Land of Raptors

The Pyrenees mountain range straddles the border between France and Spain, almost from end to end, separating the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of Europe. Stretching about 490km, the serrated chain of peaks soar to over 3,000m and are home to snow-capped mountains that offer limitless opportunities for hiking in summer, and skiing in winter. In addition, these secluded ranges are also home to numerous wildlife, especially giant birds of prey which are emblematic of the Pyrenees.

The easiest portions of the Pyrenees to access are the foothills, which are mostly in Spain, and stretch across northern Aragon and Catalonia. This region is home to a number of UNESCO sites, from national parks to heritage villages; its gorgeous scenery is dominated by ochre canyons where you can find ancient villages and castles perched on hillocks.

In this quiet part of Spain, you can have the company of soaring vultures as you hike the many canyon trails.

 

VULTURES OF THE PYRENEES

Lammergeier

Despite its reputation for snatching lambs and calves, the Bearded vulture (identified by the ‘beard’ on their beaks), or Lammergeier, is a scavenger that prefers dining on picked-over carcasses. As they live on a steady diet of bones (80% of their diet consists of bone and bone marrow), Lammergeiers drop their bony carrion from a tremendous height onto rocks below in order to shatter them and gain access to the bone marrow. In Spain, Lammergeiers are called quebrantahuesos, or ‘bone breakers’.

These giants can grow up to 1.2m tall, with a wingspan of up to 2.7m. Perhaps what gives these birds their fierce look is the fact that they actually dye their head and neck feathers red by preening themselves in iron-rich muds – the redder, the fiercer. These birds are often solitary and it’s rare to see more than 3 in a group.

Once abundant in almost all mountain ranges it Europe, it was hunted to near extinction until they were reintroduced to the Pyrenees in the 90s. Spain is the Lammergeier’s last European stronghold. Today, the Aragon portion of the Pyrenees is home to the biggest population of Lammergeiers in Europe, with over 100 breeding pairs.

 

Griffon Vulture

Griffon vultures can grow up to 1.2m tall with a wingspan of up to 2.8m, and unlike the Lammergeier, it has a bald head which is advantageous for digging deep into bloody carcasses which they can track based on gaseous chemicals they emanate. Griffons often survey their territories in groups of 3 or more individuals.

Traditionally, these vultures fed on dead sheep or goats left out by local farmers, but as that practice was banned since the BSE crisis, vulture numbers have been in steady decline. To prevent these protected raptors from hunting weak or young livestock, some areas maintain a “vulture restaurant”, supplementing the birds’ diet with a steady donation of heads, hooves, entrails and other off-cuts from local abattoirs.

 

SIERRA DE GUARA

Protected as part of the Sierra y Cañones de Guara Nature Reserve, this is a region of stunning limestone ranges, perforated with deep canyons and caves carved by river water and wind erosion. Capped by Tozal de Guara (2,077m) as its highest summit, it is protected by the high Pyrenees to the north, hence its southern slopes receive little precipitation and are very dry. This has created a rugged land of stunted oak forests and maquis scrub.

The park is also a designated ZEPA (Special Bird Protection) area, one of Europe’s most important birdlife sanctuaries. The area’s rugged, rocky limestone walls are perfect nesting places for gigantic birds of prey like the Griffon vulture, along with Golden eagles, Peregrine falcons, and the mighty Lammergeier (Bearded vulture). In summer they are joined by other birds of prey like Egyptian vultures, Booted eagles and Honey Buzzards.

The lower altitudes are a patchwork of rolling oak woods, dotted with small wheat fields and groves of almond and olive (olive oil is a specialty in this region). Some of the most stunning areas surround pretty little limestone villages that ride the flanks of the sierra. In small, historic villages – built of sand-stone, wood and adobe – locals still live a rural lifestyle, surrounded by terraced hillsides of almond and olive trees, interspersed with vineyards.

Good bases to explore the region are larger villages like Bierge, Rodellar, Colungo, or Alquézar – one of Aragon’s most famous Moorish landmarks.

 

Canyoning

With over 70 river gorges, it’s no surprise that this is the birthplace of canyoning in Spain. Canyoning trips to the gorges of El Mascún, Gorgas Negras, La Peonera, El Vero and El Balced – with their narrow sculpted walls, tranquil pools and waterfalls – can be arranged from towns that are in or near the park, like Bierge and Alquézar.

With so many routes, it’s easy to find one suited for your skill level where you can jump, slide, rappel, and swim through waterfalls and vaults. The best seasons are from spring to autumn, and prices for an excursion range between €40-60 per person (bring your own boots that will inevitably get wet).

 

Hiking

The sun-drenched Sierra de Guara is crossed by a network of well-marked paths with varied distances and difficulty, making for ideal hiking in spring or autumn. The long-distance GR45 route and the Somontano Nature Route weave their way through the sierras, offering trails of various lengths (from short hikes to multi-day excursions) and difficulty levels. Many of the signposted hiking trails were once ancient paths used by shepherds, conquerors, and pilgrims, leading to spectacular bathing areas or shallow caves that are home to prehistoric rock art.

The 50km-long Somontano Route can be undertaken in 3 stages (overnighting at refugios) or used as out-and-back day hikes. One of the most popular is a 6-hour circular hike from Alquézar, passing the village of Asque and the gorgeous 16th century stone bridge of Puente de Villacantal along the way.

Along the trails, multicoloured lizards weave their way amongst herb bushes like lavender and thyme; meanwhile you’ll have views of canyons and rock formations, sliced with aqua blue rivers, pools and waterfalls as the ever-present birds of prey soar overhead.

 

ALQUÉZAR

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Moors and Christians wrestled for control over the northern limits of Spain, hence the construction of many hilltop fortresses all over the Pyrenean foothills.

One of these was the 8th century Moorish citadel of Alquézar which sat on a pinnacle above the Rio Vero gorge. Taken over by Christians in the 11th century, the medieval village is now the most popular landmark of Guara, thanks to the canyons in the backdrop.

The very heart of medieval Alquézar is dominated by the Santa Maria Collegiate church and Pedro Arnal Cavero Street, once known as Calle Mayo – one of 3 main streets in the village, it connects tiny callizos (covered passages) and many smaller streets with gothic porches and arched squares, adorned with ancient family emblems.

 

MALLOS DE RIGLOS

West of Guara is the the region of Hoya de Huesca, an area which transitions from mountains to plains. Part of the Pyrenean foothills, the landscape here consists of a number of mallos – rock formations consisting of isolated vertical stone pillars, known as synclines.

The mallos of Riglos, Agüero and Murillo, all situated around the Gállego River, are especially striking. The most dramatic is Mallos de Riglos, whose reddish-tinted walls rise dramatically to 300m in height from the plains and are spectacular at sundown.

The towering crags are also a paradise for birds of prey – carrion-eaters such as the Griffon vulture, red kite and Lammergeier – that nest in the many hollows in the ridges and can often be seen flying over the area.

Mallos de Riglos is home to one of Spain’s largest breeding colony of Griffon vultures; you can view them from the Bird of Prey Interpretation Centre in Riglos, or head to the Eagle Lookout for a view over the synclines.

 

Rock Climbing

The enormous syncline towers, with sheer, vertiginous faces are internationally famous amongst rock climbers. Some of the best climbs can be found at the Riglos synclines, where there are plenty of routes and one via ferrata path.

Some of the popular climbs include the Firé, the Puro, the vertiginous Visera, and the Pisón which dominates them all. There are nearly 300 routes here, from sport climbing to traditional climbing, with grades ranging from F4 to F8a and lengths from 200m to 300m (except on bouldering paths and small synclines which are under 100m). The multi-pitch, bolted routes are the most popular, where holds are firmly cemented into the sandstone.

Climbing access is from the village of Riglos, which is along the Gállego river with a backdrop of the mallos.

 

Rafting

The Gállego river is a popular destination for whitewater rafting, especially between the Carcavilla hydroelectric station and Murillo. The section between Murillo and Santa Eulalia is the easiest to access and navigate; the most turbulent rapids are “La Lavadora” (the washing machine), with several waves and a leap at the end.

Plenty of rafting outfitters line the river near the towns of Murillo de Gállego and Santa Eulalia de Gállego.

 

LOARRE CASTLE

Not far from Riglos is the impressive Loarre Castle, which is perched above the town on a rocky outcrop. As Spain’s oldest fortified castle built in the 11th century to hold back the Moors, it’s now a well-preserved romantic ruin with an impressive view over the plains which is a vast expanse of semi-desert interspersed with terraced groves of olives and almonds.

From a distance it’s an imposing structure surrounded by a 172m-long perimeter wall studded with circular towers. The interior features a Royal Chapel with its magnificently carved pillars, and the the Keep is the castle’s tallest tower (22m) with 5 floors. This UNESCO site was made popular as the film location of Ridley Scott’s ‘Kingdom of Heaven’.

 

ORDESA NATIONAL PARK

Established in 1918, the Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park was Spain’s first protected area and is a highlight of the Pyrenees, being both a UNESCO heritage site and biosphere reserve. Standing watch over the mountainscape is the limestone summit of Monte Perdido (3,355m) – the third highest peak in the Pyrenees.

The landscape consists of 4 deep canyons – including Anisclo and Ordesa with their towering cliffs – where the craggy upper areas contrast with the lush green valleys sluiced by crystal clear rivers and waterfalls. The plateaus on the higher reaches resemble a moonscape.

The Ordesa valley is the most popular for hikers; with cliffs rising over 800m on both sides and Monte Perdido perched at the valley’s end, there are 4 main routes for day hikers. Access to this part of the park is via the picturesque town of Torla, and hikes start from the Pradera car park which is a 20-minute drive away.

 

Hiking

The easiest hike is a 16km circular route on the valley floor following the Arazas river towards Circo de Soasa, where there is a waterfall and views of Monte Perdido on the ridgeline above, before returning to Pradera.

There are 2 ways to approach Circo de Soasa: one takes you on a steep 2-hour climb (800m ascent) along Senda de los Cazadores to the mountain shelf of Faja de Pelay, affording panoramic views over the valley floor and surrounding peaks before descending to the valley floor on the way back to Pradera (8 hours). The less strenuous way is to follow the flat valley floor route all the way there and back (6 hours).

A dramatic route is the Faja de las Flores (16km, 9-10 hours) which is perched high on the northern cliffs. The path is only a metre wide, with a 400m sheer drop to your right at all times – the descent is via a scary set of chains and pitons. If you’re looking to spot Sarrios (Pyrenean chamois) and Lammergeiers, the Faja Racon (11km, 5-6 hours) route takes you under the northern cliffs for an alternate view of the canyons.

 

Wildlife

As with the rest of the Pyrenees, these steep rock faces are nesting grounds for Griffon vultures, Lammergeiers and Golden Eagles – you can spot these raptors as they soar on rising thermals throughout the park.

The Ordesa valley is also home to Sarrios (Pyrenean Chamois), which are goat-antelopes with short horns, and grow to just 80cm. These shy animals congregate in the upper slopes to graze in summer and are now protected in many Pyrenean valleys.

 

AIGÜESTORTES I ESTANY DE SANT MAURICI NATIONAL PARK

The protected nature reserve of Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park, the only national park in Catalonia, sits in the upper reaches of the Pyrenean chain. It’s a picturesque landscape of rivers and lakes surrounded by jagged, snowcapped peaks.

Ranging in elevation between 1,600m and 3,000m, the park has montane and alpine vegetation that is home to wildlife like the Pyrenean chamois, marmot, roe deer, as well as birds like the gigantic Lammergeier and Golden Eagle. Park guides are available for nature or birdwatching tours (with snowshoe tours available in spring).

There are over 200kms of historic trekking trails – called the Camins Vius, or ‘Living Paths’, that date back to medieval times – that join the 6 valleys, 3 mountain passes, and their villages throughout the park.

 

VAL D’ARAN

North of the park is Val d’Aran, Catalonia’s northernmost outpost which is located at the western end of the Pyrenees, with 3,000m-tall soaring peaks and valleys. Dotted with plentiful historic sites, quaint hilltop villages and plenty of nature, Val d’Aran is also home to Spain’s biggest ski resort.

Situated between altitudes of 1,500m and 2,500m, the ski resort of Baqueira-Beret is the only Spanish ski resort located on the northern slopes of the Pyrenees, with a ski season that lasts until early April.

With over 180km of piste, it’s the largest ski area in Spain, and caters to all levels of skiers and boarders with a lift system that’s able to transport 60,000 people per hour up to the slopes.

The resort is the most prestigious in Spain, patronised by many celebrities, including the Spanish royal family. Even so, the prices here are generally lower than at Alpine resorts.

 

VALL DE BOÍ

Just an hour south of Val d’Aran is Vall de Boí, a valley that contains the densest concentration of Romanesque architecture in Europe, dating back to the 11th century. Situated at the edge of the Pyrenees, it is home to the 9 UNESCO-listed churches in villages including Santa Maria de Taüll, San Joan in Boí, and Santa Eulàlia in Erill la Vall.

These historic monuments are well known for their bell towers and murals. While most of the murals have been removed, you can still see the characteristic architecture of the area. The Romanesque Route 1 is a mountainous walking trail that connects many of the villages in this valley along a 16km loop.

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