Spain and Portugal – June 2017

In Picos de Europa National Park

“Spain…didn’t you go there last year?” Well, yes, but it’s a big country and there’s much more to see (and we’re not done, either!). This trip included a week of cycling the Camino de Santiago from Burgos to Santiago de Compostela, bracketed by birding in the Sierra de Gredos west of Madrid plus a little bit in Extremadura, and the Picos de Europa up north in Asturias and Cantabria.

If you want to skip the narrative and go straight to the photo galleries, click here.

First stop, though, was Lisbon, Portugal. Why Lisbon and nothing else in Portugal? Because (a) we hadn’t been there before, and (b) flying there, from LA in our case, was half the cost of flying to Madrid! Our time in Lisbon was limited, but we were able to get out on a walking tour (following Rick Steves’ book and audio tour) and get a feel for the city, including the neighborhoods of Baixa-Chiado, Bairro Alto, and Belém.

Lisbon city view

From our base at the Tryp Lisboa Hotel at the airport (out of the center of things, but convenient in terms of transportation), we explored the public transportation including a rickety trolley and a funky funicular, admired the local architecture with tiled walls and mosaic sidewalks, and got a taste for vinho verde, literally “green wine”, really a refreshing white. A highlight was seeing the Monument of the Discoveries out in Belém, topped by Prince Henry the Navigator holding a caravel, a Portuguese ship (Columbus’ Niña and Santa María were caravels). Not to mention eating the tasty egg custard tarts, pastéis de nata, and visiting the Wines of Portugal tasting room on the Praça do Comércio.

From Lisbon we took the handy Avanza bus from the airport to Mérida, Spain, where we met our first birding guide, Jesús Porras of Iberian Nature. We birded the first afternoon in Mérida, then went on to our lodging in the Navarredonda de Gredos. The next two days were spent birding in the Gredos; we moved on the third day to Monfragüe National Park and spent the last night in Trujillo, Extremadura before returning to Madrid.

[Want more details on the birds? The photo galleries page includes a bird gallery, and Robert’s birding account is coming soon!]

We had a couple of days to kill in Madrid before joining our cycling tour. There we revisited some sights and sought out a few new ones, including the fine Naval Museum on the Paseo del Prado. (Somehow we missed the World Naked Bike Ride (Ciclonudista) while we were in the museum – darn!) We returned to one of our favorite restaurants, El Caldero, for a paella feast, and did the requisite tapas crawl, this time along the Calle de Jesús not far from the Atocha train station.

Next up was our Bike Spain cycling tour along the Camino de Santiago (Way of St James). The Camino is a Catholic pilgrimage route through some wonderful scenery, and basically everyone is there for their own reasons. We wanted to cycle in the countryside and enjoy the scenery (and the food, and the wine). The truly committed might start the Camino in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, and perhaps go on foot, staying in budget albuergues and doing some amount of suffering. We starting cycling in Burgos, leapfrogged over some stretches by van, and stayed in really nice accommodations. 🙂

Map from www.bikespain.com

Highlights of the Camino included visiting the fabulous León cathedral, said to be the third best church in Europe for stained glass (and first in Spain), staying in beautiful paradores, leaving our dads’ names on stones at the Cruz de Hierro en route, eating too much (here, just another slice of jamón ibérico…), and the camaraderie of the group and others on the trail. Well, except for the German guy the last day who yelled at us…ha. Having been in Barcelona just last year, it was wonderful also to see a building by Antoni Gaudí in Astorga, an Episcopal Palace.

Plenty of Camino photos are available on the photo galleries page, and also check out this great video by our Bike Spain guide, Luis Salgado.

The last part of this trip extravanganza was birding in the Picos de Europa. We returned to Madrid from Santiago de Compostela by van with Luis, then took a train up to Gijón. There we met our guide for the week, Javier Gil Vaquero of Birding Picos de Europa. The Picos straddle Asturias and Cantabria, and the proximity to the Atlantic coast kept the weather cool (in contrast, it was pretty darn hot in the interior of Spain, unseasonably so, often in the low 100s). We stayed in half of a beautiful stone cottage called Río Aliso, in Llonin, with local cows for company. Birding with Javier focused on local specialties, including raptors (golden eagle, bearded vulture, and more) and the elusive wallcreeper. The scenery in the area was spectacular; the River Cares has gouged a deep ravine between the Central and Western massifs of the Picos de Europa, one drives along the river looking at the steep-sided walls. Go up – for example on the Fuente Dé cablecar in the park – and you get incredible vistas.

Staying in a cottage, we were responsible for our own meals. We were able to shop both at a little “artisan” shop about 1/4 mile down the road – fresh bread, cider, cheeses and coldcuts – and a “supermercado” a few miles away where we picked up more supplies for making nice dinners.

A final highlight of our time in the Picos was a visit to the Fundación de Conservación de Quebrantahuesos (FCQ), a foundation dedicated to the conservation of the bearded vulture (aka quebrantahuesos, or ‘break bones’; also known as the lammergeier). Javier is a biologist with the FCQ and it is evident that the mission and the birds are a passion for him. It was a real treat to get a tour of the foundation and hear about their efforts. We did get to see a lammergeier at a great distance – being tagged, Javier could identify her as Julia – but our chances for closer views were thwarted by fog. There were some great displays at the foundation, though, including a skeleton. (These birds actually eat bones…amazing.)

Our time in the Picos at an end, we took the train back to Madrid, about a 5 hour ride, then later that same night a “trenhotel” (sleeper car) from Madrid back to Lisbon. One last day of sightseeing in Lisbon included a visit to the Gulbenkian Museum, which Rick Steves calls “the best of Lisbon’s 40 museums”. The main collection belonged to Calouste Gulbenkian, an Armenian oil tycoon who gifted the collection to Portugal in appreciation for being granted asylum there during WWII. Not often you can see a collection spanning 5000 years in an easily walkable building. We also walked the Alfama district, getting lost trying to find a particular restaurant (Restaurante Santo Antonio del Alfama) – that apparently just goes with the territory. (We did find the restaurant, but seconds after the last table was claimed, and since there’s really no push for anybody to get up and leave, we had to go elsewhere.)

Again, for more photos – quite a few actually, but feel free just to browse 🙂 – see our photo galleries page.

Extras

lyw 7/18/2017