Spain is always said to have a varied landscape but in Navarra, in the north-east of the country, the contrasts border on the extreme. The northern edge of the region is a sylvan world of beech forests and lush pastures. The southern end is another story. Just outside the town of Tudela, where Navarra borders Aragón, lies the Bardenas Reales, Europe’s largest single expanse of desert.
Its unique qualities have led to the Bardenas being recognised both nationally, as one of Spain’s 160-odd Natural Parks, and internationally as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) Biosphere Reserve. And although 39,274 hectares of nothingness might not sound like the most attractive of Spanish landscapes – many of us might prefer a nice Mediterranean beach – there is something fascinating and eerily beautiful about the area. It might say something about our changing tastes in scenery that 55,000 people visited the park last year.
Richard Ford, whose Handbook for Travellers in Spain (1845) is one of the best and most opinionated guidebooks, describes it as a “dreary common” and a “bald country” to be steered clear of on the route from Zaragoza to Pamplona. It appears on the map as a white patch (bald indeed), roughly bounded by the Ebro river and a minor road, the NA-534. Ford calls it La Bardena in the singular. The modern designation of the area, Las Bardenas Reales (royal, and plural), recalls its historical status as the property of the Navarrese monarchy, which reserved the right to graze livestock and grow wheat there. During the Reconquest, in the 11th century, the Bardenas formed a buffer zone, a wild frontier, between the Kingdom of Navarra and the Muslim hordes to the south.
Tudela, 6 miles from the edge of the Bardenas, is famous in Spain for its magnificent vegetables, grown in fertile plantations watered by the wide Ebro. (It follows that Tudela possesses a rich culture of vegetable-based cookery, its artichokes, asparagus, cardoons and peas coming together in one of the highlights of Navarrese cuisine, the menestra de verduras.) Drive out of town on the NA-125 towards the north-east, however, and the fertile land turns quickly into desolation. A road sign pointing to the nearest town along this road, Ejea de los Caballeros, 26 miles away in Soria province, confirms you are heading into a people-free zone. You pass a turn-off on to a dusty track where a heap of weathered wooden pallets bears a sign that points towards one of Spain’s most exciting and strange hotels, the Aire de Bardenas.
A few miles further is one of the entrances to the parque natural, a Tarmac road that soon becomes a dirt track. The notorious Cierzo wind, a north-westerly that funnels down the tube of the Ebro valley, blows in cold gusts.
For a few miles the road winds through featureless flatlands; the few farm buildings seem either half-built or half-abandoned. You pass the modern interpretation centre that purports to explain to visitors the peculiar natural history of the park. You wonder if this is all there is. But then the road swerves downwards into what you realise is a deep, wide basin. Exhilaration takes over as you stare across a startlingly bleak panorama in muted hues of beige, pink, and dusty yellow. Turrets of sandstone left after the clay eroded around them – known as cabezos – stand like sentinels around the valley floor. Though on a far more modest scale, Bardenas Reales might be the closest Europe gets to Monument Valley.
The sensation as you enter the Bardenas is of excitement laced with something like fear. In a place such as this the conveniences we expect are a little further out of reach than usual. You’d better take bottles of water, as you won’t find a vending machine anywhere near. What happens if you run out of fuel? The nearest petrol station might be an hour away. Barring extreme foolishness/a dose of bad luck, one is unlikely to come to any harm in the Bardenas Reales. But even to imagine the remote possibility that you might become disoriented, wander away from your car in search of water and be found years later, bare bones picked dry by vultures, certainly adds a mild frisson to the experience.
Deserts are cinematic. Our feelings about them are partly conditioned by memories of cowboys, biblical epics, dustbowl tragedies, and nature documentaries. Lawrence of Arabia, John Wayne and David Attenborough are the travelling companions you would most like to have in a desert.
Like all forbidden places, they exercise a strong attraction. When filmmaker Terry Gilliam, a connoisseur of the bizarre, was looking for a location for his movie version of Cervantes’ Don Quixote he stumbled on the Bardenas Reales. The zany landscapes must have seemed like the perfect setting for the goofball antics of Quixote and Sancho Panza. What was meant as a backdrop, however, turned out to be a major protagonist of this ill-fated (and still uncompleted) project. Rainfall in the Bardenas is generally scarce and irregular, the annual average being one of the lowest in Spain at about 400mm. On Gilliam’s second day of filming the sky above the desert turned black, hail turned to torrential rain and a flash flood swept away equipment on a tide of mud.
In local lore, Las Bardenas divides up into three distinct areas: El Plano (the flatlands around the edges of the park), La Blanca (the white) and La Negra (the black), of which La Blanca is the least altered by man, the most authentically desert-like. Where the Black has scrubby pine woods and wheat plantations, the White is, in essence, what you have come to see: the cabezos, the lunar plains, the sinuous gorges formed by centuries of erosion.
But the desert is not just a void, an absence of life. Las Bardenas is a good deal more diverse, and biodiverse, than you might think. A geologically complex mixture of tertiary clay, sandstone, limestone and gypsum, the park has a range of habitats including saline steppe, esparto fields, samphire beds and Mediterranean scrub. When the spring rains turn the Bardenas briefly green, flocks of sheep invade the pastures. Another paradox of deserts is their richness as ecosystems: this one has reptiles, amphibians and birdlife in abundance, from magpies and cuckoos to great bustards and Egyptian vultures, black kites and golden eagles.
The Bardenas offers rich pickings for photographers, such as the grandiosely weird Cabezo de Castildetierra, the folds of its wide base like a gigantic cape rising to a strange hooded form that towers above the plain. Or there’s a ramshackle hut, carved into the clay and itself half-eroded, with driftwood windows and a chimney poking crazily from the roof. I stopped the car to wander among some animal food troughs, apparently abandoned, arranged in the dust like some avant-garde art installation.
Walkers in the park can get closer to its genius loci than drivers, but even those in a hire-car should devote at least half a day of any trip to Navarra to Ford’s “dreary common”. If evening falls and you find yourself wanting another look, maybe in the crisp light of early morning, I can recommend a very special place to spend the night.
The Aire de Bardenas is a hotel to conjure with. Designed in cubist fashion with a low-slung industrial look, the work of young Barcelona-based architects Mónica Rivera and Emiliano López, the Aire has won a slew of awards. Views from the 22 rooms, arranged in box-like forms linked by concrete walkways, are the minimalist landscapes of the desert fringes: dusty fields and strewn rocks. A pioneer of less-is-more chic, the Aire has bare light bulbs and polished cement floors where other Spanish country hotels have frilly lampshades and swirly carpets.
As well as being surprisingly comfortable, the Aire is quite unlike any other hotel I know in its radical, take-no-prisoners modernity. Both the hotel and the desert landscape that surrounds it feed into a new sensibility – one that finds a mesmerising beauty in what earlier generations might have considered worryingly crude, ugly and monotonous.
For information on visiting Bardenas Reales, see www.bardenasreales.es. The nearest airports to the region are Logroño-Agoncillo, Zaragoza and Pamplona. Double rooms at the Aire de Bardenas (www.airedebardenas.com) cost from €178.
Arabian nights: Luxury retreats surrounded by sand
When it’s 40° in the shade, you might be forgiven for thinking that the only place to head for at the weekend is the beach, writes Annabelle Thorpe. But in the Middle East it’s the vast wastes of scorching, empty desert that are fast becoming the (literally) hot new destination. A trip into the desert used to mean an organised excursion to a “Bedouin encampment” that involved camel riding, shisha pipes and belly dancing. But a new breed of luxury resorts and camps is offering guests a cliché-free desert experience.
Banyan Tree Al Wadi (www.banyantree.com; doubles from £410) opened in the tiny Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah in the spring of 2010. Situated in Wadi Khadeja, just 20 minutes’ drive from the bright lights of the coastal strip, Al Wadi is “desert lite”; suites might be called “tented villas” but they come with plenty of 21st-century comforts – private sundeck, vast bathrooms, and a personal butler on hand to rustle up dinner on the barbecue or organise in-room spa treatments. If you can tear yourself away from your private pool deck, the hotel offers desert tours on horseback or by camel, as well as walking excursions and 4x4 trips.
In Oman’s Wahiba Sands, Desert Nights (www.omanhotels.com/desertnightscamp; £184) is a clutch of 30 Bedouin-style tents dotted across 10 acres of desert, with well-equipped bathrooms, linen-canopied beds and cosy “sit out” areas, perfect for watching the spectacular sunsets.
Further north, in the Liwa Desert in Abu Dhabi, the Qasr Al Sarab (www.anantara.com; £210) caused something of a stir when it opened in late 2009. The hotel is vast: a 205-room resort amid the Empty Quarter. Popular with weekending expats from the city, as well as overseas visitors, it’s the ideal choice if you like your desert to come with air conditioning, room service and a choice of restaurants. But staff are keen for guests to explore; camel-trekking and desert walks can both be arranged, with the Anantara spa on hand to restore heat-sapped limbs. Alternatively, guests can take in the views from their private terraces – all of which face out on to untouched desert.
Egypt is getting in on the act too; Desert in Style (www.desertinstyle-egypt.com; £65) now has three camps set up in the vast dunes of the Western Desert. Newest of the three is the El Beyda camp, located in the White Desert, surrounded by spectacular rock formations and empty skies. Guests stay in spacious, wooden-framed tents with private bathroom, electricity and proper beds, with meals served in a separate restaurant tent.