Articles in ‘Trip reports’
Written by Lucy Brzoska
Early on an October morning, the light among the ski installations of the Nuria valley was grey, and the sky overhead a cold blue. As we walked up the steep Noucreus path, an invisible sun ignited the tall grass on the mountain crest. Stars flew in the firmament – seeds blown by a wind we couldn’t feel.
On the crest of La Olla, where strong gusts sent vapours whirling, butterflies were on the wing, at 2,800 metres: Clouded yellow, Red admiral and Painted lady. Some males were waiting there to pick up a mate on migration.
The turn-off point was the Coll de l’Eina, and the low sun illuminated the herds of mouflon in the valley below. It was their rutting season, and rams were gathering in large numbers, pursuing the ewes with gaping mouths.
On the way down, we startled some chamois – a young one ran after its mother.
Marmots were still whistling above ground, though they were layered up in fat and thick coats, ready for hibernation.
The most common birds still active in the mountains were Water pipits and Black redstarts. A flock of Citril finches foraged near the cremallera station. Among the vulture traffic were a pair of Lammergeiers, swooping close together. One clutched what looked like a jaw bone with teeth.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
I watched Marcus disappear upwards through the gap. He was on his way to the summit of the vertiginous Peña Ubiña, a thin grey wedge of a mountain, one of the highest (2,417 m) of the Cantabrian Cordillera. I had a 2-hour wait ahead on this rocky crag on my own.
We’d started climbing early to avoid the heat of the day. The path, beginning in Torrebarrio, is unrelentingly steep. Floating over the mountain side came a song reminiscent of a blackbird’s: it was from a Rufous rock thrush perched on a boulder. A small band of migrating Common swifts flew overhead.
Though rated as a relatively easy climb, the exposed Peña Ubiña makes my head spin. But I always look forward to reaching a citadel about 250 metres from the top, the last place I can get to without my legs turning to jelly. Through the ramparts on one side, I can see Babia, and the valley of San Emiliano.
Bells ring out as a long line of sheep are being herded down from mountain pasture. The grass at the end of a dry summer has been bitten to the quick, and the flock is on its way to the river valleys. They are accompanied by mastiffs, an ancient breed of livestock guardians, who wear metal collars and have thick dewlaps to protect their throats from wolves.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
We turned our backs on the complex of buildings, ski lifts and artificial lake, and started climbing. It was a cold clear morning in Núria on Sant Joan’s day, and the group of walkers off the cremallera* rapidly dispersed in a variety of directions. * rack railway
The valley of Núria is an olla, or pot. In a tough annual race, runners follow its rim, tracing the circle of mountains, which range between 2,700 and 3,000 metres. But individually the peaks are very accessible for a day’s walk, considering your starting point is at 2,000 m. Our destination was Noucreus, at 2,790 m.
Past the pines and extensions of alpenrose (Rhododendron ferrugineum), marmots were bounding across the grassy slopes. One got chased into its burrow by a wheatear. The nesting bird fluttered incessantly around the rodent’s head like an angry butterfly. Alpine gentians (Gentiana nivalis) cover the grass here, low to the ground, barely flinching in the sudden strong gusts of wind.
The way is steep, so before long you’re commanding a good view of the valley, the Núria complex still in view but increasingly remote. Then the path zigzags onto the scree and the majesty of the surroundings takes over completely.
The sight of plants cheerfully flowering in this desolate expanse of rock took me by surprise. The Parnassus-leaved buttercup (Ranunculus parnassifolius) has large white petals densely veined in pink, and dark green leaves. Its secret to surviving in this shifting world of rubble is a thick clump of roots, ensuring a secure anchorage.
Nearby Spoon-leaved Candytuft (Iberis spathulata), a member of the Crucifer family, was peeking coquettishly out of the rocks. This plant adopts a different strategy, spending the winter in seed-form until the next growing season.
Another plant, Senecio leucophyllus, still hadn’t produced its dense yellow flowerheads, but its velvety frilly leaves had spread widely. Once decomposed, all this biomass would be a great contribution to the richness of the soil below the scree.
I felt exposed on this narrow path, teetering slightly after bending to take photographs. There was nothing to hold onto, just an expanse of grey stone, falling away steeply. But what at first glance might seem a harsh, inhospitable desert is clearly a good home for a well-adapted plant. Low clouds frequently shroud these mountains, and the moisture condenses on the stones, to trickle down below. The scree then protects the soil from drying out in the strong sun.
The stark scattering of iron crosses on the Noucreus pass mark the deaths of travellers who tried to cross the mountain in snow but conditions that June morning were very benign. We lingered for hours, enthralled by the view and the vultures that regularly coasted past, including two Lammergeiers, who cruised slowly above the peaks. Far below in another valley was a herd of about 100 chamois – the young taking it easy while the mothers foraged.
On the peak itself there’s a sloping slab of rock, and sheltering underneath I found a Pyrenean endemic, Saxifraga pubescens.
Nearby, a tight cluster of soil-hugging rock plants had enabled the Alpine Forgetmenot to survive on the peaks, well above its usual alpine pasture habitat.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
The end of the Ansó and Hecho Valleys, where Huesca meets Navarra, is one of the least visited corners of the Spanish Pyrenees. What comes out in these random nature notes is the amazing sense of abundance that you can feel in wild places in August.
We kept coming across faded irises and it felt a shame to have missed them. But at 2000 metres and above they were still in bloom. It was breath-taking to find swathes of these flamboyant deep purple flowers spread over the stark mountain, surrounded by bare limestone and a fiercely blue late-August sky.
Another marvel: I associate Granny’s Nightcaps with woodland clearings in spring time, so it was something of a surprise to find them flowering at 2,000 metres on a high rocky pass, among scree slopes and lone twisted pines. They turned out to be the Pyrenean species, Aquilegia pyrenaica.
In the depths of the Gamueta beech wood, in the pools of a plunging crystalline stream, Pyrenean newts softly padded over the rocks on their chubby feet, with a dreamy look in their eyes. They’re also known as Pyrenean Brook Salamanders. (Huesca has some of the best conserved beech woods in Spain.)
Evening walks in the moonlight were accompanied by legions of Common Toads. At moments, they seemed the most prolific species in the world. The quiet night was filled with soft plops as they propelled themselves along the track. When an occasional vehicle approached, it was heartening to see how fast they could suddenly lollop if necessary.
Not a hint of a snake, but lizards abounded. Certain paths were so crowded with baby wall lizards, you were afraid of treading on one. One day I was putting on my boot, and it felt very tight in the toe. I took it off and turned it upside down to give it a shake. I don’t know who was more startled, me or the lizard who’d taken refuge inside. He was unsquashed and hid under the skirting board.
The mountains belonged to the jet-black Alpine Choughs. Vast flocks would fill the sky and the silent peaks would echo with their calls and the falling stones they dislodged. Some were cheeky – they knew the popular peaks where people climb, and circled them for picnic leftovers.
The most exciting bird sighting was on the Collado de Lenito, just above the Hotel Usón (see below), where the bones of a cow lay stripped clean. We were talking about vultures when two low-flying Lammergeyers overtook us on the way down. A shepherd thought the cow bones would be too large for them though.
Griffon vultures soaring majestically were a constant. One was spotted perching opportunistically by a sheep pen. Inside the barn you could hear lambs bleating, so maybe there were placentas available.
Like the Choughs, the butterflies took advantage of summer visitors. A variety of Blues in particular were attracted to mineral-rich hikers. I had one clamped to my nose, like the sausage in the fairy-tale. Sunglasses and hands were also popular.
Crowds of Blues puddled by streams, but it often felt just too hot to try and identify them. The Damon Blue was nicely distinguishable.
Giving themselves away by their warning whistles, it was a game to spot the angular features of a marmot frozen among the jumbled rocks.
Mountain livestock are usually in admirably good shape, like these sheep, galloping down to drink in the river and return to their pen.
This lot weren’t in the mood for going anywhere and had locked themselves into a wheel.
For a non-mountaineer, the Petretxema is a rewarding peak to climb. Its popularity is clear by the depth of the path, a deep rut in the turf. The final part is like a stone rocket launch into the sky. It was so peaceful at the top, one woman wrapped herself in a scarf and fell asleep. When I left, there was only her, curled up on the rocks and the Choughs, hopping closer.
In this landscape, the sloping peak on the left is the Petretxema. Below is the tiny Ibón d’Ansabère, one of the most western lakes of the Pyrenees.
Nice places to stay
The camping site at Zuriza, which also has hostal/mountain-refuge style accomodation, makes a good base for walking at the end of the Ansó valley. Clientele is mainly Basque, the location is idyllic though the bar/restaurant can be quite hectic at night. Meals are hearty and midnight curfew respected.
In complete contrast, at the small Hotel Usón tucked away on its own towards the end of the Hecho Valley, the nights are very calm. There’s a garden to relax in after dinner and watch the moon rise. Owners Imanol and Lucia are very hospitable (and speak some English). 80% of their energy is provided by the sun and wind, and the peppers they grow in their garden make smoke come out of your ears.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
Stepping off the Barcelona train in Sant Marti de Centelles, you can smell grass and hear House martin chatter. If you’ve just escaped the coastal fug, you breathe in the summer morning freshness with relief.
In the woods outside the village the cicadas were still asleep and it felt almost spring-like. Back in May these woods were starred with Junquillo Falso (Aphyllanthes monspeliensis). Now the long grass is full of Scabious and a leggy indigo flower – Cupid’s Dart (Catananche caerulea).
Common centaury and oregano cluster about, and the air ripples with butterflies. All day long, every step would disturb clouds of butterflies. Among the Marbled Whites and Ilex Hairstreaks were Provence Chalk-hill Blues (Polyommatus hispana).
The easiest way to breach the cinglera is by the looping dusty track from Sant Marti. As you climb you hear the ravens in constant communication, a mix of low gravelly calls and high-pitched trumpeting, and best of all, the bill knocking.
Cingle means precipice in Catalan, and the Cingles de Berti are a long rippling cliff along one side of the Congost Valley. The slopes are steep and wooded, with layers of bare rock, where a large raven colony is currently roosting.
The slopes come to an abrupt halt on table-top flatlands, where swallows were skimming over stubbly fields. The rocky edge, gilded with stone crop, is partially hidden by a strip of woodland scrub. Paths bring you out onto unexpected balconies, where the land falls away to unfettered views of Montseny on the other side of the valley, and the Pyrenees if the day’s clear.
Large dark brown butterflies were patrolling the path: Great Banded Graylings (Brintesia circe). They were particularly drawn to the Lesser Burdock, nectaring at the thistle-like flowers or sucking the sap. If you dawdled on the overgrown path, the Greylings would treat you as a convenient perch.
There was a moment of drama near the small reservoir. A very large butterfly rushed at me from a tree. After two intense fluttering attacks, targetting the back of my head, it returned to its high perch. Though all over in a flash, I’m pretty sure the ambush had been staged by a Camberwell Beauty.
Red-veined Darters were flying in red and gold tandem. Little Grebes ululated from the reeds and laughter and screams drifted over from the nearby farmhouse – the sounds of an open air swimming pool on a summer’s day.
I found the path that turns through the holm oaks onto a secluded balcony, directly opposite Tagamanent and other Montseny landmarks. Dragonflies were hunting at the edge of the precipice. A Black-tailed Skimmer gorged on a large fly. A kestrel floated past, escorted by House martins. The wild call of buzzards resonated, as two flew in unison. Swifts were flying overhead on a clear path south, leaving us already.
In a recent conversation, looking under rocks had been advocated, so out in a clearing I lifted one at random. It was quite heavy and I had to put it down almost immediately. The image of a pale scorpion lingered though, flat as a zodiac symbol. Back among the butterflies, I found a small Pearly Heath (Coenonympha arcania), with a sparse clarity to its ocelli and a silvery edge to its underwings.
I stopped to watch the ravens before going back downhill. They were gathering in numbers, diving and swerving, and best of all, flipping onto their backs. I saw them assembling by the antennae for a preliminary swirl – a warm up for the major swarm before twilight.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
In the intensely developed Empordà plain, the wild and human overlap. Circling storks and patrolling marsh harriers can be observed at the Aiguamolls nature reserve with a background of skydivers, dropped off in batches by droning planes and helicopters. You cross the Muga, which slides placidly to the sea between wooded banks . . .
. . . another step and suddenly Empuriabrava looms into view, a legoland development sprouting at the mouth of the river. Across the plain, traffic roars on congested roads, and electricity pylons clutter the landscape. But in a stroke of genius, by fitting perching sites for the storks and nest boxes for the kestrels, the reserve has appropriated the pylons.
The photo was taken near the Vilaüt lake, away from the coast, where the reserve’s first hide was built. Rising salinity, drought and contamination from fertilizers has affected the quality of the water in recent years, and some species have stopped breeding there. Solutions are being found, including expropriation of land. The view from the hide, looking north west, is pristine.
The path to the Vilaüt hide meanders among rocky outcrops and oaks, in contrast with the water-logged meadows and absolute flatness of the surroundings. Cows graze with their retinues of Cattle egrets. A single Conical orchid (Orchis conica) had emerged on the grass, the flowers like pale strawberry ice cream cupped by leaves. Close up, the petals look like pink bonnets trailing in the current of a stream.
Corn buntings were present in astonishing density. The whole area vibrated with their songs, broadcast from every branch and post.
Four red kites were hunkered down in a tree, resting mid-migration and getting mobbed by a raven. Later that morning I heard a trumpeting directly above me, and saw two cranes circling higher and higher. After reaching the correct altitude, they stretched their necks due north and disappeared over the mountains. I wondered if they were the same pair I’d watched taking a bath at the Cortalet the day before.
In the extensive preening session that followed, with much vigorous wing-shaking that at one point seemed would evolve into a dance, the cranes would regularly lengthen their necks in cautious observation. A cruising marsh harrier set them off trumpeting.
At the end of March, there was an air of expectation around the Cortalet. An early flock of Bee eaters flew overhead. The first nightinglales were still quite tentative and acoustically Cetti’s warblers had few rivals. Walking along the narrow path, I was deafened as one exploded in song next to my ear. Two Long-tailed tits fell fighting out of a tree and continued grappling on the ground, peeping in rage. Blackwinged stilts sorted out their issues over in the flooded meadow. In the lagoons Great crested grebes ceremoniously fanned out their crests.
List of birds seen
Stork, yellow wagtail, skylark, zitting cisticola, black-winged stilt, spoonbill, shoveller, crane, purple heron, grey heron, little egret, cattle egret, great egret, nightingale, cetti’s warbler, goldfinch, great tit, blue tit, long tailed tit, chiffchaff, stonechat, starlings, house sparrow, raven, jackdaw, pheasant, partridge, mute swan, marsh harrier, kestrel, buzzard, red kite, swallow, common swift, alpine swift, kingfisher, great crested grebe, little grebe, teal, garganey, gadwall, shelduck, hoopoe, green woodpecker, great spotted cuckoo, corn bunting, coot, moorhen, scops owl (heard).
Some practical information
- Castelló d’Empúries makes an excellent base for exploring the Aiguamolls reserve on foot: the coastal area around the Cortalet and the inland Vilaüt hide are equidistant and connected by well-marked GR trails.
- On holidays, after 11.00am, the Cortalet site (with its information centre, car park and picnic area) is the preserve of families. So children can enjoy the experience, they’re allowed to shout and run in and out of the trembling hides (most of which are built on stilts). But my only ever sighting of a bittern was precisely on a day like this. The Vilaüt area is usually very peaceful.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
Two kilometres into the walk, we stop in La Majua where there’s a bar by the bridge. Hens strut, builders fix pipes, villagers gossip, house martins feed their young, and a man goes back and forth in his madreños, wheeling rocks over the bridge in a barrow.
Not only the old folk wear these practical wooden clogs. In El Puertu after the rain a strapping youth in track-suit bottoms pounded across the road in his. They keep your feet warm and dry and raise them out of the dung and mud.
We head north to the Asturian border. If the walk had a soundtrack, there’d be a crescendo when the track suddenly curves and you’re confronted with the river tumbling down in a series of falls. The top of the valley is almost sealed off by rocks forming a narrow ravine – La Foz.
There’s an icy spring by the river where people converge for feasts. A can of beer left in the water for 15 minutes tastes fresh out of the fridge. I found an Apollo butterfly on a thistle, the first I’d ever seen. It was so translucent you could see the purple flower through its wings. It seemed fragile, as if you could blow the pigmentation away like dust.
Though worn around the edges, it was stunningly beautiful.
At the top of the ravine, the way is barred by a stone wall and wooden sticks. You climb up and around, and you’re in a different world.
You’re cupped inside a circle of mountains. It’s often cold and inhospitable in here, with an uneasy threat of descending mist that billows out of nowhere and fills up the cirque in an instance. But today was calm and hot. A short-toed eagle was soaring, white against the blue sky. The herd of chamois retreated to a slightly higher spot. We lay on the grass observed by wheatears. Later, we climbed to the rim of the cup and looked at the lunar landscape beyond.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
On a clear August night, we walked out of the tiny village of El Puertu.The absence of mist was almost uncanny and stars were visible in their millions.All around, out of the darkness, came the sound of bells.
El Puertu (1,486 m) was founded as a summer settlement by Vaqueiros de Alzada, the herders who’d take their animals and possessions up to high pasture as soon as weather permitted. Strong and athletic, Asturian cows are perfectly adapted to their mountain habitat.One day we were startled to see horns charging towards us through the broom, as two vacas roxas galloped down the slope, paused and then ran up hill again. Among other things, visiting the Somiedo natural park is about walking among cows and learning how not to upset their Mastiff guardians.
The best pasture is on the irrigated level ground around the village, green even in late summer. This land is carefully divided by long dry stone walls, home to a variety of creatures.
I went out with a torch one night, when the habitual mantle of damp mist had settled down on El Puertu, and found myriads of orange-eyed Common toads (Bufo bufo) had come out of the walls to hunt.This toad wasn’t distracted by the scrutiny and snatched up a beetle with its tongue.
Just down the road to the north lies El Peral, another village of Vaqueiros.It’s famous for its well-maintained teitos, traditional stone houses thatched with broom.The only surviving teito in El Puertu is slowly falling down, although the storks remain loyal to it, their nest getting lower each year as the building crumbles.Perched on the border with Leon, El Puertu is one of the few villages in Asturias to have nesting storks.
The presence of bears was tangible in signs and stories, if not sightings. A taxi driver from the nearby valley of Laciana told us that a mother and cubs have approached his village close enough to be seen clearly from the bar. One theory is that the mother is keeping her young away from the male bears, always a threat, by ranging in areas they would avoid.
The mountain slopes of Somiedo are covered in bilberry bushes and we were told that late August, when the berries are ripe, is a good time to glimpse a sweet-toothed bear out in the open. No luck on that score, but it was exciting to sit looking down at El Peral, knowing a bear had recently wandered past.
Written by Lucy Brzoska
Butterflies were everywhere – congregating by the river, fluttering over rippling grass, courting by the road side.
In the heat, they were busy “puddling”, looking for supplementary minerals wherever available, whether from sweaty skin, a metal rucksack zip . . .
. . . or from a pile of dung.
At the top of the valley, some of the terraced fields are still used to grow the knobbly and tasty “bufet” potatoes, shunned by restaurants for being too fiddly to peel. But most are now given up to broom and box, and grazing chamois, who run into the pine woods when disturbed. Flowers that thrive in dry stony ground have divided up the land – Junquillo Falso (Aphyllanthes monspeliensis), White Flax (Linum suffruticosum) or Hoary Rock Rose (Helianthemum oelandicum).
Other flowers were found at the sides of paths and roads in stunning isolation – Sword-leaf and Red Helleborines, and Bee and Woodcock orchids.
Walking down from Alzina d’Alinyà one day, the highest village in the valley, a column of Griffon Vultures formed. Those at the top were mere specks, at some unguessable height, while the lowest were clearly visible. One preened a wing while soaring, and white woolly heads turned to scan the terrain. Further back, we’d passed a comedero, where stripped carcasses lay among heaps of feathers: signs of a competitive and tumultous lunch.
During the day, Cuckoos called continuously up and down the valley, while at three in the pitch-black morning there was the surreal sound of Nightingales through the bathroom window. We found a Black Redstart nest inside a small chapel on a window ledge. Four white eggs lay on the soft downy lining.
Submerged in the hot butterfly-filled tranquility of Alinyà, it was easy to forget the world outside. From the valley rim you had views of the Pyrenees, with a few lingering streaks of snow, the Sierras de Cadì and Boumort, or Coll de Nargo, down by the river Segre. The heat was kept in check by storms, which could be seen forming over the Pyrenees before rumbling south. After the rain, mist would rise – small tufts at first, spun gold by the sun, and then in thick white clouds, mushrooming out of the ravine with incredible speed, and making me run for where I’d left my stuff while I could still find it.
More information on Alinyà here.
Note on Butterflies
After expert help from entomologist JM Sesma I can now identify the mating fritillaries as Mellicta deione, the Provençal Fritillary, and the one on the zip as Melitaea cinxia, the Glanville Fritillary. The butterfly on the dung is a Ringlet, possibly Erebia triaria (Prunner’s Ringlet) but impossible to be sure without a view of its upperside.
We were leaving the coast behind, Pyrenean-bound. Back in Barcelona, the trees were wearing light new foliage, and through the train window, we could see spring spreading inland along the River Ter. House martins and swallows swooped over the rain-swollen water, set to be torrential when the thaw reaches the mountains.
Climbing out of Campdevanol, spring receded with every step to an earlier phase. The way was spotted yellow with Cinquefoil (Potentilla neumanniana), unchecked by any competition. The woods were lit up with white and purple anemones (Anemone hepatica). In a sheltered spot, Peacock butterflies (Inachis io) came out with the sun, their rich colours as warming as brandy.
In the Sierra above Montgrony, rising to 2,000 metres, spring would presumably have even less of a foothold. But there were surprises. A strong scent invaded a clearing, its source a small solitary bush of Common Mezereon (Daphne mezereum), all bare branch and florid pink blossom. Horses were hungrily tearing at the short grass where emphatically blue Spring Gentians had sprung up. Higher up, purple crocuses could hardly wait for the patches of snow to melt.
We stood near the top looking over at the high mountains on the French border, white under an iron-grey sky. A line of geese crossed the ridge, heading north.
Wearing every spare layer, we got out our lunch. The silence was broken by a kronk, as two Ravens materialised, settling near by. Sometimes they rose up and circled us, black feathers shining like oil. As soon as we moved on, they came and cleared up the leftovers. The mountains felt very remote that day, but the ravens were a reminder that other people come up and have picnics too.
Large outstretched wings passed above – a Red Kite. Below, we saw the brown backs of Griffon Vultures. The Gombrèn valley is a busy highway for raptors moving in and out of the Cadi-Moixeró area. The day before we’d seen a pair of Egyptian Vultures, a very easterly sighting.
Descending under a shower, we watched the outlines of the hills opposite gradually merge with the clouds, and it was our turn for the sun again.