Monfragüe National Park - Vuelta a Iberia - CycleBlaze

October 15, 2019

Monfragüe National Park

I'm going where the sun keeps shining
Through the pouring rain
Going where the weather suits my clothes
Banking off of the northeast winds
Sailing on a summer breeze
And skipping over the ocean like a stone

           Everybody’s Talkin’, by Fred Neil

At our restaurant this evening, we listen Fred Neil’s song, sung by Harry Nilsson in the version that made it and him famous in the sound track for Midnight Cowboy.  I’d forgotten about Harry Nilsson, and Rachael and I both misidentified the singer as Glen Campbell as we listened to it.  It’s a song I associate with - it came out in 1969 when I was in infantry training at Fort Lewis, shivering under a cold and wet winter and the fear that I was bound for the jungles of Vietnam.  Fortunately those fears weren’t realized, or we might not be experiencing this journey today.

The song has relevance today too, because the weather is changing and we’re happy to be heading south.  It was down to 42 degrees this morning in Plasencia, the coldest day of the tour so far.  Overnight, temperatures dropped about ten degrees and are expected to only get up to about 60 today.  It makes us feel really good about our decision to drop down from La Alberca a day early.  I’ll bet it’s near freezing up there this morning.

We have a really short ride on tap today, to a rural hotel just south of Monfragüe National Park, one of the greatest highlights in Extremadura.  It’s only 25 miles from here and a pretty simple 25 miles at that, but we want to allow plenty of time to explore the park.  We’re thinking we’ll ride out one of the few paved side roads that penetrate its vast expanse, stop in at the visitor center to pick up a map, and take a hike.

Most of all, I’m hoping we’ll get to see some of the raptors that Monfragüe is famous for.  It has a reputation as one of the most important birding sites in Europe, where huge concentrations of vultures and eagles can be seen soaring around its most famous spot, where the Tagus River passes through a gap in the long east/west ridge that defines the landscape here.

Its still on the cold side when Rachael and I leave our hotel at about 10, each of us layered up with a warm jersey and jacket.  It’s quite a bit busier this morning in Plasencia than it was yesterday - I think I must have been right in thinking that it was uncharacteristically slow yesterday due to the national holiday weekend - but it’s a small town and we soon pass the cathedral and the Trujillo Gate, cross the Jerte, and start climbing.

Leaving Plasencia, we climb away from the Jerte River. It doesn’t take long for us to stop and shed a layer.
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After a few miles the road levels out and we enter the vast dehesa that dominates the countryside here. Looking east toward the Sierra de Gredo mountains, I wonder if I’m seeing a trace of snow on its highest peaks.
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I’m so surprised that we’re suddenly seeing cork oaks everywhere. The vegetation has noticeably changed since dropping into Extremadura.
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Andrea BrownWait. Are you telling me that Robert Lawson ('Ferdinand the Bull') had it wrong? https://illustratornate.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/ferdi005-copy.jpg
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1 month ago
Scott AndersonTo Andrea BrownThere’s more than one way to skin a cork, apparently.
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1 month ago

After about ten miles biking through the dehesa, passing open forests with freshly peeled cork oaks and livestock randomly milling around, we cross the northern border of the park and start dropping to the confluence of the Tietar and Tegus Rivers.

Monfragüe is a vast park, with an east/west orientation defined by a low, rocky ridge that separates the Tietar River to its north from the Tegus (one of Iberia’s largest rivers, also known as the Tajo or Tejo) to its south.  It is a mostly roadless area, with only a few paved roads penetrating it.  We’re following the north/south route, but we stop to detour east for several miles when we come to the turnoff for the only other paved road we’ll encounter here - a very quiet, narrow road that follows the Tietar along the north side of the ridge.

It’s a beautiful road through a vast, lush roadless area with an amazing diversity of vegetation.  In several places we see red deer lazing in the shade or leaping off into the trees as we approach.  At one of a series of miradors we stop to admire the views and are approached by a German couple who offer us their binoculars so we can view a griffin vulture perched on the cliffs opposite the river.

We could continue riding east as far as time and legs allow but we turn back after about five miles, not long after crossing the dam across the Tietar.  We want to allow plenty of time for seeing other areas of the park, so this is enough in this direction.  The ride back to the highway is if anything even more spectacular than when we came out, with the sun now behind us, illuminating the colorful rock formations as we slowly wheel past them.

The Tietar River, low at the end of the dry season.
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From the Tajadilla Mirador we look across the Tietar to this wall of cliffs. We can see red deer grazing on top of the cliffs, and a griffon vulture perched partway down.
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Several red deer sat calmly in the shadows, unconcerned by a ring of photographers surrounding them at a respectful distance. What’s with their hind legs though - do deer cross them when they sit like this? I’ve never noticed that before.
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The dam across the Tietar. The surprising thing here is what is not shown (and would require an aerial view) - the dam across the Tagus, only a few hundred yards to the south but unseen because of the razor thin ridge separating the rivers at this point.
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Biking west again, back toward our main route. I’m unsure what the brown splotches are, that we see everywhere here. Sheep droppings?
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The outcrops lining the road are strikingly colorful, holding our interest as we slowly climb away from the river.
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Giant thumb print
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A fabulous, unspoiled landscape, for as far as you can see.
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Ron SuchanekThis is my kind of road!
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1 month ago
Scott AndersonTo Ron SuchanekMine too. I was sorry to turn back. I’d like to return some year and ride it to its end.
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1 month ago
What is this, anyway - rosemary again? The hillside here was covered with it.
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Bill ShaneyfeltFlowers look maybe sort of bell-shaped like heath, but not sure. Not enough detail.
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1 month ago

Back at the visitor’s center we stop for lunch, sitting at a viewpoint described as a dark area on the star gazer circuit.  It’s easy to believe - on a clear night out here the sky must be astonishing.

We had originally thought we would stop in the visitor’s center, pick up a hiking map, and take a walk from here.  We’ve poked along so slowly though that we decide to just stay on the road and continue taking our time.  We discuss the possibility of biking back up here again tomorrow morning before continuing south - our hotel is only about five miles south of the park, and tomorrow’s ride to Trujillo is another short one.

A mile beyond the visitor’s center, and we stop again when we come to the Tagus/Tajo/Tejo River and look upriver to the dam and down at the Cardenal Bridge. It’s quite an amazing viewpoint, but most amazing of all is the shocking pea green color of the river.  I’ve never seen a river with a hue like this, unless it’s coated with algal scum.

Looking up the Tagus toward its dam.
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Have you ever seen a river with coloring like this? I haven’t.
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Jen GrumbyI've never seen a river this color - wow!

Of Kermit the Frog were swimming here, you might not be able to see him.
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1 month ago
Scott AndersonTo Jen GrumbyI think there are frogs in there, or good sized fishies anyway. Every so often we’d be startled by a splash and see a circle of waves radiating outwards. It’s pretty soupy and stagnant, not really riverlike here.
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1 month ago
The Cardenal Bridge, built in 1450, was built to provide a more direct crossing between Plasencia and Trujillo and facilitate the annual seasonal migration of massive drives of sheep between northern and southern Iberia. Over the centuries, many millions of sheep have passed this way.
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The Cardenal Bridge, for many centuries the only crossing of the Tegus for fifty miles in either direction.
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The modern bridge across the Tagus
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Finally, a mile later we come to the most famous viewpoint in the park: Salto del Gitano, the Gypsy Jump.  This is the narrowest point in the gorge, where the Tagus cuts through the spine of the ridge in a steep, narrow cleft.  Opposite our side of the river stands Peña Falcon (falcon rock), a sheer crag that rises 900 feet above the river.

The spot gets its name from the legendary tale of a gypsy who thwarted the pursuing Civil Guard by leaping the chasm to the rocks on the opposite bank.  Seems unlikely, but the rocks really do seem very near when you look across at them.  And very beautiful.  This is a splendid spot, and you can’t take your eyes off the dramatic cliffs and the colorful composition they make against the sky and the eerily green river below:

Peña Falcon, viewed from across the Tagus at the Salto del Gitano viewpoint.
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Jen Grumby"Eerily green" is definitely a good description of this color.
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1 month ago
This panorama gives a good perspective on how narrow the gap is here. The crag on the left is Peña Falcon, and the others are on this side of the river.
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You can’t take your eyes off the cliffs that is, until they’re drawn upwards.  The sky is full of huge, soaring birds, gyrating on updrafts, swooping downward in thrilling dives, soaring into the face of Peña Falcon before disappearing into one of its niches.  Once you’ve noticed them, you really can’t take your eyes off of them.  Their gyrations are absolutely mesmerizing.  And the sounds - it’s quiet here, and you can hear the sounds of the birds squawking from across the river; and every so often one will swoop so low overhead that you can hear the wind rushing through their wings. 

I liked this photo better than others I took, but in one of them I counted at least fifty vultures and eagles soaring above the rocks.
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Jen GrumbyWhat an amazing experience .. quiet in the presence of so many large raptors. I'm imagining the sound of the wind through low-flying wings .. nice way to start the day!
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1 month ago
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We’re here on a quiet day, but we’re not alone.  There are maybe ten others here, and almost everyone else has a camera with a mammoth scope on it.  All I’ve got is my pocket superzoom, which isn’t really adequate to capture the scene.  Still though, it’s enough that I can get a pretty decent look at the birds perched in the rocks across the river.

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Griffon vultures, I think. One of the more common of the big birds here - there are hundreds of them inhabiting these cliffs.
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A black vulture, I think.
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Bill ShaneyfeltLooks like it.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinereous_vulture
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1 month ago
A Griffon Vulture?
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Bill ShaneyfeltLooks like you are correct.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Griffon_vulture
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1 month ago

It’s a difficult place to tear ourselves away from, but eventually we decide it’s time to move on to our hotel, five miles to the south.  We agree that we’ll come back out here in the morning for a hike and second look around before turning south to tomorrow night’s stop in Trujillo.

Leaving Monfragüe, we look back at its ridgetop ruined fortress. We’ll hike back up there tomorrow.
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Before dinner, we take a short walk down a dirt path through the dehesa, enjoying a modest sunset and the stillness, with the last birds of the day swooping past along with the first bats.  It’s very peaceful and calming, a place where you feel like you could just keep walking forever.

Note that we have video for today, but our WiFi hasn’t been strong enough to upload it yet.  Something for you to look forward to when we find a stronger connection.

Sundown on the dehesa.
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The quality of this photo really makes me miss my other camera, sitting broken in the bottom of my pannier. It does much better in low light conditions like this.
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We’re staying in a rather curious hotel here - sprawling, low profile, only two story. Land must be pretty inexpensive here. It has three long wings like this one strung in a series, each with its own elevator to spare you walking up twelve steps to your flight.
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Ride stats today: 34 miles, 2,300’; for the tour: 750 miles, 37,300’

Today's ride: 34 miles (55 km)
Total: 750 miles (1,207 km)

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