If time allows, we try to find ways of travelling by ferry, rail and car instead of flying to European destinations. One way to get back to Britain from the wonderful walking country in the mountains of Andalucia, is to meander by car to Santander and then take the slow boat to Plymouth.
Our chosen route last May took us west from the Serranía de Ronda, north from Seville, through Extremadura, then across Castile & León, crossing the Douro and the Ebro rivers and finally into the lush green hills of Cantabria and on to the Bay of Biscay.
Our first overnight stop was in Llerena, a little Extremeño city of narrow streets and many churches. It lies on the quiet east-west road between Badajoz and Córdoba and is only a couple of hours north of Seville on the train.
It’s generally a quiet place with a handful of bars and fewer hotels. We had booked a room in the wonderful Hospedería Mirador de Llerena to make sure we’d have somewhere to stay.
While discussing the town map with Antonio at the Hotel, the name Plaza de Cervantes caught my eye. A square named after the creator of Don Quixote must be a good place to start a town visit in Spain. Mustn’t it?
“What happens there?” I asked.
“Plaza Cervantes? Allí, no pasa nada!”
Nothing happens in Cervantes Square!
That sounded promising so that’s where we went.True enough, things looked pretty slow.
Orange trees cast pools of welcome shade and roses flowered exuberantly in immaculately tended beds.
We sat on a bench across the square from the only other human occupants, took a couple of deep breaths and waited for nothing to happen.
But as the calm grew, natural noises replaced the apparent silence. A Spotless Starling squeaked and bubbled; a Stork on the church spire welcomed its spouse with ritual bill-clattering; chattering House Sparrows stole nesting material from the Stork’s huge nest and a gang of Swifts screamed and zoomed through the Square’s still air.
Goldfinches charmed; Serins serenaded us and, hidden in a nearby garden, a Golden Oriole sang its crazy fluty song.
It was Sunday. A huge confirmation party coalesced in and around the cathedral and a group of women with dizzyingly high heels and dazzlingly bright, tight silk dresses made their way to the service, chatting and puffing elegantly on cigarettes. Clipping, clopping through our Plaza.
Then over the rooftops half a dozen Griffon Vultures floated silently into the scene. Immense: the colour of lions, they soared effortlessly and spread their fingery feathers to catch an updraft and spiralled slowly and silently up into the altitude.
A small falcon, just a fiftieth of the bulk of a Griffon, wheeled overhead, uttered a short screech and landed on a cornice, high on the ancient walls of the church. Two more arrived to circle above us, looking white-winged against the sky. These were Lesser Kestrels. Unlike their farmland cousins these birds migrate, sometimes in huge flocks, to overwinter beyond the Sahara Desert. They nest in colonies in niches on cliff-faces or in the urban equivalent: big old buildings.
Lesser Kestrels were once much more common but ploughing and planting of the steppe grasslands, where they hunt for insects and other small animals, did immense damage to their population. Organophosphate insecticides also caused huge mortality. These delightful little hawks have made a tentative recovery but still need help. To maintain breeding populations, the Kestrel buildings of Llerena and a handful of other towns in Extremadura have international wildlife designations. This is an honour usually reserved for more natural places like forests and lakes.
Lesser Kestrels were what had brought us back to Llerena. We were not disappointed.
An hour had passed.
“I thought nothing happens in Plaza Cervantes”, said Carol. “I think we’d better call in at that crowded bar in the middle of town for a beer and a bit of a rest!”