It was while my girlfriend and I were contentedly munching our feta cheese salads and parma ham, and idly watching the world go by in sleepy Mijas, that I noticed the chiffchaff. Small and greenish, and largely unobtrusive, this little warbler hopped among the foliage weaving its way around the predominant sparrows. So why should the sight of this little bird bring such satisfaction? The answer is because its presence signified warmth in February, a good month before its fellow migrants would grace the shores of freezing Britain.
In recent decades the Costa del Sol has garnered something of a reputation as a corner of Britain overseas, something that quite possibly deflects visitors looking for a true glimpse of Spain away to other areas. This is a shame, since behind the high rise apartments crowding the coastal strip are hidden centuries of history... just waiting to be discovered. The villages and architecture of the area reveal links back to the days when the Moors ruled here, and even further back to the Romans. In winter, it’s quieter, and even more so in the Sierras that rise steeply from the Mediterranean. This area is also rich in wildlife, a primary reason for our late February visit.
The gleaming white buildings of Mijas set the mood instantly. Having devoured our lunch, tapas and salads, we climbed steadily away from the terracotta-roofed houses and onto a rocky hillside. We passed the fourteen stations of the Cross marked on the path to reach an ermita or chapel, where the views over the town and sea beyond were splendid. The warm and humid sunlight of the coast was gradually blotted out by low cloud that had got trapped up against the Sierra. We walked in muffled silence just below the fog base. Birds were abundant. Blackcaps, another predominantly migrant species to the UK, thronged the bushes, while elegant black redstarts flicked fiery tails.
As we climbed, several small flowers appeared in bloom, including herbal carpets of wild rosemary, lavender and sages. We rounded the edge of a marble quarry, slabs of white glinting ghostly in the muted light. A jet black thrush-sized bird with a pure white tail contrasted sharply with the lip of the quarry. It was a black wheatear, a species associated with stony, mountainous areas of Iberia.
The route meandered through stands of eucalypt and pine, before returning us to Mijas some two hours after setting off. In the back yards of the outskirts of town we encountered the first of many rock buntings sporting a striped grey and back head and rusty orange breast.
On our second day we set off to the El Chorro gorge. The clouds lifted to tatters brushing the hill peaks, and this lent a brooding element as towering cliffs and crags loomed close together, creating a narrow gap for the river Guadalhorce. The gorge here has provided an ideal location to harness the power of the waters, and a dam was created in 1921. Choughs wheeled over the craggy summits, tumbling on the air currents. After parking the car at Restaurante El Mirador initially, we strolled through pleasant woodland, with crossbills crunching quietly on cones and jonquils (Narcissus cantabricus) covering the ground with white, flared flowers. Passing silent beehives, we reached a col, where griffon vultures soared past, floating effortlessly on the wind.
Our guidebook pointed us in the direction of the Camino del Rey, or King’s Walkway, where once a ledge footpath ran along the face of a precipitous chasm. It’s now closed and fallen away in large sections. A kestrel circled up on what must have been strong thermals, while in the reed-choked stream below, a classic brown skulker, the Cetti’s warbler gave forth its explosive call. The terrain kept changing and we found ourselves following riverine marsh and woodland where white Vinca lined the path. Later we spotted a violet coloured variant and before the day was out we added fennel to our extensive herbs list.
It’s a bit hit and miss, but from February or March in this area, there is also the opportunity to see flamingos on the Laguna de Fuente de Piedra. The natural lagoon has a high salinity which provides just the conditions for food that the flamingos need. Their pink plumage offers an impressive spectacle on the water. Unfortunately, in our attempt, we could only see a vast expanse of lonely water from the information centre.
For our third day, we chose the hill village of Istan as our base for a lovely walk contouring the slopes above the Rio Verde. Istan literally means ‘spring’ and water was extremely evident, in the many fountains and irrigation channels around the place. Avocados, oranges and lemons complemented bright almond blossom, while cork oaks gnarled among them. In cloudless conditions, birds were voraciously active. Greenfinch, chaffinch, blackcap, black redstart, great tit, song thrush and reed bunting were all logged within minutes of leaving the car. A bold warbler with a dark head, white chin and long tail turned out to be Sardinian, its beady red eye being the real giveaway.
Butterflies had also scented the warmth and profusions of blooms. Spanish festoon was a bright yellow with black markings and red ‘eyes’, allowing us great views as it loitered on some lavender. Various whites fluttered past, and familiar species such as small copper and wall showed themselves. A large tortoiseshell, much rarer in the UK than the well-known small tortoiseshell, was good to see as it spent ages investigating an oak tree. Perhaps almost as colourful was a blue rock thrush that sallied forth from a rocky pinnacle, its gorgeous shades of sloe blue catching the sun’s rays.
In the evening we drove into Fuengirola, and promptly got lost among a maze of narrow streets and ongoing road works. In hindsight, the Paseo Maritimo was clearly the place to head for and park up, as this was close to where most of the bars and restaurants were located. At Don Pé, just off the coast road, we dined on local specialities, such as fresh asparagus with butter, and pheasant with dried figs and red wine sauce.
Our most spectacular hike was saved until last. Under gloriously clear
skies again, we meandered up from Grazalema, noting the first swallows
of summer, and around the formidable Peñon Grande, a huge rocky
spur overlooking the
While enjoying a picnic lunch some high-pitched calls in the evergreens caught my attention. A quick scrutiny revealed a tiny firecrest, smaller than a wren, hopping around in the branches. As the trees thinned, and a summit loomed, a splendid male bullfinch showed himself. Nothing remarkable about that, you might think, but my field guide suggested there should be none for hundreds of miles around.
Silence then descended, except for our crunching footfalls on loose stones. Ibex and perhaps lynx inhabit this area, but despite craning our necks repeatedly, no movement was spotted on the sheer rock faces. Instead we had to settle for a trio of delightfully tame alpine accentors. Outsized cousins of our dunnock or hedge sparrow, they hopped between boulders seeking small insects.
Nearby Ronda must be the biggest draw of the hill towns. The location is stunning, perched on the top of a precipitous cliff on one side, and bisected by the 100m deep El Tajo gorge. The stone Puente Nuevo, built in 1793, spans this chasm and links the old medieval town with the slightly newer construction on the other side. There are sites to be seen throughout. Two small palaces, the Casa del Gigante and the Casa de Mondragón, date from Moorish times, as do the Arab baths, whilst the bullring here, the Plaza del Toros, is the oldest, and one of the largest in Spain. I thought I had clinched rock dove, flying deep in the El Tajo gorge. Then a white dove appeared among them, reducing the illusion of a truly wild dove to a feral pigeon. Nothing could detract from Ronda’s spectacular cliff top location however, and peering down from the bridge over the gorge, I certainly felt we were finishing on a high.
Our final evening was spent back in Fuengirola, at the highly regarded restaurant of Portofino. Although the menu was less imaginative than the previous nights dining, it was still extensive and the fresh fish was succulent. A free rose and engraved champagne glass (as it was Valentine’s Day) was a thoughtful extra.