Oct 27, 2010 in Tenerife 2010
After the meeting, the IAC had organised a trip to the Observatorio del Teide. Observatories are always great places, isolated and remote, and normally high on a mountain so you get awesome views. I’d been to the Canaries’ other main observatory on La Palma several times but I’d never been here before. It was a calm and warm day. A few clouds interrupted the blue skies but it looked like they’d probably have no trouble observing that night. One of the observatory technicians was looking at the Sun through one of the telescopes so we had a look too, and saw a group of sunspots. The sun had been unusually inactive for quite a while so we were quite lucky not to see just a blank surface. Looking around I could see a couple of other islands across the sea in the hazy distance. Apparently, ancient island legends tell of a mysterious eighth island which can sometimes be seen across the waters but never reached. I could only see real islands today. Back in La Laguna I thought I had an easy and relaxing journey home. But an hour and a half before my flight, I realised it was going [...]
Oct 27, 2010 in Tenerife 2010
I spent a few days in La Laguna. Last time I’d been here it had been cold, wet and misty, but this time it was sunny and quite warm. I stayed in the centre of town and walked each day down to the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, where the meeting was being held. I liked the town and thought I’d probably quite like to live here one day. I was interested to see a sign one morning advertising a demonstration for independence for the Canary Islands. I was disappointed to find I’d missed it by a few days – I’d have loved to see what the independence movement was like. If they ever secede from Spain it will be nice to have a new country to visit.
Sep 13, 2010 in Santiago de Compostela 2010
Everyone except me was flying back home from Santiago’s airport. I am prepared to go to great lengths to avoid flying with Ryanair, and so I’d booked a slightly more expensive flight from A Coruña. It at least gave me a chance to see another place, so I headed out after I’d said goodbye to everyone. A Coruña is much bigger than Santiago. It felt far less touristy and far more like a big city. I walked through the hot streets from the station into the city centre. One very cool thing about the city is that it’s surrounded by the sea and has beaches right in the city centre. I went and sat one one for a while, making the most of the September sunshine. I walked on to the main square, which was grand and impressive. But I’d spent too long on the beach and I didn’t have time to make use of one of the cafes here. I thought I should probably come back some time. I got the bus to the airport, and even though my flight was then delayed by several hours, I did not regret continuing my Ryanair boycott.
Sep 11, 2010 in Santiago de Compostela 2010
We went white-water rafting while we were in Galicia. I’d never done it before so I was really looking forward to it. We got a train to Padrón, a quiet dusty town near Santiago, from where companies run rafting trips down the Río Ulla. The seven of us took a boat and a guide, and headed downstream. Four other boats were on the river, and pretty much the first thing all the guides did was to try and get us to fall out. I was very reluctant, but I guess it’s better to fall out first in the calm water before the inevitable spills in the rapids. So we all got soaking wet in the chilly waters, and then went paddling downstream for some rapid action. The Ulla is not such a wild river, but the scenery was awesome and we had great fun. After the first couple of rapids, our guide got us to try them out with variations like going backwards, standing up, trying to paddle up one we’d just come down, and things like that. At the final rapids, he said “You don’t really need the boat for this one. Just jump out and swim.” I thought [...]
Sep 10, 2010 in Santiago de Compostela 2010
I have had many good times in Santiago de Compostela, so it was good to be going back again. This time I was going with a group of friends to celebrate an imminent wedding. We spent three days there, making full use of Santiago’s myriad tiny bars in the historic city centre, and spent a lot of time in cafes in the beautiful Praza da Quintana recovering from our various exertions.
Apr 03, 2010 in Barcelona 2010
After a couple of days of living well in Barcelona, eating good food and drinking lots of coffee, we took a trip out to Tarragona. It was a warm spring day and a nice journey down the coast of Catalunya. The old town reminded me a little bit of Mdina in Malta. Narrow streets wound between brown stone buildings and every corner led to an interesting view. Newer parts of town were quite different. I liked the Rambla Nova, particularly when I found a food stand selling churros filled with dulce de leche – a neat combination of two of my favourite food items. We spent the day in Tarragona much as we had spent the days in Barcelona, relaxing and enjoying good food and drink. It was a shame the day had to end but I had a flight to catch. We got a train back to Barcelona, and I headed home. It had been a great few days of post-Herschel relaxation.
Apr 02, 2010 in Barcelona 2010
I’d heard about the Font Màgica last time I was here. It sounded a bit cheesy and I wasn’t too keen on visiting, but on the other hand it was up on Montjuïc and I thought there might be some good views over the city. So we all went up there, arriving just as the show started. To my surprise I was quite impressed. The timing was good, with the sun having set and the sky darkening as the water shone in rainbows of colour. The number of people there made it difficult to see the show that well, but it was much better than I’d expected. And after it was over we walked up to the front of the Palau Nacional and looked out over the city as the crowds dispersed.
Apr 01, 2010 in Barcelona 2010
A week and a half after I got back from Belgrade, I was on the road again. My paper on Herschel results was submitted, my long month of hell was over, and I walked along to St. Pancras to get a train to Barcelona. I was going there with some friends to celebrate a 30th birthday, and it turned out to be cheaper to travel overland. So I got the Eurostar to Paris, pausing briefly at Gare du Nord as it was the first time I’d been there for eight years. Last time, I was on my way back from Beijing, and after thousands of miles of travel across Asia with no problem, disaster had struck just 200 miles from home in a farce of missed trains and lost tickets. I held tightly on to my Barcelona ticket, crossed town to Gare d’Austerlitz and got a train to Portbou. We rumbled across France during the night. When I woke in the morning we were in the far south, and I saw a full moon setting over the Pyrenees at Perpignan. Not long after that the train arrived at Portbou, where I had about 20 seconds to find the Barcelona train, [...]
Mar 29, 2009 in Madrid 2009
After four days at ESAC, I spent the weekend in the centre, staying with a friend who had just started a post-doc here. Normally one of the things I like doing best in Spain is going to clubs and coming out after the sun has risen, but I was still recovering from my double jetlag and went for some quieter pursuits. We went to the Reina Sofia and saw Guernica, handily avoiding a heavy downpour. And we went to a cinema, where we discovered that in Spain they skip the trailers and start the films when they say they are going to start. Then we made an early start on a Sunday to see what was going on at El Rastro, the famous flea market. We spent a while wandering through the busy streets. There were a lot of stands of DVDs and CDs of dubious provenance, and also some more unusual things like furniture and antique stands. It was sunny but a chilly wind was blowing, so after we’d bought a few things we took refuge in a cafe for some churros con chocolate. I almost got caught out by the hour changing. It’s happened to me before: coming [...]
Mar 26, 2009 in Madrid 2009
ESAC was a good place to work. It was way out in the countryside, peaceful and sunny, and they supplied enough coffee to keep me happy. I got into a nice routine of walking from where I was staying on Santo Domingo up via San Bernardo and a few cafes to the bus stop on Alberto Aguilera. Mornings were healthily punctuated by coffee breaks. Afternoons were a bit trickier, with large and very cheap lunches being followed by a long session of hard core data reduction. By the end of the day I was normally flagging severely, falling unconscious on the bus back to Madrid and having to revive myself with more strong coffees on the way back down to Santo Domingo.
Mar 25, 2009 in Madrid 2009
After two days of workshop there was an early finish, and I was back in Madrid by 4.30pm. I’d last been here almost eight years ago, staying here accidentally on the way to La Palma. That time, I’d only just got back from adventures in Africa and so being in Madrid having only just got back from somewhere felt like a familiar state of affairs. In 2001 I had only had time for a quick wander around the city centre before shipping out to the Canary Islands. I’d been to the Plaza de España, and I went back there now with a copy of El País. In the years between my two visits to Madrid I’d spent four months in South America, made four more visits to the Canary Islands, and five to the mainland. My Spanish was definitely better than it had been the first time around. I practised by reading the paper.
Mar 24, 2009 in Madrid 2009
I arrived back at Heathrow from the US at 9am, looping around London and flying over Wembley, UCL, the Thames Barrier, a block of flats in Rotherhithe that I used to live in, the Wheel and Parliament. But this was no homecoming. I hung around at Terminal 3 for a couple of hours and then it was time to head off again, this time to Madrid. During my three days on the other side of the Atlantic, I’d been waking up at 3 or 4 am, and definitely hadn’t got over the jetlag. Coming back so soon, I thought perhaps it would all cancel out and I’d feel fine. But I think actually it just doubled everything. I sleepily found my way out of Barajas airport and into town. I had no time to recover. I was here to learn how to process data from the Herschel satellite, and the workshop started at 9am. Not only that but it was 30 miles outside Madrid, and the bus left at 8am. Not only that but I was staying about 20 minutes walk from where the bus went. So at 7.15am I headed out into a sunny morning to find my way. [...]
Jan 25, 2009 in Tenerife 2009
I reached the Roques de García in the middle of the afternoon. All across the caldera, the scenery was desert-like, and here, a small church amongst the yellow sands made it look like the set of a Western. The walk across had been quite quiet, but here there was a steady succession of cars and buses arriving, disgorging their contents of tourists who swarmed over the trails around the giant rock pillars, then got back into their transport and disappeared. I had seen pictures of these rocks before, but didn’t appreciate until now just how huge they were. Few pictures of them show that they are many times taller than a person. I took some photos that also failed to show their height well. Eventually it was time for the bus back down to the south of the island. I headed down and flew home. Only a few hours separated my standing on top of a giant volcano off the coast of Africa with my being back in London, getting a night bus home. Every time I go back to the Canary Islands I like them more, and already I was wondering when I’d next get the chance to visit.
Jan 25, 2009 in Tenerife 2009
I headed back down. I had some time before the bus down was coming, so I decided to walk from the cable car station to the Roques de Garcia, a lava formation a couple of miles away. It was January, I was a couple of thousand metres above sea level, but still it was hot walking weather in the midday sun. The walk wasn’t too exciting but the views back up to the peak of the volcano were impressive. The cone had an obvious bulge on one side, and I could see why geologists think it might collapse next time there’s an eruption here.
Jan 25, 2009 in Tenerife 2009
But the next day, the storm had passed, and the day dawned clear and fresh. My target was Teide: the highest point in the Atlantic, a mountain I’d flown over a few times, and many times seen from the top of La Palma 90 miles away. It’s claimed that it’s one of the most visited national parks in the world, but I found that hard to believe as I got on the one bus a day that goes over the island to the mountain. In the warm January sunshine we chugged up the road. Once we were up at high altitude the scenery was impressive, and we drove across a desert-like plain to get to the cable car station. I wanted to go to the top of the mountain; at 3,718m above sea level it was higher than anywhere I’d been since coming down from El Misti three years earlier. But I wasn’t planning to climb it. Time was limited and I took the easy route, getting the phenomenally expensive cable car to the summit area. I would have liked to go to the very top, but the bureaucracy involved in getting the necessary permit defeated me, and it turned [...]
Jan 24, 2009 in Tenerife 2009
By coincidence, a friend of mine was on holiday nearby, and we met up in Puerto de la Cruz, on the coast below La Orotava. It’s a short distance but the bus journey was slow as it wound its way down the twisty roads. Puerto de la Cruz was much more touristy than La Laguna or La Orotava. The weather was nicer, too, at first, and we got a meal on the main square. Here I had troubles, as I often do in Spain, as a result of being a vegetarian. As we looked at the menu, the waiter began to recommend dishes, all meaty. Wondering if they had anything good without flesh in it, I said “Soy vegetariano”. “Ah, Italiano!”, said the waiter, and brought me an Italian language menu. As we ate, clouds were coming in. We walked down to the sea, watching legions of large dark crabs scuttling across the rocks on the foreshore. The waves rolled in off the Atlantic, and there was a mood of foreboding over Puerto de la Cruz. My friend had to drive back to the south coast of the island, so I said goodbye to her and caught a bus back [...]
Jan 24, 2009 in Tenerife 2009
On another grey misty morning in La Laguna, I walked to the bus station to ship out to warmer parts. I headed for La Orotava, on the west side of the island. The bus didn’t take long, and as we headed down the motorway the weather got a bit better. La Orotava is a hilly town, and the place I was staying was at the top of a very steep road. Once I’d recovered, I headed back down to have a look around. The views over the town’s colonial architecture to the sea were nicer than the views of La Laguna in the drizzle had been.
Jan 22, 2009 in Tenerife 2009
I’d passed through Tenerife a couple of times on my way to and from La Palma, and I’d often seen the peak of Teide from 90 miles away at the Roque. I finally got to stay on the island when there was a scientific meeting there that I needed to attend. For my first trip to La Palma in 2001, the flights had cost a staggering £600, and that was via Madrid and Tenerife. Since then, the budget flight revolution had taken place, and this time I got a direct flight to Tenerife for a sixth of that. I made my way to La Laguna, in the north of the island, and spent three days there. Most of the time it was misty and cool. It had been 23°C in the south but La Laguna was uphill and inland, and this was typical January weather.
Apr 21, 2008 in Sevilla 2008
We were keen to make Sunday night as large as we could, and we headed out to Calle Betis to see what was going on there. Not much, was the answer. Most bars were closed, and the only one we found that was open was extremely quiet. There were just some dodgy women from Gran Canaria who were about twenty years older than us and terrifyingly flirtatious. We decided to call it a night at about 1am. Outside, the clouds had cleared, and the moon was shining.
Apr 20, 2008 in Sevilla 2008
We had a fairly huge Saturday night out. In the classic Spanish style we didn’t go out until after 1am, and finally went to a club at about 4. By 5.30, though, the club was emptying a bit. The last time I’d been clubbing in Spain, in Santiago de Compostela, things didn’t get going until 5.30am. I asked the girl I was with if people were going on somewhere else. She looked at me oddly and said “yeah, home”. So Sevilla nightlife was not quite as ridiculously late-running as Santiago nightlife. But we were still tired the next day. We went to look at the Alcázar, but somehow got distracted and ended up in the cathedral. While we were there, another heavy rainstorm battered Sevilla. We stayed indoors until it had passed. It got a little bit sunny, briefly. We were just ambling around, with nothing particular in mind, and ended up sitting by the river enjoying the nice weather while it lasted. Soon, though, the palm trees were swaying in the wind, the skies were darkening and spots of rain started falling. It was time to head for bars again.
Apr 19, 2008 in Sevilla 2008
I went to Sevilla for a stag weekend. Most of the details will remain known only to those who were there, but when we were not getting up to the required stag do shenanigans, we did some sensible things. We went to see Sevilla play Almeria in La Liga, which was a fantastic game. We’d managed to get seats in the very front row of the stadium, for only 30 Euros each. When we arrived, it was a warm-ish evening, and as the teams warmed up, we thought we’d done pretty well. But then it started to rain, and it quickly turned into a monumental downpour. We soon abandoned our front row spots and headed for the covered part of the stands at the back. We ended up staying there for the whole match. I don’t know a huge amount about Spanish football but I was under the impression that Sevilla were a better side than Almeria. It was no surprise, then, that Sevilla dominated the first twenty minutes. It was a surprise when they scored an own goal at that point, and totally fell to pieces. Almeria went on to rip them apart, winning 4-1 in the end. Sevilla [...]
Aug 05, 2007 in Barcelona 2007
We went to a club at Tibidabo in the evening, and stayed there until it started to get light. We watched the sun rise from the roof of Sam’s apartment block, then set off in search of the classic Spanish way to end a great night out – churros con chocolate. But maybe it’s just not a Catalan thing, because we couldn’t find any. Disappointed, I went back to my hostel and slept. I got brutally awoken after a couple of hours, having already missed the checkout time. We went to the beach in the afternoon. Having already had one attempted pickpocketing, and knowing the reputation of the beaches, I stayed paranoid and alert despite my tiredness. We managed to catch the sun for a few hours and not lose any of our possessions. In the evening I headed for home. I got the bus to Girona, arriving there just as the sun was setting. I could barely walk by now, I was so tired. Barcelona had been a fun trip.
Aug 04, 2007 in Barcelona 2007
From one Gaudí masterpiece to another, we walked to the Sagrada Familia. Cranes and spires look like they’ve always been attached to each other and always will be. Work began in 1882, and is expected to carry on for decades yet. The church is already spectacular, and as long as it doesn’t collapse before it’s finished it will surely be one of the world’s most impressive structures.
Aug 04, 2007 in Barcelona 2007
I went to Barcelona to visit my friend Sam who was working there. I got into the city late on a Friday night, and Sam and a bunch of other friends were at a bar in town. As I walked onto the platform of a metro station, someone tried to pickpocket me, and the Catalan capital was living up to its reputation. Luckily the would-be thief decided not to steal my printed-out boarding pass, which was all there was in the pocket he chose. I found my friends and went out for drinks until 3am. The next day we all met up late in the morning, and headed for Parc Güell. You can’t escape Gaudí in this city, and Parc Güell is one of his many masterpieces. The park itself is impressive, and because it’s on a hill overlooking the city, the views are also worth catching. The disadvantage was that it was a long steep walk to get there, and I wasn’t yet accustomed to the blistering heat. There was a shop on the way doing a roaring trade in bottles of water just slightly colder than the ambient temperature, and I gave him some business.
Jun 25, 2007 in La Palma 2007
Fearsomely early the next morning we headed to the port of Santa Cruz to get a boat back to Los Cristianos. The dawn views as we sped through the archipelago were pretty amazing, and sunbeams lit Los Cristianos as we approached. At the airport we found that Thomas Cook could also be added to the Canary Islands transport blacklist, as they were running an extortionate excess luggage scam. Somehow their scales suggested that we’d acquired more than ten kilos of luggage since we had left London, and we had to pay some ridiculous fee. Next time I come to La Palma I’m getting the boat from Cádiz.
Jun 24, 2007 in La Palma 2007
As we ate lunch in San Andrés, the sun came out, and the clouds quickly disappeared to leave behind a blazing hot day. We headed on to Los Tilos, a lush forest often described in guidebooks as a rainforest. I don’t think it is, really, but it was still pretty otherworldly, and very different from the rest of the island. We hiked up a trail to Los Brecitos, and in the heat of the afternoon it was a pretty tough hike. The views at the top over the forest were worth the effort though.
Jun 24, 2007 in La Palma 2007
We kicked off the second day of our island tour with a drive up the east coast to San Andrés. Heavy skies threatened, but it stayed dry. San Andrés is famous for its well preserved colonial architecture, but what I found much more striking was the phenomenal quantity of lizards around town. They were everywhere, and whenever I stopped to look around I could see ten or fifteen of them.
Jun 23, 2007 in La Palma 2007
From Tazacorte we headed inland, planning just to head back to Santa Cruz. But we passed a sign to ‘La Cumbrecita’ and thought we’d investigate. The road led us through the forests in the centre of the island, and eventually became a single-track dirt road. We were not sure if we would be coming to anything worth seeing, but La Cumbrecita turned out to be pretty awesome. When we reached a small car park at the end of the road, we found ourselves on the south side of the caldera, with a spectacular view across to the northern side. Mist was pooling in the caldera, and clouds were flowing over its walls, evaporating as they tumbled down.
Jun 23, 2007 in La Palma 2007
We drove up the west coast of the island. It feels pretty remote out that way – there are no tourist resorts, and it is thinly populated. We stopped for a fantastic coffee in an empty bar in the desolate hamlet of San Nicolás, then drove on to Tazacorte. The island is dominated by the vast Caldera de Taburiente, a giant crater whose walls rise two kilometres above its centre, and Tazacorte is perfectly situated for amazing views into the crater. Tazacorte’s main claim to fame is that it was the last port of call for some of the conquistadores who were on their way to colonise Latin America. Today it betrays no hint that it would ever be worthwhile for any ship to call in. While observing on the mountain top on previous trips I’d seen the lights of Tazacorte shining far below, but from here I couldn’t spot the telescopes on the crater rim.
Jun 23, 2007 in La Palma 2007
A week of conference passed largely uneventfully, except that I was ambushed by an astronomer who didn’t like the results I’d presented in my talk. We had a chat in which he outlined his objections, which was very useful, because it meant that when I wrote the paper I could cover the points he raised, and avoid a referee complaining about the same things. Along with Nick, another UCL astronomer, I was staying on the island for the weekend after the conference. We hired a car early on the Saturday morning and headed south, with the plan of driving around the whole island over the two days. Our first stop was the volcanoes at the southern end of the island. On my last visit to the island eight months previously I’d driven from Santa Cruz to the volcanic end in thick mist and heavy rain. This time, the weather was much better. So much so, in fact, that I got horribly sunburnt within about twenty minutes of arriving at Volcán San Antonio. But I still enjoyed the great views over the ocean from San Antonio, and the barren red rocks of Teneguía.
Jun 17, 2007 in La Palma 2007
Astronomers often need to go to La Palma, because it’s the nearest world class observatory to the UK. This was my fourth trip, but for once it was not to use the telescope. There was a conference being held and I was going to give a talk. I’m finding it increasingly difficult to get to La Palma. I now boycott Iberia, who provide the most convenient flights but who charge for food and drinks and apparently find it difficult to imagine that there’d be more than one vegetarian on board. For this trip I decided to fly to Tenerife with someone called Globespan Airlines, and get a boat from there to La Palma. My flight was delayed six hours and now Globespan Airlines are also on the list of airlines I’ll never fly with if I can possibly help it, but the boat was a fantastic journey. The sun was setting as we left the port of Los Cristianos in southern Tenerife, and Fred Olsen’s Benchijigua Express is an impressively fast trimaran. We sped across the waves, watching the sun set and the moon rise, with Tenerife receding behind us, La Palma approaching, and the smaller islands of La Gomera [...]
Jan 14, 2007 in Granada 2007
I went to have a look at the Alhambra, but I didn’t go in. I’d left it a bit late in the day, and anyway I tend to find historic buildings more impressive from the outside than from within. Remembering how I’d preferred Gülhane Park to the Topkapı Palace, and Jingshan Park to the Forbidden City, I checked out the massive building from the parklands surrounding it, and then headed back down into town. I went back up to the mirador de San Nicolás at sunset. I didn’t have long before my flight home, but I did have long enough to see the Alhambra lit up at dusk.
Jan 13, 2007 in Granada 2007
On top of the hill opposite the Alhambra was the mirador de San Nicolás. It was full of crusties, juggling, selling handicraft, smoking and chilling. I went up there one evening to take photos of the city at night, and while I was there, two policemen appeared and started to walk slowly across the square. Instantly the atmosphere turned incredibly hostile. All the crusties started jeering and whistling at the policemen. They didn’t seem to mind too much, and carried on strolling past. Shouts and boos carried on until they got to the other side. The square had been packed with tourists as well as crusties, but after the police had left, the tourists quickly dispersed. I left as well after it got dark, wondering what the history was. There must have been some reason for the tension but I had no idea what it was.
Jan 13, 2007 in Granada 2007
Before Christmas I’d gone to the Arctic Circle for a weekend. I’d had a great time, but after only three days, the lack of daylight got to me and I felt that I would slip into a morbid depression if I didn’t see the sun soon. I rebalanced myself by heading south after Christmas, to Granada. The air was cool and fresh when I arrived. It may have been winter but it was just about warm enough to sit outside, and so I explored the cafes of the town, sitting in pleasant squares. In the Albaycín, it was pricy but there were often views of the Alhambra on the hilltop across the Durro river. In the new town, it was cheaper but lacked anything picturesque to look at. I found my way to Plaza San Miguel Bajo. From here I could see most of the city, and the blue haze that was hanging over it. Being above the haze made my viewpoint seem rarefied and peaceful.
Oct 29, 2006 in La Palma 2006
I had a weekend to spare after my observing run, and I had thought I might drive around the island. But I hadn’t got to Santa Cruz until late on the Saturday afternoon, so that just left Sunday. I set off south and thought I would see how far I got. It was sunny when I left Santa Cruz, and for the first twenty minutes the drive was great. The main road south climbed up inland, giving views over the sea and the cliffs. But then suddenly I was in thick cloud and more or less zero visibility. I had to drive at about 15 miles an hour for a lot of the way to Fuencaliente at the south end of the island. I parked up near Volcán San Antonio, one of the two recently active volcanoes at this end of the island. For half an hour I could do nothing but sit in the car as the rain lashed down. It stopped, eventually, and I rushed out to do a quick walk around the crater. Then I drove on to the other volcano, Teneguía, and climbed over scenery that emerged from the ground in 1971 to the summit. Through [...]
Oct 28, 2006 in La Palma 2006
Driving down the mountain was much less fun than driving up it had been. There was thick cloud most of the way down, and when I got to Santa Cruz it was raining. It kept on raining for the whole of the evening, and I decided that La Palma in October was not as nice as La Palma in August had been.
Oct 27, 2006 in La Palma 2006
During the fourth night, all was going smoothly. The air was dry, the skies were clear, and I was running as quickly through my observing programme as I could. Suddenly, after a couple of hours, the telescope control system started beeping – the humidity was higher than the telescope could take and I had to close everything down quickly. A few minutes later it had dropped right back down. I opened up again and carried on. It did this a couple more times during the night. At 5.45am I closed up and I couldn’t open again. By dawn, the mountain was in thick cloud. The visibility was about ten metres, and the NOT quickly disappeared from sight as I drove back to the Residencia.
Oct 26, 2006 in La Palma 2006
The next night was also lost. I spent a miserable twelve hours in the telescope control room, thinking how ridiculous it was that I’d travelled two thousands miles just to sit in a small room on top of a mountain in thick cloud and do nothing. But on the third night, as I drove up to the telescope, the cloud level was dropping and there was an incredible sunset. As I got to the lip of the caldera, I could see towns lighting up far below. It was wildly windy and the car was rocking but before long it was calm enough to open the dome, and I started actually observing.
Oct 24, 2006 in La Palma 2006
The next day when I rolled up the shutters in my room, I was taken aback to see that the perfect conditions had gone, and rain was whipping past my window. Conditions stayed appalling throughout the day. At 4pm I was supposed to meet my support astronomer at the Nordic Optical Telescope, so I could learn how to use it. I set off, but the rain was utterly torrential, and after a few minutes of driving at walking pace and not being able to see beyond the end of the bonnet, I turned back. The first night looked like being completely lost, but I decided to stay up until dawn anyway. A few people on other telescopes also optimistically stayed up; most went to bed. I kept an eye on the weather station data from within the comfort of the Residencia. At 5am there was drama. Conditions were suddenly dramatically improving, and observers were hurrying to their cars to get to the telescope. I stayed where I was: the NOT is the highest telescope on the island, and its weather sensors were still telling me it was too humid and too windy to open the dome. About twenty minutes later [...]
Oct 23, 2006 in La Palma 2006
After two and a half years out of astronomy, I returned to the field in September 2006. Shortly after that, I got an opportunity to go observing again, and my third trip to La Palma was wonderful. When I left astronomy, I didn’t know whether I would ever try to get back into it, and I thought that in all likelihood my two trips to La Palma would be my lot. On both of those two trips, the taxi to the mountain top had been a nightmare. This time, I was observing at a telescope which didn’t have cars on the mountain top for the observer’s use, so I needed to drive myself up. This was massively more fun than getting the taxi, and I was laughing like a fool as I swept around the hairpins. If I’d had a passenger, they would have been chundering within seconds. At the top, conditions were perfect. The humidity was so low that I got violent electric shocks off everything I touched, the skies were deep blue, and the stars shone brightly. Unfortunately I was not observing until the next night. I watched the sun set over a sea of clouds, then stayed [...]
Sep 24, 2006 in Santiago de Compostela 2006
We had a fairly huge Saturday night out. Spanish nightlife is all about late, and Santiago’s is later than anywhere else I’ve been. It’s still the only city in which I’ve been outside a club at five in the morning, with people saying it was still a bit early to be going in. They were right as well, it was really quiet. But by six it was heaving. We left at 8am, had a breakfast of churros con chocolate, then crashed for a few hours. We didn’t waste the whole of the next day though. We decided to go up a hill near town and then walk back down. Forest fires had torn across much of Galicia during the summer, and from on the hill we could see the scorched swathes across the green hills. Dave said the scene had been apocalyptic, as fires burned on the hillside and thick smoke drifted through the streets. It was hard to believe anything could burn here, the amount of rain we’d seen. Today it was dry, though, and we ambled back towards town.
Sep 22, 2006 in Santiago de Compostela 2006
Until Dave moved to Galicia, I can’t honestly say that I knew that the region had its own language, and a strong feeling of distinctness from the rest of Spain. Even though Franco was from here, he still rescinded the region’s autonomy and discouraged use of the language. We went to the Museo de Pobo Galego and learned more about these things. The museum building was as interesting as its contents. Apparently it used to be a nunnery, and the nun’s dormitories were reached via triple spiral staircases, allegedly to confuse impure Galicians trying to visit the nuns during the night.
Sep 21, 2006 in Santiago de Compostela 2006
I’d left Sweden in July with barely enough money for a bus fare into town. After that I’d got a horrific temp job which at least got the cash flow going again, before with amazing luck and fantastic timing, I got a job back in astronomy. I could afford to travel again, and with John and Dan I headed to Santiago de Compostela to visit Dave, who I hadn’t seen since we were in Ecuador eight months previously. The first time I’d been to Santiago, it was stunningly hot. This time it was emphatically not. Rain lashed down for most of the time we were there, which was apparently more typical for Galicia. We spent a lot of time in bars.
Jun 18, 2005 in Santiago de Compostela 2005
On a blazing hot weekend in June, I went to Santiago de Compostela to visit Dave, who used to be a physicist but is now an artist. John and Moh had gone out a couple of days earlier; Dan and I were more hard-working and only bunked a Friday off. We got to Santiago in the middle of the day, and seconds after leaving the plane, Dan had turned bright red. It was 38°C. Our main plan for the weekend was to go out lots. Our Friday night was quiet, by Spanish standards. We went out at about 1, checked out a load of bars, and got home at 6am. We then spent Saturday doing the required tourist itinerary for Santiago, which included a fun tour of the roof of the cathedral. Saturday night was a proper night out. We kicked off with an awesome meal at a seafood restaurant, then went to bars. At one end of Rua do Franco there is a bar called Paris, and at the other end is Dakar. The done thing is to work your way along from Paris to Dakar, and we of course followed the local custom. At 5am we went to [...]
Aug 03, 2003 in La Palma 2003
After my second night at the telescope, I drove up to the top of the mountain in the early morning sun. Like last time, the views were incredible and there was no-one else up there but me. To the north was a sea of clouds; to the south, I could see the chain of volcanic cones which runs down the spine of La Palma. In the distance I could see Tenerife, almost a hundred miles away but quite clear. After that I headed home. I spent one night at sea level in La Palma, and I had a little bit of time to look around. I hadn’t seen the place on my first trip, but now I discovered what a picturesque place it is. I wandered the cobbled streets, feeling a bit like I was jetlagged after two nights at the telescope. During my first trip I was still recovering from my African travels, and what with missing the flight on the way to La Palma, and then feeling wrecked by five nights of observing, I hadn’t really noticed what a beautiful island La Palma is. Now I could see that it was rugged and wild, but I didn’t have [...]
Aug 01, 2003 in La Palma 2003
My two nights of observing went well. The skies stayed completely clear, there were no technical hitches, and I even had time to observe something I hadn’t even planned to, which turned out to be only the fourth known star of a certain type in our entire galaxy of 200 billion stars. I was doing some long exposures of my objects, so I had time to get out and appreciate the night sky. Mars was at the time closer to the Earth than it had been for tens of thousands of years, and it shone brightly and redly.
Jul 31, 2003 in La Palma 2003
The first time I’d been to La Palma, I didn’t know too much about it until I was on the plane to Madrid. My boss had done all the hard work while I was off getting lost on African mountains. Two years later, the situation was very different: I was now the Principal Investigator on a proposal, and so it was much more under my own steam that I returned to the Canary Islands. By coincidence, I was observing on exactly the same dates I’d observed on in 2001. Then, the moon had been full, and Saharan dust had clogged the air. This time, there was no Kalima, and it was new moon, so the skies were properly dark. But just like last time, the taxi to the mountain top made me horribly car sick. I spent my first night on the mountain top recovering from that, enjoying the fresh mountain air, and getting into the night routine.
Aug 06, 2001 in La Palma 2001
At the end of our final night’s observing, the sea of clouds around the islands was blazing orange in the dawn light. It marked the end of a successful run, with only a couple of hours lost due to clouds. I grabbed a couple of hours sleep before our taxi arrived to take us back to sea level, and luckily this meant I was so tired I almost didn’t notice how carsick I felt as we twisted and turned back down. The journey home was uneventful but long. We flew to Tenerife, then to Barcelona, then to London, and so we spent all day in airports. By the time we got back I felt pretty shattered. I didn’t know where I’d be travelling next, I hoped it would be somewhere exciting but I also hoped I’d get to stay at home for more than a week before I was off again.
Aug 04, 2001 in La Palma 2001
We were observing at full moon. Observing with no moon in the sky is normally preferable, but for our purposes it didn’t matter too much, and bright time is easier to come by so that was what we asked for. It meant that I didn’t really see the sky particularly well, but it also made the landscape look interesting and weird at night. Our observations consisted of a never-ending succession of half-hour exposures, so I had plenty of time to go outside and set up night shots.
Aug 03, 2001 in La Palma 2001
The end of a night’s observing is always weird. You normally feel pretty tired, and after you’ve packed up in the control room you’re ready to crash. But then you walk outside and it’s a bright sunny day, and suddenly you’re not tired at all any more. It was pretty disorientating to then go back to the residencia, pull down the light-tight shutters and go to sleep. After our second night’s observing, I decided to go up to the very top of the mountain to appreciate the views. The Kalima was blowing hard, and dust and gravel were whipping about, but still, the island looked fantastic in the morning sun. In the distance I could see Tenerife, poking up out of the sea of clouds that covered everything. I was the only person on the mountain top.
Aug 01, 2001 in La Palma 2001
It had been incredibly dry and clear when I’d arrived at the mountain top, but while we were familiarising ourselves with the telescope during the afternoon before our run started, the weather sensors were showing that the humidity was steadily rising. Outside, the clear blue skies were turning grey. The cause was the Kalima, a hot wind carrying dust across from the Sahara. By the time the sun set, the atmosphere was so dusty that you couldn’t tell where the horizon was. I thought this would ruin our observations, particularly as it was full moon. But we could still find our objects, and at the huge magnification of the 2.5m telescope, the bright background wasn’t really a problem. So we observed. I went out during the night to see what I could see, but only bright stars were shining through the murk.
Jul 31, 2001 in La Palma 2001
In the morning I got a coffee on Gran Via, and then headed back out to Barajas. The flight had been booked so late that I’d had to go business class, which was a whole new experience for me. I got seat A1, and sat back and enjoyed the flight. Once we’d landed in La Palma I jumped in a taxi and headed straight for the mountain top. We passed through Santa Cruz, the island’s capital, took a sharp left and then wound our way upwards. The views over the Atlantic were impressive but pretty soon I wasn’t looking anywhere but straight ahead, in a futile attempt to stave off car sickness. The road was twisty but the driver was not into going slowly. We swung left, we swung right, we swung left and right, again and again and again, and I thought that I was going to throw up. I barely held it together, and when we arrived at the observatory after an hour, I staggered out and began to dread the journey back down in five days time. It was a fantastically clear day. We had an evening spare before our telescope time started, so I went for [...]
Jul 30, 2001 in La Palma 2001
When I got back from Africa I had the biggest sense of culture shock I’ve ever experienced. I walked around London, bewildered by the buildings, the noise, the lack of friendly conversation, and the pace of life. But I’d barely even unpacked my bags when I found out I’d be hitting the road again within days. My PhD supervisor had applied for time on the Isaac Newton Telescope in the Canary Islands, and he’d been successful, so a week after I’d stepped off the plane from Lilongwe, I stepped onto a plane to Madrid. My last journey had finished very eventfully, and this one carried on in a similar vein. The flight to Madrid was delayed, and I missed my connection to La Palma as a result. I saw this as an opportunity. I’d never been to Spain before, so I jumped at the chance to see a bit of the capital before heading out to the islands. I got myself booked onto a flight out the next day, and then set out to explore. I bought a Spanish-language guide book to Madrid. I’d learnt some Spanish in Central America so I was looking forward to practising. I headed for [...]