Monfrague - a well kept secret!


Travels in our motorhome (see end for more links)

Monfragüe – a well kept secret!

            “Where are you going next?” asked our Spanish friends in the Alicante province.  “To Monfragüe Natural Park,” we replied.  Puzzled looks all round as we explained where we were heading  – apparently Monfragüe is a very well kept secret even from the Spanish!

            The Parque Natural de Monfragüe lies in Extramadura between Plasencia and Caceres and covers a small mountainous area of forest and twisting rivers.  There is evidence of people living in this area from 2500 BC – attracted there by the  abundance of game and shelter.  Faded cave paintings can still be seen near  Monfragüe castle.  Early man was later followed by the Celts and then by the Romans who gave the area its name (Mons Fragorum – Rough Mountain)  There are still the remains of  Roman bridges, roads and tombs.  The Arabs came next and built numerous towers and castles – Monfragüe castle is the best preserved.  After the expulsion of the Arabs a bridge was built across the Tajo in order to help traders.  The traders in turn attracted bandits to the area and the village of Villareal de San Carlos was established as a military settlement to protect travellers.

            We had been staying near Alicante so reached the park from the south-east.  This proved to be a long slow journey following the N430 and then turning north to join the NV/E90 and finally turning west at Jaraicejo.  From this point there was an endless succession of roadworks and badly signed diversions and it seemed to take forever to reach our destination.  On reflection an easier way to get there would be from Salamanca in the north or from Seville in the south.  After a long haul in pouring rain we were relieved and delighted when at last we saw the signs for Camping Monfragüe.

Camping Monfragűe south of Plasencia

            This campsite has good sized level pitches and all the usual facilities including hot showers, laundry room, dishwashing area, chemical disposal, a bar/restaurant and a small shop selling basic supplies.  Although there were only a few people on the site when we were there in October these facilities were all open.  Some of the reception staff speak English and they all seem to go out of their way to be as helpful as possible.  All the facilities were clean and well looked after.   It is possible to book guided minibus tours of the park at the reception for €20 per person.  All in all Camping Monfragüe proved to be an excellent base for exploring the area.

            Monfragüe Park is about 25 kilometres south of the campsite so it is necessary to drive – roadworks for much of the way!    Just inside the park boundary lies the tiny village of Villareal de San Carlos which is now being developed as a centre for visitors to the area.  As well as a couple of bars there is a series of small museums showing the flora and fauna of the area and information on the history of Villareal.    Traditionally local farmers took their flocks through Villareal as they moved them from summer to winter pasture.  Simple stone huts with thatched roofs were used by the farmers en route and some of these have been renovated and are used as simple accommodation for groups of children and young people.

The village of Villarreal de San Carlos in the nature park.

            Starting from the village there are three self-guided walks – these take between 2½ and 3½ hours and all involve some uphill climbs.  But the effort is well worthwhile as the views are superb.  You need to give yourself plenty of time as there are many temptations to pause to watch the huge birds flying overhead.  Monfragüe is rapidly becoming one of the best places in Spain for birdwatching.  On the rocky outcrops over the River Tajo you will see dozens of huge black vultures and leonardo vultures.  We also spotted a black stork and (possibly) an Iberian eagle.  Azure-winged magpies are very prolific here – smaller and much prettier than the magpies in Britain.  There are also griffon vultures, cormorants, bee-eaters, kingfishers and lots of others too numerous to list.  Some of the park is maintained as an ecological reserve and it is here that the Iberian Lynx still stalks its prey.

 

View of the River Tajo from the remains of an Arab fort at Cerro Gimio.

            If you prefer not to walk you can drive through the park and stop at one of several designated parking places which overlook the river and give great views of spectacular raptors as they soar above.

The River Tajo twisting through the oak forests of the nature park

One of the stopping places for vehicles in Monfragűe Park.

            The countryside around the park is rolling pasture dotted with Spanish oak trees.  In autumn these are heavy with acorns and pigs are let loose into the fields to feast.  There are also cork oaks with stripped trunks – a reminder that Monfragüe only 130 kilometres from the Portuguese border.

 

Typical Extramadura countryside with evergreen Spanish oaks.

            From the campsite it is about 11 kilometres to Plasencia. (Yes, more roadworks!)  This is a typical small town – built on a hill with narrow streets.  We guessed parking would be a problem so headed for the Carrefour which lies on the outskirts (signed for Salamanca and Avila).  Like most Carrefour stores the entrance to the parking area has a height barrier.  It is possible to park safely in the streets nearby but we were able to use their car park by carefully entering using the exit!  From here it is a 15 – 20 minute walk to the old town.   Plasencia has two cathedrals (La Catedral Nueva and La Catedral Vieja) and two museums as well as several palaces – one of which is a parador.  The old town is surrounded by a double ring of walls with 22 remaining towers and numerous gateways.  On Tuesdays there is a lively market in the Plaza Mayor. 

 

Cathedral Vieja at Plasencia.

            Monfragüe is a great stopping place if you are travelling to or from the coast through the west of Spain.  During our stay we met several couples heading down to the Algarve or Costa del Sol who only stayed overnight before zooming off again early in the morning.  This is a pity as it is certainly worth putting a few days of your journey aside for this interesting part of Spain. 

             So if you’re looking for a birdwatcher’s paradise with stunning scenery and great hiking country then this could be the place to head for.  And when those roadworks are all completed I have a feeling that Monfragüe will no longer be a secret!    

 

 

December 2003  (first published in a magazine in 2004)

 

  Links to my other motorhome travel sites:

Pilgrims' route to Santiago de Compostela - the soft way

Ariege - on the trail of the Cathars

Away from the Costas

Northern highlights - or Follow that Reindeer!