The Short-toed Snake Eagle is one of the larger raptors I see most commonly in the Axarquia. That is partly because they are relatively easy to i.d., partly because they are pretty big – adults have a 6 foot wingspan – and partly because there is at least one pair that regularly fly over the Sayalonga valley.
I say they are easy to i.d. but should add a note of caution. There are juveniles, which will (obviously) be smaller, and all these birds can be hard to accurately pin down depending on the view you get. They have a distinctive white underside speckled with brown, with dark outer primaries but an angled view at a distance is a bad basis for an i.d. – the bird could be a juvenile golden eagle, a large Bonneli’s Eagle, or some other bird. I try to be honest when out with non-birders, in spite of temptation based on their ignorance – I’ve never forgotten the walker who said in surprise “Short-toed Eagle? You can see its toes? Wow!”
Wikipedia says they are fairly silent but I have many times witnessed, over several years a pair calling to one another in sharp shrill cries, and now an again seen them flying with a juvenile, presumable their offspring.
As you can see from the above I have taken one almost-decent photo of this bird – I was coming back from a long walk into the hills and, almost opposite Canillas de Albaida walked out onto a tiny promontory above the valley to admire the view and saw the eagle. The bird floated gently up from below me and past overhead while I frantically clicked and zoomed with my basic camera, and gawped with delight.
That was years ago now but I had a wonderful sighting just last week on a windy July day. I was at a music night at Bodegas Bentomiz near Sayalonga – a Flamenco performance due to start and people gathering in the forecourt beside the winery, with my friend Margot, who happens to be an excellent photographer and, even better, had her camera with her. Our Snake Eagle appeared from below the town and then slid across the valley towards us, turned and faced into the strong wind, effectively hovering like a giant kestrel while it inspected the land below for reptiles. Margot humoured me by taking a dozen shots, which I’m posting below. Wine, music and Short-toed Eagles – all round, a damn good night out!
I think I first walked the goat path with Janet and David back in 2003, possibly the first time they visited Cómpeta. I had walked with them thousands of times in the Lake District and Scotland but never before in Spain. Another couple of grasshoppers who liked hopping about hills and wild places, both were terrific walkers. Both loved wildlife: Janet was especially keen on birds and flowers. The April day I’m thinking of was beautiful – we saw violet-winged carpenter bees feeding on the Jerusalem sage’s pink blooms under the old olive trees. David and Janet were tickled when we meet goats on the goat path (how unlikely!) and, though they had no Spanish, enjoyed saying hello through me to Antonio, the goat herd. If I remember rightly when we got to Canillas we found a bar, drowned our tapas in wine, and staggered merrily out for a taxi to get back to Cómpeta quoting a walking song to each other:
“Before the Romans came to Rye or out to Severn strode The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road…”
When they visited in more recent years we did plenty of other walks – La rahige; the silk route on a very hot day; Puerto Collado to Acebuchal for a wonderful meal. I remember a trip with them during a rainy March to the magnificent limestone scenery of El Torcal where we saw ibex.
We followed that with a walk up the Cájula valley, though the bad weather continued, telling ourselves the weather was clearing up a bit … maybe … as the stream lapped our boots and the rain became heavier and heavier. We took shelter in the doorway of one of the ruins en-route. “Is this revenge for all those wet walks we dragged you out on in the Lake District?” asked Janet. “Definitely,” I said, “but I never expected to wreak my revenge out here”.
But then a couple of years ago Janet got sick, a nasty form of cancer attacking her bones. For months this active woman was stuck, unable to go swimming, unable to enjoy long walks, unable for back-pain to drive – hardly likely to come out to play in Spain. She said to me later that it had been horrible but she’d tried to keep walking every day if she could “Even if it was only as far as the gate posts, on David’s arm”. I loved her bloody mindedness, finding what she could do instead of focusing on what she could not. A keen and capable gardener, unable to tend her garden, she told me she’d been working on plant pots: “It’s so good to have my fingers in the soil again”.
Some 10 months and a grim winter after the diagnosis, Janet’s condition was better: she could even take a short ‘treatment holiday’. David and Janet immediately booked to come over (‘Oh to get some sunshine!’) and said they would like to walk but that she would struggle with distance and hills. Now, obviously I like walking, but I probably like a good all-day walk best. I prefer going uphill from down: great long marches that make you heart thump and bring you sweating to see the most spectacular of views. Flat, easy walks are not abundant in the Axarquia.
Nor on the net. I had a look, in case I had simply missed some easy walks but found that most walking sites, routes, or suggestions on-line focus on the macho full length stuff. I thought the valley walks (flatter) would be too rough – and besides, wanted to bring my English visitors into the light uplands. Tricky, this. Even when I go from Canillas to Cómpeta I choose the high road over the goat path.
The Goat Path! Of course! Mainly flat, beautiful, simple, a village end with access to a cafe to recover in. But would Janet be able to do the 3 Km? Her condition had been bad enough for that there was some doubt.
It was May and a simply glorious day. From Santa Ana in Canillas, all along the path there was a mad profusion of flowers – poppies and periwinkles, bindweed and bugloss. At the start we saw bushes spread with the skirts of funnel-webs. Janet never like spiders much but the webs in the shade were holding beads of water and were beautiful.
Janet absolutely gloried in it; from flower to flower, view to view she loved it. “So close to the town and yet we are right in the heart of nature. People may not realise what they can get to see” she said, and we talked about how people who can’t walk easily like people who live in town and cities may feel they can’t go birding, see wildflowers or wildlife.
Yet from tower blocks to tube-lines there is always something to see, because nature finds a way to get everywhere. Janet always found a way, too – a way to enjoy beauty, a way to take part, a way to live.
A yellow serin perched in a bush over our heads and sang it’s twittering little song, over our heads and stayed and stay ed above us: it was a delight. “Seranaded by a serin! Wonderful!”
Perhaps you appreciate things most when you’ve missed them. Janet had not be certain she’d ever again be able to go walking with me among the Spanish hills. She was radiant that day from start to finish – it shows in the photos – not merely enjoying the sunshine but revelling in it. She made me appreciate more what I have here on my doorstep.
It was, in part, Janet, and especially this walk with her and David, that inspired me to start this blog. I wanted to share my love of wildlife, walking and Malaga, not just with the serious hill walkers and the macho mountaineers, but with people who can appreciate these things but may not be able to hike up El Lucero. I wanted to write up some walks that almost anyone can enjoy.
Now Janet has died. But every time I walk the goat path this spring – and probably on many other walks too – I will be thinking of her, showing her in my mind the things I see, the birds I hear. I’m thankful that we shared a life-long love of the natural world and that her passion for it, her appreciation of it, and her courage in all things were inspirations to me. She was wonderful.
Yes, it’s official, I’m a fool for April. More than any other month seems the perfect blend of warmer weather with an abundance of life driven by the kind rains in spring. This is a problem: I want to do everything – all my favourite day-long hikes. As for most people, that’s not fully practical, because of lack of time. What’s more, all the wilding can mean very slow progress: more time crouched over flowers but or aiming binoculars at the bushes. But at least April merits paying attention: a very short walk can be well worth it.
So, April Fool’s Day and an errand to run to the Finca Cerrillo. This just means heading down the zigzag mule path past Pepe’s smelly goatshed, crossing the Puente Romano and zigzagging up the other side. Barely worth the mention but for two things. I took a youngster with me who was immensely enthusiastic over wilding. And I took my camera of course.
Children are surprisingly good at hiking. They are usually carrying less weight, in terms of both packs and body, so all day walks are fine as long as they don’t get bored. Wilding is more of a challenge. Neither silence nor stillness are common habits among the nymphs, which is especially frustrating in terms of birding. Even eagerness can be a limitation: the urge to trap, poke, or pick up can be so destructive. Still, I took the nymph, code name is Sporty, along with me. I found I was expected to know the name and nature of every green thing within a 5 mile radius, which stretched my ability to hop blithely over gaps in my knowledge. That and the requirement to look out for Dangerous Wild Animals was a little outside my normal wilding walk.
It was pretty good. I was pleased to find that every blossom elicited a scream of delight and a multitude of questions. I was also impressed that, when I pointed out an RnB bug with the point of my stick, I was told very sternly not to touch, hurt or upset the ‘beetle’.
This wise philosophy didn’t entirely hold my companion back from, say, trying to catch a butterfly, but the thought was there.
What else did we see? Well, start as you mean to go on and point out that cracks in the town paving sprout lovely flowers if allowed to do so. Ivy-leaved toadflax is a med. native, and though it was so familiar from the brickwalls of my childhood close up it does have an exotic look.
Nettle-leaved figwort, near the nettle-patch below the goats’ shed provided a good chance to explain how the plant is bluffing that it might sting without having to go to the trouble of getting the weapons. Sporty tenderly told the plant it was safe from predation from us. We also saw some very lovely thistles, whose flowers are so often overlooked, before getting down to the road and the Roman bridge. The lovely dramatic sound of the rushing water fills the air; the bank is astonishingly rich with life; the giant cane bursts upwards, metres into the air, the brambles lace the banks, the tiniest flowers star every loose rock.
There were pretty bunches of three-cornered leeks on the bank scenting the air with garlic, and a couple of big fig trees growing up past the bridge from the riverside, laden with fruitbuds and bright leaves.
I thought some of the smallest plants, seen on the rocks on the stony path up, such as stonecrops, which can make a start in any sliver of soil, or the strange but beautiful patterns of lichens, were good to look at. The nymph was perhaps a bit more impressed by pretty flowers, but I can’t blame her. Many an adult overlooks the attractions of purple clover or pink catchfly by people used to enormous and handsome but unnatural flowers seen in shops and garden centres: I hope the nymph will keep using her eyes.
I reached the Finca, which always looks stunning, and popped in to say hello to David, Christine and Gordon and do my errand (Thanks, all). On the way out I was thrilled to see a hoopoe fly up to perch high on the lovely poplar trees near the gates. I couldn’t get a recognisable shot – it chose its branches too well and I missed its fan-winged flight. But they are one of those birds that put a smiley face on the day, a pleasure to see.
Back down to the river and we took a look at the plants beside it: great thick oleander bushes, huge clumps of giant cane, and willow bushes covered in spring catkins. There were horsetails growing into the water looking suitably medieval (see my horsetail blog) – I can’t believe I used to think they weren’t common here! I must have had my eyes closed!
With a little help from a friend (thanks, Jill) I pinned down this lovely vetch as Vicia lutea subsp lutea. I love that my shot captures the wildlife on it, tiny as they are, a reminder that its part of a complex network of life, not just a single flower.
That was it. It was time to go. Sporty looked for, but failed to find any frogs, then we headed back to the bridge. I had pointed out earlier how you could see the light shine on specks of insects afloat in the air over the stream and that there were birds flying out of the bushes to catch them (yellow wagtails and a swallow or two) but not they seemed to have disappeared. Then we heard a high cry, kee-kee-kee, from above. The kestrel flew in to perch on the sand-coloured cliffs above the Puente Romano. She flew and called, perched, and flew again. I didn’t see a partner but I wondered who she was calling to: perhaps they are thinking of nesting. Not a bad spot. I was very happy with her – she was settled enough to let Sporty look at her through the binoculars, watch her fly, hear her call. Not a bad start to a birding career, I hope! And the nymph seemed happy: she shrieked for joy. Another April fool.
Sedella lies south of the main bulk of La Maroma, the great mountain of the Sierra Tejeda, which rises dramatically above this attractive village. Like all the villages it is not far from water – the Rio de la Fuente passes just to the east. It is surrounded, on lower slopes especially, with farmed lands but to the north you are immediately into the natural park. Walking routes bring you to the Molino Montosa, an attractive old mill; go above it and you find first a clear demonstration of the water system and then the reservoir used to supply it.
From the mill you can go on to the ‘buitrería’ – this was a vulture sanctuary for injured birds. There is still a birders’ hide, but this is essentially obsolete since the resident birds that were fed here (leading to visits from large flocks of wild vultures) have now died. I still live in hope of seeing what a friend once witnessed: a flock of more than 20 taking off from the bank below the hide. Failing this I can always head to a small picnic site, to round off this nice walk with an encounter with a vulture that is always happy to pose for photos.
Sedella’s neighbours are the nearby Árchez, which is easy walking distance (see Silk to Salt) and the more distant Canillas de Aceituno (though Canillas de Albaida is actually closer).
I have heard different accounts of the origins of the town’s name: a Cómpeta couple told me years ago that it derives from silk, the Spanish word being ‘seda’. Silk production was a significant industry here during Muslim times. However, other sources say different. Guide writer Hilary Gavilan, Andalucia.com, and the Diputación all mention the Latin word Sedilia, meaning rural possession as a possible name source. The latter two also mention Sedille as used by the Visigoths. Then there is the fact that, post-reconquest, it was referred to as Xedalia (an Arabic word, surely). Finally there is a long-standing tradition that the Catholic Queen Isabela created the place name on being told of a battle that took place nearby, when she said, “Sé de ella“, which means I know about it. No mention, it seems of silk. Perhaps the ‘seda’ in Sedella is mere coincidence.
I can wholeheartedly agree with Gavilan’s assessment of the town in her book The Axarquia, East of Málaga: “a delightful village with interesting alleyways and narrow streets. Well worth exploring”. Like so many of these villages there are lovely streets, attractive metalwork balconies and unexpected views.
As well as walks to the Puente Romano, the Molino Montosa or the Buitrería, there is great pleasure in just strolling through the streets. There is church and chapel – the Chapel de Nuestra Señora de la Esperanza has a forecourt built with embedded stones in front of it, an old threshing circle. The little townhall is in an attractive square, just near the bus stop. There are several attractive and interesting mosaics in this square giving explanations of the towns history. There is also the old public wash-house, with the spring waters that come down from the sierra filtered through a dozen sinks. I imagine the centuries of work that would have been done by the town’s women here – hand washing all, linen, all garments, all fabrics – and in a climate like this, they would have needed endless washing. No more though: it has now been turned into a mini garden, decorated and full of plants. With such a simple adaptation they turn the utilitarian into an unexpected attraction.
Centro de Visitantes
This is the visitors centre for the Natural Park and an attractive facility with good displays, maps, explanations, and even some conference rooms for visits from the great and good, as well as toilets and a little shop. I wish it were open a little more, but it is worth taking a look round.
Restaurante Lorena is the only one I’ve eaten in here, being served good, traditional local food, though the boars’ heads displayed don’t appeal. The owners, who cure their own cheese and ham, are very pleasant, in spite of being Real Betis fans (I’m Malaga, of course).
On the same street (Villa del Castillo) there are two others, Chiringuito and Meson de Franco, which seems like a well-set up bar. In the Plaza, near the San Andrés Apostol church, there is also a bar. It is pretty basic but I’ve been perfectly happy to enjoy a beer or two here after a long walk.
Fiestas & Events
January 17th: Fiesta de San Antón. Like the Canillas de Albaida fiesta (also the 17th) there is a procession followed by the blessing of animals that have been part of the procession.
Easter: several sources say that the Easter celebrations in Sedella are particularly deeply felt and so attractive to watch.
August: Celebration of the Day of Our Lady of Hope (to whom the chapel is dedicated)
I mentioned, in writing on Cómpeta recently, the wealth of artists and art that is hidden in these small villages and, very much in passing, a guitarist who was due to perform in a Canillas de Albaida. I remembered this on the day itself and in spite of being “Too Busy” decided to take a peek anyway, even if I could only stay for a few songs.
The performance was held in the old fish market on Calle Fortuna, just below the main square. This does not sound promising, does it? However, it has been converted into an art gallery by Philippine von Krusenstierna,
a Swedish artist and ‘Canillera’ of many years. It is clean and tiled, with a high ceiling creating space, and a couple of small counters (easily converted to serve drinks). It is very small – no more than a large room – but Phillipa has made the most of it, filling the walls with her strange, surreal artwork. I came to the double iron gates wondering where the audience would fit in.
By squeezing, it turned out. There were banks of chairs, all but two taken, and some people standing. Someone was passing out tiny beakers of red and white wine from the counters. I looked around at the shadowed art on the walls, and listened to the warm hush of voices – the noise of many people being quiet because here was the guitarist, Keith James, explaining how the songs he was singing had caught his attention or were poems which he had set to music, and playing a hypnotic guitar. He played Lenard Cohen songs, one based on a poem of Federico Garcia Lorca, he played sad love songs and poems. And the music gained echos from the intimate atmosphere of the tiny gallery, the candlelight, the strange, almost sinister artwork looking down on us all. What a treat. What a pleasure to enjoy such a complex experience in such a setting!
Difficulty: Easy. And pretty flat. The walk runs along the contour line; part of the path is sanded, part path, part road. No steep sections.
Good Walk for: An easy stroll between villages; wonderful flowers in spring. Unusually LEVEL: good for anyone who struggles with ups and downs. If you want to make it a round trip you can stop for a coffee then go back again or vary your route by taking the Low Road. Lovely little walk all year round.
Distance: 3 Km (about 1hr)
The starting point is the square in Cómpeta. From here go up to the street overlooking the plaza (C/ San Antonio) and passing the arts and crafts shop head left, away from the square. You pass a pharmacy, the primary school and the health centre where the road splits, but keep going in the same direction, passing the Hotel Balcon and the little San Antón shrine. After this the road swings round a corner and uphill; here, just before a house with a turret, a yellow sandy path with a wooden rail leads off to the left. Take this.
This path runs more or less on the level. You will go almost immediately past a tiny yard where, bizarrely, a local builder keeps a couple of rather sad ostriches (the female looking especially the worse for wear). Keep going. You pass some picnic tables and an enormous green watertank and go on. The path is lovely and there are beautiful views down the valley down on the left, and of Canillas ahead; there are also lovely olive groves on the right. After about 15 minutes you come to the end of the yellow sand and the path constricts into a more typical narrow footpath. You keep following this and will glimpse a road below you; in a few minutes the path leads you down to it, coming out near the metal gates of a house-drive on the right (a signal for the path if you walk the route in reverse).
Turn right and continue. You are on a quiet road above but not far now from Canillas. After about 5 minutes there is a little path leading down on the left. This is now easier to spot – there is a GR242 sign by it. Follow this little cut carefully down and it leads you over a field or two before you come out onto a gravelly track. You begin to pass houses – this is the upper end of the second village – and then come to a tarmac road. Turn left and walk downhill.
You descend towards Santa Ana (you might like to take a moment to walk up to the church to look at the contrasting views to south and north). Take the road to the left, passing the church on your right and then take the first right downhill and keep going down until you reach a little ‘plazoleta’ with a choice of 3 exits. Turn left on the only level street. This brings you out into the town’s square – if the restaurant-bar is open you might stop for a drink! When ready, keep going past the townhall and onto a narrow street; it is kinked but stays on the level. When it comes out to from between buildings a few steps down brings you to a road. You are at a taxi stop, with a shop, supermercado Andalucia ahead on your left and, opposite, the road down to Árchez. You can get a taxi from here – call Silvia (652 63 55 00) or Mari (699933026) – if you want a lift back. On the other hand, you could go down towards Árchez to start the low road – or point your nose uphill and head back to Santa Ana to do the Goat Path in reverse. Enjoy!
Just when I’ve been getting excited over a small falcon a bigger one comes along.
Driving up to have lunch in Canillas de Albaida, and coming round the corner by the San Antón chapel I see a raptor in the air. A moment later it’s landing in the fir-trees that edge the road, lolluping for balance. I catch a glimpse of slate grey – a rather long, narrow tail, a hunched posture – and I have passed already and must pull over, turn the lights off (it’s raining again), yank the handbrake on hard and … well, of course, by the time I get out the bird has flown.
What was it?
My first thought was one of this: the glorious Peregrine Falcon. I had had an impression of size; I’ve seen Peregrines here before here, and one year they nested on the cliffs above the mill, a stones throw from this road. Incredible birds.
Doubts. I was very close to the bird when I saw it; closer than usual, so no wonder it looked big. But it was the stick-like, long, narrow tail, which it used to re-balance itself, that changed my mind. Peregrine’s have a shorter tail, generally fanned out on landing. I concluded the hunched shape, the grey back and that tail were an id from the briefest glimpse – saying Sparrowhawk.
Bird of the forests – and there are plenty here – it had flown off into the rain. I got back into my car (the radio was still playing The Cure’s Love Cats), put the handbrake down and drove on.
Coming from Sayalonga to get to Cómpeta the shortest walking route given that you shouldn’t walk the main road, (it is neither pleasant nor safe) is the wide, well used track that runs along the top of this side of the valley ending at Portichuelo, one of the upper entrances to the second town. You can reach it by heading up the hill that rises on the right hand side from the main road to Cómpeta and is used by many to find a space to park; at the top the track goes left and winds on and on and on.
We went in the early afternoon – a bit hot for walking – but we were in no hurry, kicking up dust on the quiet road, enjoying the views, admiring the villas. These are rural lands, alternating between small farms or country houses bedded in among the vineyards and olive groves and little knots of (often) foreign owned villas, many of which are beautiful.
If you go left at the ‘Lagarjita’ lizard sign, you join the track that winds down to Bodegas Bentomiz. This is the home of the gorgeous Ariyanas wines and is worth a visit – they do almost daily tours and wine-tastings, as well as an elegant restaurant serving wine-centred lunches. We went the other way – up and on to reach the ridge and continue towards Cómpeta.
The vines leaves are just taking a hint of yellow as we head into autumn, but the grapes were still being dried into raisins in the white-walled paseros, darkening to a rich sweet red. Looking across the valley the breadth and depth of this ridged and channelled land striking. It is easy to forget how long and deeply this region has been farmed and, eager to reach the natural park, miss the beauty of the vineyards and olive groves on all hands.
We reached the ridge, opposite Corumbela, with wonderful views of Cómpeta and Canillas de Albaida ahead.
Our route was enlivened by a pair of kestrels in airborne courtship display: we heard the sharp cries, saw them tangle in midair, land briefly and then they flew again.
In these tamed lands you are not likely to see anything wildly unfamiliar, but the garden escapes mixing with wayside plants are very pretty. And Cómpeta is more beautiful than ever in the evening light.