Travel: Under the oaks of Spain

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The Independent Culture
Booted eagles, azure-winged magpies, stately cranes: Malcolm Smith revels in the bird life of Extremadura.

When a shotgun blast echoed among the oak trees, I thought I had made a terrible mistake.

Some minutes before, the hunter - a swarthy man in his fifties - had stopped to talk. My Spanish may have been painfully basic, more attuned to ordering coffee than asking hunters what size shot they were using in their cartridges, but I was confident we had found a common language in my bird book.

I guessed he was after woodpigeon. In this pastoral, tree-dotted landscape on the borders of Extremadura and Castilia La Mancha, near the ancient hilltop town of Oropesa, they use rabbit, partridge, pigeon or hare in their gazpacho, depending on what's in the gunsights.

My mistake was to flick through the plates in Birds of Europe and try to establish some ornithological common ground. The hunter confirmed woodpigeon when I showed him its picture. But the specialities hereabouts - birds that would send a British twitcher into violent spasm, and the reason for my weekend visit - failed to ring any bells of even faint recognition.

Booted eagles, buzzard-sized hunters, left him cold. So did azure-winged magpies. This was odd, I thought, because the hoarse chatters of these blue and cinnamon-brown birds - found only here and in China, for some reason - is a frequent sound as groups of them fly in follow-my-leader fashion from one tree to the next.

It was becoming obvious that we had less common ground than I had imagined. My fear, triggered by the first blast of the hunter's shotgun, was that he might now be aiming at these protected species rather than at the common woodpigeons.

Returning to my hotel - the Parador in Oropesa's stately castle - later in the evening, I checked the menu in case they had gazpacho aguila (eagle soup) listed. Thankfully, they didn't.

Oropesa, a two-hour drive south west of Madrid, is an excellent base from which to explore the countryside around, especially if you have only a weekend there. To the north, between Oropesa and the small town of Candeleda, are extensive dehesas for grazing livestock. Scattered holm and cork oaks grow over flowery grassland, scrub and patches of cultivated cereal crops. Huge areas of grassland are dotted with wild purple crocuses in early spring and a cornucopia of flowers in early summer, before the bread-oven heat of a central Spanish summer bakes them to straw.

West of Candeleda is the lush Rio Tietar valley, backed by the rolling hills of La Vera and, beyond, the Sierra de Gredos. Snow blankets the peaks at least until March. It's the source of the cascading streams which, eventually, end up in the Tietar river.

There's little to beat the magic of walking through a dehesa early in the morning or at twilight, when the shadows of the oaks run long over the grassland and birdsong fills the air. It's not difficult to recognise familiar birds such as blackbirds and robins, and in warmer months incessant cheeps at high volume seem to pour out from every other tree from yellow- coloured serins, small finches once kept as cagebirds. There are distant poop-poop noises from the onomatopoeically named hoopoe, a cinnamon-pink, black and white show-off of a bird. Sudden shrieks from azure-winged magpies add nothing musically, but contrast with the fluted whistles and harsh, rattling, musical cadenzas of nightingales.

One twilight I listened to this symphony as nearly 100 cranes - elegant, grey, black and white birds - circled high overhead, honking and hooting discordantly as they gathered up steam for their epic journey to the Russian steppes. In winter you can watch small groups of these 4ft-tall, stately birds searching underneath the oaks for acorns to eat. With their dark grey and black tails reminiscent of a bustle on a Victorian lady's dress, there are few sights as splendidly regal. They symbolise the magic of La Mancha.

Extremadura extras

Extremadura is tricky to reach. The best plan may be to do what Malcolm Smith did: find a cheap ticket to Madrid (around pounds 130 return, including tax, from London), then rent a car. Rail services to and within Extremadura are patchy.

The local Parador, Virrey de Toledo, in Oropesa can be booked by calling 00 34 25 43 00 00. Another Parador deeper into Extremadura at Trujillo (00 34 27 32 13 50) charges pounds 50 single, pounds 65 double.

Spanish Tourist Office, 22-23 Manchester Square, London W1M 5AP (0171- 486 8077; brochure-line 0891 669920).

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