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Birding and beyond: The marvellous mystique of the Basque Country

Train your eyes on the sky on a trip to the Basque Country, you’ll be greeted with sights of griffon vultures, Eurasian goshawks and more

“There they are!” Ibai whispers urgently.

My heart skips a beat as I train the binoculars on an area at the far side of the lake, where the red-and-white heads of a pair of great crested grebes stand out against the more muted colours of the early spring vegetation. I can’t quite believe how absorbing and exciting it is to sit in a cold “hide” on a damp afternoon in the Basque Country, observing feathered creatures in their natural habitat.

I know that I’m not the only one. One of the few positive consequences of the Covid-19 lockdowns was that more and more people in Ireland began to take a keen interest in nature and the world around them.

I too got caught up in that wave and it has brought my wife and I from our garden in west Cork to this beautiful corner of Spain, in one of the best parts of Europe, to see astounding native and migrating birds.


Taking the slower, greener route from Ireland via ferry was particularly rewarding.

Brittany Ferries has a dolphin/whaling expert from the UK-based conservation group Orca on its flagship boat, the Salamanca, which plies the Rosslare-Bilbao route, passing through the Bay of Biscay, where more than a third of all whale and dolphin species are to be found.

The best place to view them is from the C-Club Lounge, which has a cinematic “captain’s view” of the ocean before you. We had perfect flat sea conditions both on the outward and return journey and we quickly fell to asking Ray Meehan, the knowledgeable and accommodating Orca expert on our route, all sorts of questions, borrowing his binoculars to scan the sea for dolphins and whales.

On both journeys, dolphins made appearances every few minutes. We did spot a few whales too, but the frequency and sheer joy of dolphins jumping through the water close to the boat was magical.

The first part of the journey completed, we disembarked at Bilbao and drove south for one hour to the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz.

The beauty about the Basque Country’s capital is that it’s relatively undiscovered compared with the region’s two coastal cities, Bilbao and San Sebastián. Vitoria offers much of what the other two cities are famous for (history and a wonderful tapas scene) but with far fewer overseas tourists.

The highest part of town, sitting above the sloping main meeting point of Plaza Virgen Blanca, is where you will find all the main historical sites. The busiest of its charming streets that fan out in herringbone fashion is Calle Cuchillería (“Aiztogile Kalea” in Basque).

Vitoria-Gasteiz is also an award-winning “green” city, having been named European Green Capital in 2012 and Global Green City in 2019. Part of its green policy has involved the creation of a series of huge green spaces that form a ring around Vitoria – all superb locations for birdwatching.

The first that we visited was Salburua Park, just east of the city centre, where we met our young guide Ibai. His gentle enthusiasm was infectious and his father Andoni, who also joined us, completed an extraordinary father-and-son team. At Salburua, the reserve includes wetlands, woodland walks and an interpretative centre, as well as excellent lakeside hides.

To the southwest of the city is Armentia Park – another great space of open woodland, where woodpeckers abound.

About 12km northeast of Vitoria, the Ullibarri-Gamboa Reservoir offers even more impressive activity, with a wide range of birds resident throughout the year (such as the aforementioned great crested grebe), as well as a stopover point in spring for huge groups of waterfowl and waders.

Half-an-hour’s drive to the southeast of Vitoria, Corres village on the edge of Izki Natural Park provides a perfect natural viewing platform for the great showcase birds of prey of northern Spain. Once the sun comes out, enormous resident griffon vultures, booted eagles and Eurasian goshawks emerge from between the steep ravines, circling on updraughts to spot prey way down below.

A wooded section next to the Izki Golf Course provides the opportunity to mix golfing with birdwatching, with a pair of camouflaged hides offering a chance to photograph woodpeckers and finches up close.

An even tastier combination is to blend birding with wine tasting. Rioja Alavesa is the Basque subregion of the Rioja wine region. When you cross over the dramatic Sierra de Cantabria, the broad valley that opens out before your eyes looks like a vast, lost kingdom. Here, the climate suddenly changes from the rainy and cooler Basque Country to Alavesa Valley’s dry Mediterranean climate. Birds flock here in summer to the winding Ebro river while the picture-postcard-perfect medieval village of LaGuardia feels like one of those places your heart has long been dreaming of.

LaGuardia is one of the best places in Spain to buy exceptional wine at relatively reasonable prices and its wine museum is well worth checking out. Here, we visited the Casa Primicia, whose property incorporates some of the original 12th-century building. It’s one of the few remaining wineries in the town that still uses its ancient basements to mature their top wines. Originally, Laguardia’s subterranean tunnels were created to allow escape from attackers when the town was on the front line between the “two Spains” of Navarre and Castile.

One of the unexpected highlights of visiting this region was viewing the painted churches. Each one is different but the most stunning, for its sheer weird and atmospheric uniqueness, is the Iglesia de la Asunción de Nuestra Señora in the tiny village of Alaiza, 24km east of Vitoria.

On the drive back through the lush green Basque countryside, great birds appeared sporadically from behind mountains or soared above hilly landscapes. We applied some of our newfound knowledge by coming up with names for them that might even have been right. The car was that bit heavier with a few bottles of wine added, our hearts were that bit lighter and our obsession with birdwatching that bit deeper.

If this is slow tourism, then I am in a hurry to experience it again.

Conor Power was a guest of Brittany Ferries who operate a twice-weekly Rosslare-Bilbao sailing, March-November. Car and two passengers (including en suite cabin) start at €278 each way. Foot passengers with reserved seat start at €58 each way. C-Club Lounge from €98 each way. See also for return Sea Safari packages

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