Boasting a rich cultural and historic heritage, vast and varied unspoilt landscapes supporting a diverse and abundant wildlife, and a globally famous gastronomy, Extremadura is becoming one of the most attractive regions of Spain for visitors in search of authenticity. Its excellent road system makes the region both accessible and easy to explore, yet at the same time visitors will feel that they are off the beaten track, away from the crowds and connecting with the unspoilt timelessness that is Extremadura. Lying in the heart of the region is Trujillo with one of the finest main squares in Spain, an imposing Moorish fort build atop a massive granite outcrop and medieval palaces, each with rich stories to tell. The view from the fort extends as far as the Gredos Mountains to the north, snow-capped in winter and spring, across vast expanses of dehesas. These are managed open woodlands of evergreen oaks, part of traditional integrated farming systems which produces the exquisite cured hams from acorn-fed free-range Iberian pigs, the internationally acclaimed cheeses from sheep and goats, as well as high quality local beef. Trujillo itself is the home of the world famous national cheese festival bringing together cheese producers and cheese-lovers from far afield.
Extremadura and Trujillo in particular have been long recognised as one of the most important destinations in Europe for nature-lovers and birdwatchers in particular who come from all over the world to visit the region every year. The very same reasons that give Extremadura its wider appeal, make it one of the most important areas for bird conservation in Europe, with globally important populations of some species such as the Great Bustard and Black Vulture. The traditional farming practices, low human population density and varied landscapes provide a haven for birds which elsewhere have either disappeared altogether or are much harder to observe.
A good road system, availability of information about where to see birds in Extremadura and a wide choice of local services including accommodation and guides, make the region an ideal one for birdwatchers travelling independently rather than in organised groups. Indeed a recent survey showed that the vast majority of birders who come to Extremadura make their own arrangements. In recognition of this the Extremadura Tourist Board initiated a Birding in Extremadura Club (www.birdinginextremadura.com), which brings together information about the best places to stay and local guides to hire, to make it even easier for tourists to design their own trips. During 2015, apps will be available for people to download which will help visitors find the best birding locations. Nature guides in Extremadura have formed an association Guidex (www.guidextremadura.com), which will also help the visitor contact the most experienced guides to hire if required.
There are many places to explore in Extremadura, so thinking about one’s base is important. Trujillo is considered the best base in Extremadura for birders for many reasons. Within easy reach of Trujillo are all of the main habitats that birdwatchers will want to visit in order to see the special birds without spending too much time travelling. Trujillo is surrounded by open plains, home for emblematic species such as Great and Little Bustards, Pin-tailed and Black-bellied Sandgrouse and many birds of prey. Nothing quite prepares the visitors for experiencing the sheer abundance of small birds, such as larks (it is possible to see five species in a day) and Corn Buntings. Such experiences are rare indeed in other parts of Western Europe. In springtime the meadows are a wonderful kaleidoscope of colours from the wild flowers. It is well worthwhile taking a walk along one of the ancient drovers’ trails (the Cañadas Reales) which have been public rights of way since medieval times to get a real sensation of space, with the vast dome of the sky above and to be surrounded by bird song.
Trujillo is also the gateway to the Monfragüe National Park, just half an hour away, which is one of the best places in the world to see breeding raptors. It has one of the highest densities in the world of breeding vultures and from a single viewpoint the visitor will enjoy the spectacle of sometimes hundreds vultures in the sky at one time, as well as much-sought after species like Black Stork and Spanish Imperial Eagle, all in the setting of magnificent cliffs and rock formations. To the east, also in easy reach lie the beautiful Villuercas Mountains, declared a Geological Park on account of its striking landforms, it has a network of hiking trails, many based on the old routes developed by medieval travellers and pilgrims visiting the monastery of Guadalupe. It is also the source of the River Almonte, one of the most attractive rivers of northern Extremadura, which wends its way north of Trujillo before meeting the Tagus to the west. Any traveller crossing the province of Cáceres will pass over the River Almonte and a stop at one of the bridges and a short walk along the river bank is strongly recommended.
Trujillo is also less than an hour away from other more recently-created landscapes which also offer superb habitats for birds. There is the famous Arrocampo reservoir to the north, where there is an Information Centre at Saucedilla, trails and observation hides. To the south are the rice fields of the Guadiana basin, with their supporting network of reservoirs. This is the most important area in Europe for wintering Common Cranes and tens of thousands are present from November to February each year, feeding on the stubble fields. They provide one of the most beautiful bird spectacles that Extremadura has to offer, with their grace and wonderful bugling call. The cranes are joined also by large numbers of duck and geese, as well as wintering birds of prey like Hen Harrier and Merlin. Again infrastructure is in place to support the visiting birdwatcher, most notably at Moheda Alta where there is a Crane Information Centre, trails and observation towers.
Indeed Trujillo itself is of international importance for birds, being one of the few urban Special Protection Areas for birds in the European Union, thanks to its thriving colonies of Lesser Kestrels. There is nothing more enjoyable than sitting in the Main Square enjoying a drink in one of the cafes and watching the wheeling packs of Common and Pallid Swifts, the gentle gliding Lesser Kestrels, listening to the bill-clacking of the White Storks, and watching vultures and eagles drifting high overhead. In recognition of the important Lesser Kestrel colonies dotted across the town, in old buildings as well as new, there is an annual Lesser Kestrel Festival in Trujillo, with many activities organised for the local school children, as well as official events and guided walks.
Trujillo is therefore the very best base for visiting Extremadura, providing not just the most convenient centrally located position, but also all of the supporting services needed for the visitor. Spring is the most popular time to visit, when a holiday can combine the wonders of the colours of the wild flowers with the peak of breeding activity of the birds, along with the fascinating local Easter festivals and other events such as the annual cheese festival. However, winter visits can be very rewarding, especially with the throngs of wintering cranes, whilst in autumn Extremadura enjoys a second spring. The long summer drought is broken and there is a rapid transformation as the landscape turns green and delightful autumn flowers make their appearance. It is the time of year of the Red Deer rut in Monfragüe National Park and when too multitudes of migrating birds stop to rest here on their long journey to Africa.
There are a number of specialised accommodation for birdwatchers and nature-lovers in rural guesthouses (Casas Rurales) and small hotels in and around Trujillo, so the choice is available for those who prefer to stay in a rural-setting or those who want to stay in the heart of the historic town. There are small guesthouses, bed & breakfast establishments, self-catering cottages and apartments, as well as small and large hotels. There are local birding guides available to offer their services to ensure the visitors get the most out of their holiday. The town boasts a wide selection of restaurants and local bars, as well as shops specialising in the local gastronomic products for which the town is justly proud. The Tourist Office has information available to help the visitor, as well as offering guided visits of the town itself.
Martin Kelsey has lived in Extremadura since 2004 and together with his partner Claudia run a rural guesthouse Casa Rural El Recuerdo (www.casaruralelrecuerdo.com) just outside Trujillo.
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There is also a blog in English about nature in Extremadura: