You won’t necessarily be a keen birdwatcher when you enter Extremadura’s Monfrague National Park, located just over 2 hours drive west of Madrid; but I can’t guarantee that you won’t be by the time you leave. Ornithologists flock to popular lookout points like the Salto del Gitano where there’s a good chance of seeing one of the many eagles, storks or vultures that can be spotted here nestling amongst the craggy rock outcrops that line the River Tagus.
Visiting Monfrague National Park, Spain
The Salto del Gitano is spectacular even without the birds and for many it’s the undisputed highlight of Monfrague National Park. Even on a bright summer’s morning, the river has a vivid hue that sets off the quartzite outcrops rising majestically from its banks. Later in the day, the colours are bleached by the overhead sun, so get there early.
That’s not to say the rest of the park isn’t worth seeing. A couple of long distance footpaths bisect the mountainous terrain of Monfragüe though if you’re not up to walking their entire length, it’s good to know that they converge on the main road in places. You can pick up a guide from the visitor centre at the park’s only settlement, Villarreal de San Carlos. It’s a spectacular drive, too, particularly as you wind your way up and over a ridge through countryside crowded with swathes of wild olives and cork oaks punctuated by dried up gulleys.
It’s farming country too, so keep an eye out for the herds of ink-black cattle that are grazed here. It’s low intensity agriculture, the numbers kept low to ensure that the park’s wild animals aren’t impacted in a negative way. The diverse fauna includes species of deer, genets, lynx and otters, amongst others. UNESCO knew what it was doing when it classified Monfrague National Park as a biosphere reserve in 2003; it’s thought to be the best preserved tranche of Mediterranean mountain landscape in the world.
The Moors built a castle at Monfragüe and although there’s not much left of the original, a climb up to the castle is rewarded by sweeping views over the surrounding countryside. Look carefully in the park and you’ll also find prehistoric cave paintings. While there are no Roman remains – if you seek those, head further south to Merida – they were the ones who gave the area its name: Mons Fragorum means dense mountain. These days, however, there’s little in the way of human settlement in the park, but that’s its charm, of course.