Letters from Iberia – The Bardenas Reales

Letters from Iberia – The Bardenas Reales

The desert of Europe.
An astonishing site I almost failed to recognise for its value, thanks to bad weather and pre-conceived notions…


As explained yesterday, I’m no expert on Spain. Yet, I was surprised to find out I was this only one among my friends who had never heard about the Bardenas Reales. (It helps if you live in Europe!) While on the trails leading up to here, I met three off-roaders from France, and a couple in a mobil home, also french, all on a trip towards the Bardenas. Listening to them, it was the greatest site on earth, for sure a great place to venture off-road. A desert in the middle of Europe ! Deserts I know about. Desert driving also, and at that point it sounded a lot more fun than mud driving. So, thanks to them, I got really excited about the Bardenas too.

Now you should never get excited about what you hear others describe to you, particularly people who have never been to the place they seem so found of. It often leads to disappointment ! And a disappointed I am !!! A desert ? This ? Are you serious ? Have you ever seen a desert before ? Follow me and I’ll show you a desert !!

It is tiny. It’s crossed by a dirt road, which then circles around a military base nested right in the middle, with heavy helicopters flying in and out, before leading you to an “information” center that has no real informations in English to give you. Off-roading? Off-roading what ? Any urban electrical car can drive through this place, no need for a 4×4. I mean they use large road buses to bring tourists to the main attraction, the Castil de Tierra, that alone is a hint !

But, since I’m not as stupid (hopefully) as this first paragraphs may lead you to believe, I decided to hang around and explore deeper.

After all there is a lot more about a desert land that what first meets the eye. You have to look for what is hidden. It is not easy as the weather is again awful. It’s raining and the clouds form a unified grey mass, hanging very low above the ground. Not exactly the light you’d choose to bring the best out of those surroundings.

Vultures resting in the cloudy early morning hours

My first encounter is with my new best friends, the vultures. Perfectly color coordinated with this new environment. Twenty of them or so resting peacefully in the middle of the field are greeting me as I enter the park. I stop to take a picture, trying to find a proper angle without revealing myself, when I hear another car coming the opposite direction honking loudly… Twice. It is not because I’m parked in the middle of the road since he hasn’t seen me yet. Just to scare off the birds ! Absolute idiot !!

Vultures camouflaged in the Bardenas colours

After driving around every possible track available, sitting in my car watching tourists pose for selfies in front the the Castil de Tierra, trying not to fall over backwards victims of the gusty wind, I decided I had wasted enough time around and needed to move on. That’s when the first ray of light pierced through the dark clouds, lighting up an abandoned shepherd’s home by the side of the track, offering a peak at what this place could potentially offer under the right weather.

House in The Bardenas
The sun finally piercing through the clouds, highlighting the lost home of long gone shepherds

Further on in the sky, patches of blue where beginning to form. That nice weather they had talked about ? Maybe ?… Maybe yes ! For no more than twenty minutes, right before sunset, it finally gave way to the sun. And that is when every idiocy I had thought and so far written about this place evaporated in shame.

The Bardenas Bianca
The Bardenas Bianca contrasting with the dark skies above.

What a magnificent site ! The Bardenas Bianca below a dark, moody sky, suddenly lite by the evening sun, accentuating its sandstones, clay and chalk yellow tones, to create a mood like nowhere else. Under such light this place becomes a photographer’s dream. It’s almost too intense to be true. A natural extreme photoshop filter you have to witness to believe. But the sun is a star you cannot commend, and after its very brief parade, it returns to hide above its curtain of clouds. How majestic a proper sunset would have been ? What it must look like under the sun in the early morning hours?

The Bardenas is not meant to be driven across. It is a place you walk through. It requires the proper times to observe the games light plays throughout the day between the various cavities of the rocks, with its traveling shadows, its contrasts, its highlights of textures…

The Bardenas are unique. And for someone who felt in love with the desert long ago, it is a reminder how nature can be splendid even in its most minimalist expression.

The Bardenas Reales during sunset
The Bardenas Reales right before sunset

It was very short, way too short, I almost missed it, but in the end, was worth every second !! Enough to convince me to come back to see the rest of it…

Next the forests of La Rioja

Make sure to check our dedicated guide for the Spanish Trail where you’ll find all the informations you’ll need to complete it on your own.