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There still remain corners of ruralSpain, far from the reality of this fast-developing and increasingly urban-dwelling country, that have been forgottenby time, largely abandoned by all but theolder generation, and which are beingreclaimed by a wildlife no longer sopersecuted by man. The MontañaPalentina - the Palentian Mountains - isone such place: a wild, unpopulated regionof high and chilly ridges, rounded summits,sweeping valleys and magnificentpanoramic vistas extending southwards tothe great plains of Castile and Leon.Nestling in the shadow of northern Spain'sCordillera Cantábrica, not far from thejagged limestone peaks of the Picos deEuropa, the Palentian Mountains aredominated by the majestic Sierra de PeñaLabra, essentially a high mountain ridgeboasting a handful of 2,000-metresummits, amongst them Valdecebollas(2,136 metres) and Pico Tres Mares (2,175metres) - Peak of the Three Seas. Araindrop falling on the latter could, intheory, end up in any one of the Bay ofBiscay, the Atlantic or the Mediterranean,such is the peculiar hydro-geographicaljigsaw that places this mountain at thesource of such mighty watercourses as theEbro and the Duero. The ancient Palentian villages of the regionare largely deserted, with hardly anoccupied house in each. For this reason,so too are the Palentian Mountains . leftfor reclamation by Wolves, Brown Bears,Wild Boar, and numerous Chamois, RedDeer and Roe Deer, not to mention a hostof smaller mammals such as Iberian andBrown Hare, Beech Marten, Pine Marten,Wildcat and the elusive Genet. Our base for this week-long exploration ofthis little-known mountain wildlife haven isin one such village. Here, our guide Tinoand his wife Rosa have sympatheticallyrestored three terraced farm cottages in aremote and tumbledown hamlet. Situatednot far to the north of Aguilar del Campo,the cottages lie on the doorstep of a trulywild landscape, comprising high mountainridges rich in alpine flora, jagged cragsand cliffs, and vast oak and Beech forestswhich support a high percentage of theendangered eastern population of theEuropean Brown Bear. Much maligned,these magnificent creatures are notoriouslydifficult to see, roaming elusively over vasttracts of difficult terrain. Nevertheless, wedo stand a chance of a sighting if we putin the effort at dawn and dusk, when theBears are most active. At these times, ourlocal Spanish naturalist guide, Tino, willuse his 4-wheel drive vehicle to take us toremote view-points for optionalopportunities to scan from chilly ridges for Bears, Wolves, Wild Boar and othermammals. Both guides will make us feel very much at home, sharing a richpassion for, and knowledge of, thesemountains . and regaling us with talesand photographs of their close encounterswith both Bears and Wolves. Interestingmammalian encounters are not reserved,however, for the distant valleys, for ourhosts will proudly show us images ofWildcat and Beech Marten taken by aremote camera not feet away from ourfront door (and will no doubt demonstratethis piece of kit during our stay)! The cottages are very much central to ourdaily outings, with the majority of each dayspent on foot, either walking from our base,or in quiet locations accessed by vehicle. Arange of habitats can be found in closeproximity, with a full suite of raptorspresent, including resident Golden Eaglesand Peregrines and both Griffon andEgyptian Vultures. Black and MiddleSpotted Woodpeckers both breed here, thelatter possibly being easier to see here thanthroughout much of the rest of its range. On one day we will drive further afield toexplore the steppes and plains of themeseta, home to Great Bustard, StoneCurlew and other grassland birds, and alarge (depending on rainfall) reed-fringedlake which supports large numbers ofducks, geese, waders and such interestingpasserines as Penduline Tit andMoustached Warbler. A short distanceaway, in the midst of Castile and Leon'svast cereal belt, a pack of Wolves hassecretly flourished, unbeknown to all but avery few keen Spanish naturalists andconservationists and a barking dog in thenearby village. If they are still in residence,an atmospheric vigil at dusk may revealthe Wolves as they tentatively venture outinto the stubble from their day-time home-the only spinney for miles around. Flexibility will be the key to this tour and,whatever time we arrive back at ourcottages, we can be sure that a heartymeal, freshly prepared by Rosa, will bewaiting for us on our return each day fromthe wilds of this forgotten corner ofEurope. It will be hard to leave!Wild Spain - La Montaña PalentinaAn 8-day holiday to enjoy the birds, plants, butterflies and mammals of this wild corner of Spain.Thursday 6th June - Thursday 13th June Cost: £1,195Outline itineraryDay 1Fly Santander; driveAguilar del Campo.Day 2/7Daily programme ofnatural history walksand excursions from ourbase.Day 8Fly Stansted.Accommodation Three old terraced farm cottages,beautifully restored. A mixture ofprivate and shared facilities.Food and wineAll included in the price.GradingGrade A/B. Day walks only.Focus Birds, plants, butterflies andmammals.LeaderByron Palacios, plus local naturalistguides.Single room supplement£150.Web quick search: ESP18134Call now or visit www.naturetrek.co.ukfor your free Trip ItineraryFRANCEPORTUGALSEVILLEBILBAOSANTANDERCORDILLERACANTÁBRICAAGUILARDEL CAMPOMADRIDATLANTICOCEANMEDITERRANEANSEASPAINApolloBluethroatPalentian Mountains

The Cantabrian Mountains run alongthe north coast of Spain for about 300kilometres. The Picos de Europa lie inthe centre of this range, a dramatic blockof jagged limestone peaks, amongst themTorre de Cerrado, at 2,648 metres, thehighest mountain in northern Spain. Theselittle-known mountains remain an area ofwild natural beauty, rich in bird andplant-life and with many species ofbutterflies, including the ScarceSwallowtail, Apollo, Camberwell Beauty,Gavarnie Blue, and many differentfritillaries, blues and ringlets. Thewhiteness of the limestone is a specialfeature of an area comprised of deepgorges, towering white cliffs andpinnacles, woods and alpine pastures.This holiday is in some ways similar informat to our popular holidays in theFrench and Spanish Pyrenees, but with acharacter all of its own. It is a 2-centreholiday, and we will be based in two verydifferent hotels, one in the small village ofCabrales in the northern Picos, the other inthe delightfully unspoilt and attractivevillage of Espinama, in the southern Picos.Each village is surrounded by meadowsand mountains, a base from which toexplore the countryside, either on foot orby taking our minibus further afield. Apicnic is provided each day giving you achance to sample some of the excellentwines and cheeses from the Picos region!By travelling slightly later in the summer,we will see all those lovely plants we missin the Pyrenees: the English Iris, BrownFoxglove, Yellow Wolfsbane and LizardOrchid being just some of them. Ourexcursions will start along gentle valleyroutes, using ancient tracks trodden byshepherds and woodcutters. Often theyare lined with crumbling stone walls filledwith ferns. We will progress to fabulousmountain views, but the pace of our walkswill allow us plenty of time to enjoy thenatural history of the many habitatsthrough which we pass.The highlight for alpine plant lovers is thetop of the Fuente Dé, reached bycable car. This will take us up 800metres, to a wild area oflimestone scree and pavement.From the top, we will walktowards the Refugio de Aliva.Here, amongst crevices, wemay see Narcissusasturiensis, the showy yellowSaxifraga aretioides,gentians, Teucriumpyrenaicum, Aquilegia discolorand many others including thebeautiful white buttercup,Ranunculus amplexicaulis.ThebirdsofthehighPicosarenolessspectacular. Griffon and Egyptian Vulturesare particularly common, whilst Bootedand Short-toed Eagles soar above thepeaks together with Buzzards,Sparrowhawks, and occasionally HenHarriers. Amongst the high crags it ispossible to see Crag Martins, AlpineAccentors, Snow Finches, Rock Thrushesand, with luck, the elusive Wallcreeper. Wewill also see raptors in the gorges runningthrough the mountains.A delightful valley walk leads to theRefugio de Aliva. En route we pass oldfarm buildings in flower-filled meadows,and on the rocky outcrops we will look forSempervivum cantabricum,Petrocoptisglaucifolia and the Yellow Snapdragon(Antirrhinum braun-blanquetii).The Picos region supports manyinteresting orchids. Along meadows andpathways we may see Ophrys speciessuch as Bee, Insect, Woodcock andSawfly, and also the Man and occasionalTongue Orchid. In damp meadows andalong stream sides there will be a riot ofMarsh Orchids, and perhaps the rareRobust Orchid. The beautiful blueEryngium bourgatii and Dianthusmonspessulanus (the Fringed Pink) andLinum viscosum (Sticky Flax) are common companions for the waysideorchids. We will also explore theheathlands for the beautiful and interestingDaboecia cantabrica (St Daboec's Heath).Extensive mixed woodlands still exist,some of them dominated by the PyreneanOak. We will also visit the beechwoods inthe Andara, a known habitat forCapercaillie and Black Woodpeckers.Other woodland birds may include SpottedFlycatcher, Short-toed Treecreeper,Firecrest and Bonelli's Warbler.On the high mountain slopes we will hopeto see Chamois and, although we areunlikely to see one, we must nonethelesskeep our eyes open for Wolf and BrownBear, which still retain a foothold in thesemountains. The Snow Vole is the smallestmammal we may see, and after rain, theyellow and black Fire Salamanders might appear.This region, fortunately still somewhat lost in time, holds something of interest for everyone. The flowers, butterflies andbirds are outstanding ... and the scenery is exceptional. Canal del TejoEgyptian VultureBee Orchid135Outline itineraryDay 1Fly Santander andtransfer to Cabrales. Day 2/4 Cabrales, northernPicos. Day 5/7Espinama, southernPicos.Day 8 Fly London.AccommodationTwo small, simple but comfortable,mountain hotels, both with privatefacilities. Food and wineAll included in the price.GradingDay walks only. Grade B.FocusBirds, plants and butterflies.LeadersLee Morgan (ornithologist) andAndrew Cleave (botanist).Single room supplement£140. Web quick search: ESP12FRANCEPORTUGALSEVILLEBILBAOSANTANDERPICOSDEEUROPACABRALESESPINAMAMADRIDATLANTICOCEANMEDITERRANEANSEASPAINBook direct on 01962 733051or see page 284 for Booking InformationSpain's Picos de Europa MountainsAn 8-day holiday of birdwatching and botanical walks in the Picos de Europa mountains.Sunday 9th June - Sunday 16th June Cost: £1,195