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Spain's National Treasures

Our visit to two of Spain's National Parks in 2007. Published in Practical Caravan August 2008 as "Spain's National Treasures" 

In early June, my wife and I hitched up our Hymer Nova after 5 weeks at Conil de la Frontera near Cadiz and began a move north for the latter part of our trip.  We had been treading familiar ground and having visited many of the nearby sights before, left sightseeing for a leisurely return via a different route chosen to take in some of Spain’s extraordinary wildlife.


With a modest detour, our route took in the Doñana and Monfragüe National Parks both noted for their spectacular bird life and as we were to discover, mammals too.


From Seville, 50 miles brought us to the very unusual village of El Rocio on the northern fringe of the Doñana National Park.  About equal distance between the city of Huelva to the west and Seville to the east, the park is a huge wilderness area of marshland and dunes devoid of roads.  On the delta of the river Guadalquivir, it attracts vast numbers of birds to breed or to rest during migration periods.  It is also one of the last homes to the rare Spanish Lynx and commoner mammals such as Wild Boar and Deer.


We chose to avoid the annual festival at Pentecost known as “The Romeria del Rocio” when the normally quiet village attracts upwards of half a million pilgrims and other visitors from towns and cities as far away as Malaga, many of whom arrive on foot or in ox wagons having travelled for days camping along the way.  They are to commemorate the miracle of Nuestra Senora del Rocio (Our Lady of the Dew) and parade the ancient statue of the Virgin Mary said to date from the 13th century and blessed with miraculous powers.  The outcome is said to be great fun and very spectacular but all accommodation and campsites are booked up years in advance.


The municipal site, Camping La Aldea, is large, well laid out and fairly new with good facilities and a welcome pool, they do have a small shop but with the nearest supermarket 9 miles away it would have been wise to stock up beforehand.


The first impression one gets of the town is of something lifted straight out of a western, wide sand streets lined with single story buildings with boardwalks and hitching rails for horses which are actually used and not just for decoration.  Having made the early mistake of taking the car in, instead of walking it was soon apparent why locals preferred horseback in the deep soft sand, we didn’t get stuck but it was a close thing without four wheel drive and unnecessary as the municipal site was close enough even for us to walk.



The spectacular church that houses the statue of the virgin is on the shore of a lake that is home to numerous varieties of birds such as Flamingo, Spoonbill, Herons and Kites plus many more we couldn’t identify


With no roads through the park itself access is naturally limited, but 3 good visitor centres provide free entrance, good parking and “boardwalk” trails for easy movement between hides at different locations that will hopefully enable the visitor to catch sight of some of the wildlife.  Though out of season for the major influxes for which the park is famous, under our own steam we still spotted exciting species new to us but the highlight of our visit was to come from an organised “safari” type tour.

These trips are in large 24 seat, 4 wheel drive buses, organised by the park authorities and we were fortunate to gain a place at short notice, busier times need booking well in advance.


With the best time to view any wildlife being mornings and evenings our 80km trip through the park began at 5pm from the Acebuche visitor centre, and we soon found ourselves being driven at some speed along the beach from the nearby resort of Matalascañas.  This beach forms the southern edge of the park and stretches for 20 miles to the river that forms the eastern boundary.  Whilst open to the public on foot, the only vehicle access allowed is to organised tours such as these and we quickly found ourselves alone. 



Before long we were shown rare gulls, Booted Eagles and Wild Boar.  These openly approached the bus in the hope of tit bits, needless to say we behaved ourselves and didn’t oblige.  It was obvious that others were not so fastidious and at the extreme end of the beach where locals from Sanlucar cross the river Guadalquivir by ferry for the beach and fishing, Boar wandered about, both ignoring and being ignored by the local anglers.  Turning inland, we followed a route that pilgrims from Sanlucar have a dispensation to use annually for their 3day journey to El Rocio.  A few families who have always lived in the park have been allowed to stay and continue their traditional lifestyles fishing, charcoal burning and harvesting pine nuts but we did notice that their traditional houses thatched with reeds were not totally removed from the 21st century and sported satellite dishes.  As we continued, sightings of large mammals continued thick and fast with Red and Fallow Deer plus many more Boar, some with piglets.  On the marshes huge numbers of water birds were to be seen particularly Flamingos in their thousands, but other waders such as Avocet and Stilt were also in abundance and in smaller numbers, various species of Heron.  The circuit was completed when with an impressive display of 4 wheel driving, we returned to the beach over very very soft dunes where drifting sand continuously re-sculpts the landscape.


Our next destination was the region of Extremadura in central Spain and the National Park Monfragüe.  The N630 north from Seville forms part of the Ruta de Plata or Silver Route that dates from Roman times and traverses the country in an almost straight line from Seville to Gijon in Asturias.  Benefiting from EU investment much of it has already been up rated to motorway standard and work continues with the rest. Although passing through mountainous regions, it was an easy and picturesque 300 miles to the municipal site Parque Natural Monfragüe 10km south of the city of Plasencia.


The site has good facilities, a useful pool, and is well placed for visiting the region and especially for the nearby vulture colony.


                             Black Stork                                                                   Griffon Vulture


                          Griffon at rest                                                Bird watching at the Gypsy Rock

From here, viewing large numbers of Griffon Vultures at their nest site did not entail any cross country treks or energetic hikes in 35 degrees, it was simply a matter of driving 10 miles down the road, parking the car and finding ourselves opposite a cliff face a few hundred yards across the river from where about 80 pairs of these enormous birds were effortlessly circling, landing and tending their young and there is even seating and shade provided.  The visitor centre at Villa Real del San Carlos, about 6 miles down the same road is worth a visit for advice and maps indicating other similarly easy viewpoints where more vultures including the Egyptian variety and the rare Black Stork could be viewed.


Back at the campsite, in addition to the Spanish, Dutch and English visitors we couldn’t help but make the acquaintance of its other prominent residents, the Azure Winged Magpie.  These gorgeous creatures are described in our Collins Guide as “confident and perky, roaming about in noisy bands” not unlike the campers of some nationalities, we thought in an unkind moment, however providing a sharp eye was kept on anything they might steal from the table they provided endless entertainment.


These two locations are the ideal opportunity for the lazier or less mobile among us to get in close to some of the most impressive of European wildlife, and for us it was the perfect sequel to a relaxing sea and sun break.



David and Marjorie Willdigg




Our Outfit


Car: - Mercedes E280 CDI Estate

Caravan: - 2002 Hymer Nova 470


Where we stayed


El Rocio

Camping La Aldea

Ctra Rocio, Km 25, 21750

El Rocio (Huelva)

Tel/Fax 959-44 26 77

Email: info@campinglaaldea.co





Parque Natural Monfragüe

Ctra de Trujillo, Km 10, 10680

Malpartida de Plasencia (Caceres)

Tel/Fax 927-45 92 33

Email: Contact@Campingmonfrague.com

Web: WWW.Campingmonfrague.com


©Copyright 2008 David Willdigg All rights reserved