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Andalucia, El Rocio and Doñana National Park.  The Doñana wetlands are the largest in Europe – except that they were almost dry at this time of year, the effect exacerbated by the farmers who take much of the water for irrigation, especially of strawberries.  We were staying at the Toruño hotel. P1270772

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Note the hitching posts

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On the wall of the reception area showing the species we might expect to see

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The hotel restaurant, over the way from the main building. What appear to be tall hitching posts are bar counters for horsemen!

This was in the small town of El Rocío (‘the dew’), quite the most extraordinary town I have ever visited.  It was like driving into the Wild West. When you think of it, the Wild West may well have been modelled on such places in the first place – except that in this case much of the town has only been built from the 1950s onwards,.  We were told that it is known as the International Town of the Horse, though my researches since have not been able to find out much about that.  But what El Rocio is known for is a pilgrimage, the Romeria del Rocío, at Pentecost each year, which attracts up to a million people. These can arrive on horseback, in horse-drawn carriages and in wagons.  For there is no tarmac in El Rocío itself. The ‘roads’ are laid entirely with sand.  (Another blogger has written much more fully – and elegantly – about the town here.)

The remaining posts about my trip to Andalucia will be by theme, rather than day by day accounts.

The remains of this one will introduce El Rocío and the National Park, the next the entirely different Sierra Moreno where we spent the second part of our wildlife tour, then the remaining three posts will relate the wildlife we found  –  and some domestic animals.  But back to El Rocío. Internationally known for it or not, it is certainly a town for horses, and there is much evidence of the pride of place given to them. Here are two ordinary ‘roads’ and the sign at the restaurant where we ate lunch at one day.

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Yes, cars are allowed

P1270781P1270782When we got back from a morning drive on the Tuesday, instead of sheltering from the blistering heat, I went out to explore El Rocío for a short while.  P1270786 copie

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I thought I was perhaps the only person about (‘the English(wo)man out in the midday sun’) but these three horsemen greeted me cheerily.

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Huge pilgrimage needs huge church

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The sign says that in 2001 the Andalucían authorities had declared this species of olive, endemic to the region, a ‘Natural Monument’. (If only all regional declarations in Spain were so benign.)

P1270836There were two young cats entertaining us with their antics at each of our two outdoor dinners there, siblings probably, and here is one of them just before we left at midday on the Wednesday. P1270838Horses. I had looked round from my meal on the Tuesday evening and seen one of the high bar counters being used! P1270978And I took these two photos from the van as we returned from our second morning drive.  P1280047

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The head of the woman exercising the horse at the end of rope in the ring is just visible

El Rocío is right on the edge of the Doñana National Park.  These four photos were taken a short walk from the hotel.  For most of the year, there is a lagoon hugging the whole of one side of the town. However, we could just see a very distant shimmer of water, all that remains until the rains come. (Nearly two weeks on, I don’t think they have done so yet. And yet my guidebook says that October has one of the highest rainfalls of the year in Andalucia.  Climate change?)

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Horses are everywhere around the town, and in the National Park, grazing where they can, sadly some of them in an emaciated condition.

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Most of the birds were too far away to be well identified.

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Two-inch long Egyptian grasshopper, also known as the Egyptian locust, but no threat to crops and vegetation.  Here at a wildlife visitor centre.

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Lizard with attitude, same place

These remaining pictures were taken out as we explored early in the morning or as the day drew to an end, deeper in the national Park, looking especially for Iberian lynx. P1270997

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The long shadows are of humans. The flat brown bit would be under water earlier in the season.

P1280021P1280028P1280031P1280032And these red deer stags were a distant vision on the ‘lagoon’ just before we left El Rocío.P1280070