Saturday 4th May
At cock crow Lesley, Wendy, Andy and I (plus the two dogs, for the pedants) were up and off into the Monfragüe Park. Our campsite was the nearest to the National Park, but it was still 14kms to the centre, too far to cycle, so we all crowded into our van and drove to the tiny village of Villa Real, at the heart of the National Park.
30 years ago the village was all but deserted, but the creation of the Park has seen it rebuilt and refurbished to provide, information, sustenance, shopping and accommodation for visitors. The park itself began as part of General Franco’s plan to create a paper industry in Extremadura, this largely ignored and forgotten part of Spain by planting 1000s of acres of eucalyptus trees. The resulting environmental opposition and Franco’s demise saw the trees being grubbed out and this fascinating wilderness being conserved as a National Wildlife Park. It is now a bird lovers’ paradise; as we shall see.
From the visitors’ centre, armed with a pair of their trusty maps, we were following the ‘Ruta Rojo’, a circular route of about 16kms that would take us to the lookout point of Castile Monfragüe and back again.
The park was stunning, the pictures don’t do it any justice at all. We crossed the river Tagus via the 15thCentury Cardinal’s Bridge. It is only because this part of Spain, like the UK, has had a very dry winter and spring that we were able to. Usually at this time of the year the bridge is under water as the river has been dammed as part of a hydroelectric and water conservancy scheme.
The walk seemed to take no time at all as our attention was continually split between the scenery and the awesome birds of prey that were continually overhead, and sometimes below us as we climbed higher.
As we made our way through groves of wild olive trees (easy to tell they are wild as their fruit is about the same size and shape of rabbits’ droppings) we disturbed a pair of dung beetles, busily rolling their prized possession along our path.
The Castile was built by the moors and then taken over by the Christian Spanish and became a hermitage. Now it gives wonderful views over the Park and of the aerial displays of the many different raptors that thrive here.
On our return journey we passed the Salto del Gitano (the Gypsy’s Jump), sheer cliffs of an Ordovician rock syncline, that are now home to one of the largest colonies of gryphon vultures in Spain. There were crowds of birders and tourists like us, all vying with each other to get just the right shot of these marvellous birds. Andy didn’t do too bad, did he?
The many distractions and the warmth meant that we were later than planned getting back to Villa Real but there was still time for a beer, while the dogs dried off from their cooling dip in the Tagus. It’s a good thing we did, because look what we found in the corner of the bar’s gazebo…
Back at the campsite there was just enough time to feed the dogs and make sure they were comfy in the vans before we met Valentin our birdwatching guide for the evening. And what a knowledgeable and nice chap he turned out to be. Over the course of four and a half hours he showed us and helped us film griffin vultures, blue rock thrushes, red deer, black storks, Egyptian vultures, black kites, a cuckoo! Bee-eaters, orchids and even a spoonbill that was a long way from home. As we drove from place to place, he kept up a constant stream of information about the park, the wildlife, the ecosystems, the area’s history and gave us a general insight into what it meant to be living in this part of the world. The jaunt ended with a picnic at sunset in the middle of the dehsa.
A fitting end to what has to be the most memorable day on our trip so far!
And last, but not least; perhaps my favourite snap of the day – a Gryphon Vulture and chick.