Exploring in and around Madrid, February 23/24
My plan for the day Wednesday was to hopefully visit some oak Monte bajo (coppice) and take a trip up to the village of Cotos along the ridge of the Sierra mountains north of Madrid. I got a bit of a late start and caught the Metro to the local train depot and then headed north towards Cercedilla where I had to change to a bus to reach the ridgetop.
As we left the city, the landscape largely gave way to the dehesa-style woodland, dominated by the Holly oak. The structure seemed particularly dense though and it didn’t appear as if it were an active working landscape. As we started to reach the villages closer to the foothills of the mountains, pollarded trees intermingled within pastures and hedgerows of mixed species trees and shrubs carved up a well-partitioned rural landscape. The details of these systems were difficult to discern (and more difficult to photograph at cruising speed with dirty windows). It was good to get a taste of what small-scale rural agriculture systems looked like nevertheless.
We arrived in Cercedilla where we transferred to a bus - the narrow passage up the mountain requires transport via either a more narrow train or bus. The cute, mountain city seemed a haven for outdoors enthusiasts, boasting bicycle and outdoor gear shops, inviting cafes, narrow streets and various accommodation options. It definitely seemed to be a great base for more rural excursions into the mountains of central Spain.
The bus snaked through the at-some-points ridiculously narrow streets leaving me wondering if they’d actually had to design the buses around the available turning radius they inherited from the centuries-old town planning. Like many parts of Europe, most of the private properties we passed featured several trees managed by intensive pollarding - most likely the result of a cultural tradition as much as anything functional. It does keep the trees low and ensure they provide healthy shade come summertime, but otherwise seems to have little functional value.
As we escaped the village limits, we entered oak-dominated woodlands, the deciduous species Quercus petrea or the pedunculate oak. Most of the stems were fairly small - 3-4” diameter and 25’ high or so. They didn’t appear to be coppiced as I’d anticipated, though the stands were very dense, almost thicket-like. We continued to climb, and I was hoping to make out clearer signs of coppice management, but to the best of my ability, didn’t recognize any. Twenty minutes or so later, we’d reached an elevation where oaks gave way to pine (Pinus sylvestre) and between this ecotone and the ridgetop, there was little else in the way of woody diversity. Several ski slopes and a competition area straddled the road and finally we reached Cotos - if there were a town, I missed it.
It was a beautiful site located at the base of an upland valley with sweeping views. We arrived there at 3:15, and I was disappointed to discover that the visitor’s center closed at 3. I had hoped to glean an orientation to the area and find out where and how to access the oak silvopasture/coppice that I’d expected to find there. With the last bus retuning to Cercedilla in another 2.5 hours, I figured I was best just to set off along the clearest path up, hoping I might gain a view that might lead me visually towards the coppice stands I was looking for. Internally I knew that what I was looking for is something that I wouldn’t find heading up the mountain, but I figured the worst case was enjoying a panoramic view from 2100 meters or so.
The cool air felt wonderful. It was a bright sunny day, amplified by the snow cover. Folks were rejoicing in the winter respite, sledding skiing and just enjoying the deep deposits of frozen water. The well traveled pathways at the base of the settlement seemed to have about 4-6” cover but as I snaked my way uphill, there was easily 2’ or more in places. It was hard to believe that so much snow could persist in a location that seemed so openly exposed to the strong sun, but the air temperatures were likely cooler than they felt given the gorgeous clarity of the day.
It took a little over an hour to reach the ridgetop, and the hike was well worth the view. In a sheltered valley about 15 minutes below the ridge, was a distant stone cabin - perhaps built by a shepherd for seasonal accommodation as they followed the grass uphill as the onset of the dry season made lower pastures impractical.
I didn’t have much time to enjoy the views as I wanted to be certain I didn’t miss the last bus back down. I never did see the oak coppice I’d been looking for despite the scope of my viewshed, but the experience was well worth it. The ability to witness such an intense variation in microclimate over a relatively short distance spoke to the dramatic effects elevation and aspect have on the climate of a site (3 degree Fahrenheit for every 1000’ change in elevation). An hour later I was back down at the bus stop with another time to take down a chorizo bocadillo (chorizo sandwich - a sliced baguette with sausage slices - no sauce, nothing else! That’s not by request - it’s the way it came) and a quick beer. We reached the village of Cercedilla just before the light began to fade and I was back home, feeling well exhausted by 8:30.
Thursday was to be my last day in Madrid. My next planned stop on my trip required me to leap across western Europe in one fell swoop - from Spain all the way to the Czech Republic. This plan wasn’t so much a result of a lack of coppice anywhere in between but rather my active efforts to connect with prospective hosts who had responded to my requests. I know that there is coppice in Italy, Germany, Holland, Scandanavia and likely a number of other countries, but I was particularly eager to explore some of the still-active systems in south eastern Europe, so I had intended to high tail it over there so I could spend the second three weeks of my journey reveling in their past and present.
What this means is that I had to suss out a sensible travel plan from Madrid to Brno, Czech Republic which proved to be less-than-direct. I did find a bus that went more or less direct but it would take 40 hours. As someone who’s no stranger to multi-day bus trips (I’ve crossed the USA in a Greyhound on several occasions) I knew that the benefits of the extended experience and trans-sectional views of the landscape at this point in life may well be outweighed by the toll the experience might take on my physical stamina. (And it was pretty darn expensive). The only other option I could locate was a flight from Barcelona on Saturday the 26th. The entire trip would thus only take two hours - I’m well familiar of course with the ecological costs of air travel, and did all I could to justify it in my mind. I’ve got a steadily guilty conscience, and in the end, just chose to let it be and hope that the good that comes from it all outweighs the emissions I’m generating.
So at this point, I hadn’t really even done much to explore the Spanish capital city. To help reduce some costs and also hoping to connect with some interesting folks, I switched to a very inexpensive hostel across town. Not particularly well laid out, the proprietors were very nice and it proved to be comfortable and provide a nice social outlet.
I checked in at 1pm and opened the door to my room to find 2 of the guests still deep in slumber with their possessions strewn about the remaining beds in the room. It is Spain remember (late partying, etc). I set my things aside, disturbed them as little as possible and headed out on foot to explore the city.
I was only a twenty minute walk from a primary avenue where I could access several museums, the botanical garden and an extensive park all within a few miles of each other. Seeking to make the most of the sun and the gorgeous spring-like weather, I started off at the botanical garden. It’s always interesting being in another part of the world and seeing species native to your bioregion. To me it feels like seeing an old friend, and I was surprised to see how many eastern North American natives I came across. Sugar and silver maple, boxelder (!! - I love seeing this so underappreciated plant in special collections or as street trees (Milan, Italy) in foreign places), hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), black walnut, black locust (not exactly native to the all of northeast, but it’s everywhere - the most common street tree I see in cities around Europe) and though native a bit further south and west, one of the most impressive specimens I came across - Maclura pomifera (see attached photo) - also known as osage-orange.
I’d always thought of this dense, rot-resistant, adaptive, nitrogen fixing plant as a small tree but the specimens they had in their collection at the botanical gardens here were immensely impressive with trunks over 26” in diameter and canopies reaching 50-60’. This wonderful multi-purpose tree is fantastic for living hedges as it’s also thorny so it will help deter wildlife and livestock from penetrating it. Responding actively to coppicing, the osage orange has considerable potential for use in agroforestry systems throughout North America - keep it in mind!
I explored the grounds for a couple of hours, observing growth forms and management regimes and gleaning insights into some of the more exotic species that appear to have coppice potential that I had yet to consider (Sophora japonica - one that Eric Toensmier had brought to mind a couple of months ago - and Amorpha fructiosa being two that I’d previously not met in person). Hoping to pack in a bit of quality time at some of the nearby museums, I left the peaceful confines of the garden and returned to the bustle of an active, tourist-filled city promenade.
Three institutions piqued my tourist mind that were all within a fifteen minute walk of each other - the National Archaeology Museum, the Anthropology Museum and the Prado Art Museum. Fortunately all three were open until 8pm leaving me with plenty of time to explore them all (or blow through them at top speed rather). Passing by the Prado I saw that they waived the 8 Euro admission between 6-8, so I chose to hit the Archaeology Museum first. I’d hoped that I might stumble onto some exhibition that indicated some type of coppice tradition but alas, no luck. It was a small installation - the scope definitely left me feeling awestruck and inspired by the incredible creativity and ingenuity of human cultures the world over during the last several thousand years. The level of craftsmanship expressed in Grecian pottery, Egyptian sarcophagi, Spanish gold jewelry and more reflects a level of cultural sophistication that I find difficult to grasp. But no time to sit around and dream - I two more museums to pack in!
The Anthropology Museum was very interesting and well laid out. The exhibits were all in Spanish but they seemed to be written to suit my reading level which was particularly enjoyable. Only two of three floors were open - the first featuring Asian cultures and the second Africa. American cultures were housed on the third floor and strangely enough, no displays on European anthropology. Coincidentally, I’d come to the museum hoping to gain a more detailed anthropological insight into the history and traditions of the Spanish people. I guess that must be housed in another museum…
Each region featured well presented exhibits on tools, food, clothing, buildings and belief systems. The segments devoted to the housing styles and farming techniques of south east Asian cultures were particularly fascinating, featuring well-crafted dioramas showing the different techniques they’d developed over time for hulling, cleaning and winnowing rice.
With just one hour left, I sped off towards the Prado Museum, ready to cash in on their free admission. The line that had wrapped around the corner of the block when I’d passed by just before the promotion began had completely disappeared by this point, and feeling eager to soak up historical artistic tradition, I grabbed a ticket and set to exploring. Looking to make my visit as multi-functional as possible, I set to looking for paintings that depicted managed landscapes that might indicate some type of coppice/pollard management. I found only one - and what it actually showed was eroding plaster that revealed a wattle and daub wall framework in a beautiful painting depicting Jesus’ nativity. I’m sure there were more, but by this point, I was having trouble thinking straight and was about saturated.
I retreated to the hostel enjoying the lovely cool evening air. This part of Madrid was particularly lively with narrow streets full of shops, restaurants and bars. A few hours later I set out for an evening meal.