This outstanding natural park partly lies along the Portuguese border with Spain and is best accessed (from the Algarve) by driving to Castro Marim and heading north along the IC27 and then Route 122 in the direction of Beja. Parque Natural do Vale do Guadiana is a huge area covering almost 700 square kilometres and, in order to see all that it has to offer, a stay of two or three days in the area would be ideal.
Mertola, which lies at the southern-most edge of the Parque, is a good base from which there is easy access by car to most of the park. It is a delightful little town with a very interesting history, and so it is well worth spending some time visiting the castle, the church and some of the archaeological sites – there are some excellent Roman mosaics within the castle, for instance.
We stayed in the Hotel Beira Rio, which is in Rua Dr. Afonso Costa and well signed from all entry points into Mertola - although you should be ready for some interesting driving around the narrow, cobbled streets on the way! The hotel is simple but immaculately clean and comfortable and has excellent views up and down the River Guadiana, which it overlooks. Breakfast is available but there is no restaurant in the hotel for other meals. The staff supply a map with all the nearby restaurants marked, along with the main tourist attractions. We ate in two of the restaurants during our stay. The Restaurante Esquinas just up the road from the hotel offers local dishes including the black pork for which the region is famous. We also tried the Restaurante San Remo, which has leanings towards Italian cuisine and offers a more ‘international’ menu including pasta and pizza, although the special local dishes are not ignored there either. One speciality we had not come across before was ‘migas’(better known from Spain) – an accompaniment to a main dish consisting of breadcrumbs which are fried in olive oil with garlic. Water is added during the cooking process and once the liquid has boiled off the result is a crisp, golden disc of the breadcrumb mixture, which is then served with meat or fish instead of potatoes, rice or pasta. Such dishes, made with bread, are famous in the region and referred to as ‘bread cuisine’. I hardly need say that the local wines served in the restaurants are absolutely excellent. We have a preference for white wine, which is often rather looked-down upon by visitors to Portugal. They should put their prejudices in their back pockets and try some of the whites, and indeed the rose wines, that are made in the region: many are excellent quality and are also great value, too.
Having settled into the hotel and collected some maps of the Parque Natural from the Tourist Office in Mertola, which is situated on the way up to the castle, we set off in the car on the route most highly recommended for sighting some the birds for which this region is most famous. There are a number of routes of varying distances throughout and around the Parque which are easy to follow. The road (route 123) between Mertola and Castro Verde and then back via the IP2 (to Trinidade) and then the 122 returning to Mertola is a triangular route and will give you a really good feel for the area. During the course of the drive we saw a Rufous-tailed Robin, a Black-shouldered Kite, several Buzzards, Red Kites, and numerous Red-legged Partridges scurrying across the roads. There were also many storks flying around and inspecting the conspicuous nests, perched on purpose-made structures (along with the odd electricity pylons!) that can be seen along the sides of the roads almost anywhere in the region.
Our visit was during November so there was not much to report on the flower front, but, even at that time of year, signs of spring are starting to become apparent. When visiting Portugal it is important to remember that plant lifecycles are operating on a very different time schedule from northern European countries such as the UK. After the long, dry summer when the land is completely parched and covered with dead, brown vegetation (except a few very tough species still flowering, such as the Spanish Oyster Plant) the first rains in autumn produce almost immediate signs of spring growth with the leaves of Bermuda Buttercup appearing in October and November followed closely by their flowers in December. Other confusing floristic combinations such as Friar’s Cowl and Autumn Crocuses flowering together lie in wait for the observant, and along the roadsides vivid green leaves of Common Asphodel plants vie with fungi for our attention, although the asphodel flowers will not appear until the New Year – or December in exceptionally warm years.
The many terrestrial orchids of Southern Portugal start to flower from the end of February onwards, but a careful search in likely spots in November will reveal the leaves just beginning to appear above the ground. Although the weather can be quite cold and windy during December and January it is quite cheering to see evidence of spring at such a time. Summer in the Algarve region of Portugal is a season as dead as the depths of winter in the more northerly countries of Europe, and so signs of spring often appear side by side with autumn fungi, fruits, nuts and berries. And, likewise, we have often found fungi that we would see in late summer in the UK growing alongside spring flowers in the Algarve – summer chanterelles which appear in August in southern England can be found in February in Portugal when spring is really gathering pace.
Another really enjoyable, and not too long, route is marked off the N267 as Circuto de Serras. It passes through some outstanding mountain scenery with several ideal spots to pause and admire the surroundings. Also, not too distant (about 31 kilometres) from Mertola, is Puolo do Lobo, which is an impressive waterfall on the River Guadiana. Considering how seldom one sees water in rivers in the Algarve, and bearing in mind that Parque Natural do Vale do Guadiana sits in the centre of the hottest and most arid region of Portugal with rain well below average, it is quite a surprise to see such a waterfall. Puolo do Lobo is accessed through gates around a kilometre before the waterfall which can be found at the bottom of a steep track. There are parking places and a vehicle turning area very close to the cascade.
There are many reasons to visit this beautiful part of Portugal: in spring the wildflowers are wonderful, in autumn the fungi are fabulous, but whatever time of year you visit, the birds are brilliant, and this is what the region is most famous for. The parque itself is designated as a SPA – Special Protection Area – as is a large area around Castro Verde which lies off the western edge of the Parque. The countryside is a mixture of wooded hills clad with pine or introduced eucalyptus, grasslands studded with holm oak trees under which the famous black pigs forage for acorns in the autumn, and the largest area of rolling steppes in Portugal – even in high summer when the overall impression is of a desert the landscape is unforgettable.
Any description of the birdlife of Parque Natural do Vale do Guadiana has to include both the Little Bustard and the Great Bustard, although excessive pressure from birdwatchers has had a negative impact on the breeding success of these two species in recent years. Before attempting to find and photograph these birds it is a good idea to visit the LPN (Liga da Protecao da Natureza) Castro Verde Environmental Education Centre which lies about 10 minutes drive to the east of Castro Verde itself. The centre is open from 9am – 5pm except on Sundays and Mondays, and the English-speaking staff there will explain the various measures that should be adopted when observing Great Bustards. There is also information available on all the bird-watching hotspots, including walking trails, that exist in the area.
Less affected by visiting birdwatchers and naturalists are the Storks - their nesting colonies are frequently found in trees on the roadsides of the Park. Although common throughout the Iberian Peninsula they nevertheless create huge interest for visitors from other parts of the world.
Many of the other the birds to be found here are classified as rare or endangered. There are a few pairs of Bonelli’s Eagles and Golden Eagles for instance, and Great Spotted Cuckoos, Golden Oriels, Black-shouldered Kites and Blue Rock Thrushes can all be found in the Parque. A recent study of the presence of breeding Eagle Owls in the Parque revealed the highest density of these birds ever recorded. We saw many Azure-winged Magpies during our drives and also Lapwings, which have become so rare in other parts of Europe where they were once common birds. Other notable species present in the Parque include the European Roller, Bee Eater, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Montague’s Harrier, Calandra Lark, Common Crane, Lesser Kestrel, Eurasian Griffon Vulture and Eurasian Black Vulture. There have even been sightings of Spanish Imperial Eagles soaring over the area.
The wondrous nature of this protected area, and the other such designated sites in Portugal, makes it even more shocking when, on Thursdays and Sundays, they are invaded by hunters who quite literally shoot at anything that moves. These big men (we call them the olive-breasted rednecks!), in their macho four-wheel drive vehicles and toting their shotguns, think nothing of killing rare and endangered wildlife species. It is to the ongoing shame of Portugal that this is allowed to continue anywhere in the countryside let alone in so-called Special Protected Areas that are supposed to be refuges for the wildlife within them.
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