The old city of Segovia is almost surrounded by a green belt of shallow ravines, with easy walking/running paths, through trees and along a river – a lovely sheltered way to enjoy the birds, butterflies and botany, not forgetting the frogs and lizards.
Segovia is home to a unique population of urban red-billed choughs. Over ninety pairs nest in buildings and natural sites, and several hundred come to roost in the city each night.
The Roman aqueduct is probably the best-known of the ancient monuments, but there is also the cathedral, the Alcazar and a host of other cultural (and culinary) delights in the city.
Segovia lies about 100km by road to the north-northwest of Madrid, along the Camino de Santiago de Madrid – the old pilgrim route from Madrid to Galicia. Segovia is 300m (1000ft) higher in altitude than Madrid, and thankfully therefore a few degrees cooler in summer.
It is an old city, dating back to pre-Roman times. It gives the impression of a hilltop town, yet only the cathedral shows above the surrounding landscape. That’s because the ‘hill’ is a promontory within a canyon. The city walls are integrated with the rock face. The Roman aqueduct towers across the lowest part of the old city. The cathedral is said to be the last Gothic Cathedral built in Spain (16th century). If the medieval Alcázar (fortress) of Segovia looks familiar, then you’ve probably seen the Walt Disney film ‘Cinderella’. The narrow streets give the place an ancient feeling – drive a car here at your peril! There is plenty to keep the history and culture buffs happy.
Inevitably there is a new part to the city, sprawling into the distance. And new industrial areas too. But tourism seems to be the main function.
Nature-watching in Segovia
We were in town for a three-day workshop about red-billed choughs. Hard to imagine that a city could hold more breeding pairs than the whole coast of Pembrokeshire (where we live). They breed and roost in many of the old buildings, including the cathedral and the aqueduct. During the day they are mostly out feeding in the surrounding countryside. Outside the breeding season (this was a warm October) they are most easily seen returning to roost in the evening. The main roosting site varies, but from the Plaza Mayor you can see if they are heading for the cathedral, further west to the Alcázar, or any of the other tall buildings.
And while you are looking up for choughs, there’s a good chance of seeing black and griffon vultures, booted eagles, peregrines, any other birds of prey in season. Of course, there are the ubiquitous house sparrows and town pigeons – the latter causing problems for the choughs as they also nest in cavities in buildings and people want to keep them out.
The Green Belt
According to an information board, the green belt of Segovia (formed by the Eresma and Clamores rivers) was declared an area of outstanding beauty in 1947. The Green Belt comprises a series of linked parks, gardens, cemeteries, rough ground, and the rivers Eresma and Clamores. A network of compacted gravel tracks run through the green belt, alongside the rivers, through the various parks, etc, so it is all very accessible. There are also a number of drinking water fountains en route.
We started at the Terrazas de San Valentin, on the south side of the city. Here, the Clamores river is not much more than a trickle, emerging from the rocks under Segovia. It continues through the Huertas de la Hontanilla, past St Andrews Gate, through scrub and shady trees.
Then through the Area natural del valle Clamores, from where you get a glimpse of the Alcázar high up on the city walls. Even higher up, there were griffon vultures drifting across. Then the Clamores becomes a larger river, shallow and slow, with Iberian water frogs at the edge.
Just beyond the Alcatraz, the Clamores joins the Eresma, the path goes along the south bank, over a bridge, and back along the north bank, through Pradera de San Marcos.
The Alameda de Parral is more formally laid out, but is still home to plenty of butterflies, birds, and lizards. Beyond that, the Senda de los Molinos continues on the south side of the Eresma, or you can follow tracks closer to the old city. The most easterly part of the green belt is the Parque del Santo Angel de la Guarda around the cemetery.
Even in October, we found some 30 species of birds along the route. Not many plants in flower at this time, except for ivy. The powerful scent of its flowers attracted a variety of butterflies, bees, and other insects.
Other nearby places of natural interest
Palacio Real de La Granja de San Ildefonso
This Royal Palace lies some 12km south-east of Segovia – and as a popular destination, it is accessible by bus. The palace is huge, and the gardens are amazing. Tucked into the base of the Sierra de Guadarrama, this was a summer residence. The gardens are wooded – there are specimen trees several hundred years old – and the water features are extensive. This makes it a relatively cool shady place.
The Palace itself is only open in the summer, but the gardens are open all year round and provide a pleasant general nature-watching experience. There are plenty of eating places in the village, and we had an excellent meal of local dishes at a small restaurant opposite the Calle des Jardines.
Sierra de Guadarrama
Designated a National Park in 2013, some parts of the park are accessible by bus from Segovia. It is the fifth-largest National Park in Spain, covering nearly 34,000 hectares. The Puerto de Navacerrada (37km south of Segovia) is a small ski resort with plenty of parking space, and a variety of footpaths through the woodland or over the open mountain areas. Also accessible by train from Madrid or Segovia. We found rock buntings and citril finches here, and a few late mountain flowers. Mushroom-collecting is a popular past-time. Cerule’s Rock lizard – a local species – was much in evidence – and there was an abundance of grasshoppers and crickets.
Hoces del Rio Duraton Natural Park
An hour’s drive to the north of Segovia takes you to the village of Sepúlveda and the incredible Gorge of the Duraton River. From the Talcano Bridge there is a gentle path alongside the tree-lined river. The walls of the gorge got higher as we went, and we had occasional glimpses of griffon vultures above, and dipper in the river.
Read a post about watching the vultures here
From the big car and coach park closer to the Hermita de San Frutos (Patron Saint of Segovia), the view is quite different. A stark landscape with the river in the gorge below, and griffon vultures by the dozen, the score, no, by the hundred! And flying past within ten metres at times. If you want to photograph griffon vultures, this is the place to do it. Then there were the butterflies – unfortunately mostly at the end of their seasons and often looking quite tatty, but proof that this site would repay a much longer visit at some other time.
So there you have it
I wouldn’t normally go nature-watching in a city, but did so here because of the chough event. It turned out to be much more than I had expected, and there is plenty more for a future visit. I would imagine that spring is a good time – before it gets too hot. There is plenty of scope for birds and butterflies, and probably for botanising too, along the paths of the Green Belt. We explored only a small part of this.
Segovia is also a good base for visiting sites further afield, though if you hire a car, the old city is not an easy place to drive in, with its narrow streets, semi-pedestrianised areas and one-way routes. Buses and taxis seem to be the best way to get around, and there are coach trips to more distant areas.
If you (or your travelling companions) are into history, culture and/or culinary delights, there is plenty to keep you occupied here.
Two excellent books (I have them both) about birds and nature, including the Segovia area. Click on the covers for more information.
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