A Walk in the Woods

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Early Saturday evening, a good time to head to Collserola. If you get ensnared in its web of delights, it doesn’t matter, because the metro runs all night. The rendezvous for Nick, Monica and myself was 5.30pm outside Mundet station, one of the last stops of the green line. As you ride the escalators up to the street, you’re gliding out of the city itself.

An aim of the walk was to increase our knowledge of Collserola’s plants and trees. We went along, pooling our fragments of information and consulting a guide book. Monica tapped into a great store of knowledge acquired when studying biology at university. The further she walked, the more she remembered.

The northern part of Collserola, lying between Horta and Cerdanyola, is the most thickly wooded and least disturbed, with the greatest variety of trees. If you grow up in Britain, an oak is an oak, but here there are three: Holm, Cerrioides and Kermes.

At the side of the wide track, tall shrubs were thriving – Matabou and Matapolls – ox-killer and chicken-killer in Catalan, or Shrubby hare’s-ear, with its yellow umbels, and Flax-leaved daphne, not yet in flower.

As we walked deeper into the valley, a sparrowhawk skimmed the tree tops. Looking up among the branches, you could see alpine swifts soaring high above, reflecting the setting sun. As the woods swallowed us up, the atmosphere became more mysterious. The fading light didn’t stop the identification process.

Monica picked out a plant and held up a leaf: “This is not a leaf”, she informed. It was a stem masquerading as a leaf, with a small point in the centre – a cladode – where the flower would grow: Ruscus aculeatus or Butcher’s broom.

We passed an earthen bank riddled with holes, each entrance lined with webbing, suggesting a colony of tunnel-dwelling spiders. It emerged that two thirds of our group were arachnophobes (Nick and me). The real test would come later.

On the floor of the valley now, we were surrounded by impressively tall pines. Large bats flickered among them. The light was very poor, but it was still possible to debate the differences between hazlenut and elm leaves. Green woodpeckers flew away calling, startled by the intrusion. There was an increasing urge to speak quietly, like in church.

The route out of the valley was along a narrow path, following the rocky bed of a steep torrent, brought to life only after a storm. It was hot and tunnel-like, making us sweat (some more than others). At the top we emerged into a more sparsely wooded area: nightjar territory.

Churring filled the twilight. Then close at hand came a soft quick call, and we saw the silhouettes of a pair of nightjars. Their long wings rose and fell as they encircled us. The reason was a fledgling on the path a few metres ahead, its eye gleaming in the torch light. The parents circled us even faster, like in a playground game, clapping their wings. As we approached, the bird on the path silently flew off.

In the last hour we’d heard some rustling and grunting among the vegetation, suggesting boars. Now came a loud huffing sound, quite close, and coming straight towards us. A big man was slowly and heavily jogging through the woods, oblivious to our presence.

There was just enough light to distinguish the fox when it crossed the track, a grey shape materialising out of the darkness of the trees, and a hint of an outline against the paler background of the track. When it paused and turned, the torch picked up its eyes.

Back on the ridge, the electricity pylons – a feature of Collserola almost as much as the oaks and pines – were silhouetted against the sprawling city glitter. The lights spilled out onto the sea, from summer yachts and cargo ships moored off the coast.

A solitary bar hidden off the road, reached by a dusty track, was irresistible. We joined a small group of people eating and drinking in the cool night air. It was time to check the photos and recap what we’d seen before descending to the metro again. Three boars came trotting down the path we’d just taken. The bar owner said all his plants had been ruined. Only those in big sturdy pots were boar-proof.

Alert for boar sounds, we slowly and carefully picked our way down the steep crumbling path, fragrant with rosemary. The botanical identification didn’t lose pace: euphorbias, fragrant clematis, stonecrop, strawberry trees, lentisk. At a junction of paths, there was some lucky fox scat. Lucky for me, at least.

While we paused to prod and sniff the droppings, the torch light detected a glinting circular structure: a vast web blocking the path like a toll gate, and the owner, a fat spider waiting to seize its dues (possibly Araneus diadimatus.) As I’d been leading the way, concentrating mainly on the ground for my next foothold, or the plants at the side, my nose might have been the first contact point.

Unfortunately, there was no way round, and the web had to be partially unhooked. Adrenaline levels shot upwards at that point at the thought of what else might lie ahead.

At the halfway mark back to Horta, where the path levels out by a spring, loud grunting and snorting were heard. We turned off our lights, climbed onto a wooden picnic table, and waited. A female boar came along, and began tossing some fallen branches, rummaging under the leaves. Like the jogger, she ignored us. We could see her in detail, from moist black nose to short hairy tail. The world was vibrating with night insects, hypnotic and calming. Midwife toads bleeped – there are water containers nearby full of their tadpoles. We stayed long after the boar went her way.

Once the descent had been resumed, the peace of the night was shattered by my ear-splitting shrieks. Nick and Monica thought I’d come face to face with an enormous boar. That would’ve been infinitely preferable to being wrapped in one of the mega-webs I’d blundered into. There was a change in walking order, with Nick bravely leading the way now. Only one more spider blocked the path, spreadeagled in the centre of its impressive domain. On this occasion there was room to carefully duck underneath. Identification continued of the different berry-bearing shrubs: elder, hawthorn, Mediterranean buckthorn and the prolific laurustinus.

Back on asphalt, we were five minutes away from the metro when a small gang of boars galloped up the steps to the university buildings. They’d been ploughing up the roundabout, tossing aside plants as they dug in the freshly irrigated earth. We decided to sit on the grass nearby in case they returned, while bats hunted by the street lights. After a while, there were rustlings from behind, and the ivy rippled. Although the hedgehog increased its pace, it couldn’t avoid being snatched up, gently jiggled so it would unroll, and be identified as a Common European hedgehog.

The last few metres to the metro escalators were uneventful, and we were home by 3.00am.

Thanks to Monica for her picture of the boar.