Articles in ‘Montseny’
Written by Lucy Brzoska
White tufts were floating up into the stratosphere. It was liberation time for poplar wool, with clouds of the stuff trapped among the grass like studio mist. It was also the time when flowers explode. There were places where one species had rioted to the exclusion of all others. A ditch in Campins was thickly covered in Tufted Vetch and above the field the slope was pink with Snapdragons.
Water was rushing down the varied slopes of Montseny. Where the GR5 climbs out of Campins, streams were pouring into brimming irrigation tanks. Swallows were bathing on the wing, skimming in and out of the water like stones, and then preening on the wire. Buzzard calls were coming from the farmhouse roof: the Montseny starlings do a good impersonation.
The path takes you through endlessly changing habitats. In the sheltered cork oak wood, it almost felt like summer, partly because of the steepness of the track. Among the white rock roses, filaments glittered in the aromatic heat: the micro moths. Hairstreaks (Callophrys rubi) blended with the leaves, both matt green.
The route levels off by open fields, heavily grazed by cows, who often plod along the track in search of more succulent fare. I noticed some austere purple stems among the pines. Some were producing violet flowers, with the familiar orchid shape: it was the Violet Limodore or Violet Bird’s-nest Orchid, a chlorophyll-free saprophyte.
Among the pine needles were pure white Stars of Bethlehem, whose petals have cool green stripes underneath. They’d survived the cows, though their leaves had been bitten off. A froghopper was emerging from the safety of its blob of spit.
I tiptoed through the farmyard, vainly hoping not to wake up the guard dog, who bursts out of his wooden kennel en cue, like an enraged cuckoo in a clock. The outraged snarls fading away, I found a meadow tangled up with a dizzy array of flowers: Tassle hyacinths, euphorbias, daisies, buttercups, plantains, vetch, more Stars of Bethlehem embedded deep down, Crimson Peas, poppies.
If you look closely at a flower in May, you’re almost bound to see a spider – dashing to the other side like a woodpecker round a tree trunk – or a technicolour beetle. My guide to Montseny suggests this hairy individual, with its red and black stripes and turquoise head, is a Trichodes apiarius, or Bee beetle. Its larvae prey on beehives, while the adult visits flowers in search of pollen and small insects.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
The woods in Montseny are at their brightest in late March. They’ve still to grow a roof, and the light pours down. We’d wandered off the track, picking a way over rocks buried in last year’s leaves, and sat down among dazzling celandines, next to a stream turned into a torrent by melting snow from Turó de l’Home.
Stephanie had just poured us tea, when a shadow came fluttering, and something settled behind me. Looking round, I was amazed to see a Camberwell Beauty sitting by my elbow. I took a photograph, trying to move as little as possible, which explains the strange angle.
After a winter of hibernation, the rich mahogany wings were threadbare, like old velvet curtains. The pale yellow border looked like fragile parchment. The blue spots, which can be an intense indigo, had also faded. But despite this, it was a magnificent sight in the woods, still only on the verge of spring.
Underneath the wings are dark brown with a pale edge, which helps with identification when the butterfly is flying high in the tree tops.
And then there were four of us: another Camberwell Beauty had arrived and was perched next to us on a branch. The two noticed each other, and went whirling off together.
That day the sun roused many butterflies out into the open. Brimstones were nectaring on dandelions – they had thousands to chose from. A missing piece from its wing couldn’t detract from this stunning Peacock feasting on catkins.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
There was something strange down there in the water.
I was walking the GR 5 from Sant Celoni to Montseny village, and had just spotted a grape hyacinth. There’d been violets and speedwell along the way, but this was the first real spring bloom of the year. I went up to have a look at the raceme of tightly clustered flowers, ranging from dark purple at the bottom with delicate white frills, to bright lilac on top, where they are sterile.
The grape hyacinth was growing just by a concrete irrigation pond, full of murky green water. Something in the depths grabbed my attention.
It was a lump of toads, warty, saggy and stretched into a kind of ball. I wasn’t even sure they were alive until a hind leg kicked and the ball drifted to a new spot.
After watching a while, I realised a gargantuan struggle was taking place. At the bottom of the pile was an enormous mottled female, and clinging to her were at least four males, each a different colour – ranging from mustard yellow to dark grey. Each was intent on levering off his rivals and manoeuvring into a better position. Webbed feet were rammed into faces. Heads were squashed under limbs. The shape of the ball evolved and floated about at the bottom of the pond.
Intense competition like this can cause female toads to drown: they are bigger than the males but not strong enough to shrug off so many persistent suitors. It struck me as a system gone askew, with an inexplicable imbalance between the sexes. But Mel on the forum explained that males are usually the first to arrive at the spawning sites, rearing to go. So the first females to show up are outnumbered and put under enormous pressure.
An unattached male swam to the corner of the pond, iridescent orange-red eyes visible above the surface – a common toad’s most attractive feature – and began calling to summon more females. It was an urgent but gentle sound – common toads don’t have vocal sacs - similar to that of a coot.
At the other end of the pond were strings of small black eggs, freshly laid.
It had turned into a spring walk. Turo de l’Home’s snowcap was melting fast, and there was a roar in the beech woods, as fierce white torrents gushed downhill. Butterflies were out in the sun: Brimstone, Cleopatra and Peacock. At the end, when you have to run to catch the bus in Montseny village, there was a grassy bank covered in white violets.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
The plan was to walk along the small river that comes down from Montseny to Aiguafreda, marked on the map as the Riera de Pujol. It was a bit disconcerting to find a bone-dry river bed, but a few shallow puddles on the outskirts of Aiguafreda encouraged me to keep walking.A kingfisher hunting by a small dam was an even more hopeful sign.
The sporadic pools were linking up.A waterfall crashed down, where a man stood immersed up to his chin, eyes closed, exulting in the cold water.Up on the dusty track, the sun was scorching hot. Two women from the fire-prevention squad had parked their jeep and were refilling water bottles at the spring. I followed a path that dipped steeply under the trees.
It was like stepping into a church. At the end of the vault of trees there was a flat gravelly bank.Beyond that point the river deepened and levelled off, and the water grew still.On one side were smooth grey rocks, where a dipper had been perching, and the other bank was a tangle of vegetation in full blast of the sun.Boots flung off, I cooled down in the shade, and observed the scene.
There was a general commotion: iridescent damselflies flashed turquoise, clusters of butterflies fed, mated and basked, quantities of spindly water striders littered the water and light dappled on every surface.As usual when you sit in one spot for long, dimensions began shifting.Soon I was looking at a vast wilderness river, flowing by sheer grey cliffs and impenetrable jungle.Then I’d wade out into the canyon and, with water just above my knees, the world would shrink again.
The sunny bank was bustling with butterflies.Dusty pink Hemp-agrimony and a large dome of Wild Angelica were the most popular attractions, attended by a constant crowd of Silver-washed Fritillaries (Argynnis paphia).Any butterfly that fell into the water soon disappeared under wiry clumps of striders.
Most beguiling of all were the Beautiful Demoiselles (Calopteryx virgo), whose name goes straight to the point. The males would display their wings in a flash of dark blue silk, like peacocks.
The females are very metallic, a white spot on each of their four bronze wings, their abdomens a coppery green.
An impish damselfly perched on a twig, as if flown straight out of Dr. Caligari’s cabinet. Though in silhouette, the dark band of its narrow wings revealed it to be a female Copper Demoiselle (Calopteryx haemorrhoidalis).
Engrossed in damselflies, legs pleasantly chilled, a sharp pain made me look down.The mob of water striders were honing in for a nibble.
I retreated to the cool gravelly bank and lay listening to the water tumbling over rocks to fill the canyon. A waspish Large Pincertail (Onychogomphus uncatus – see Forum) settled on a stone. The dipper returned, flying low up-river.From this angle its white breast looked enormous.A Silver-washed Fritillary floated down like an autumn leaf.Occasionally a gust of wind would come up the valley, roaring in the tree tops, making the branches creak.It was a reminder of the hot world out there.It felt good down in the cool green vault.
I began to hear the sound of car doors slamming – post-siesta people coming to stock up with spring water.I walked up-river for a while, rock-hopping, and surprised a sparrowhawk who’d also been quiet down under the trees.
The road up to Santa Fe is one of countless twists. You climb, swinging to the right and the left, until finally you take another turn and find you’ve left the Mediterranean behind. It was intoxicating to be out of the coastal heat and in an under-canopy world of streams, fungus, and beetles that glow like sapphires.
We’d planned a short walk to a rocky outcrop known as the “Empedrat de Morou”, a good place for lunch. But an hour later, we were still within a stone’s throw of the visitors’ centre. It’s what happens when coastal urbanites are let lose in a completely diferent habitat.
Chafer beetles (Hoplia caerulea) were scattered in profusion near the stream, shining in the deep deciduous shade. We watched them stretch their limbs and use their hooked extremities to negotiate the leaves. Then there was the enticing pool by the tree roots, where tadpoles lurked, legs sticking out at right angles (identification pending). But by the time the Camberwell Beauty flew past, pursuit would’ve been stretching patience. On we went, towards lunch on the Empedrat de Morou.
The route took us through coppiced chestnuts and into the solemn beech wood, among large granite boulders. But clearings were frequent and all had butterfly activity, to the consternation of those with growing hunger pangs. A Comma (Polygonia c-album) was chased away to thwart more photography sessions. Then a stunning Queen of Spain Fritillary (Issoria lathonia) settled on the track, marked like a cheetah above, and with large silvery spots below.
Despite gnawing hunger, it was worth holding out to the Empedrat de Morou. The rocks are smooth, the view inspiring, and there were even chives growing in the cracks, for forager Nick to spice up his sandwiches. Other fissures were filled with white flowering stonecrop, possibly Sedum hirsutum. While eating you could look over the Santa Fe valley at the Turo del’Home, partially hidden in the clouds.
The mist suddenly went roaming and came swirling around us, so we ducked down into the woods again. Although the trail was simple, we managed to lose it, and for a while were plunging ankle-deep in beech leaves and marshy soil. All kinds of fungus had emerged after last week’s rain, with thick white stems and caps like freshly baked bread.
We hit solid ground again near the small reservoir, which used to provide electricity for the Santa Fe hotel. There were Heath spotted orchids (Dactylorhiza maculata) and wild strawberries by the path. We went past a stream where water slid over the rocks in a succession of pools and waterfalls – an otter’s playgound. Monica did some sliding too, but luckily had dry clothes to get changed into.
On the way down, back to the coast, we pulled over for a while and walked about in the warm light mist. Vapours were pouring up the slope, like smoke out of a chimney. The roadsides were filled with colour: Nettle-leaved bellflowers (Campanula trachelium), Yarrow (Achillea millefoium), and vivid Pinks (Dianthus seguieri) and Violets (Viola bubanii). The last moments of calm were savoured before going home.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
Near the Bellver farmhouse there’s a sign depicting a walker with an arrow and the legend “La Calma”. Tranquility, this way.
The Catalan word calma can also be translated into the Spanish altiplano or meseta, and the sign points to the undulating, largely treeless plateau on Montseny, Pla de la Calma.
I’d started walking in Figaró, at the bottom of the gloomy Congost valley, following a relentlessly steep track, coloured purple thanks to the lurid sandstone of the area. It’s the quickest way up on foot but still a relief when you finally round the Tagamanent hill and join the GR 5 on the grassy terraces of Bellver.
A day of spring had arrived from out of the blue to finish off February. Sitting on a slab of warm purple sandstone, I reviewed the landmarks: la Mola, the horizontal stripes of the Cingles de Berti, (the opposite, even steeper wall of the Congost Valley), the tips of the Montserrat peaks, and over to Barcelona, the Norman Foster tower and Tibidabo church. In between, a light veil of mist lay draped on the Valles.
Legs recovered, I followed the arrow. Walking across Pla de la Calma puts a spring in your step. Montseny’s steep, thickly wooded slopes are left behind, the sky opens up and you feel at eye-level with the Pyrenees. Down in the valley, noise gets trapped and amplified: a barking dog is answered by a hundred echoes, a passing quad drills into your brain. But up here, small sounds drift free and clear in the stillness: lark song, raven conversation, the hum of bees. Fieldfares were everywhere, flying ahead, briefly perching on tree tops before fleeing further. All day long I herded fieldfares across la Calma.
The main track takes you across to Collformic and the foot of Matagalls, still capped with snow. I turned off, walking among broom, juniper and tree heath. The grass was withered and colourless, recently thawed, and heaps of bracken lay dry and brown. It was a landscape waiting to be transformed. In a fold of the plateau, I came across a swathe of beech trees by a stream, each one with space to spreadeagle its branches. It’s still about a month before their leaves shoot.
Pla de la Calma used to be covered in beech woods before it was cleared for pasture, back in prehistory. Flocks of sheep still graze here, but the open space is shrinking, with a consequent decline in biodiversity. Shepherds used to burn off the encroaching woody species, but when Montseny was declared a natural park in 1978 the practice was outlawed. There have been attempts to protect the area by cutting down invading Holm oak, clearing shrubs and sowing mixtures of herbaceous species. But earlier this year the restoration project suffered a major setback.
Quick to curb traditional ways of exploiting Montseny, even banning grazing altogether in some areas, the park authorities have shown less initiative in controlling access to the track that crosses Pla de la Calma. In January, Montseny shone like a beacon, a magnificent snow-covered vision clearly visible from the Barcelona metropolis. Motorised hordes blocked the roads, delirious to play in the white stuff. Years of work was destoyed as cars, motorbikes and quads went off-piste.
In the aftermath, the track was closed and the day I was there no one passed. The stillness was restored. As the day heated up, the Pyrenees became more and more abstract, a long line of white etchings, the blue above paler than the blue below. It was warm enough to lie on the ground and dream – a sure sign of winter’s end.