Monday, 8 November 2010

It’s no illusion. It’s a real water sheet, surrounded by olive groves and scrubland. It’s no illusion. It’s a cloud of moving white and pink wings, a soundtrack of clucking, quacking, crowing, a cluster of autumn peace and winter starts. It’s no illusion. It’s a transit area, anesting zone, breeding ground. It now looks like the destination of its most famous inhabitants, flamingos. It shouldn’t have water this time of year, but it does. There shouldn’t be flamingos this time of year, but there are. “Nature teaches us that nothing remains unchanged,” a good friend of mine used to say. He knew what he was talking about. I stare at the shimmering water before my eyes, the rippling surface rocked by the breeze, and blended the bright blue sky and its reflection. Everything I see is an illusion right now.

Visitor Centre

I drive across the town centre of Fuente de Piedra. A flat town with houses spread along its longish streets. Low, two-storey homes. Windows behind black and silver bars. The signs show the way to the lake and its visitor centre. I enter the protected space and take a look at the water. Polished steel, grey on grey, like melting lead. Wild olives stand as if knowing they’re before something really powerful. I leave my car in the parking area. As soon as I get out, I can feel the unmistakable smell of damp earth lumps. I breathe in and the primitive sense of smell is enough to picture the whole place. I can fancy the early birds, the reed on the banks, dry autumn layers, plants… The visitor centre lies up on Cerro del Palo, which is why it’s blessed with amazing views of the lake. An old building, it’s kept its old country estate exterior looks, while housing modern facilities inside. The information boards in pink and fuchsia –associated with flamingos– give a lot of information to newcomers andexperts alike. You can read about the different types of birds and other species living in Fuente de Piedra, flamingo nesting, or the annual ringing of newly-born individuals. In the main room you can see real-size flamingo replicas. The best feature of this visitor centre, however, is the huge window overlooking the lake, affording views of the water sheet in all its glory. I look out of it, staring at the complicated network of trails across the lake banks, thanks to which visitors can get incredibly close to this wonderful, one-of-a-kind ecosystem. Fuente de Piedra is considered to be one of the largest wetlands and the most important flamingo breeding habitat in Europe. The lead appearance of the lake can fool you, but once you’ve seen one of the pink guys, you’ve seen them all. The first of them is like a pink dot in the horizon. “Look, there’s one over there,” I say. “Wait, wait, there’re more of them over there, and there,” I go on. “And over there, and there, and there.” A pinkish cloud a few inches from the water, moving in a tempo of its own, marked by the funny march of flamingos. I smile at the discovery, rushing out of the visitor centre and heading for the lake itself (following the guide’s directions). There’re so many things I could tell about Fuente de Piedra… From its past days as a hunting preserve to its present status as a nature reserve. The Fuente de Piedra Town Hall website provides information on the ecosystem’s history and geography. I will, instead, give you a personal view, based on the feelings this tour has aroused in me.

The Lake as I See It

It’s a cool autumn morning, stimulating and joyful, inviting quiet strolls –the perfect setting for a walk around the lake. The place is apt for visitors, photographers, and bird watchers, featuring huge wooden frames as part of the landscape itself. I can hear the birds quacking, clucking, crowing. I can see the flamingos in their languorous fuchsia poses, partly immersed in water. From Laguna de la Paloma you can spot lapwings, black-headed gulls, ducks, plovers, and other birds. Signs indicate the time of year when youcan spot each species. Staring at the lake, I’m already thinking of the next time I’m here, maybe in spring, when it’s at its fullest, to walk its 21km perimeter and stop at each of the privileged vantage points. Binoculars and a camera are a must here. I can smell the damp earth, and also rosemary plus a mix of plants and flowers. The smells are rocked by the mild breeze. It reaches two of the viewpoints, Observatorio de las Albinas (surrounded by whitish earth; hence the name) and Mirador de la Vicaría, across several wooden bridges. Only 2.5km across flat ground in an amazing setting. I meet several hikers. They all speak in a soft voice, as if careful not to disturb the peaceful setting. The observatory is closer to the lake, and to the flamingos, which I can now see and hear. Clucking, quacking, crowing, croaking… that’s Fuente de Piedra’s soundtrack. Apparent silence and wonderful views. The flamingos are hiding their necks and beaks in the water, in search for food. I can fancy the whole flock flying in the bright blue sky, painting it in pink and fuchsia. A bunch of laughing black-headed gulls (or at least that’s what I think) fly off, laughing in the sky, making circles that grow bigger and smaller.
The silvery water gets dyed with white and pink shreds. The flamingos are morose creatures: they stand on the bottom of the lake like graceful dancers. “You shouldn’t expect to find water or flamingos this time of year,” I was told. “But the flamingo population in the area amounts to 30,000,” they explained to me at the tourist office. “The brood (some 7,000) have stayed, and some of their 20,000 parents have stayed along.” “You shouldn’t expect to find water or flamingos this time of year.” But here they are. It’s no illusion.

Fuente de Piedra Town Centre

The Fons Divinus of the Romans marked the town’s name and early fate. Within Hispania, Fuente de Piedra was held to be a place where water could dissolve your kidney stones. Therefore, its water was thought to come from a divine fountain, Fons Divinus, a name that later became “Fuente de Piedra,” probably because of the association with the disease the water was supposed to heal –kidney stone (“piedra” is the Spanish word for “stone”) . The effectiveness of the water continued until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when it was bottled and sold, even exported to Naples and the Americas. Where the original Roman fountain used tobe a new, more modern one was erected using stones from its predecessor. But before getting to the fountain, I need to go from the lake to the town centre. It’s easy. Everything in Fuente de Piedra –the sights and the streets– is clearly signposted. I park in Plaza de la Constitución. There’s a tourist office on the corner. I walk in. The assistant gives me information and advice. When I leave, my hands are full of brochures, cards, and catalogues. Most important sights –the square, the fountain, the church, the town hall building– face one another. I’m hungry after visiting the lake, but lunch will have to wait. Juan Carlos Primero Street leads to the Church of Nuestra Señora de las Virtudes. A curious church, indeed, which seems to merge with its background in reddish, sandy hues. Built in the nineteenth century in the neo-Mudejar style, it features a remarkable belfry which is not a tower but a double-arch structure crowned by an iron cross. The façade is very simple, with two huge glazed windows above the main door. A plate to the left reminds of the fallen in war. The same street brings me back to the square. I come across some interesting homes on my way. The fountain that’s lent its name to the town has brought prosperity and misfortune: After a dry season, disease spread in the region, and the prophets of doom associated this to Fons Divinus and its stagnant water, a medium where disease could thrive. The give-and-take of history. Now, the fountain dominates the square, its four main spouts and a smaller tap on the left flowing into a central basin. It’s a beautiful fountain, indeed; its central part could have ended in a cross in the past. I splash my face with water. Following a local woman’s advice, I head for Bar Tejeda for lunch.

Lunch Break

It’s a simple bar, where I can see locals coming and going. I choose an outdoor table. The specialties on the menu whet my appetite: fried aubergines with honey, black pudding croquettes, and so on. I order a crusty salt steak, an entrecote, and a charcoal-grilled veal chop, plus two sodas, a plate of olives, and bread. The bill = €51. The steak tastes like carpaccio, olive oil poured on top enhancing its natural flavours. The entrecote and veal chop are fresh and well-done, seasoned with cooking salt and served with homemade French fries. The olives vanish as soon as they are landed on the table. Over the meal I discuss what I’ve seen so far, the lake and the history of Fuente de Piedra, with its uninterrupted flow of dwellers: Iberians, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs.

El Refugio del Burrito

On the outskirts of Fuente de Piedra, clearly signposted amidst olive trees and vines, there’s El Refugio del Burrito –a non-profit initiative associated with a common element to the past of various towns in Málaga: donkeys, a beast of burden and an endangered species. El Refugio del Burrito is a place where abandoned or maltreated donkeys and mules can be safe, negligent behaviour is reported, and guided tours for general visitors or schoolchildren, as well as donkey activities for children with special educational needs, can be taken. El Refugio del Burrito is open daily from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. (summer) or 6:00 p.m. (winter). For more information, call (+34) 952 031 622. I’m surprised at its clean, carefully-kept facilities, including pens and fences. The donkeys are separated by age and breed, with files indicating their names and dates of birth, and other data. Visitors are warmly welcome. I walk between the enclosures, stroking the friendliest of the donkeys while the more timid ones crane away. I take a look at the stables and the feeding troughs. I take a seat in the early evening, listening to the chewing around me. I make a small donation and go back to my car, to get lost amidst the olive trees, leaving a trail of white dust behind me.


It’s the moment of discovery, the excitement of having spotted the first pink specimen against the silver lake, the initial surprise. And the walk among the reed, on sandy ground filled with water in spring, with the red flowers and the wooden bridge, the clucking of the birds, the delicate singing of a bird delicately perched on a delicate twig, the apparent silence about the lake, its ever-changing colour –from lead to silver, from white to pink, from pink to fuchsia–, the pendulum movement of the pelican’s neck, going down the water and up again. Standing on one of the viewpoints, I leave my binoculars and camera aside and enjoy the show with all five senses.

Travel Tips and Useful Links

What you must know before coming: Don’t forget to bring your binoculars to the lake. You don’t need to be a flora and fauna expert to enjoy the place. As it is a nature reserve, binoculars are the only way of getting close to the flamingos. Also, you’ll need a camera with a good zoom to capture the best moments.
Flamingo ringing: In the summer, newly-born flamingos are ringed at the lake. In July, depending on the arrival of the birds and the birth of their offspring, the Fuente de Piedra Department of the Environment organises guided tours of the lake, exhibitions, an Andalusian breakfast in the square, and a verbena to welcome environmental volunteers and visitors alike. Ringing flamingos is key for their monitoring, and it’s done under strictly controlled conditions. This is why volunteers are carefully picked and visitors must comply with a series of strict behaviour rules. Besides ringing, the best time of year at the lake is spring, when flamingos come and make their nests, mate and breed their first brood. Spring is the time when the lake is at its fullest and when there’s the largest number of flamingos living in it.
Country travel: There’re many country travel companies and country hotels in the area. Just google “Fuente de Piedra” and you’ll find a wide array of choices to meet your profile and your pocket.
Useful links: To learn more about Fuente de Piedra, check the websites of Costa del Sol Tourist Board and Fuente de Piedra Town Hall, especially the information they contain on the lake. You can also visit the page on the nature reserve hosted by the Andalusian Government and the virtual tour of the lake.

Comments, suggestions, and opinions from travellers/visitors to this blog are very welcome. See you under the Bright Blue Sky.