Today is a day for truffle hunting and Bardenas desert crossing. At 10 o’clock on Saturday our Northern Spain Travel Guide arrived to drive us south west of town to a tiny village where we met two men – father and son – Angel and Raul. We also met their two scruffy dogs – Sara and Tommy. As a group we all set off to their holm oak plantation – ta dah – drum roll- in search of truffles!!! Yes, truffles are considered to be “black diamonds” in Spain and these two men cultivate holm oaks, the roots of which support the growth of knobby, dark, rather ugly, but totally delicious truffles. The dogs are trained from an early age to smell the truffle odour and indicate where the black diamond is to be found. We were hoping to witness such a moment.
The plantation we visited is just over 6 acres in size and is home to 770 trees, all neatly planted in rows, suitably spaced. Only about 100 of the trees are supporting truffles – the rest not having developed the required ability to “foster” them. The trees are planted in very rocky ground – this is supposed to provide a good supply of nourishing calcium for the trees but does not provide easy walking for humans – we wobbled and tottered over the rocks, trying to be dignified as we did so. Of course the rough walking was no problem for Tommy and Sara who dashed about, thoroughly enjoying their outing beneath the trees. We also noticed large numbers of abandoned, small, fragile, white snail shells – but not a sign of a live snail anywhere. A mystery!
Tommy was just as interested in making friends with us as he was in serious hunting, constantly coming to us for a pat and a rub on his dirty and knotted long haired coat! I got the feeling that truffle hunting was not high on the dogs’ agenda – just having fun in the woods was more to their liking. We walked, back and forth, back and forth. At the eleventh hour, as if to save the day, Tommy stopped at a tree and indicated that there, at that spot, was hidden treasure. Angel knelt down at the base of the tree, carefully placing his knee of a special truffle hunting cushion. With sharp digging knife in hand he removed the surface rocks and broke through the soil. Not such a treasure it turned out to be but rather an over-ripe and pretty putrid truffle it was…. stinky as could be and full of maggots. Angel quickly broke it up and put the dirt and rocks back on top of it. Such a disappointment. But, the exercise and fresh air did us good!
We talked as we walked through the plantation and learned that once a tree becomes productive it can produce for only 10 – 15 years. Once past its truffle-bearing years it must be allowed to grow old at its own pace until the plantation becomes a fully developed oak forest. Under law the trees may not be cut down and the land may not be replanted. While at first this seems a little harsh it is all part of a government program to reforest the area that once, years ago, before it was cleared to produce crop lands, was covered in trees.
In the car once more we headed to The Bardenas. Now, the Bardenas is a semi-desert area in the south of Navarre – a landscape of wind-swept and eroded clay, chalk, and sandstone hills, mesas, and escarpments. I have seen photos of the dramatic landscapes and have long wanted to go there and, finally, my wish was to come true. The landscape lived up to every one of my expectations, and very much more. Here were vast stretches of plane, dotted with greyish/greenish scrubby plants, dried gullies, collapsed mud towers and pinnacles, wind scraped slopes, rainwater-washed mounds, tortured trenches, and occasional simple dwellings which provide housing for shepherds in the seasons when sheep graze this semi-desert.
No wonder this place has become a popular backdrop for movies such as Game of Thrones. It was all breathtakingly beautiful with the landscape colours of yellowy beige, dusty orange, dull greys and greens, set against a brilliant blue sky. We drove through the area (it is now a UNESCO heritage site), stopping occasionally to admire, walk a little, and take photographs. I’ve seen several deserts around the world, each one of them different, and The Bardenas is different again. I just love deserts and find their beauty compelling. This desert is one of the winners.
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