The Cantabrian Mountains run along the north coast of Spain for about 300 kilometres. The Picos de Europa lie in the centre of this range, a dramatic block of jagged limestone peaks, amongst them Torre de Cerrado, at 2,648 metres, the highest mountain in northern Spain. These little-known mountains remain an area of wild natural beauty, rich in bird and plant-life and with many species of butterflies, including the Scarce Swallowtail, Apollo, Camberwell Beauty, Gavarnie Blue, and many different fritillaries, blues and ringlets. The whiteness of the limestone is a special feature of an area comprised of deep gorges, towering white cliffs and pinnacles, woods and alpine pastures.
This holiday is in some ways similar in format to our popular holidays in the French and Spanish Pyrenees, but with a character all of its own. It is a 2-centre holiday, and we will be based in two very different hotels, one in the small village of Cabrales in the northern Picos, the other in the delightfully unspoilt and attractive village of Espinama, in the southern Picos. Each village is surrounded by meadows and mountains, a base from which to explore the countryside, either on foot or by taking our minibus further afield. A picnic is provided each day giving you a chance to sample some of the excellent wines and cheeses from the Picos region! By travelling slightly later in the summer, we will see all those lovely plants we miss in the Pyrenees: the English Iris, Brown Foxglove, Yellow Wolf's-bane and Lizard Orchid being just some of them. Our excursions will start along gentle valley routes, using ancient tracks trodden by shepherds and woodcutters. Often they are lined with crumbling stone walls filled with ferns. We will progress to fabulous mountain views, but the pace of our walks will allow us plenty of time to enjoy the natural history of the many habitats through which we pass.
The highlight for alpine plant lovers is the top of the Fuente Dé, reached by cable car. This will take us up 800 metres, to a wild area of limestone scree and pavement. From the top, we will walk towards the Refugio de Aliva. Here, amongst crevices, we may see Narcissus asturiensis, the showy yellow Saxifraga aretioides, gentians, Teucrium pyrenaicum, Aquilegia discolor and many others including the beautiful white buttercup, Ranunculus amplexicaulis.
The birds of the high Picos are no less spectacular. Griffon and Egyptian Vultures are particularly common, whilst Booted and Short-toed Eagles soar above the peaks together with Buzzards, Sparrowhawks, and occasionally Hen Harriers. Amongst the high crags it is possible to see Crag Martins, Alpine Accentors, Snow Finches, Rock Thrushes and, with luck, the elusive Wallcreeper. We will also see raptors in the gorges running through the mountains.
A delightful valley walk leads to the Refugio de Aliva. En route we pass old farm buildings in flower-filled meadows, and on the rocky outcrops we will look for Sempervivum cantabricum, Petrocoptis glaucifolia and the Yellow Snapdragon (Antirrhinum braun-blanquetii).
The Picos region supports many interesting orchids. Along meadows and pathways we may see Ophrys species such as Bee, Insect, Woodcock and Sawfly, and also the Man and occasional Tongue Orchid. In damp meadows and along stream sides there will be a riot of Marsh Orchids, and perhaps the rare Robust Orchid. The beautiful blue Eryngium bourgatii and Dianthus monspessulanus (the Fringed Pink) and Linum viscosum (Sticky Flax) are common companions for the wayside orchids. We will also explore the heathlands for the beautiful and interesting Daboecia cantabrica (St. Daboec’s Heath).
Extensive mixed woodlands still exist, some of them dominated by the Pyrenean Oak. We will also visit the beechwoods in the Andara, a known habitat for Capercaillie and Black Woodpeckers. Other woodland birds may include Spotted Flycatcher, Short-toed Treecreeper, Firecrest and Bonelli’s Warbler.
On the high mountain slopes we will hope to see Chamois and, although we are unlikely to see one, we must nonetheless keep our eyes open for Wolf and Brown Bear, which still retain a foothold in these mountains. The Snow Vole is the smallest mammal we may see, and after rain, the yellow and black Fire Salamanders might appear.
This region, fortunately still somewhat lost in time, holds something of interest for everyone. The flowers, butterflies and birds are outstanding ... and the scenery is exceptional.
Laura's knowledge of the area and its flora and fauna was remarkable. Her energy and adaptability, particularly having to change plans due to weather, were admirable. she was a thoroughly capable, competent and most amusing and caring group leader.
Both leaders were excellent, full of knowledge, kind and attentive. They worked very hard on our behalf. They also made excellent picnic lunches! All the walks had been carefully chosen to give a splendid array of birds and flowers.
I enjoyed all the walks and not being on the van for too long. The picnics are always lovely and the shared knowledge of like minded people who are always only too pleased to share it. Very pleasant company.
Lee Morgan was an excellent communicator and endlessly interested in our finds and helping us identify them (my primary interest was plants). Both he and Jim were good company and ensured our very diverse group had their individual interests catered for.
Lee was outstanding as leader. Very knowledgeable, especially on plants, good at organisation of day-to-day itinerary, also at assessing folks' capabilities re walking. Very pleasant guy and unfailingly helpful. Jim was very good at backup and his ornithological knowledge is first rate.
Lee is an outstanding leader; his expertise in all fields, his dedication, concern, humanity and hard work are fantastic. Organisation was brilliant, always doing the right thing at the right time.
Alan and Dave were excellent guides. They were extremely knowledgeable … I was amazed how much time they devoted to the group, from the first walk at 7am to a sunset walk at 8.30pm.
I have thoroughly enjoyed the holiday and look forward to my next Naturetrek trip!
I would particularly enjoy another tour with these two leaders who are both exceptional.
Mr & Mrs. M.
A beautiful remote area and we were lucky with the weather. Andrew and Lee were superb leaders - expert in the field, friendly and communicative. As a group, they looked after our every need. We would be delighted to travel with them again.
Both leaders were absolutely excellent. They were very knowledgeable, approachable, always patient and good natured whatever questions were thrown at them! They took care to provide us with an interesting lunch and looked after less agile members when necessary.
This holiday was great fun, with a really nice group of people and some excellent birding in spectacular surroundings. My only complaint is I put on weight due to the delicious food!
Outstanding area; very peaceful at both locations. It was useful to have had the 2006 report. As a result I made a passing remark that I would dearly like to see a Wryneck. Twenty minutes later I was shown one! Serendipity or skill? Not surprisingly, John and Jenny make a splendidly complementary duo.
The general content, organisation and trip leaders were brilliant! Every day somewhere different, with some new species and repeats of others (helpful to the old memory!); adjustments made to the itinerary because of dry conditions worked out well. We saw an amazing number of plants (with the aid of Maureen's identification) and birds and butterflies - latter identified conclusively through Matt’s excellent digital photography and photographic butterfly book. I am very grateful to both Matt and Maureen for their help and patience. Matt was well-organised, knowledgeable and very concerned about every individual in the group. He appeared very calm and in control and was an excellent driver (not to be distracted on winding roads, which was reassuring!).
I've travelled with Maureen Ponting before and know how good she is. I hadn't met Matt Hobbs but was most impressed - both with his helpfulness and with his willingness to go the extra mile - literally in the case of fetching the bus to save our legs. His picnic salads were a revelation - hazelnut waldorf salad, freshly prepared, above Fuente De had passing hikers queuing up for a taste.
Congratulations to Matt and Jenny for providing a good atmosphere in the group by their unfailing courtesy and hard work.
Jenny has a wide knowledge of the flowers and was meticulous in looking up those she had not seen before. She recorded each find. She gave clear reasons for the identification as far as she could. She led clearly and diplomatically. Matt showed keen enthusiasm for the birds, butterflies and the area. He had put much effort into preparing for the tour.
An excellent tour - just right in all respects: well done, all.
This was an enjoyable holiday. The scenery was spectacular, and the way we were looked after by our tour leaders was excellent.
I really enjoyed this holiday. The picnic lunches deserve a special mention. The leaders were great company throughout. Birds, flowers, scenery, great food, good weather and a great group of people. What more could you want? Thank you.