The Cantabrian Mountains run along the north coast of Spain for about 300 kilometres. At their heart lie the Picos de Europa, a dramatic block of jagged limestone peaks, amongst them Torre de Cerrado, at 2,648 metres the highest mountain in northern Spain. These littleknown mountains remain an area of wild natural beauty, rich in bird and plant-life and with many species of butterflies, including the Spanish Swallowtail, Apollo and numerous different fritillaries, blues and ringlets. The whiteness of the limestone is a special feature of an area comprised of deep gorges, towering cliffs and pinnacles, woods and alpine pastures.
This holiday is in some ways similar to the format of our already popular holiday in the Picos and will take in many of the same sites. However, with a focus on the region’s wonderful array of over 150 species of butterfly, we will follow a flexible itinerary that will allow us to make best use of favourable weather conditions and maximise the time we spend in good butterfly hotspots. 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, mountains and woodland, and each centre provides an excellent base from which to explore the surrounding countryside, either on foot or by taking our minibus further afield. Picnic lunches will be provided each day giving you a chance to sample some of the excellent wines or locally produced ciders and some of the wonderful cheeses that the region is famed for! By travelling slightly later in the summer, we will hopefully improve our chances of increasing the number of butterflies we may encounter, whilst at the same time retaining some of the great opportunities to view a much broader selection of the wildlife these wonderful mountains have to offer.
Most of our excursions will start along gentle valley routes, using ancient tracks trodden by shepherds and woodcutters. Often our routes will take us through flowerfilled meadows buzzing with fritillaries, Pearly Heaths, Clouded Yellows and Purple Shot Coppers while some will take us through woodlands and glades dancing with Speckled Woods, Wood Whites and both Green and Ilex Hairstreaks. Sheltered, sunny trails lined with crumbling stone walls provide us with some of the best places to look for Large Wall Browns, Scarce and Sooty Coppers and a variety of tiny skippers. Naturally, we will progress to fabulous mountain views, where steep sloping rocky pastures provide us with the best opportunities of finding a selection of the more locally distributed Erebia species such as Piedmont, De Prunner’s and even Chapman’s Ringlets.
A highlight of the tour will be our trip to the top of Fuente Dé, reached by cable car. This will take us up 800 metres, to a wild area of limestone scree and pavement. While not typically a diverse butterfly habitat, these high alpine pastures provide us with some of the best opportunities to find some of the real mountain specialists such as Apollos and Gavarine Blues as well as some of our best chances of seeing Chamois, Wallcreeper, Alpine Chough and Snowfinch. From the top, we will undertake the long walk down the mountain towards the Refugio de Aliva and, if possible, continue down to our hotel in Espinama. This route takes us through a wonderful selection of butterfly-rich habitats including rocky alpine pastures, luxuriant hay meadows, deciduous woodlands and tiny rural gardens.
Other delightful walks will take us to some wonderful butterfly hotspots including the spectacular Cares Gorge and the beautiful sheltered valley below the hilltop village of Sotres. Here, set against a backdrop of jagged limestone cliffs, we will follow the gentle inclines of the valley up to an abandoned village, exploring the rocky alpine pastures and luxuriant flower-rich meadows as we go.
The birds of the high Picos are no less spectacular than the butterflies. Griffon and Egyptian Vultures are particularly common, whilst Booted, Golden 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, Snowfinches, Rock Thrushes and, with luck, the elusive Wallcreeper.
The Picos region still supports many interesting wild flowers including a good number of orchids. Along meadows and pathways we may still find the impressively robust flower spikes of Lizard Orchids and along stream sides it is likely that there will still be a riot of Marsh, Heath and Common Spotted Orchids. 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).
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 butterflies, flowers and birds are outstanding ... and the scenery is exceptional.