Paul Bloomfield is blessed with a bird-watching bonanza while kayaking in Terres de l'Ebre, tries his hand at rice planting, and discovers a remarkable Cathedral of Wine
Egrets – I’ve had a few. Well, six, to be precise, and of two species: great and little, which I spotted as they perched on branches alongside the Ebro River before taking off with long, languid flaps. They were joined by grey, purple and – my favourite – squacco herons, the latter’s delicate peach-hued plumage cloaking milk-white underwings revealed when it lifted off from the gently dappled surface of the Ebro.
These spingly-legged, snake-necked birds are mesmerising enough at any time, but my encounter was all the more special as it was at water level. I’d joined local kayak guide Eloi Balsells for a gentle morning’s birdwatching adrift on a peaceful stretch of the river between Garcia and Móra d’Ebre, where the gentle flow meant that we could skim close to any birdlife with just a flick of the paddle.
Watch Paul kayaking and bird watching in Terres de l’Ebre in our video highlights of his trip:
Just minutes after pushing off, a brief detour down a tributary was rewarded with turquoise and orange flashes as a kingfisher (charmingly and descriptively named ‘blauet’ in Catalan) darted around us. Moorhens and coots lurked in the reeds alongside the bank, and housemartins in their hundreds swooped and swarmed around a bridge pimpled with their nests.
Eloi directed me and my three companions into a still-quieter channel between an island and the right bank, beneath rust-stained cliffs. Here the melodious concerto of birdsong swelled and almost drowned out the soft splashes of our paddles; white wagtails bobbed their behinds on the banks, and a great egret chased off a grey heron he deemed to be trespassing.
Finally we emerged into the still-sluggish main stream, where two squacco herons provided a dash of subtle pink. All in all, it was two hours of birdwatching bliss. But then most of the Terres de l’Ebre, Catalonia’s south-westernmost province, is a natural wonderland – reflected in its designation as a Unesco Biosphere Reserve in 2013.
Like the rest of Catalonia, it boasts a diverse range of landscapes and habitats, from the rocky, rugged interior to sweeping beaches adjoining the better-known Costa Daurada and the shimmering wetlands of the Ebro Delta Natural Park.
That feather-and-float interlude from Garcia marked the start of a snaking journey south through the province. From our pull-out point at Móra d’Ebre, it was a short hop south-west to El Pinell de Brai, where a rather different aspect of the region’s natural bounty is showcased at the Catedral del Vi – the Cathedral of Wine.
Established by a cooperative founded a century ago in 1917, this modernist masterpiece exists to showcase the products of vines nearly as venerable as the building itself, some over 80 years old. Here we sampled vintages of the local Terra Alta denomination: white grenache, typical of the region; oak-aged shiraz, warm and spicy; and a dessert wine redolent with honey and orange. Inside, the ‘cathedral’ label makes more sense: instead of columns, the lofty ‘nave’ is packed with soaring vats, and a visit to the upper level reveals the sinuous, organic struts and pillars reminiscent of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia – unsurprising, given that this building’s creator, Cèsar Martinell, was a disciple of the great architect of Barcelona.
In the province’s west rise the extraordinary, bulbous outcrops known as Roques de Benet in Els Ports Natural Park, a playground for hikers. And artists: it was near here, in the picturesque hilltop village of Horta de Sant Joan, that Picasso retreated in his formative years from 1897 and again in 1909, and where he claimed to have learned his craft.
We, however, had come to pedal rather paint, and bypassed the village’s popular Picasso museum. Instead we joined cycling guide Josep Palleres and freewheeled downhill to the nearby Greenway cycling trail. Converted from a disused railway track, this delightfully smooth track loops from Arnes, on the border with Aragon, some 49km to Tortosa via Horta – a convenient point from which to sample a scenic downhill stretch.
From the disused station at Horta we passed beneath craggy hills and olive groves, the air scented with herbs alongside the track. To our right loomed the distinctive outcrops of Els Ports, while beneath our wheels trickled the Canaletes River, a tributary of the Ebro spanned by high bridges from which canyons beckoned temptingly.
At Bot, an old railway carriage has been converted into a bar-café – an ideal spot to refuel en route. Instead we pressed on, through echoing tunnels and past folded red-rock gorges, to Antiga Estació de Benifallet (Benifallet Old Station), where another café and guesthouse refreshes cyclists. The scenery unfolding alongside the path is diverse and spectacular, and we finished our ride with vows to return and complete the full trail.
South we continued, to the mouth of the Ebro. Long ago this vast delta glistened with saltpans, till the formerly brackish lowlands were flooded with river water for rice production, which now covers some 21,000 hectares – coincidentally creating an immense haven for birds. Pale pink juvenile flamingos stilt-walk and sift through the mud for crustacean tidbits, alongside glossy ibis and more herons and egrets; sharp-eyed marsh harriers soar above, scouting for prey; and copious ducks, moorhens and coots fill the air with their coarse calls. Alongside the typical cob-and-thatch houses of the delta I tried my hand – not altogether successfully – at punting the traditional shallow boats used by fishers and hunters, before joining local legend M Polet for a lesson in rice growing.
“First, we take the stalks, harvested with serrated scythes, and thresh the grains,” he told me. “We use a heavy iron caduc pole – a traditional Arabic tool – to dehusk the rice, tossing it in the air to separate the grains. Then we sift through flat sieves to isolate the good grains. It’s a long, laborious process – but it makes the best (and most expensive) rice in the world!”Finally, M Polet ordered me to remove my shoes to experience the lot of the rice-grower. Into the warm, soothing mud of the paddy we squelched, soft sediment oozing between my toes. “It’s my gym,” pronounced M Polet. “Working in the mud builds thigh muscles at the same time as giving me a foot massage!”
If that episode proved one thing, it was that I’m better at eating rice than harvesting it – and local specialities such as arròs tot pelat, a delectable seafood paella, are well worth seeking out. But it seemed apt to end my visit to the lands of the Ebro River knee-deep in the these waters – the same waters nurturing the birds, grapes, rice and shellfish that make the region such a diverse, delicious treat.
Words and photos by Paul Bloomfield
En Blau offers birdwatching kayak tours on the Ebro River.The Catedral del Vi at El Pinell de Brai offers guided tours, wine and olive-oil tastings and plenty of products to buy. There’s also an excellent restaurant. Esgambi offers cycle hire, guided and supported bike rides along the Greenway around Horta de Sant Joan. Nòmada Viatges runs various activities around the Ebro delta, including cycling and interpretive visits. Delta Polet offers a range of experiences in the delta, including walking, gastronomic tours and the chance to sleep in a traditional cob-and-thatch house.
=== Disclosure: Paul Bloomfield was a guest of the Catalan Tourist Board. He has full editorial control of the review, which is written in his own words based on his experience of visiting Catalonia in the early summer of 2017 for Greentraveller's Guide to Catalonia. All opinions are the author’s own.