The train to Spain to visit the wildlife plains
Imagine if one of the richest wildlife areas in Europe was right next to the most popular foreign destination for Irish tourists. Wouldn’t that be something? Well it is. It’s just that few of us know about Doñana National Park, a 540 km² expanse of marshes, lagoons, forests and sand dunes along the Guadalquivir River. It is in the northwest of the Costa del Sol that a large majority of the two million Irish people who visit Spain each year tend to congregate. Think about it, two million people, or around a quarter of the Irish population, visit Spain every year. Or at least they did, before Covid, and most have returned year after year to the same places on the Costa del Sol, the Canary Islands and the Camino del Santiago route, but somehow, we never hear of Doñana.
This wildlife hotspot is renowned among naturalists and bird watchers in Britain, Germany and Scandinavia as the wildest place in Spain, a total exception and an exception in the Iberian Peninsula; but for most Irish tourists, sunbathing and adventure activities take precedence over nature watching. To give an idea of just how exceptional the region is, it has the greatest diversity of birds in Europe, with around 300 species coming to breed from Africa or wintering from northern Europe – or just passing through. It is also home to the largest number of amphibian species in Europe, as well as 15 different types of mammals, from wild boar to whales, as well as one of the most endangered felines on the planet, the Iberian lynx, which resembles a small point. eared leopard.
In short, it is a unique ecosystem whose location between two continents and two oceans has given it an enviable diversity of habitats, including pristine wetlands, primary forests of cork oaks and wild olive trees, estuary lagoons, coasts and sand dunes, both moving and static. It is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its 38km of pristine beaches represent one of the few large stretches of undeveloped coastline left in Spain. This refuge for the Spanish imperial eagle, bald duck and marbled teal has one of the largest heronries in the Mediterranean region and is the wintering site for over 500,000 waterfowl.
To visit Doñana, you must first travel to the small town of El Rocío, 70 km east of Seville, which looks like a Wild West outpost, with sandy roads, colonial verandas and hitching posts outside most buildings, as horses outnumber carriages here for parts. of the year. El Rocío has been the center of a huge pilgrimage for 800 years and still attracts a million riders and herdsmen from all over Spain every year.
I only heard about the area in 2019, just after I decided to stop flying for the holidays, and so I had no choice but to embark on a train journey three days if I wanted to see what I had been told was “without a doubt one of the most extraordinary landscapes on the European continent”.
My adventure began with a beautiful sunrise sailing from Dublin Bay last January on the Irish Ferries WB Yeats ship at 8am. At 4:30 p.m. I was in London, having traveled along the Welsh coast listening to the melodious Welsh spoken all around me in the car. It was a five-minute walk from Euston station to Saint Pancreas, where I hopped on a Eurostar to Paris, and had dinner at a bistro near Gare du Nord at 9:30 p.m. This is how to start an adventure.
The next morning, after a croissant and a café au lait in a terrace bar, I walked for 50 minutes along the boulevard de Magenta, past the place de La Révolution and the place Bastille, to the Gare de Lyon , leaving plenty of time to order a baguette filled with local cheeses and salads from a bakery for my 6.5 hour trip to Barcelona. My seat was plush and well-appointed, but I spent much of the ride standing in the dining car, mesmerized by the ever-changing landscape speeding by at 250 km/h; from rolling pastoral fields to sandy plains with red-tiled farmhouses and old stone barns, to vineyards and plum and apricot plantations further south. Crossing between France and Spain, we crossed luminous wetlands bordering the Mediterranean and waves of white foam lapped on the tracks.
I arrived in Barcelona mid-afternoon and headed straight for Playa Bogatell for an invigorating swim, then roamed the city for a few days, enjoying the views and the winter warmth. The big eye-opener for me was the beauty of Estació de França, the old international train terminus that was used until the arrival of daytime TGVs put an end to the old nighttime “trenhotels” in 2013. This lavish show of wrought iron has a curved glass and metal canopy rising in 12 tracks that fills the area with natural light. The neoclassical hall of marble, bronze, and woodwork is now largely abandoned, with most international trains arriving at a modern subway station.
It was another 5.5 hour trip to Seville, watching the grip of winter retreat as we drove south at 300 km/h, with more vibrancy visible in the vines and fruit trees that lined the road, until the landscape finally opened up to rolling groves. of olive trees and solar panels, and finally the orange slopes on the approach to Seville. I walked from the station down medieval lanes lined with sweet-smelling oranges that fell from fully ripened trees, towards an old boarding house where a courtyard room decorated with 19th-century tiles cost €18 a night.
I took a few days to explore Seville before taking a bus through umbrella pines and strawberry farms to El Rocío. After a week of torrential rains, the sandy streets had been washed away, resulting in craters and chasms between colonial houses and stables, making the place even more otherworldly. The only passable track was a brick-lined path around the vast lake that represents the beating heart of the marismas of Doñana. (swamps). The sound of countless waterfowl reverberating from the expanse of white water was so mesmerizing that, without even leaving my bag at the hotel, I set out to walk through the wetlands and take a walking path from La Rocina which stretched through the native Mediterranean forest. . It is like no forest you would ever imagine, as it is barely 1m high and consists of tough shrubs of sage-leaved rockrose, rosemary, wild olive and mastic, which, though stunted, still manage to harbor a rich array of wild boar, deer and even lynx.
In such an environmentally sensitive area, I decided it was best to book my travel arrangements through the Spanish sustainable tourism organization, Ecotourism Club (ecotouristinspain.com) who work exclusively with companies that contribute to the conservation of biodiversity in protected areas. He found me a bright room overlooking the swamp for €40 a night at Hotel Toruño, which has impressive sustainability credentials, and also booked me a five-hour private tour with Doñana Reserves (donanareservas .com), which costs €60pp for up to eight people, but because I was alone I paid a little more. There were cheaper group tours available, but in such an ecologically complex area, I wanted to get as close to the different habitats as possible in a responsible way and have an expert explain them to me.
It was money well spent, as my guide, Javier, gave me an incredibly rich insight into the history, culture, biodiversity and folk traditions of Doñana, as well as the complex challenges facing the region is currently facing in terms of the balance between development and conservation. For me, this region has nothing to envy to the African savannah in terms of beauty and complexity. It is three-quarters the size of Louth or Carlow, and yet is reserved for walkers, cyclists and riders, except for three days a year when pilgrims with horses, mules, oxen, donkeys and cattle cross along a single fenced corridor. . Where else can one encounter such a vast area that no human can cross, other than rangers and a few select guides? Perhaps the best way to describe Doñana National Park is that it is worth traveling three days south and another three days north to experience it.
Getting There : Dublin to London with Irish Ferries (irishferries.com) €96. London-Paris round trip by Eurostar (eurostar.com) €149. Paris to Barcelona with SNCF (SNCF.com) €158. Barcelona to Sevilla round trip with Renfe (renfe.com) €148. Total cost €551.