Monday, 18 March 2013

Clayheads on Tour - North West Spain March 2013

I'd acquired a week off during March, and I had been given permission again  to have a short holiday abroad, following our trip to Hungary last March. We discussed several options before we decided on the Pyrenees and the Steppes of North Spain, with a possibility of ten ticks on offer. 

Finding a flight was a bit of a problem as there are so many options. Most trip reports that I read flew into Barcelona with flights easily available from Manchester. However, that leaves you with a three hour plus drive through Spain to get to the Pyrenees. There was a very tempting flight from Luton leaving at 0600hrs on a Saturday morning, arriving in Spain at 0900hrs. However the thought of trying to get to Luton at 0400hrs put us off that one. Finally, the penny dropped. Why did we need to travel three hours across Spain when there was a nearer airport to the region at Zaragoza. In March, the only flights are from Stanstead with Ryan Air. So we opted for three hours journey in this country rather than in Spain. Zaragoza is ideally situated for visiting both areas, with a 1.5 hour journey up to Jaca, our base in the Pyrenees, and about 45mins drive down to Belchite on the steppes. We did consider staying at the Boletas Birdwatching Centre near Huesca, the advantages of which were evening meals, local knowledge and English speaking staff, but in the end, the drive down to Belchite for first light was the deciding factor. In Jaca, we stayed at the Hotel Mur, and for the Steppes, we stayed at the Hotel Rincon del Cierzo at Lecera, about 25 mins drive from the Dupont's Lark reserve at El Planeron. Both hotels were alright, costing €50 to €55 a night. In Jaca there were plenty of cafes and restaurants for an evening meal, but it was a different story down at Belchite. The area is quite remote, off the tourist trail and there was not a vast choice of restaurants in the area. There was a restaurant connected with the hotel, but that didn't start serving until 20-30hrs, by which time it was full of the locals for their evening entertainment. We survived on petrol stations sandwiches! We hired a car through Hertz (via the Ryan Air website) and ended up with a Skoda Favorite. From Monday to Friday, it cost us £75. The car was very reliable, and felt strong and tough, as though we could drive it anywhere. And we did - in snow, in slush and across the plains of Belchite.

Flying over the Pyrenees
Monday 11th March 2013
We took off from Stanstead at 1210hrs and landed at 1500hrs. We had left icy cold Britain (having driven through several blizzards, then experienced a wind chill factor at Stanstead that took your skin off your face - coldest day in March for 30yrs apparently) and arrived at a dull, breezy but slightly warmer Zaragoza. We had no problems with finding the hire car, and we were soon on the road heading for Jaca. First birds of the trip were Spotless Starlings, White Storks and quite a few Black Kite.

We had a few hours of daylight left, and decided our first site was the Castiello de Mont Aragon, just east of Huesca, a large castle situated on a hill. Now, I thought that it would be relatively easy to find a large castle on a hill, and indeed it did dominate the surrounding area from the road. Unfortunately, our large scale map didn't show any minor roads leading to it, and we just couldn't find any roads that lead to it. It was a simple school boy error. I'd taken loads of reports with me, but hadn't bothered to do my homework before hand, assuming it would be straight forward. We headed for Vadiello Dam instead, but by the time we arrived, the light was fading. We saw our first group of soaring Griffon Vultures and 30+ Crag Martin, but not the hoped for Wallcreeper.

We still had to drive up to our hotel at Jaca. As we set off, an almighty hail storm hit us. Along with flashes of lightening it was quite spectacular, and the road was soon an inch deep in water. As we climbed over the foothills, we were met by our first snow, covering the road. It soon cleared as we descended into Jaca, but it was raining when we arrived (another 30mins to find the hotel) and rained all evening. 

The gorge below the Vadiello Dam with the water rushing out.