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The Picos de Europa in late May 2019

July 18, 2023
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The last Sunday in May found Helen and me waiting at Gatwick for a 9am flight to Bilbao, heading for the Picos de Europa. We were excited and a bit apprehensive.

Visiting the Mountains

This was our first holiday specifically to search for alpines and we weren’t sure whether the mountain walking would be too strenuous for us, or whether we would find a botanically-focused holiday too taxing.

In the event, the holiday we had chosen, consisting of a series of organised wildflower walks, proved to be ideal for us:

  • the walks were enjoyable and not too taxing, despite the hot weather
  • the landscapes were stunning for those with their eyes and camera not trained constantly on the floor
  • the focus was on enjoying the walks through floriferous and varied habitats and trying to identify the plants we saw, rather than arduous trips to seek out rarities
  • the party was a friendly mix of walkers and flower enthusiasts, none of whom were familiar with the area or its wildflowers but all of whom proved to be excellent company both on the walks and over dinner.

Furthermore, the ‘botanical enthusiast’ who would help us with all this turned out to be an old friend of ours, who refused to be described as an expert, but whose enthusiasm charmed the whole group.

The hard work of organising and facilitating our trips was done by two holiday company reps, who worked tirelessly to make the holiday a wonderful experience, accompanying us on the walks and demonstrating a delightful enthusiasm for, and interest in, the flowers we saw.


The flight across the Bay of Biscay was quickly over and as the plane taxied from the runway to the airport building at Bilbao, the grass was littered with little black patches.  I didn’t dare suggest that these might be tongue orchids – Serapias cordigera – but that fancy was soon confirmed.


The long drive from Bilbao to Potes (some 200km, past all sorts of interesting places) provided an opportunity to get to know some of the other guests better, and for some a quiet snooze after the early start, whilst others took the opportunity for plant spotting along the road verges. I had not realised how pervasive and extensive the Eucalyptus forest is along the north Spanish coast. Initially, most of the colour we saw was valerian (Centranthus ruber), in red, pink and latterly white variants. But in amongst were patches of more exciting pinks – spikes of Dactylorhiza and the bright flashes of Pyramidal Orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis), before the first of many extended groups of what were unmistakeably Serapias cordigera, identical to what I had glimpsed out of the airplane window.

At Unquera, amid massed ranks of Serapias, we turned off the dual carriageway, onto a winding road which led us up a river valley, through the small town of Panes and into the mountains.

Desfiladero de la Hermida

Although it is less than 30km from Panes to Potes, it takes the best part of an hour, as the road narrows and starts to wind between the limestone cliffs of the Desfiladero de la Hermida. The river rushed between boulders and across shingle rapids, with long glides and pools of deep azure snowmelt water. Both I and a Scottish lady in the seat behind me were inspired to dream of fishing this water, though that was not to be; the only hire shop our reps knew of was for climbing equipment, not fishing equipment and later enquiries of fishermen we encountered suggested that it was necessary to obtain a permit from Santander.

The cloud which had been with us since the airport descended as we got higher and then, just as we were anticipating a shower, broke up as we reached the southern side of the mountains and we exited the gorge in glorious sunshine.

Stopping on the roadside, we had a wonderful view of the mountains, holding back the wave of cloud bringing showers to the north.

Posada el Corcal

Soon we were at the small hotel in the hamlet of Tama where we were staying, sitting in the valley near the river, surrounded by meadows and gently rolling, with views of snow-clad mountains to both north and south.

In these views, looking south, you can see part of the bridge across the river, with a cottage built into it.

A Late Afternoon Walk

Our friend and botanical enthusiast was there to greet us with his infectious enthusiasm and no sooner had we dumped our bags and ‘freshened up’ than we had agreed to accompany him on a short stroll up the river valley towards Potes.

The adventure had begun.

Our daily trips were as follows:

I hope you enjoy this adventure as much as we did.

Identification of plants

I have tried very hard to identify the plants shown in these pictures but, for many, the names given amount to little more than guesses based on incomplete information. I have some books showing flowers of wider areas of Europe but these are sometimes missing local species. Crucially, I do not have any floras for this local area, though there is a very good one published by the National Park authority for the Picos de Europa, which I was not able to acquire while I was there.

Using the internet to identify plants is always a dangerous approach – it helps to suggest possible identities but there are very few really reliable sources of information and multiple photos with the same identity are often named as a result of viewing one original photo.

Our ‘botanical enthusiast’ has been enormously kind and has helped to correct many of my mistakes but there are other photos where I have not pestered him about rather insecure identifications. So I apologise in advance for many possible errors (all mine) and welcome feedback – my bio at the bottom of each diary post gives an email address at which you can contact me to put me straight.


Producing these blogs of the holiday has been fun but a lot of hard work too. I hope it was worthwhile, that those of you who are familiar with the area have enjoyed the memories.  Maybe, just maybe, it will encourage someone who has never been there to think the area might be easy and enjoyable to visit.

I would like to thank all those who have contributed to the identification of these images; it has not been easy, and I am sure there are still errors to find (all mine).  I have edited all the articles to make corrections in light of comments and feedback received; if you spot anything else please let me know.

In addition, I am indebted to my wife Helen and other members of the party, for some of the pictures, particularly those of myself, wearing my trademark white sunhat.

Image of Jon Evans Jon Evans

Jon lives and gardens on the north side of the Hogsback on the border between Hampshire and Surrey, on a heavy clay soil. He is a long standing member of the AGS and has been treasurer of the local group in Woking for many years. He is especially interested in bulbs of all sorts, particularly those from South Africa, and is progressing slowly towards his Gold Medal at shows, at the rate of roughly one first per year.

However, he is best known within the AGS as an enthusiastic amateur photographer. For about 10 years he was responsible for organising the artistic and photographic section of the AGS shows around the country, and also for organising the show photography. During this period, he set up and ran the AGS Digital Image Library. He is still actively involved in plant photography, both at shows (he visits many shows each year to catalogue the extraordinary achievements of the exhibitors) and in gardens both public and private, and he makes regular outings to view and photograph wild flowers in the UK.

If you have any comments or queries for Jon, you can contact him direct at