This June we did a new hiking tour starting in Madrid and exploring some amazing landscapes in the wilds of Soria, the sierras above the vineyards of La Rioja, the amazing canyons and the Camino de Santiago in Navarre and the Basque coast. We finished in wonderful Bilbao. Thanks to all of the group for coming and especially to Ellen for organising the group.
Have a look at the photos for an idea of our hikes and a few of the sights. For me the landscapes along the Duero river and the canyons of Soria and Navarre were real highlights. The Basque Coast was gorgeous as always and we discovered some wonderful routes in La Rioja!
Please get in touch if you´d like to try a similar trip and we´ll be delighted to help.
©Richard Cash, Alto Aragón. 2018
This year myself and two friends – Borja and Josemi – have been busy establishing a bird photography hide in the desert steppe area of Monegros near Zaragoza. We have dug a small pond which we keep replenished with water and two hides – one for the morning light and one for the evening. The work is gradually bearing fruit as birds begin to trust the site and some fantastic specimens are coming to drink.
I spent an evening there this week and saw some great birds – the highlight were Rollers and we also enjoyed watching hundreds of Starlings coming to drink and wash and saw our first Black Bellied Sandgrouse (sorry no pics) which bodes well for the future. We´re hoping for Bonelli´s and Golden Eagle plus Hen and Montagues Harriers – we´ll keep you posted!
Please get in touch if you´d like to try hide photography and/or birding with us in Monegros. Among other species we see Great and Little Bustards, 4 Eagle Species, Black Bellied and Pin tailed Sandgrouse and many Larks including the elusive Duponts Lark!
Red Billed Chough
©Richard Cash, Alto Aragón. 2018
Join us on this one-off tour to hike the Via Vicentina Coastal route, discover the wild side of the Alentejo and Algarve regions, explore beautiful towns and villages and the wonderful city of Lisbon. Guaranteed departure.
30 October – 14 November 2018
This two week tour of Southern Portugal is designed for doing in the Fall when the best weather and the most attractive hikes are along the amazing Portuguese coast. There are 6 days of walking the Via Vicentina Fisherman´s path and stunning hikes from further inland out towards the coast. There are also days spent discovering the Sado and Formosa estuaries with desert islands, amazing bird life and beautiful fishing settlements. We´ll also explore Lisbon, Evora, some fascinating medieval towns and out of the way villages on the coast and inland.
The hotels are mostly privately run casa rural style accommodation, individual, personal and of a great standard. Food in Portugal is excellent and plentiful and the local wines are a revelation as many never get exported.
Portugal has a surprisingly different feel to Spain with a relaxed, easy going atmosphere.
Meals included: B= Breakfast, L = Picnic Lunch, D = Dinner
Day 1. 30 oct. Hotel in Alcacer do Sal LD
Leave Lisbon Airport for the Sado Estuary Nature reserve. We´ll get there by ferry across from Setubal to the Troia peninsula which has pristine Atlantic beaches on the Western side and the Sado Estuary to the East. We´ll hike along the beach and then explore the estuary with it´s fishing settlements and wonderful birdlife. We should see Flamingos and many wading birds. We stay in the riverside town of Alcacer do Sal in a charming old hotel. There are plenty of wonderful restaurants in town, mostly along the river.
Day 2. 31 oct. Hotel in Alcacer do Sal BLD
Early morning birding foray to the Sado Estuary nature reserve. Then, after a late breakfast we´ll do another hike in the area to discover more of this wild coastline including 2000 year old Roman salt pans and dock – remains of what was once the biggest fish processing settlement in the Roman Empire. A boat trip to see Bottle Nosed Dolphins which uniquely breed in the estuary is an optional activity here.
Day 3 1 nov 5. Hotel in Vila Nova de Milfontes BLD
Today we head South and do an 18 km hike out across beautiful farmland, stands of Cork Oak and native forest from the village of Cercal de Alentejo out to the coast at Porto Covo. Porto Covo is where the Via Vicentina coastal trail starts. We´ll then drive to our base for the next 3 nights at Vila Nova de Milfontes a lovely small resort town at a rivermouth which is well situated to access the coastal trail we´ll be hiking over the next few days.
Day 4. 2 nov 5. Hotel in Vila Nova de Milfontes BLD
Following the Via Vicentina from Porto Covo to Vila Nova. The 20 km route runs along clifftops and a succession of stunning and very different beaches from pebbles, spectacular dunes and the constantly changing beach of Milfontes.
The sand dunes’ biodiversity and plant life is remarkable with a vast array of amazing colours, aromas and shapes. These plants are true masters of adaptation in this hostile environment and have to put up with poor quality soil, a dry season that can last over six months and a constant buffeting by the strong, salty winds, and you will see that the most obvious adaptation is their shape.
Pines, Rosemary and Rockrose are bent nearly horizontal and thus better adapted to these harsh conditions. Some of these plant species are endemic to this coast and cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
Day 5. 3 nov 6. Hotel in Vila Nova de Milfontes BLD
Continuing along the Via Vicentina, today 15km from Vila Nova to Almograve. The going is easier than yesterday with more clifftop hiking and less dunes. Stunning views, stone age quarries and the constant sound of wind and waves. A fabulous day!
Day 6. 4 nov Hotel near Odemira BLD
Day 3 of our Via Vicentina walk takes us 22km from Almograve to Zambujeira do Mar past gorgeous beaches , ochre sandstone cliffs formed when this part of the Earth´s crust was in the tropics and we´ll see White Storks which, unusually, nest on the cliffs here. Today we move inland to a delightful rural hotel with lovely rooms, a salt water pool and surrounded by olive groves. Our hosts are very kind and interesting people and they provide wonderful dinners and fabulous breakfasts!
Day 7. 5 Nov Hotel near Odemira BLD
The fourth and final stage of the coastal path (18km) is a gem with some even more stunning beaches – Alteirinhos, Carvalhal, Machados and Amália on the way to Azenha do Mar, with its natural fishing harbour. To top it all enjoy one of the most outstanding views in the area: Odeceixe beach seen from the majestic Ponta em Branco cliffs. This part of Portugal is also the original habitat of the common rabbit – all rabbits on Earth descend from the original stock from this area!
Day 8. 6 Nov Hotel near Odemira BD
Free day to relax after the previous days treks. Enjoy the pool, take a walk from the hotel and visit the nearby small town of Odemira. An optional kayak trip on the River Mira is really recommended.
Day 9. 7 Nov Hotel near Burgao BLD
Drive South from Odemira to Vila do Bispo from where we´ll follow a 14km trail out to the South Western tip of Europe – Cape St Vincent. Where the lighthouse is there used to be a monastery and our path follows the Vale Santo pilgrims route before we hike along the cliffs to the Cape. In the Fall there are many migrant birds to be seen in the area and the chalk soil hosts some interesting plant life. The views are magnificent and the Cape is a mythical spot! After the hike we´ll have a short transfer to our hotel in Burgau. The sunsets from here are wonderful!
Day 10. 8 Nov Hotel in Tavira BLD
Drive one hour East stopping at the lovely hilltop town of Silves on the way. Silves was the Moorish capital of the Algarve region and still has it´s castle, winding streets and a medieval feel. We continue to Tavira which is perhaps the prettiest of Algarve´s coastal towns and has the biggest fish market in the region. Tavira is a great base for exploring the desert islands and waterways of the Ria Formosa nature reserve. This reserve is a barrier of islands – mostly uninhabited which has a very rich bird life and a unique atmosphere at the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula.
Day 11. 9 Nov Hotel in Tavira BLD
Around the Ria de Formosa. We can explore by ferry or kayak and explore a desert island on foot. Fabulous! .
Day 12. 10 Nov. Casa rural near Monsaraz BLD
Transfer 2.45hrs North to Monsaraz. This medieval, hilltop town dominates the surrounding landscape and we´ll do a nice hike through vineyards and farmland from our accommodation at a really special old farm situated beneath the town. This area is one of the best in Europe for stargazing as there is very little light pollution and it is at a fairly high altitude. It´s well worth getting out the telescope to identify the constellations and the Milky Way can be seen in all its glory! The local Reguengos wines are excellent and well worth a try – Portugal has a huge amount of different wines and a surprising number of grape varieties not found anywhere else. It´s fun to be surprised by new tastes!
We´ll do a hike around the hill town of Monsaraz.
Day 13. 11 Nov. Hotel in Evora BLD
Morning walk from Almieira – another nearby medieval town on the edge of Lake Alqueva. This is lovely country of olive groves, open woodland and pasture. In the afternoon we´ll drive to Évora visit a local pottery (optional – otherwise we can do a longer hike) where several producers make earthenware in the same way they have for 2000 years or more. Transfer to Evora. This is a fascinating walled city with a Roman temple, magnificent cathedral complete with catacombs full of bones, a buzzing main square and medieval streets with some great shops and restaurants. Near the town are some of Europe´s most impressive stone circles and menhirs. We stay in a really nice hotel within the city walls.
Day 14. 12 Nov. Hotel in the Alfama district of Lisbon BLD
1hr.30 Transfer to your hotel – a really nice place in the Alfama district – the oldest part of the city looking out over the River Tejo. Depending on arrival time the city has some wonderful areas to explore and some excellent museums. One of my favourites is the tile museum, a fascinating display of an art form the Portuguese have made their own.
Day 15. 13 Nov. Hotel in the Alfama district of Lisbon BLD
Sightseeing in Lisbon – The Belem area down on the Tejo river is fascinating with its association with Vasco de Gama, the voyages of discovery and monuments paid for using the colossal wealth that the spice trade and the Portuguese empire brought to the city. The late Gothic/early Renaissance Jeronimos monastery and church is an example of what got built when money was no object! Walking in the parks and along the riverfront is delightful and there is a great market here at the weekends. The old Moorish Alfama district around the hotel is also fascinating with streets winding around it´s hill, lovely small squares and some nice restaurants where you can hear Fado – Portugal´s haunting signature music.
An article on what to do in Lisbon:
Day 16. 14 Nov. Airport transfer B
The end of your trip! Its about 25 minutes drive to the city/airport.
Please get in touch if you´d like to join this tour and we´ll be delighted to help.
Trip Price: 3000 euros per person sharing in en suite double rooms. All transport within Portugal, Guiding and meals as specified in the itinerary (wine included with dinners) are included in the price. Maximum group size is 8 people
©Richard Cash, Alto Aragón. 2018
We´ve just finished a truly wonderful trip to the mountains of North West Spain with a group of 8 Americans.
After a wet Spring the weather finally came good and we had good days with any rain we had falling in the evenings. The mountains were at their absolute best – greener than ever and with one of the best displays of alpine flowers for years.
We started in Llanes on the coast where the group had done a couple of days hiking along the beautiful Coastal Camino de Santiago and drove via Oviedo to Somiedo – three days of truly idyllic hiking followed and the hotel – a beautifully restored ´Palacio´couldn´t have been better. This area is perhaps my favourite in Northern Spain – the scenery, the lack of people – we hardly saw anyone on some of the most beautiful hikes you can do anywhere – people´s genuine hospitality in the villages and the traditional pastoral way of life which still hangs on in this corner of 21st Century Europe.
The next part of the trip was in the Picos near the famous peak of Naranjo de Bulnés/Uriellu. Again we stayed in a great hotel which gave us the best dinners of the trip including superb salads, great fish and locally produced beef. Again we had some great hikes with a classic route up to the foot of Uriellu and another circuiting around a less frequented sierra to the North. Here there were high hay meadows, a long descent down a ridge with wonderful views and a beautiful labyrinth of karstic limestone with gnarled old Beech trees where we felt as if we would see a Hobbit any moment!
Next was the Garganta del Cares Gorge – a stunning 16km hike with sheer limestone walls and the river in full flow. This is the one hike that everybody does in the Picos and with good reason.
Three days in Valdeon followed, first with a day to relax and enjoy this valley which is really quiet compared to other parts of the Picos and which has some of the best hiking. Next day we did a circuit around the high valley with a sea of mist below us as we walked in bright sunshine. Apart from a shepherd we saw no one else all day. Carlene found some Boletus mushrooms which we were thrilled to find and I promised to prepare them for a picnic. Afterwards we felt as if we had dreamed the hike as it had been so beautiful. Next day we followed the old route towards the Liébana Valley – another great hike finishing by the cable car at Fuente Dé and stayed in a nice village auberge with a nice, homely restaurant. Next day we hiked the trails between some high, isolated farming villages in the hills. I took my cook stove and a frying pan and, for our lunch, we cooked the Boletus/Porcini mushrooms with scrambled eggs and some local pancetta (dry cured bacon). Delicious!
On our way back to Bilbao we stopped on the coast for a really nice hike near San Vicente and then had a great seafood lunch by the beach – an hour later we were in Bilbao saying goodbye. I was sad to see everyone go as we´d had a really special trip together. Everyone had a great time and got on really well. I couldn´t ask for better company! Thanks all for coming and for being such nice folks!
Please get in touch if you´d like to plan a similar tour with us and we´ll be delighted to help.
On a hike in the Pyrenees, Brian Jackman finds bird life in scale with the peaks
12:01AM GMT 09 Feb 2002
DOWN from the cliffs of the Pena del Sol, over the gorse-covered mountains of Aragon, a pair of giant birds came gliding. Even without binoculars I could see their reptilian eyes and knew what they were. Their diamond-shaped tails – and wingspan of almost 10 feet – were a giveaway. They were lammergeiers; the condors of the Pyrenees.
These great raptors survive by exploiting a unique niche in the food chain, carrying the bones of animal carcasses to a great height and then dropping them on the rocks below to get at the marrow. Hence their Spanish sobriquet, quebrantahuesos (the bone-breakers).
Spain is the lammergeier’s last European stronghold. Even here, only 77 pairs survive, most of them in Aragon, where they occupy two very different worlds. One is the nightingale valleys and red-rock canyonlands of the southern foothills; the other the alpine pastures and limestone crags of the High Pyrenees.
The best way to explore these realms of the bone-breaker is to spend a week with Richard Cash, a former teacher who came to Spain to learn the language but fell under the spell of the mountains and stayed. With Nicki, his wife, he runs Alto Aragon, which specialises in Pyrenean walking holidays.
My week had begun in Loarre, an ideal base from which to explore the surrounding foothills and canyons. Above the town on a rocky outcrop stands Spain’s oldest fortified castle. This stronghold of the kings of Aragon, built in the 11th century to hold back the Moors, is now just a romantic ruin. A wedding was about to take place and the sweet scent of cannas in the chapel contrasted strongly with the writhing beasts and Dark Age warriors carved in stone on its Romanesque capitals.
The countryside around Loarre is spectacular; a Wild West of echoing canyons and glowing rocks. All it needs are a few cacti and you could shoot a John Wayne movie here. Yet the terraced groves of gnarled olives and almonds tell you this could be nowhere but Spain.
On our first morning’s walk, having left the car in the village of Murillo de Gallego, we set off along a medieval mule track and were at once swallowed up in an Arcadian world of birds and flowers. Nightingales throbbed from thickets of May blossom, and bee-eaters shrilled as they passed overhead.
In front of us loomed the rock towers of the Mallos de Aguero, a row of skittles turned to stone, their bald red domes soaring hundreds of feet into the blue. Between the pillars a stony path led us into a deep canyon, to a cave in whose cool mouth we stopped to picnic on air-dried ham, sheep’s cheese and apricots.
A long siesta, then down from the hills, retracing our steps through the almond groves and the nightingale valleys where the corn was green, the poppies bloomed and each olive tree stood becalmed in its own pool of shade, back to the bliss of a cold beer in Loarre.
Next day we followed a different trail, climbing steadily across huge slopes of gorse and rock rose, the air spiked with the pungence of wild thyme crushed underfoot and the cries of cuckoos floating up from the fields below.
At the top stood a hermitage, deserted now, with sweeping views over the plains of Huesca, and beside it a ruined 11th-century watchtower presiding over these ancient frontier lands where Moors and Christians fought to the death 1,000 years ago.
We walked on among the mountain flowers – pale spires of asphodel, Pyrenean bluebells, the nodding heads of wild tulips – until we came to the lip of a canyon. On the far side, separated from us by a yawning gulf of sunlit space, rose another mass of colossal red pinnacles. These were the Mallos de Riglos, home to Spain’s largest breeding colony of griffon vultures.
The birds were everywhere, hunched like gargoyles on ledges white-washed with generations of droppings. But as they launched themselves into the void, flight transformed them into creatures of matchless soaring grace.
Griffons are nature’s sanitation squad. Every day they set out to hunt, scanning the ground for the dead sheep and goats that provide the bulk of their food. Until recently, local farmers disposed of their dead animals by leaving them to the vultures. Since the BSE outbreak, this practice has been banned by Brussels and the vulture population is in crisis.
As we gained the ridge above the Mallos, I saw for the first time the snow-covered mountains of the High Pyrenees, the savage summits that run like watchtowers along the spine of Europe’s wildest frontier.
For centuries the Pyrenees have stood aloof from the mainstream of history; a land apart, known only to shepherds, hunters and smugglers. Today the EU has put paid to smuggling, forcibly retiring the men who once trod the secret ways of Spain’s porous frontier. Yet the mountains themselves are as wild as ever, as I discovered when we moved on into the Hecho Valley for the rest of the week.
With its cobbled lanes and higgledy-piggledy houses, Hecho village reminded me of Mevagissey; except that its rooftops are crowned by pepperpot chimneys of a style unique to these mountain valleys, and even the humblest houses have rounded stone doorways that would not disgrace a Romanesque church.
From here one day we set out to explore the neighbouring Anso Valley, following a stretch of the GR11, one of the “Gran Rutas” that cover Spain with a network of long-distance footpaths.
At the head of the valley we followed a stream into the great patrimonial beech forests that are one of the glories of the Pyrenees, until at last we emerged above the treeline where orchids lit the alpine meadows and chamois were moving across aprons of scree still piebald with winter snow.
Most days we carried a picnic but, today being a Sunday, we retraced our steps to the Borda Chiquin, halfway back down the Anso Valley. In Spanish a borda is a barn; but in these high mountain valleys it has become a synonym for cheap and cheerful country restaurants where you can eat like a king. My three-course lunch started with migas – breadcrumbs fried in lamb fat with garlic and wild mushrooms, followed by lamb cutlets grilled over a wood fire and a splendid sheep’s cheese from the neighbouring Roncal Valley. All this plus red wine, salad, bread and coffee, for about £7.50.
Yet even this was upstaged by the gourmet treat I enjoyed one night in Hecho. The Casa Blasquico – known locally as Gabi’s after its owner, Gabriella Coarasa – was once just a humble village fonda. Today, its fame has spread far beyond the Hecho Valley; and here, in a small room decorated with needlepoint pictures and “good food” awards, I was treated to home-made foie gras, wild mushrooms, salmon mousse, a Basque-style fish soup and a stupendous main dish of roast lamb.
Higher up the Hecho Valley is a church founded by Charlemagne, and beyond it a narrow gorge, the Boca del Infierno – Hell’s Mouth – whose sheer cliffs magnify the rush of waterfalls. Higher still a few brown bears linger like a legend. One, a notorious sheep-killer known as Camille, had hibernated in a cave all winter beneath the limestone massif of Pena Forca; but they are seldom seen, said Richard.
On our last day we toiled up a side valley of the Hecho towards the mountain refuge of Gabardito. In mid-morning, emerging from the wooded depths of the Barranco Aguerri, we stepped out on to a shelf of sheep-nibbled turf to see the 8,800ft summit of Bisaurin, the region’s highest mountain, rushing into the sky above us.
Close to the snow line we entered a corrie with two shallow tarns surrounded by daffodils, where horses were grazing, sheep bells ringing and marmots sunning themselves ouside their burrows. “Of all the places in the Pyrenees, this is the one I love best,” said Richard as we picnicked in the shade of a rock. And, as if on cue, a pair of lammergeiers went sailing past, huge wings outstretched, their shadows flying after them over the flowers.
- Brian Jackman travelled as a guest of Alto Aragón 0034 616452337 altoaragon.co.uk).
The Pyrenees, The Foothills and The Desert Steppe
Long Weekend & 1 Week Birding Trips
Wallcreepers, Lammergeier, Great Bustard, Raptors,
Northern Spain has an astonishingly diverse range of unspoiled habitats and a correspondingly huge number of bird species. We have led many birding trips and our local knowledge helps birders see plenty of species at most times.year. We´ll typically see more than 100 species in a week.
The 3000+ metre peaks, alpine meadows, forests and glaciers of the high Pyrenees The desert steppe of Monegros is less than 120km from Each habitat has it´s own specialist birds – from Wallcreepers, Ptarmigan, Snow Finch and Lammergeier in the high mountains to Duponts Lark, Great and Little Bustard and Bonellis Eagle in the steppe areas.
The scenery is fantastic throughout and the flowers and butterflies add an extra dimension to our birding excursions.
The area is a mecca for raptors with Golden, Bonelli´s, Booted and Short Toed Eagles plus the majestic Lammergeier, many Griffon and Egyptian vultures and possibly a few Black Vultures which are beginning to return to the Pyrenees. Harriers are well represented with Marsh, Montagus and Hen Harriers.
We have a hide in the Hecho Valley which is ideal for raptor photography.
In the alpine meadows we´ll see Alpine Accentor, Water Pipit, Dipper, Rock Thrush, Northern Wheatear Chough – red and yellow billed – while in the high Beech and Silver Fir forests there are Goldcrests, Black Woodpecker and a very few White backed Woodpecker. We may also see Goshawk and the pines are home to Coal and Crested Tits.
Further down the high valleys we´ll see Alpine Swift, Crag Martin and Rock Bunting near the cliffs plus Bonellis Warbler, Ortolan Bunting and Iberian Chiffchaff in valley woodland. Kestrels and Hobby are often seen.
Descending the Valley we´ll see Cirl Bunting, Black and Red Kites, Eagles, Hobby, Kestrel, Red Legged Partridge, Red backed Shrike, Black Redstart, Corn Bunting and we´ll often see Little Owl perched on ruined barns. In the Juniper scrub Dartford Warbler are often flitting around.
Along the River Aragón there are colonies of Bee-eaters, many Golden Orioles, Woodchat Shrike, Zitting Cisticola, Cettis Warbler, Hoopoe, Whitethroat, Woodlark, Spotted and Pied flycatchers, Grey and White Wagtail, Kingfisher, many Black Kites, Booted Eagle, Sand Martin, Grey Heron and Marsh Harrier.
The arable farmland nearby has many Crested Lark, all three Harriers, Short toed Eagle, Whinchat and Stonechat, Iberian Grey Shrike, Tawny Pipit in the dry ´badlands´, Rock Sparrow, Great Bustard (in the Fall) and during Spring and Fall migration we see a huge variety of birds including European Crane, Lapwing, Black Stork, Curlew, Snipe and Osprey.
Descending to the foothills with its Almond and Olive orchards, mediterranean scrub and majestic conglomerate rock pinnacles we find many of the same species plus Sardinian and Subalpine Warblers, Blue Rock Thrush, Black Wheatear, Hoopoe, Serin and good chances of seeing Bonellis Eagle and many other raptors.
Further South we reach the desert steppe area of Monegros, a unique dry habitat with arable fields and stands of ancient Spanish Juniper trees. Here we´ll see the huge Great Bustard often in large groups, the Little Bustard, Stone Curlew, many eagles – Bonelli´s, Golden, Booted and Short toed, many Harriers and several species of larks including the hard to spot Duponts Lark and the more apparent Calandra Lark, Short toed and Lesser Short toed Larks. Another highlight are the stunning desert specialists the Pin-tailed and Black bellied Sandgrouse
For hide photography the drinking pools made for sheep are perfect spots to see many of the above birds close up as they come in to drink and wash. We know some excellent locations!
Please see the bird list from a long weekend in the Pyrenees