Leaving the coast behind we retraced our steps slightly back towards to the mountains, travelling the smaller roads to see the countryside. As we entered one of the many ‘Parcs’ we saw huge rock faces standing alongside the road, after passing by two we finally stopped at the third and read that they were a tribute to the ancestors. Very impressive.
We reached the ‘Parc Natural Els Ports’, found the tiny village called Arnés and just outside it was the campsite. It was located in a picturesque valley studded with olive trees, interspersed with smaller areas of almond and hazelnut orchards and fields cultivated ready for another crop in the spring.
It was very well kept with excellent facilities and a swimming pool open until 30th September, so we missed that unfortunately! The views were amazing with bare, rocky mountainous outcrops, high hills with trees and scrub covering them which surrounded the fertile valleys below. There were only two other couples occupying the campsite so we could choose which pitch we wanted, and being British we orientated ourselves to take full advantage of the sun! Within 30 minutes we were blocking the sun out with towels hung from the canopy so we could sit outside for lunch in some shade as it was so hot, around 26C.
Staying put for the hottest part of the day in cooler shade, we eventually walked for 20 minutes into the tiny village, it looked deserted, everything closed and shuttered, no shops open or even any evidence of any shops! We found a small school that was closed, a large Town Hall and church, both also closed, and 2 bars – closed too. In fact it was a ghost town with a few cars abandoned haphazardly on any street space available. We decided to try again next day and walked back.
The couple behind us we so friendly we invited them for drinks after our evening meal. Steve’s German and Nellie’s French, 77 and 70 respectively and camping in their Renault Scenic, bed in the back, everything they needed in there too, somewhere; and all cooking done outside! They had walked 80 km over the last 5 days, that is around 10 miles a day. Both had excellent spoken English, and we spent a lovely couple of hours chatting about holidays and countries we had travelled to while supping a bottle of red wine together in the comfort of Bessie.
Retracing our steps back to the village next day, we carried on walking along a rough road on a route into the hills. The path was stony and uneven in places, fields on either side typically planted with olives and almonds, ahead were pine trees looking beautiful against the blue sky.
We didn’t see many birds or indeed hear many either, however we did see 9 griffin vultures circling high on the thermals before finding the right air current to set off across the landscape to disappear from our view. After a couple of hours we stopped under some pines for our picnic lunch and a black redstart hopped around not far way. Making our way back to camp was quicker as it was down hill and after a total of 3.5 hours during the midday heat we arrived back at Bessie for a beer and a rest. The sunset was beautiful and we spent another lovely evening with Steve and Nellie, this time as their guests, having tapas and wine under the stars until around 8.30pm when it got chilly. Getting back into Bessie I was so cold I made up the beds and was snuggled up in my quilt by 8.45pm!
After nearly 10 hours sleep we were ready for our very short drive of 7.5 miles to Valderrobres next morning. We had visited this town in March when it was grey and really cold, so returning on a wonderfully warm and sunny day made it look so much more inviting. Having been unable to visit the castle last time, we had returned to look at it and we not disappointed.
Entering the old walled town over the ancient Medieval bridge we walked uphill to the fortress which was constructed around the natural rock about the 12 century. The King of Aragon donated Valderrobres to the Bishop of Zaragoza in 1175 and in the documentation it stated a castle must be built. Later phases of construction added a tower, low walls near the church, first and second floors and subsequently in 1390 the Archbishop García Fernández de Heredia turned it into The Bishop’s Palace. However, he was later murdered and work stopped until another Archbishop finished the Palace. Eventually it fell into disuse but was re-inhabited in 1656 by yet another Archbishop. From the 19th century it again fell into disrepair for over a century and restoration finally started in 1980s, it is now being used for cultural events and tourism. There was a large art exhibition by Salvador Dali and a few other artists in the Fireplace Hall.
We paid only 5 Euros each to see the castle with many rooms, hall of fireplaces, servants quarters, lovely views and a lot of information.
The cost included entrance to the church of Santa Maria and the museum. The church had a magnificent entrance door with elaborate stone work arches over it, statues on either side, detailed carved stone friezes and a large rose window above. Once inside the simple vaulted roof was huge and well lit by the windows on either side. The semi circular apse also had the ribbed vaulting, below which the main altar stood, and on the north transept a carved stone screen looked down on the Nave and metal chandelier hanging from the ceiling.
The museum was really well laid out with large models of 18th century galleons made by a local man, detailed panels about the castles, churches and ecology of the area. On the second floor was a photographic display of the town of Valderrobres with images dating as far back as 1890. Each photo had a recent photograph alongside taken from the same point which made it so interesting as we compared each one, how it was then and how it is now, we then walked around the town spotting the locations later on.
Up early the following day to do something completely different. I drove Bessie to a small trading estate and parked, we walked to a small cafe to meet a Spanish guy call José Ramón Moragrega and got into his dusty old workhorse of a car, full of boots, a coat, sandwich box etc. He drove us for around a mile up a well worn, hard-core track and eventually stopped as the track petered out and trees began. We were met by his wife who led us and 6 others uphill through the woods for 10 minutes eventually coming to a building high on the hillside. Inside were bench seats and a massive window overlooking a bare area of dirt, stones, bushes and rocks all surrounded by trees. There was a pair of huge solid gates and José was on the other side of it with a wheelbarrow! Looking up the sky was filling with massive griffin vultures, circling around and gradually loosing height, a few landed in the tall pine trees surrounding the area.
Suddenly the huge gates opened and José pushed his barrow into the vulture feeding station he created 25 years ago as we watched from his purpose built observatory. He was engulfed in these massive birds, all beaks and talons, as he tried to run with his barrow load of rabbit meat. He breeds rabbits for the purpose of the conservation of these endangered vultures. Tipping the contents onto the floor, he turns quickly to race off out of the way of the feeding frenzy in front of us, the noise of the birds squabbling and squawking over the meat was amazing. There were approximately 400 vultures and about 8 barrow loads to help sustain them, and this scene is repeated every day at around 9am!
They are imposing birds with a wingspan of nearly 10 feet or 3 meters and weighing between 19-25 lbs or 9-11 kgs. The pale head and tawny coloured eye miss nothing, with a massively powerful beak and snake-like necks covered in pale down ending in a ruff at the base. The huge sandy brown body, dark wings with pale leading edge, ending in the outstretched ‘fingers’ so visible when in flight, and a short dark tail. Living in the mountainous areas they are often seen riding the thermals gaining height, soaring on outstretched wings effortlessly coving vast areas searching for carcasses and doing a valuable job of cleaning up and preventing the spread of disease of rotting remains. It was a wonderfully different and unexpected thing to do in valderrobres, we then started on our way to the coast for the next night.