Sunset over the Picos de EuropaFrom a spot above the tiny village of Asiego, the entire Macizo Central is laid before us in a stunning panorama
The cliffs of craggy limestone tower over our convertible as we power our way up through a deep gorge carved by the Cares River that is taking us into the heart of the Picos de Europa National Park, a 647 square kilometre wonderland that straddles Asturias, Cantabria and Castile and León. This does not feel like Spain, that parched and arid land so beloved of British tourists who head to the southern costas to soak up the Mediterranean sun in their droves each summer, for everything here is green. A thousand different shades of green...
Lush vegetation blankets this part of northern Spain. Its golden sandy beaches and craggy cliffs are pounded by the surf rolling in from the cool Atlantic Ocean and forests of chestnut, hazel, holm and sessile oaks, birch and beech, sweep up towards the towering limestone monoliths, spires and peaks that crown the Picos de Europa National Park. Many of these are twice as high as anything in Britain or Ireland. Above the forests, dazzling displays of flora await discovery in lush alpine meadows threaded together by ancient mule paths and transhumance routes, used for driving cattle to summer pastures.
Here crème caramel coloured cows graze and small shepherds’ huts with red ceramic roof tiles dot the landscape. The area is home to vultures, wolves, wildcats, chamois, wild boar and Cantabrian brown bears. Foodies will be sent into salivating raptures, for this region is famed for its variety of cheeses and its cider brewed from indigenous crab-apples; its gastronomy ranges from wholesome home cooked fare served in rustic siderias, to avant-garde Michelin starred restaurants. Culture vultures will delight in visiting ancient settlements with pre-Romanesque architecture recognised by UNESCO as of World Heritage, in a part of Christian Spain never conquered by the Moors.
Shepherds' hutsThe route to the Naranjo de Bulnes passes above these huts on leaving the Refugio de la Terenosa
It’s early July and everything feels inexplicably fresh here, for the proximity to the Atlantic creates a temperate climate more akin to that of the British Isles. Summers are mild and numerous days see cloud and mist creep over the tops of the dramatic limestone peaks like a slow tsunami. This region has long been known to wealthy madrileños who head north from the dusty arid plains of the south to holiday homes here, where they are ensured a welcome respite from the searing summer heat. But foreign travellers have yet to discover the Picos de Europa in large numbers.
We base ourselves at the small settlement of Arenas de Cabrales. This lies at the foot of a winding road that weaves its way deep into the Macizo Central, the middle of three massifs that comprise the Picos which form part of the Cantabrian Mountain range. The alpine scenery is face-slappingly good. To visit one of the park's most famous viewpoints, we drive to the top of a series of hairpin bends which peter out at Camarmeña, a cluster of small stone houses with rust red ceramic tiled roofs and a tiny church clinging like limpets to the side of a mountain. In front of us, and crowning the top of a smoky blue triangle of land wedged between the steep sides of the Bulnes Gorge, is Europe’s version of Patagonia.
Naranjo de Bulnes (Picu Urriellu) from CamarmeñaNaranjo means ‘orange tree’ in Spanish. The mountain is named this because it turns orange at sunset
Known as Picu Urriellu in Asturian, the 2,519 metre high Naranjo de Bulnes, a towering chimney of grey white Palaeozoic limestone soaring above its spiky neighbours, is on every Spanish rock climber’s wish list. Thin veils of cloud in the valley below churn slowly in the early evening heat and the weakening rays of the sun bathe the mountain in a honey coloured glow. Naranjo means ‘orange tree’ in Spanish, the mountain so named as it turns this colour at sunset. A further scenic viewpoint just down the road in Póo de Cabrales offers yet another jaw-dropping opportunity to gaze upon this climber's dreamscape. From a spot above the tiny village of Asiego, the entire Macizo Central is laid before us in a stunning panorama, and we gaze in wonderment as the setting sun turns the peaks apricot, then pink through to chalky mauve, and a creamy half moon floats heavenward.
There are days when we awake to a strange luminescent grey cloud that envelops everything down in the valleys making it feel decidedly cool and clammy. This is quite normal in the Picos and we are advised to head up into the mountains. As we climb the narrow winding road above the Rio Duje en route to the mountain village of Sotres, the churning cloud thins, becomes almost translucent and the watery disc of the sun shimmers through it. The cloud suddenly melts away, the fortress-like cliffs of the Peña de Maín float into view and the smoky blue peaks of Los Urrieles still streaked with snow, soar into an impossibly blue sky.
In the dead of the night, we escape the ethereal mist shrouding Arenas de Cabrales to return to a favourite spot above Sotres, where we are treated to a moonless sky literally stuffed full of stars. The Milky Way arches majestically overhead, and the spiky peaks of the Macizo Central etched against the purple heavens are bathed in silvery starlight.
Milky Way magicThe the spiky peaks of the Macizo Central are etched against the night sky
By day the sun is hot on our backs as we wander along old shepherds’ tracks that criss-cross the mountains, stopping to admire the astonishing variety of flora in every colour imaginable. The silence is broken only by the constant chorus of insects and the melodic clanging of bells that are tied around the necks of cattle, sheep and horses that use the high alpine pastures for summer grazing. The hillsides are dotted with clusters of small stone built red tiled huts, many now gaunt empty shells, which once served as the summer homes of shepherds. Transhumance is still practised in the mountains and some farming methods abandoned elsewhere cling on here. One afternoon we pass an elderly man with a weather-beaten face who has a scythe slung across his shoulder. He is heading out to mow a meadow in a scene straight out of the middle ages. However, as elsewhere, modernity is creeping in and the old ways are vanishing. Down in the valleys, we see numerous square granaries typical of the region. Named hórreos they are built of wood with red tiled pyramid hipped roofs and are raised several feet off the ground by a series of four stone pillars capped with staddle stones to prevent vermin from getting in. These are now disused and many are sadly falling into dilapidation.
It goes without saying that such a lush green land does not flourish without a healthy rainfall, and we experience days when thick grey cloud rolls in from the Atlantic and the mountaintops don’t reveal themselves at all. Rainwater pours in tiny rivulets off the roof tiles of the small cottages in the high mountain villages of Tresviso and Sotres and mist blows forlornly along their narrow cobbled streets. The weather front eventually moves away, the clouds lift and the mood of the mountains changes instantly. But there is something utterly beguiling about the way the cloud boils and rumbles through the mountain passes on rainy days; everything is wet and dazzles with a lurid light, and the air is heavy with the scent of wood smoke.
A wet day in TresvisoRainwater pours in tiny rivulets off the roof tiles of the small cottages in this high mountain village and mist blows forlornly along its narrow cobbled streets
On such days, the region’s signature dish, fabada, a rich stew of broad beans, black pudding, cured pork shoulder and sausage, provides warming hearty comfort to offset the damp and chilly atmosphere. The Peña Castil is an eatery in the mountain village of Sotres where a 3 course menu del dia will set you back just 12 euro. This tiny place, which doubles as a hotel rural, oozes rustic charm with its dark wooden furnishings and rustic earthenware crockery, and it’s packed to the rafters with gregarious Spanish tourists. A rich earthy fabada is followed by slow cooked, unbelievably tender and fragrantly seasoned wild boar stew, and topped off with a desert of creamy junket drizzled with local honey. This very memorable meal is washed down with a rather fine Rioja.
There are no shortage of excellent tapas bars and restaurants to sample yet more local dishes, including fabes con amasueles, a hearty stew of broad beans simmered with a pinch of saffron and fresh clams. We also enjoy ox hot pot, braised kid goat, roasted roe deer delicately flavoured with aromatic wild mountain herbs, and cachopo. This resembles a schnitzel and is made of three kinds of meat sandwiched between two types of local cheese which is dipped in egg, breadcrumbed, and then fried in olive oil until golden brown. It certainly packs a terrific calorific punch and I never succeed in clearing my plate! Spain's a country not really renowned for its cheese, so with over 40 types produced from cow's, sheep's and goat's milk, or even a combination of all three, Asturias has been dubbed el pais de los quesos (the land of cheeses). Several have been granted Denomination of Origin status including the piquant cabrales, a pungent blue variety that is aged in caves close to where we are staying.
With a love of fine dining, we push the boat out and take lunch at the 2* Michelin restaurant, Casa Marcial in Arriondas, whose chef, Nacho Manzano, has acquired quite a reputation for serving fine contemporary cocina asturiana. We plonk for the menú tradicional: eight courses of taste and visual sensation, washed down with a fine white Rioja. The hors-d'œuvre include a feather light corn soufflé and crispy seaweed drizzled with lemon mayonnaise served on a lichen covered branch. These are followed by delights such as fabada, smoked sardine and onions, limpets and seaweeds in cider cream, and red mullet cooked in salt on a hot rock at our table. We round off a exquisite meal with the most famous of all Asturian deserts: a dreamy rice pudding.
Lunch at Casa Marcial in ArriondasInventively presented hors-d'œuvre
Asturias is not a wine producing region: here cider reigns supreme. Even the smallest village seems to have a bar selling sidra, while the larger towns have siderias, establishments specially devoted to this local beverage, so you cannot fail to try it while here. It comes in a wine-sized bottle and consuming it is something of a ritual performed with much aplomb in the siderias. In the pretty town of Cangas de Onís, I watch as a waiter uncorks a bottle, then with a dramatic flourish holds it aloft over his head and pours the amber coloured liquid escanciada into a narrow glass in his hand. It’s a skill he has obviously honed and he hardly spills a drop. The ritual of ‘throwing’ the sidra not only aerates it, but enhances its bouquet. He hands the glass containing a couple of inches of liquid to Martin with the instruction to gulp it down in one. Any dregs are thrown out of the glass and onto the floor. Martin enjoys the refreshing taste, but not being much of a fan of apples, I find it to be astringently dry and the sour taste isn’t to my liking.
A network of mountain roads, the major routes paved and well maintained, now run between many of the mountain villages which are also connected by a plethora of ancient transhumance trails, making multi day treks imminently doable. A network of dirt roads take you deeper into the mountains and are handy for trekkers walking to the remoter trailheads created by ancient shepherds. The dirt tracks are a legacy of the significant lead and zinc mining industry in the Picos and were originally used to transport ore by teams of oxen. The industry dates back to Roman times and only ceased in the latter decades of the twentieth century. High in the mountains are the visible remains of several abandoned mines, including the Mazarrasa, Evangelista and Providence. The former of the three is sited in the Vegas de Andara area at a height of around 1,800 metres and the refugio there is actually a former mine building. Nearby is an open socavón (access tunnel) named the Canal de los Vacas (the cows’ channel) a name that should come as no surprise in cattle country such as this! A rail emerges from its dark interior upon which a battered rusting wagon is abandoned.
The refugio’s caretaker shows us several mineral specimens he’s collected from the area which include galena, blende (famed for its translucency), fluorite and cinnabar. We head off to a valley above the refugio that once harboured a large lake, the bed of which was accidentally holed by a mining company which has virtually drained it. Betrayed now by a marshy discoloured patch, the cliffs above it are pock marked with open socavóns and early lode back workings, while above its former shore is evidence of nineteenth century dressing activities and most interesting of all, a number of dark, dank troglodyte dwellings which may or may not predate the mining activities. Working here would have been quite challenging, especially in winter, and local lore has it that some of the miners actually slept in the galleries to keep warm. The whole place is wreathed in veils of white mist during our visit and I find the atmosphere to be rather unnerving.
Maintaining access to some of the remoter mountain villages with dwindling populations is a struggle, but the village of Bulnes, virtually hanging off the hillside at the top of a subsidiary branch of the main Cares Gorge, has found a solution. Connected since 2001 by a funicular railway that runs for some 2 km up through the mountain, this remarkable feat of engineering ensures that the 30 odd permanent inhabitants of this picturesque mountain village, formerly reachable only on foot or mule, remains accessible all year round. The journey takes around 7 minutes and is free to inhabitants, while visitors must pay over 22 euro return to use it.
Bulnes BajoThe pretty mountain village has been connected since 2001 by a funicular railway that runs for some 2 km up through the mountain
On the southern side of the central massif, and 23 km west of the charming market town of Potes, Fuente De’s main attraction is its cable-car, which in less than five minutes whisks you up to 1,800 metres. Get there early as waiting times to ascend and descend are long. Here the mattoral characterised by brilliant swathes of bright yellow broom (Echinospartum horridum) and occasional bursts of purple heather, makes way for a maze of limestone pavement that harbours an astounding variety of alpine and Mediterranean flowers. This in turn gives way to a lunar landscape of broken, shattered rock sweeping up to jagged snow streaked peaks of grey limestone glaring luridly in the bright sunshine. Griffon vultures whirl on the thermals above them, eyed nervously by alpine choughs that frequent the refugio near the cable car station. Far below in a blue haze, the rich green pastures of Cantabria stretch out into infinity.
Cares Gorge WalkThe Garganta de Cares (the Throat of the Cares) is one of the most popular walking routes (the GR-202) within the Picos de Europa We breakfast on the sunny terrace of a small hotel built right above the Cares River in Puente Poncebos. This is the starting point for the trek up the Garganta de Cares (the Throat of the Cares), one of the most popular walking routes (the GR-202) within the Picos de Europa. The route up the gorge ends at Posada de Valdeón in León, but we plan to go only as far as the village of Caín and then walk back, making it a round trip of over 26 km. The Cares River has sliced and scoured its way through the limestone of the heart of the Picos range, splitting it into its central and western massifs, creating a chasm well over a kilometre deep in places. The river has been partially diverted to generate hydroelectricity and the route follows a water channel chiselled into the hillside, a real feat of engineering. The narrow track we will follow is the old access way servicing the channel and it is literally hewn out of the vertiginous cliff face and tunnelled through solid rock. It’s certainly no place for those who suffer from vertigo, and care must be taken at all times as there is no fencing to prevent what would certainly be a fatal fall if one were to slip.
The track climbs steeply from Poncebos taking us high above the gorge, which at this point is still quite wide. The river lies coiled far below like a silvery serpent. It’s an airless morning and the heat is already radiating off the bare limestone. After a couple of kilometres and a 300 metre plus climb, we reach the highest point on the route. The imposing fortress-like walls of the Murallon de Amuesa lie opposite and ahead we can see the dusty track wending its way down through the gorge like a thin thread, disappearing around a bend where the gorge turns to run south-north.
Now descending, we pass a large wind sculpted pillar of rock which we name the árbol de piedra for it reminds us of a petrified tree. The gorge begins to narrow; from far below comes the muffled roar of the river fed by a foaming cascade gushing from a cave in the limestone. The heat is tremendous and we’re glad of the number of tunnels which don’t just offer shade, but also cool down the air that passes though them. Peering up, I see verdant gullies soaring upwards towards snow capped mountain peaks glistening in the summer sun, above which the dark shapes of several griffon vultures slowly circle on the thermals. In the lower reaches of the gorge where sunlight seldom reaches, a whole microclimate of large ferns and cool cushions of moss drape the rocky walls.
Cares Gorge WalkOne of many tunnels carved through the limestone cliffs
The approach to Caín is spectacular. The gorge, now a mere slit, is crossed twice by suspension bridges, the route then passes through a series of dark dripping galleries before descending right alongside the river where we stop to splash our sunburnt faces with cool clear water. The tiny village of Caín, hemmed in by towering mountains, has a range of tapas bars offering a reasonable menu del dia and the all important cold beer!
After a leisurely lunch of zingy gazpacho, veal escalope with cabrales cheese sauce, salad and fries, rounded off with an ice cream, we begin the long trek back to Poncebos. By now some of the route lies in the shade and the cooler temperature has brought out several feral goats with enormous horns who lie indolently across the dusty track and are in no hurry to move as we pass by! We arrive back at Poncebos in the early evening. This is by no means an easy walk in the summer heat and you need to allow at least 7 hours to hike to Caín and back. And be sure to add a few extra hours for stupefied gazing!
We save ourselves at least an hour's climb by taking the funicular railway from Poncebos to Bulnes. A picture postcard village of two halves - Alto and Bajo - the cobbled streets and tapas bars of the latter hug the bank of the small river that rushes down towards the Cares Gorge. On a stiflingly hot day, we pass through the lower half of the village and begin the very steep ascent up an old paved transhumance trail towards the rich pastures of Vega de las Cuerres. At first, beech woods obscure the mountain views and the rough track is fringed with waist high ferns. But higher up the vegetation thins and we catch sight of deep green pastures blanketing the plunging slopes below the massif which is crowned by the iconic Bulnes de Naranjo. We have arrived at the majadas, where handsome brown cows graze amid the ruins of ancient shepherds’ huts.
Majadas en route to Collado PandébanoHandsome brown cows graze amid the ruins of ancient shepherds’ huts.
Never mind the amazing views, this is a flower spotter's paradise, and every few feet I find myself stopping to admire the breathtaking colourful assemblages of flora in the small stone walled meadows that border the track. I spot include kidney vetch, ox eye daisies, bloody crane’s-bill, pale flax, meadow buttercups, musk-mallow, greater yellow-rattle, white asphodel, maiden pink, rock cinquefoil, round-headed rampion, as well as the prickly lilac-flowered ‘thistle’ Carduncellus mitissimus, several species of orchid and the beautiful purple English iris. The chorus of insects is deafening and I note several species of butterfly and moth feeding on the nectar of these wild flowers. Higher up we encounter ling heather which lends a delightful mauve blush to the thousand shades of green.
Burnet moth on Carduncellus mitissimusThe flower meadows of this region harbour an incredible variety of flora and insects
Near the top of the Collado (Col of) Pandébano we pass right through a herd of docile cows and their calves, their bells clanking loudly as they graze contentedly on the lush grass. If we continued on, we’d reach Sotres, but we branch off towards the Refugio de la Terenosa nestled amid several old shepherds’ huts where we plan to stay the night. The refugio is run by a whippet-thin bearded man who speaks no English. He runs a very tight ship and the place is spotless. He does not want our mucky boots to dirt the floor he was vigorously sweeping as we arrive, and we are ushered outside to a sunny terrace where he brings us tapas of crispy bread, cabrales cheese and stewed kid goat, plus the all important cold beer to quench our raging thirst!
Refugio de la TerenosaComfortable lodging, good food and cold beer can be had at this well-kept mountain refuge
We watch in silence as white cloud gathers and slowly churns in the valley below and the clear sky above the nearby mountain tops turns warm apricot as the sun sinks lower. A couple of mules laden with rubbish from the refugio we will climb to tomorrow clatter up to the hut, the muleteer stopping for a quick beer before heading down to Sotres. As night falls, it turns chilly quite quickly and we retire to the equally spotless dormitory where we sleep like logs.
The morning is cool and crisp, there’s not a cloud in the sky and no mist in the valley. We make a reasonably early start to avoid the crowds, but also because the air temperature is still cool and part of the trail is in the shade. From the refugio, the path climbs a long, gentle slope to a distinctive cleft in a ridge. The delicate aromas of wild thyme and dianthus periodically fill the air and we spot many alpine plants including harebells, alpine aster, rock rose, mountain avens and alpine toadflax. Behind the peaks of the Peña del Maín, the Atlantic Ocean finally floats into view and one realises why these mountains got their name: they were the first land seen by sailors returning to Europe from the New World.
A number of wild goats are blocking the path through the cleft in the ridge and I’m momentarily distracted by them so don’t instantly see the view that makes all walkers stop and grab their cameras. I gaze in awe at the trail threading its way round the edge of a huge couloir above which piles of barren limestone sweep up to a dragon’s back of limestone peaks, chief of which is the iconic chimney of rock, the Naranjo de Bulnes. The path rises steadily upward in what becomes a tough ascent up a series of zig-zags. The air is hot, dry and thin, and the dust kicked up by the passage of our feet lodges in the back of my parched throat.
The Naranjo de BulnesThe path threads its way along the top of a rocky couloir
Eventually the trail levels out and the Refugio de la Vega de Urriellu looms into view. It looks somewhat lost and diminutive below the towering majesty of the Naranjo de Bulnes, in which shadow it sits. The scenery is stark but awe-inspiring with piebald patches of snow still clinging stubbornly to the flanks of the jagged mountains and craggy ridges all around. The only sound is the bleat of sheep and the constant clanking of their bells. We find a spot to pitch our tent which is permissible above 1,600 metres between the hours of sunset and sunrise. Patches of deep blue gentian dot the wiry grass, I’m elated to spot the scarlet and grey flash of a wallcreeper and we spend the afternoon walking in the immediate vicinity while watching a number of rock climbers attempting to scale the sheer face of Picu Urriellu.
Gentian flowersThe ground near our camping spot at the Refugio de la Vega de Urriellu was covered with these pretty flowers
After a hearty dinner at the refugio, we retire to our tent to set up our photography equipment and wait for the mountain to do its magic. A herd of rebecos (chamoix) suddenly become visible against a large patch of snow and we watch as these graceful and agile little animals dance their way across a shelf of rock behind the refugio.
Fortunately, the ‘Naranjo’ lives up to its name. We are treated to a marvellous light show as the dark shadows of the mountains opposite race up its face as the sun sinks lower in the sky. The towering monolith turns shades of gold, apricot, orange, rust red and finally black, as a full moon floats up behind it and a shower of stars erupt across the heavens.
Naranjo de BulnesThe setting sun turns the rock orange, hence its name
The return the next day to Bulnes, where we catch the funicular back down to Poncebos, involves a 1,300 metre descent in searing heat. We are grateful for the cold beer at the Refugio de la Terenosa and a tasty meal of wild boar eaten with gusto on a shady flower scented terrace of a tapas bar in the chocolate box pretty village of Bulnes.
We round off our stay in the region with a few days on the coast where craggy limestone cliffs cascade down into the cold, wild waters of the Bay of Biscay. First stop, Oviedo. This bustling city is the capital of the Principality of Asturias and has been described by Woody Allen as 'not of this world, like a fairy tale'. We visit the magnificent ninth century cathedral. Stepping from the searing heat of the plaza into its cool, dark interior eerily lit by coloured light filtering through the stain glass windows set high in the walls above, is like entering another world. This bastion of Christendom in a kingdom that spearheaded the Reconquista, and which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, simply reeks with history. It's intimately tied to generations of Asturian royalty; all added their own flourishes to the building over the centuries, resulting in an array of architectural styles, from Pre-Romanesque, Baroque, Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance.
The altar with its carved, colourfully decorated and gilded figures depicting the gospels and the life of Jesus is astounding, but it is the Cámara Santa (sacred chamber) that everyone wants to see. Contained in a series of exquisitely decorated boxes in wood and metal encrusted with precious stones, are a number of relicts, the most famous of which is the Sudarium of Oviedo (Shroud of Oviedo). This bloodstained cloth is believed to have been wrapped around the head of Jesus after his crucifixion and has brought pilgrims to the city for centuries. Crammed into a vaulted chamber with numerous other tourists speaking in hushed tones out of reverence, I can feel the spirituality of the Cámara Santa seeping out of its ancient stonework.
Some seven kilometres from the quaint fishing town of Ribadesella is Playa de Vega, a gorgeous stretch of golden silky sand, and a favourite haunt of surfers. It’s a world away from the crowded, tacky coastal resort eyesores for which most of Spain has become infamous. Only a handful of smart restaurants and chiringuitos line the top of the beach. Here the music is cool, the clientele bohemian, and the frutos del mar, superb. Al fresco dining as the sun slips down over the Bay of Biscay is the perfect way to end a day spent lounging on the beach or exploring the rugged Asturian coast.
Wine time!What better than a glass of fine for two as the sun goes down over the Costa Verde at Playa de Vega?
One of the most unusual features of the area are the Bufones de Pría, a series of blow holes in the limestone cliffs near Ribadesella. Undoubtedly on a winter’s day, when the wind turns the Atlantic into a snarling frenzy and the sea becomes foaming milk, the Bufones would be magnificent, spurting several metres into the sky. Today these jesters have the last laugh, for they are indolent and half-hearted; at high tide only one bothers to sporadically manage a misty belch. The fine spray it emits creates transient shimmering rainbows. But they put on quite a sound show. They hiss, growl and bellow, while one inhales and exhales like a sleeping monster as the tide surges in and out of caves hidden far below.
The feel of cool sand between my toes is delectable as I sip my glass of wine and stand on the shore of Playa de Vega watching the vermilion orb of the sun sinking over the Bay of Biscay. Behind me the magnificent Picos de Europa are turning a gorgeous shade akin to the ripe flesh of a guava. The rock pools in front of me flame orange like liquid fire as the sunset enters its grand finale. I feel a sense of remorse, the end of another day, our last in Asturias. But as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, I know that one day we will return to the green and pleasant wonderland that is España Verde.
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