back to my cousin's apartment, he took us on a tour of many of the plazas, finally taking some refuge from the sun in an art gallery. None if us understood the "art" in there, but we had a good time joking around. That night, we learned all about Eurovision and just how much my cousin and his husband are invested in the contest. The picture: from the outside of the cupola at the Catedral of the Almudena.

Day 6:

My cousin took us to Mataderos, a grouping of old slaughterhouses that a group converted to theaters and art spaces. We also saw the Greenhouse in which my cousin married his husband. And from there, we walked along part of the new River Walk. The Rio Manzanares used to flow near a freeway, but the city moved the freeway and allowed the river to overtake the old lanes, creating an almost seven-kilometer stretch of new parks and bridges. Unless someone told you, you would never realize that a freeway once passed through. We decided to rest that afternoon, reading, watching TV, napping. In the early evening, we fought the crowds pouring into Las Ventas to see the bullfights. Our seats were at the top of the stadium, and they were incredibly narrow and steep. With no railing. My legs are scraped from our climb to our section. The bullfights were actually exciting, filled with much pageantry and tradition, but I couldn't watch the ending of each of the six fights. The picture: Juan Jose Padilla, one of the toreros.

Day 7:

 We wandered through the city again, on the hunt for souvenirs and to see the few things we missed earlier. The highlight was the Museo Sorolla, a small two-story house filled with dozens of paintings by Joaquín Sorolla. We lunched at Home Burger Bar, which is supposed to be one of the top 50 places in the world to eat a burger. In the evening we treated our hosts to dinner as a small thank you for allowing us to spend the week with them. One of the tapas they ordered was pulpo (octopus), so I caved in and tried a piece. Not one of my favorite dishes, but at least I can say that I tried it. The picture: "Women Walking on the Beach" by Sorolla.

The next morning, we woke early to discover that out flight had been pushed back from 11:30 AM to 2:30 PM. Caesar tried calling Orbitz, waiting on hold for almost an hour before we discovered that they changed all our flights so that we would make our connections. So 15 hours and two connections later, we set foot on the ground of Long Beach.

Sunday, May 17, 2015


We returned safe and sound from our vacation in Madrid...after our original flight to JFK was rerouted to Atlanta. Granted, that extended our flight time, so we sat in planes and on those semi-comfortable lounges in airports for the better part of 15 or more hours. Since our return, we've both spent time organizing our hundreds of photos, and I've wondered about what and how many to post to this blog. Then, an idea popped into my head: one picture -- my favorites -- from each day of our trip (with a brief run down of what we did thrown in for good measure).

Sound good?

Day 1:

After we arrived at my cousin's apartment, we decided to rest for a short time, which turned into an eight-hour nap. When we finally managed to rouse ourselves, my cousin marched us to the metro and Plaza del Sol. The plaza was filled with tourists and street performers, and my cousin cleaved a path through them. We followed him through the narrow streets, passing shops, restaurants, the Palacio Real, and so much more. It was a great intriduction to the city. The picture: the Tio Pepe neon sign above the plaza.

Day 2: 

My cousin planned a visit to the Mercado de Motores, a flea market held within a former 19th Century train station. Artisans set up their spaces inside among the old, refurbished trains. Outside, vendors sold food on one side of the building while on the other were the antiques. This is where Caesar tried paella and migas for the first time. Afterwards, my cousin headed home while we made our way to the Prado. If you are a fan of Goya, El Greco, Velazquez, and more classic art, this gigantic building is the place. I think we wandered the rooms for two-three hours until we needed to return for what I would call a late dinner with some friends of my cousin and his husband. The picture: the large pan of paella.

Day 3:

We ventured outside of Madrid to the Spanish countryside. The first stop was a medieval castle at Manzanares del Real, along with many large White Storks nesting in treetops and any available roof. We lunched in an old village called Patones de Arriba. Nestled in a valley, the village somehow missed being overrun when Napoleon invaded, but that didn't stop people from abandoning it. A short time ago, a group decided to take over the abandoned village, turning the old homes into restaurants, and it is now a popular weekend destination. Our restaurant overlooked the entire valley, providing an amazing view to accomoany the food. The final stop was the walled city of Buitrago de Lozoya. We walked along the old wall and just enjoyed the view of the river and the old part of the city. The picture: the castle at Manzanares.

Well, I'm writing more than I thought I would, so I will continue this later.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Spanish Countryside

Day Three in Spain, and my lower legs still haven't given out on me after all the walking. Th first two days consisted of wandering all over Madrid, including the wonderful Mercado de Motores--a flea market held within an old train station; wandering through the Prado to examine all the Goya, Picasso, Velazquez, and El Greco paintings; dinner with friend in Chueca. Today, we ventured outside the confines of Madrid stopping first at the Castellano Manzanares el Real:

It overlooks a beautiful lake, and I was surprised at the number of White Storks nesting in the trees and atop a few buildings. We followed this with a visit to Patones de Arriba, a 16th Century village on the verge of disappearing until a small group took over, turning most of the remainig buildings into restaurants. Now, it's full of life every weekend.

We ate in a restaurant at the top of the village, providng an amazing few of the entire valley. And the food was excellent. From there, we travelled to Buitrago del Lovoyo to end the day wandering around a walled city and the remnants of its castle. And once again, the storks were everywhere:

And now, it's time for bed.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Spotted Towhee

I spotted a group of birds flitting from branch to branch in the trees above me. I started snapping random pictures without paying attention to the camera's screen, hoping to maybe capture a picture of at least one bird. And I managed to find this sneaky little one hidden among the leaves.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Netflix Finds

I love watching old movies, something that I believe goes back to Sunday afternoons with my Dad. During elementary school, we made it a point every Sunday to sit together in front of the TV and watch two movies. The first was always an old Sherlock Holmes mystery with Basil Rathbone as the master detective and Nigel Bruce as his right hand man Dr. Watson. Their quick, witty banter and the way they solved those mysteries excited me to no end. Those two hours usually transitioned into a cheesy horror flick hosted by Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

When I browse through the movies on Netflix, I make a point to search for older films, which is how I discovered this Netflix Find: First a Girl. Release in 1935, First a Girl tells the story of a shopgirl named Elizabeth (played by Jessie Matthews) who hopes one day to be a chorus girl. After a failed audition, she runs into Robert, an actor looking for more substantial work than his present gig as an occasional female impersonator. He becomes ill just when he lands a one-night performance contract but comes up with the brilliant idea of Elizabeth taking his place as the female impersonator.

Stop me if you've heard this story before....because you probably have. It's almost the same plotline as a more recent film with Robert Preston and Dame Julie Andrews—a little 1982 film called Victor/Victoria. And for good reason since First a Girl was the inspiration for Victor/Victoria. And First a Girl is, in fact, a remake of a 1933 German film titled Viktor und Viktoria.

First a Girl is a fun film to watch, trying to catch all the similarities and differences between the films. I was a bit surprised at the lack of gay characters in this early film, even as comedic, stereotyped support. Robert turns out to be as straight as can be—quite a difference from Caroll Todd in Victor/Victoria. But it is a charming little movie.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


I spotted this little bird -- actually a pair of them -- during one of my lunchtime walks last week. (Working near an ecological reserve does have its benefits.) After an internet hunt, I discovered that this beautiful little bird is an American Goldfinch. Surprisingly, the goldfinch allowed me to step fairly close, about five feet, before flying away over the bay.