The green seems to appear out of nowhere. We have been driving through Castille Leon for 2 hours; the Spanish ‘meseta’ in July is dry, yellow and featureless.
Occasional clumps of trees or dried up river beds provide a welcome, if brief, change of scenery. Suddenly we are transported into another world: dense forest, tree-covered hills transforming into bare mountain tops, speckled with snow.
It’s 9pm on a saturday night, the rain is cold and unceasing. I crouch under a lone tree on the banks of the River Riaza desperately seeking shelter. I briefly question if this is how I should be spending my Saturday nights. The answer – an emphatic yes.
Cabárceno Nature Park in Cantabria, Northern Spain, is not like other wildlife parks. 75 hectares in size and situated in an old Roman iron mine, it is the biggest wildlife park in Europe and one of the biggest in the world. The former toxic mining zone has been transformed into a wildlife haven, where endangered primates, big cats and European bison can roam in semi-freedom.
It is a bank holiday Friday, Madrileños are celebrating their Patron Saint. Throngs of people are coming into the capital for the festivities, Maria is working on a live TV special. I make a sneaky exit and catch an early morning bus to San Lorenzo de El Escorial and the low, rocky Machotas.
I cross through the enormous courtyard of the Palacio, early tourists wait to enter, while swifts and swallows take their breakfast in the skies above. Leaving both equally noisy groups behind I enter the tranquillity of the Bosque de la Herreria. I wander happily through shaded walkways of tall oak. The forest is overgrown and lush. A robin sits in a bush, crows caw high in the trees.
Having recently embraced middle-age early and purchased my first bird watching book, we decided to go to a very special place this weekend – The Hoces del Rio Riaza – a protected nature reserve and home to one of the biggest and most important Griffon Vulture colonies in Europe.
We stayed overnight in a pretty medieval town in Segovia called Maderuelo. An important frontier town during the centuries of war between Moorish and Christian Spain it is built high up above a lake.Our ‘medieval suite’ looks out onto the lake, bats circle the town walls in the evening dusk.
A movement out of the corner of my eye, I lower the camera, ignoring the protestations of Maria as she poses for a photo, large granite boulders stain the pristine snowfield. It was nothing, back to the photo.
Then, appearing as if out of nowhere, a large male Ibex, horns curled in perfect symmetry outwards, leaves the safety and camouflage of a grey boulder and trudges out onto the snow fifty yards in front of me, over the shoulder of the still unaware Maria. Six others emerge, diligently following behind. Enormous black vultures soar high on the thermals above, two young males ‘play’ in the snow, horns clashing with alarming power, a mother tends to her kid.