There still remain corners of rural Spain, far from the reality of this fast developing and increasingly urban-dwelling country, that have been forgotten by time, largely abandoned by all but the older generation, and which are being reclaimed by a wildlife no longer so persecuted by man. The Montaña Palentina — the Palentian Mountains — is one such place: a wild, unpopulated region of high ridges, rounded summits, sweeping valleys and magnificent panoramic vistas extending southwards to the great plains of Castile and Leon. Nestling in the shadow of northern Spain’s Cordillera Cantábrica, not far from the jagged limestone peaks of the Picos de Europa, the Palentian Mountains are dominated by the majestic Sierra de Peña Labra, essentially a high mountain ridge boasting a handful of 2,000-metre summits, amongst them Valdecebollas (2,136 metres) and Pico Tres Mares (2,175 metres) — Peak of the Three Seas. A raindrop falling on the latter could, in theory, end up in any one of the Bay of Biscay, the Atlantic or the Mediterranean, such is the peculiar hydro-geographical jigsaw that places this mountain at the source of such mighty watercourses as the Ebro and the Duero.
The ancient Palentian villages of the region are largely deserted, with hardly an occupied house in each. For this reason, so too are the Palentian Mountains … left for reclamation by Wolves, Brown Bears, Wild Boar, and numerous Chamois, Red Deer and Roe Deer, not to mention a host of smaller mammals such as Iberian and Brown Hare, Beech Marten, Pine Marten, Wildcat and the elusive Genet.
Our base for this week-long exploration of this little-known mountain wildlife haven is in one such village. Here, our guide Tino and his wife Rosa have sympathetically restored three terraced farm cottages in a remote and tumbledown hamlet. Situated not far to the north of Aguilar de Campoo, the cottages lie on the doorstep of a truly wild landscape, comprising high mountain ridges rich in alpine flora, jagged crags and cliffs, and vast oak and Beech forests which support a high percentage of the endangered eastern population of the European Brown Bear. Much maligned, these magnificent creatures are notoriously difficult to see, roaming elusively over vast tracts of difficult terrain. Nevertheless, we do stand a chance of a sighting if we put in the effort at dawn and dusk, when the Bears are most active. At these times, our local Spanish naturalist guide, Tino, will use his 4-wheel drive vehicle to take us to remote view-points for optional opportunities to scan from high ridges for Bears, Wolves, Wild Boar and other mammals. Our hosts
will make us feel very much at home, sharing a rich passion for, and knowledge of, these mountains … and regaling us with tales and photographs of their close encounters with both Bears and Wolves. Tino is an expert in finding and interpreting animal tracks and signs left by Brown Bear, Fox, Wolf, Beech Marten, Badger, Wild Boar and deer, and will give us a masterclass in tree identification. We’ll also learn about the medicinal, culinary and other uses which the various plants and fungi that we shall see are put to.
The cottages are very much central to our daily outings, with the majority of each day spent on foot, either walking from our base, or in quiet locations accessed by vehicle. A range of habitats can be found in close proximity, with a full suite of raptors present, including resident Golden Eagles and Peregrines, and both Griffon and Egyptian Vultures. Black and Middle Spotted Woodpeckers both breed here, the latter possibly being easier to see here than throughout much of the rest of its range.
On one day we will drive further afield to explore the steppes and plains of the meseta, home to Great Bustard, Stone Curlew and other grassland birds, and a large (depending on rainfall) reed-fringed lake which supports numerous ducks, geese, waders and such interesting passerines as Penduline Tit and Moustached Warbler.
Stone carvings of ancient Romanesque churches, the old rock hermitage of San Vicente, old dovecotes and dwellings at Guaza de Campos and the historical centre of Aguilar de Campoo all add a picturesque charm to this ancient and beautiful landscape. There really is something of interest here for everyone.
Flexibility will be the key to this tour and, whatever time we arrive back at our cottages, we can be sure that a hearty meal, freshly prepared by Rosa, will be waiting for us on our return each day from the wilds of this forgotten corner of Europe. It will be hard to leave!
The three guides - Byron, Tino and Tono were very skilled and knowledgeable communicators. They clearly enjoyed what they were doing which meant that we did too. Their trip planning was excellent - they always had a plan B for bad weather.
One of our best holidays ever. Only four of us on trip, but we all got on well. Byron's and Tino's knowledge was exceptional - I knew little about birds but never felt threatened by that as they were very patient with me. Rosa's cooking was delicious. It was good to eat local dishes, cooked in a home and not restaurant food. Same with picnic lunches using local specialities.
It was winderful to see Iberian Wolves again - I wasn’t really expecting to on this trip, so it was a huge bonus. Also great views of Firecrests, a bird I have managed to miss on previous trips to Europe (other than fleeting glimpses)! Habitats visited were superb - I know very little about botany, but even I was impressed by the variety and beauty of the orchids and other flowers that we saw. Local guides Tino and antonio were terrific fun to be with - so good-humoured, and an amazing knowledge of the local wildlife and landscapes....I don't usually enjoy visiting man-made (as opposed to wildlife) sites - but the pre-historic cave paintings on this trip were an exception, I thought it was an amazing place, and a really nice finish to the trip.
Accommodation - excellent. It was a special venue as we had the complex to ourselves and it was not a hotel full of other tourists. I definitely enjoy the Naturetrek holidays more when the group stay together in this type of accommodation. I was pleased that Naturetrek was supporting the local community by using this type of accommodation. The quality and quantity of the food was well above expectations: it was good, hearty regional cuisine, prepared with a lot of thought and care. Clean plates every night after the chaps had thirds and fourths. Tino - what a character! Whilst speaking very minimal English, at times, through gesture, he was able to make himself understood very well. On a serious matter, without Tino we would not have had access to some of the sites we visited. His knowledge of the area was excellent, and he was only too pleased to identify plants that we pointed out, and identify animal tracks. Byron was an excellent leader - very patient and looked after us well. His enthusiasm for birds was infectious and he was keen to share his knowledge. As an amateur, I have a general interest, and I enjoyed looking at the varieties of birds we encountered. Byron's ability to spot birds that looked like a speck on the horizon was impressive. Byron patiently set up the scope so we could all see the birds at a high magnification, far superior to my little binoculars. Byron was very enthusiastic about the birds and went to enormous efforts to try and locate the elusive woodpeckers, but the walks were beautiful. He was also an excellent driver of the bus; some of the roads and tracks were not easy. Byron and Tino were a brilliant team - relaxed, easy going and worked well together. There was a very easy banter between them, and Tino was definitely the joker in the pack, although a lot of giggling between the pair took place. Both were equally enthusiastic about their subjects and keen to share this with the group.
The accommodation was simple but the converted cottages had a lovely ambience. Evening meals were really tasty food of the region in generous amounts, with decent red wine. Compliments to Rosa. Byron worked hard to ensure we got so much out of the week, planned the days trips in good sequence and was a brilliant bird spotter and identifier. Tino has encyclopaedic knowledge of the area, its wildlife and habits of the mammals and birds, and a great extrovert sense of humour. He also is a very sharp-eyed observer and could name a good number of the plants.
The accommodation was simple and delightful. The cottages have been very attractively restored and have a lovely ambience, both informal and relaxing. Rosa produced magnificent evening meals for us, reflecting the tastes of the region. My compliments to her for her skills. The excellent red wine was most agreeable also! As a general natural historian, I found the content of the trip fascinating. The birdwatching was keen and expert. The mammals were less numerous, but what an experience to watch the wolves at dawn - unforgettable. Discovering so much information about the owner of a bear paw print was intriguing, too. Added to this was the expertise of companions about butterflies and other insects and other plants. It all combined to make every day an interesting one. Extra information about the human activity, the remote villages and past industries helped to give a more rounded picture of the region. Our trip leader, Byron, worked very hard to make sure that everyone was content and comfortable and this was appreciated greatly. His birdwatching skills were awe-inspiring and it was most rewarding to be out in the field with him. Tino's all round knowledge of the area's wildlife was invaluable and his enthusiasm and warmth sense of humour were infectious. His and Byron's abilities were an admirable combination. We were fortunate to have a dry and mostly sunny week which certainly enhanced our wildlife exploration of this area. I thoroughly enjoyed the remoteness, the beauty and the grandeur of the region and would like to return, maybe sometime in the spring. Altogether it was a very happy week of good companionship and knowledge underpinned by discreet organisation. Thank you.
Another fabulous Naturetrek holiday. Byron and Tino were both very knowledgeable and great company and went out of their way to help and ensure we saw as much wildlife as possible. Watching Wolves frolic is a rare privilege. Thank you.
The variety of wildlife is the appeal of this holiday. We had wonderful sightings of mammals, including wolves and, for some, wildcat, together with birds, butterflies and other insects, and indigenous plants.