June 6, 2012
The idea of a family holiday booked solely around an episode of Rick Stein’s Spain series unnerved me. In fact, not even a whole episode, but an aspect of one episode: Iberico ham. We were off to the isolated (and generally unheard-of) region of Extremadura because my food-mad husband had been seduced by tales of herds of prized black porkers that shuffle between oak trees, snarfling acorns.
The second alarm bell sounded when, having booked a little guesthouse in the area, the enthusiastic owner kept sending me multi-attachment emails detailing the prolific and unusual birdlife of Extremadura. I replied, politely, explaining that having a small child in tow wouldn’t permit any birdwatching – and this without a hint of the actual cynicism I feel towards the activity and its partakers as he, clearly, was a dedicated twitcher.
After a four-hour drive from Madrid and three days of extensive driving within the region, desperately trying to maintain a five-year-old’s will to holiday with us by playing ‘Who can spot the first black pig?’, we admitted defeat. There were no pigs in these dehesas (pasturelands of oak and cork trees). Or, as my husband sheepishly suggested, there were no pigs here at this time of year. It was pretty silly, neither of us researching the seasonal aspect of our trip, but I let the burden of guilt fall singly and squarely…
Despite the whole no-pig disappointment, I had to eat my words when it came to the birds. In Monfragüe, the most recently designated of Spain’s 14 national parks and a UNESCO biosphere reserve to boot, I was, well, enraptored. Vultures as big as dogs swooped between cliff-faces – maybe 30 or 40 of them – then sat on peaks, surveying the riverbanks for prey. We bumped into our fellow B&B guests – a German couple who visit the area for a week every year purely to birdwatch – and they showed our daughter an eagle through their hi-spec telescope. I felt myself age that day but had to admit that, as an introduction to birding, it was a pretty impressive one.