The Lammergeier

One bird stood out for me when I was flipping through the pages of Birds of Europe about eight years ago. It was the first bird featured in the Birds of Prey section which featured vultures, hawks, kites, eagles, and falcons. This showed the bird and it’s shadow as it cruised the hight mountains, another illustration showed the bird picking through the bones of a former animal as two ravens look on. This was the oddly named lammergeier (lamb vulture in German), a bird I associated with Africa or even Asia but not Europe. And the tiny smudge on the range map indicated that that they occupied a small area near the Spanish-French border and the purple color told me that this large vulture, also known as the bearded vulture, was a year round resident.

At the time, I never thought I would be looking at a free flying lammergeier bit a few years layer, one our first stop on a North Spain tour, we stood before the amazing rock formations of Mallos de Riglos, looking at the Eurasian griffon vulture soaring above.


The peaks of the Mallos de Riglos.

About 90 percent of the griffons in Europe are to be found in Spain and the bird we where watching above us were probably born on the cliffs above.

IMG_1326A griffon vulture flying by the Mallos de Riglos.

Griffon were impressive, large vultures with their feathered “fingers” reading out into the clear blue sky. I turned my attention to another griffon but something didn’t say “griffon” to me. This bird had a tawny breast, long, pointed wings, and a long diamond shaped tail. The field marks were in alignment, this was not a griffon that I was looking at but the much sought after lammergeier! I got the rest of the group on the bird and our guide confirmed it’s existence.

This was not just a lifer for me but an iconic bird. A bird seen in many BBC nature documentaries, a bird that  would make Sir David Attenborough burble with excitement. I can just hear him now, “Indeed, the lammergeier, a bird made for the air. A grand vulture of the high rocks of Europe!”



The Geese That Guard the Cathedral

Well I had failed to gain entrance to the Picasso Museum, even on “free day” (the first Sunday of each month). I had arrived half an hour before opening time and the thin line of people queued up in front made me hopeful that I would be soon looking at Picasso’s early works from his blue period.

When I entered to get a ticket, they informed me that the next available time to gain entrance was 3:45 in the afternoon. It was now just after nine and I had to transfer to my airport hotel to start the birding part of my trip.

And here is the problem with Barcelona: 30 million tourist visitors a year makes getting into the major sites a hassle, even in early April. I had not pre-booked a ticket (who knew you could book a ticket on “free day”). So I left the museum and contemplated my next move over a cafe con leche and a choclate croissant at a local cafe.

I figured I would head over to the Barcelona Cathedral, which Rick Steves notes, “doesn’t rank among Europe’s finest (and frankly, bare cracks the Top 20)”. This was the cathedral where Antoni Gaudí’s funeral was held in 1926 but he was buried in the crypt of his La Sanganda Famila.

It was a short walk through the ancient and very maze-like streets of the El Born neighborhood to the cathedral. And with my luck today, the cathedral was closed to tourists. Well it was Sunday morning after all. And all I wanted to do was see some geese!

So again, feeling defeated, I sat down and sketched a Roman arch near the cathedral which had a calming effect on my not-so-successful morning.

I decided to at least walk around the cathedral where I was surprised to find free access to the cloister. I’m sure the interior was awe inspiring but I really just wanted to sketch some geese and then watch some Catalonian dancing.

The thirteen white geese of the cloister have been at the cathedral for about 500 years, well not the same thirteen geese anyway. They have become symbols of the Cathedral and are considered guardians on the structure, a bit like the ravens at the London Tower.

After sketching the geese and exploring the cloister, I headed to the front of the cathedral to witness one of the displays of Catloniaism in Barcelona. And it starts promptly at 11 AM every Sunday morning.

As the hour of eleven neared, a band assembled on the steps to the cathedral bearing instrumentals that would not look out of place in an illuminated medieval manuscript on music. This was the band to start off the Sardana, the traditional dance of Catalonia.

This dance is a symbol of Catalonian unity and pride. Once the band starts up four dancers place their belongings in the center (an antipickpocket maneuver) join hands (boy-girl boy-girl) and proceed to cut a rug.

Well perhaps cutting a rug is a gross overstatement. They really tap there feet lightly and slowing move in a circle while more and more couples join the circle. It not unknown for travelers to join the dance but was happy to just to watch the dance before for I walked back to my Gràcia digs and caught a taxi to an airport hotel where a new birding adventure was to begin.

But I would not be looking at captive geese but wild and exciting birds!


Casa Milà

After La Sagrada Família and Parc Güell, it was time to see another Gaudí masterpiece. This one an apartment building in the Eixample district. This is Casa Milà!

Casa Milà was derided and criticized when it was first completed for the Milà family in 1912. It was given the name La Pedrera, “the stone quarry” by early critics.

Casa Milà was certainly tops my list of Barcelona architecture to see and sketch. It is also one of the most visited attractions in the city, Gaudí ‘s La Sagrada Família is the number one most visited site in Catalunya. And considering the annal numbers of tourists that visit Barcelona is over 30 million! Because of this I prebooked my ticket for 9:30.

I walked from my attic flat in the Gràcia neighborhood and 25 minutes later I was at Casa Milà. I found a place to sit across the Passeig de Gràcia from this amazing building and started sketching. I can say that Casa Milà is truly a challenging subject to sketch because there are not many straight lines and it’s facade undulates back-and-forth almost like an ocean wave. Gaudí was really inspired by nature as my audio guide later informed me.

There were already lines of tourist with and without tickets where I got into the equally long line for tickets holders.

Once inside I stared up from the canyon of a courtyard into the clear blue Catalonian sky. This was akin the the experience of looking up into the ceiling a grand cathedral only this time Gaudí was proving a frame for nature. Gaudí was inspired by nature and standing and looking up toward the sky reminded me of a slot canyon in southern Utah or hiking up the Virgin River in the Narrows at Zion National Park. Here Gaudí was provided an escape from the overcrowded Passeig de Gràcia which seemed a world away here in the courtyard.

An elevator took me to the rooftop where the famous”chimneys” awaited. As well as the many other tourists photographing the chimneys and the cityscape. I wondered what it would been like if all of those people had sketchbooks instead of smart phones. It was hard not to walk around the roof without getting in the way of someone’s photograph and I found it a little challenging to sketch because of people standing in front of your own viewpoint. It was not really a calm crowd that I think this roof engenders. I could just imagine that the only sound would be the traffic below and the movement of pencil on paper above, now that’s my idea of peaceful!

These are called the guardians and some have suggested that they may have influenced George Lucas on some of the designs in Star Wars. Stormtroopers do bear a resemblance.

I got two chimney sketches off and then headed down into the attic where Gaudí’s other work was highlighted. Then down another story to a floor that contained four apartments, one of which was on display. And then further down a few flights of stairs spits you out into the gift shop and then into the thriving throng of Passeig de Gràcia.

With a backwards glance at Gaudi’s amazing work I headed down Passeig de Gràcia to explore more of the Catalan Capital.


Parc Güell

After spending the morning at La Sagrada Familia, I headed up to the hills to see another one of Gaudi’s work. This time it was the village Parc Güell.

Parc Güell was a nice counterpoint to the massiveness of Gaudi’s unfinished church. Parc Güell seems to be built into its wooded surroundings. And my bird list was growing: singing blackbird, alpine swift flying above, barn swallow, hoopoe, a hovering kestrel, and the nonnative monk parakeets where nest building in the palms.

But I was not here to just to watch the avian life. I was also here to look for a dragon!

Judging by the hordes of tourists taking selfies and group photos with the dragon, I was not the only one looking! The dragon, knows as el drac is one of the most popular sights at Parc Güell. It was a challenge to sketch the mosaic figure because of the constant stream of tourists posing with it. So I had to take a sit and wait approach to capturing this dragon in my sketchbook and hoping the the dark looming clouds would not unleash their torrent.

El drac poses with yet another tourist. Must be hard for a dragon to hold a smile all day long.

It started to rain, so I took refuse in the Hypostyle Room and it’s forests of columns reminiscent of the massive forest of columns in the nave of La Sagrada Famila. This covered spaced was conceived to be used as a market for the estate. It was a perfect place to to take shelter from the passing showers and do a sketch.

You can barely make out Parc Güell through the thick forest of tourists.

I sketched the the two-toned tower of the Porter’s Lodge while the tourist groups also took shelter from the downpour and they got some selfie stick use to the extreme.


La Sagada Familia: Sans Pens, Pencils, and Paints

On Friday morning I showed up on the Nativity Facade of the church to take a tour of the inside of the most visited site in all of Barcelona. By selecting an early tour, I was hoping to avoid the crowds. No such luck. It seems to be tourist season all year round, even in the “shoulder” season of April.

Because I had pre-booked my ticket, the line was short and I had to go through a security check point that was up to the standards of any worthy international airport. All of my belongings went through the x-ray machine, the guard at the other end was only interested in my sketching bag. He took my sling pack and opened it and examined my pencil bag. I showed him my collection of pens and pencils. He was really interested in the small leather case that carried three sizes of tubes. These puzzled the security agent and I had to pull the tubes apart to show him that they were merely travel watercolor brushes. This didn’t seem to impress him. So I told him that they were Escoda brushes that were made in Barcelona. This seemed to impress him even less! To think that you couldn’t smuggle three Catalonian brushes into Barcelona’s most famous church!

He took away my pens, pencils, brushes, and paints meaning that I had no way to sketch within the glorious church. I am not a religion person but this seems like sacrilege!

So I had to settle for taking photos (iPhones and not sketchbooks seems to be the common currency here in this unfinished masterpiece). So all of my sketches of the statues on the Passion Facade where done from photos. Blasphemy!

2019-04-05 09.10.21Well maybe having my sketching kit wasn’t such a bad thing. How on earth could I capture this in a sketch?!

Later in the day I did a few sketches of what I have seen and photographed. I would have preferred to have used pencils, pens, and paper to sketch in real time but the security guard left this sketching bird flightless.

While I would have preferred to sketch “from life” even taking the time to sketch from a photograph helps me the “see” and understand Gaudi’s masterpiece.


La Sagrada Familia

As planned, I set my bags in my attic room, took my sketching kit and walked the five blocks to Antoni Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece.

I had caught my first brief glimpse of La Sagrada Famila through the far window as our Boeing jet was on final approach to Barcelona International Airport and even then, the towering phenomenon stood out from the rest of the cityscape. This was and is an architectural work of genus and wild imagination. A work that underscores the art as well as the structure.

I was again teased with a fleeting peek as my taxi raced through Travessera de Gracia on my way to my Barcelona digs. From my seventh story balcony I could see the unfinished towers and the three cranes looming above. They were in constant motion, underscoring that the work was still in process, 130 years after it’s beginnings.

A sketch of the view form my seventh story attic apartment of the cranes towering over the unfinished La Sagrada Famila.

I headed southwest down Carrer de Sardenya and the massive Passion Facade rose above all else. I had to head further away from the facade, just to take it all in. This was a truly surreal scene, aided by the fact that I had had very little sleep over the previous 48 hours.

A sketch of the towers of the Passion Facade and the every present construction cranes.

I started with a short thumbnail sketch just, in the words of Andy Goldsworthy, trying to “shake hands with the place”. And right now we were not really connecting. So I decided to change perspectives as I walked around the cathedral, past the Barcelona FC side chapel, perhaps the real religion of Catalonia, headed up by it’s Argentinian deity, a short man from Mars by the name of Messi.

It was while placing myself in the Placa de Gaudi that I looked up at the Nativity Facade that I truly started to meet this masterpiece for the first time. I got a sketch in and as I put pen to paper I knew that I would not be able to capture every detail of this incredibly detailed facade and so I used a lot of sketching shorthand to try to render this work on paper.

It was interesting to learn that the Nativity Facade was the only part of the church that was finished in Gaudi’s lifetime before he was tragically run over and killed by a tram in 1926. At the time of his death the church was about 20 percent complete. It is hoped that the cathedral will be completed in 2026, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death.

Looks like I shall return to this gem in seven years with pencil, pen and paper!


The Ruins of Belchite

I took a little break from birding to take a tour of the old town of Belchite in Aragon Province, Spain. We where staying in the new town of Belchite, which was finished in the 1950s.

The original town of Belchite dates back to the 15th century. And it was the setting of a major clash during the Spanish Civil War. The battle took place between August 24 and September 7, 1937. The Republican and Nationalist armies fought an intense battle that included street fighting and house to house combat.

Americans took part in this battle as part of the International Brigade. About 4,000 lives were lost and the town of Belchite was destroyed.

The ruins of the town are only open to the public on a guided tour and at the local tourist office I found out that there was one today at noon. I was surprised at the large number of other people that had also signed up for the tour, it looked to be about 100 people. The guide led us through the ruined streets and squares and commented on the history and different buildings we were looking at. It was in Spanish of course but I picked up a few words like “Lincoln Brigade” and “Franco”.

While on the tour, I sketched a ruined shop front and the tower of San Martin’s of Tours church. I did all the line work in pencil and pen and planned to add words and watercolor later.

These ruins were certainly surreal and I could only imagine the horrifying scenes of bloodshed and destruction in August and September of 1937. The reason these ruins exist today is that Franco preserved the ruined town as a monument to the Nationalist dead.

IMG_1322The ruined main street in the old town of Belchite.

My sketch of the city gate as I waited for the guided tour to start.


The iron cross marks sight where many of the casualties of the Battle of Belchite were incinerated. The clock tower is all that remains of St. John’s church.

A quick sketch of the ruins of Saint Martin’s of Tours.

IMG_1354.JPGInside the roofless ruins of San Martin’s of Tours church. This church was featured in the beginning scenes of the film Pan’s Labyrinth.

Reporters covered this brutal battle, including Ernest Hemingway but one of the most vivid descriptions of the city after the battle was written by Cecil Eby:

“[the journalist] found a town so totally ruined that often one could not tell where the streets had been. People were digging under piles of mortar, bricks, and beams pulling out corpses. Mule carcasses, cooking pots, framed lithographs, sewing machines-all covered with flies – made a surreal collage. Belchite was less a town than a nasty smell.”


After the completion of the tour I adjured to the hotel cafe/bar to add some text and paint to my Belchite spread and have a mid afternoon caña.

Being a Saturday afternoon, the bar had a constant flow of locals. One was a man who spoke no English (and I not much Spanish) who noticed my drawings of old Belchite. His eyes lit up. He proclaimed the insightfulness and brilliance of my sketches (at least that is what I would like to believe) to anyone who was within the sound of his voice. We proceded to have a one way conversation where I gathered he was asking we what I did for a living (it was certainly not sketching!) and here I replied, “maestro”. A huge grin appeared on his face and he told me that his mother, sister, and grandmother were also teachers.

And it was here that I heard some Spanish that I truly understood and it came from an older woman who ran the bar. She looked at my sketch and smiled and then said, “Muy Bien!” It was music to my sunburnt ears.

The language of sketching transcends any language.


Red-eyed Sketcher

Travel can be such a discombobulating experience. Your body doesn’t seem to recognize the passage across many timezones. When really it wants to take a nap on Pacific Coast Time.

Jet lag is the necessary evil we all must endure if we want to explore our planet from west to east or north to south. It is a deal we make with our internal body clocks as we throw time up in the air like a handful of big leaf maple shimaras, not really knowing where they are going to fall.

As such we must almost write off the first few days in the new time zone as a wash. But I was determined to sketch through the weariness and mild hallucinations of jet- set time travel.

I started off right by not getting much sleep the night before my journey to Catalunya as my airport shuttle arrived at 4:45 AM. What’s the point of sleeping if your just going to get up anyway? I falsely reasoned.

My flight boarded at 6:30 AM but half way through boarding, they halted the process because, “ they were doing some maintenance at the back of the plane. “ I later found out that one of the three lavatories was out of order. The captain advised us not to drink much water!

I used this delay as an excuse to do a quick sketch of the chariot that would be taking me to Miami, a Boeing 737-800.

Indeed it was a quick sketch because my boarding group was called and I shuffled off, zombie-like, towards gate 56A. Oh well, I’d have to add a little color and text later.

After a few attempts at a catnap I was excited to find an expandable painting easel in the chair back in front of me right at eye level! And it perfectly fit my small landscape sketchbook! My only question was, “Now why isn’t everyone else sketching and painting in their sketchbooks?” Seemed like a perfectly rational inquiry to me.

After Miami I was to catch a redeye to Barcelona and after taking a taxi into the the Gracia neighborhood and checking into my terrace apartment, I planned to unpack my sketching bag and head out five blocks to the southeast and attempt the impossible: capturing Gaudí’s unfinished psychedelic masterwork, La Sagrada Familia into the pages of my watercolor sketchbook. And doing it all on a few hours of sleep.