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).