It’s mid January and at last we’re snowbound here in Aachen after seemingly weeks of damp, mild winter weather. During these dark, winter days thoughts start turning to sunnier months spent exploring Europe’s wilder places.
I’m always amazed by the sheer diversity of landscapes on this supposedly crowded and well charted continent. One of the real gems we’ve discovered is the Picos de Europa in Northern Spain, a part of the Cordillera Cantábrica mountain chain which runs along the Costa Verde from the Portuguese border to the Pyrenees.
I first saw these shimmering peaks, which rise dramatically from the sea, from a plane window en route to Portugal. I didn’t need much convincing that the Picos must be a spectacular part of Spain to visit. A few years ago (in the days before children arrived) we were lucky enough to get the chance to spend a couple of weeks wandering through the Picos to the Costa Verde. This is a record of our journey…
Santander and the Costa Verde
Our journey started in Santander on the Costa Verde. This Northern coast of Spain is remarkably green and runs contrary to every stereotype that people might have of the country. Described as the “Wales of the Iberian Peninsular”, the coastline of Cantabria and Asturias is a green and unhurried land with a relatively cool climate, strongly influenced by moist winds off the Atlantic. As with the British Isles this means a high likelihood of encountering rain. However this shouldn’t put you off; the landscape is stunning and as we found you might just get lucky and avoid the downpours !
In the valley of Liébana
We took a bus from Santander to the town of Potes. This small bustling town is located deep in the valley of Liébana on the South Eastern side of the Picos. Potes is located in the rain shadow of the mountains and consequently is blessed with a sunnier, warmer climate than encountered on the coastline. These sheltered valleys are characterised with an almost mediterranean type flora with evergreen forests including some remarkable cork forests which traditionally have harvested to supply bark for the wine industry and production of other cork products.
There are also some colourful, dry meadows with spectacular displays of colourful flowers such as vipers bugloss and bloody cranesbill. Traditionally these meadows have supported a long tradition of cattle rearing and consequently have been managed by local farmers to become some of the most diverse and richest ecosystems in Europe (more than 1400 species of plants have been recorded in the Picos).
The villages of Liébana are delightful to explore with their characteristic welcoming terracotta tile roofs. Village life is slow and tough but there is something interesting to discover in every hamlet. These days many people are leaving the land and traditional village life to seek enhanced economic opportunities in urban areas. Consequently, as in other rural communities around Europe, many houses are now being converted to second homes with a steady stream of incomers queuing up to buy properties as holiday apartments. Whilst its sad to see the decline of traditional rural lifestyles, I hope at least the character and traditional buildings of these small villages can be retained through an influx of outside investment. These traditional houses are real treasures worth preserving.
Our plan was to do a circular walking tour of several days taking in the Central and Eastern ranges of the Picos before visiting the Western range for a few days and the spectacular Garganta del Cares gorge which dramatically spits the ranges in two. The idea was to travel light and take just the basics with accommodation in local inns, mountain huts and auberges. We choose to go in June as the Picos is relatively uncrowded at that time of year and there is therefore no need to book accommodation ahead. Another benefit of visiting the Picos in early summer is that this is the best time to appreciate the areas amazing biodiversity including the spectacular displays of wild flowers in the alpine meadows.
To Fuenta De and the Urrieles
We hitched a lift up the Deva Valley to Fuenta De located at just over 1000m above sea level. From Fuenta De a short cable car ride takes you up 800m in just a few minutes and into the heart of the Urrieles (Central Range) of the Picos. From the top station at El Cable we were rewarded with spectacular views of neighbouring peaks including Torre Alcacero (2247m) and Pico de La Padierna (2319m). The view across the Deva Valley to the Cordillera Cantabrica was also spectacular with low cloud clinging to the summits. We set off in the direction of Puertos de Aliva through a landscape of close-cropped meadows interspersed with familiar alpine plants including the intense blue of gentians.
This is cow country with cattle being integral to the production of celebrated local cheeses and dairy products. traditionally the meadows would have been grazed by relatively small casina cattle from Asturias or the wide horned tudances from Cantabria. Both these breeds were hardy and suited to life in the mountain meadows, however nowadays these are often being replaced by new breeds offering higher productivity.
In the Valle del Duje
Along the Valle del Duje, several hamlets of summer sheilings used by the graziers are encountered en route to Sotres with the most attractive being located around Vegas del Torro and Invernales del Texu. Traditionally, as in the Alps (and previously in the Southern Highlands of Scotland) cattle are managed through a system of transhumance and are taken in early summer from winter accommodation up to the high pastures to graze.
This whole system is responsible for the incredible cultural landscapes found in the Picos as well as much of the biodiversity of the high meadows. Increasingly however younger people are reluctant to practice the relatively tough and lonely lifestyle associated with transhumance leading to an abandonment of pastures and the increasing tendency to rear cattle indoors.
We walked down the valley flanked by dramatic peaks and rock towers reaching to the heavens on either side. Further down the Vallee de Duje, the meadows are a veritable blaze of colour. Plants growing there include many familiar plants found in Britain including vipers bugloss, kidney vetch, stichwort, birds foot trefoil and greater yellow rattle. In addition there are many species of orchids, a few of which are unique to the area.
In addition to traditional management of hay meadows, the amazing biodiversity of the Picos is also influenced by the area’s geology with the central ranges largely consisting of limestone with Devonian slates and shales found on the periphery. The limestone was deposited in warm, shallow seas during the Lower Carboniferous period before being raised up through cataclysmic geological activity to form lofty mountain ranges.
Later glaciation and frost shattering sculpted the rocks during successive ice ages to form the dramatic peaks, cirques and aretes characteristic of the Picos today. Underground the erosion and chemical weathering of the limestone created extensive cave systems, some of which later collapsed to become deep gorges.
Onwards and upwards
The next morning, refreshed and rearing to go after a night in the mountain village of Sotres, we made our way through damp morning air up the winding trail towards the Vega Urrielu. As the trail zig-zagged steeply up the hillside the views started to open out.
We passed through beautiful wet meadows with impressive displays of white asphodels, orchids and yellow rattle. Finally as we reached a broad saddle near to Mida La Terenosa, the clouds started to part and we got our first views of the Urrieles peaks including the dramatic rock tower of the Naranjo de Bulnes, often described as the “Matterhorn” of the Cordillera Cantábrica.
The landscape changes abruptly as you enter into the Alpine zone of the Picos as the vegetation recedes and limestone bedrock starts to dominate. The high mountain areas are home to numerous chamois which nimbly navigate the precipitous ledges and rocky screes with comparative ease. Golden eagles and griffin vultures wheel above mountain peaks and passes, borne aloft on the rising air currents.
The path became increasingly steep and narrow as we headed on upwards towards Picu Urriellu and our destination of the Refugio J.D. Ubeda. We passed by the small summer hamlet of la Terenosa where a weatherbeaten lady with a somewhat melancholic menagerie of animals, offered some basic refreshments in a style oddly reminiscent of a Nepali “tea house”. After a brief stopover we continued onward.
Soon we were enveloped in a thick mist with the path climbing steeply and with precipitous drops opening up below. We climbed interminable zigzags up the slope, Martina growing ever skeptical about the prospect of finding attractive accommodation in such a seemingly hostile environment. An increasing silence indicated a growing level of disapproval as I adopted my patronising “Mr Motivator” role, struggling to convince her of the validity of our plans. At last the Refugio loomed reassuringly out of the cloud as doubts were put aside and inviting smells of food ushered us inside.
Urriellu and the Naranjo de Bulnes
Suitably refreshed with Asturian stew and a fresh change of clothes, we emerged two hours later from the refugio to find ourselves blinking in bright sunshine. The ominous waves of cloud had rolled back to to reveal a spectacular panorama all around us, rock towers and lofty peaks piercing the skyline.
Eager to explore, I scrambled up the flanks of a peak to a spot a few hundred metres above the refugio where I was rewarded with dramatic views of the Urrieles massif. The cloud had now receded to a much lower level with an open view to the North. This low-level cloud, known to locals as the “encainda”, is a characteristic feature of the Picos and is caused by warm, moist air blowing inland from the Atlantic and condensing as it cools.
Most spectacular of all was the view of the Naranjo de Bulnes (2519m). This imposing rock tower is known as the “Matterhorn” of the Picos and poses a formidable challenge for rock climbers. The peak was first climbed by Spanish climbers Pedro Pidal and Gregorio Pérez in 1904. Although not the highest peak in the Picos de Europa (that accolade falls to Torre Cerredo at 2648m), it is certainly the most iconic and best known. Further peaks rim the enclosed valley to the South and it’s possible to cross the Horcados Rojosa, a high col above the Huo Los Boches, to the Cabana Veronica, a tiny mountain hut reminiscent of a crashed Apollo command module.
After a cramped night in the Refugio we planned further exploration of the high country up towards the Horcados Rojosa col. The day dawned bright and sunny with near perfect conditions. We were just about to leave the refugio when our plans were scuppered by a seemingly confused and frightened Russian gentleman who approached us. He appeared to be suffering from heart palpitations and altitude sickness, having climbed up all the way up from sea level the previous day.
Reluctantly we changed plans and offered to escort the gentleman back down the hill to lower altitudes. Fortunately he seemed steady enough on his feet and we set off downwards, making rapid progress as we moved into easier terrain. Our friend, now feeling much better, was most grateful for the escort and thanked us profusely as we parted company by Cuetu Cuaceya. We stopped for a while to explore the meadows and after an idle lunch break we headed onwards towards the mountain village of Sotres, the unofficial “capital” of the Picos.
Through the Andara range to Beges:
We enjoyed a couple of nights in a small pension in Sotres. The first evening was very quiet and we had the place pretty much to ourselves. The next day was Friday and we were amazed that evening by the steady stream of weekend visitors who flooded into the village. Our small pension was soon bustling with clientelle who rapidly appeared to be enthusiastically downing the entire contents of the bar in record time.
As mentioned, the Picos region, suffers from a steady out-migration, particularly of younger folk looking for economic opportunities. However, unlike in other European countries, many local people continue to maintain dwellings in their place of origin and return home at weekends to catch up with village life. This has the effect of transforming what appear to be deserted ghost towns into bustling weekend honey pots. The contrast could not be greater.
We left Sotres and headed through the Andara range towards the hamlet of Beges with a view to climbing the two peaks of Sagrado Corazon (2214m) and Samelar (2227m). After climbing steeply upwards from Sotres we reached an undulating, stony plateau with extensive views in all directions. A welcome breeze brought relief from mid morning heat as cloud started to blow in from the coast to the North, enveloping the lowlands and leaving the lower peaks as freestanding and isolated islands.
We made good progress and were soon at the tiny Casetòn de Andara Refugio, tucked away under a rock outcrop amidst a desolate landscape of abandoned mining operations. Continuing steeply upwards past the Refugio, we reached the Col de San Carlos and then following another final hard push we stood proudly on the summit of Sagrado Corazòn (2214m), the land dropping steeply away in all directions. To the South we could see our starting point of Potes down in the sunny, lush valley of Liébana which contrasted starkly with the barren mountain peaks and the banks of cloud to the North.
After taking in the view we made our way back down to the Col in the direction of Samelar (2227m). From the peaks we retraced our steps back to Casetòn de Andara and continued our journey onward toward Beges. The route followed a largely straight track which contured gently along the side of the mountain, just level with the edge of the cloud sea beneath us. One minute we were rewarded with dramatic “Lord of the Rings” type views of peaks looming out of the mist whilst the next minute we would be immersed in the merky sea of fog, struggling to see a more than just a few feet in front of our noses.
On the way we got fleeting views towards the mountain village of Tresviso with its infamous zig zag path which provides tortuous access from the Desfiladero de la Hermida gorge some 800m below. This path is now very popular with walkers and was apparently still used daily by the local postie into recent times.
Our own route to Beges followed a similar course as it plunged downwards into the cloud through a series of convoluted hairpin bends. I cleverly suggested a short cut to miss out some of the hairpins by cutting directly down the slope; although seemingly a good idea, this proved to be a highly unpopular decision. We were soon sliding down through knee-deep scrub, between precipitous crags and hidden sinkholes (which presumably provided access into unseen limestone caverns below). Fortunately we both survived the ordeal and soon the mists parted to reveal the inviting village of Beges beneath us; it had been a long day.
We checked in at the characterful auberge in the village where we found we were the only guests. We were made very welcome there by the young couple who had recently restored the building and opened it as a hostel. The pair had come to Beges seeking the good life, with the bearded husband combining life as an auberge host and part time farmer with playing bass guitar in a rock band in coastal resorts. Pride of place in the auberge was the beautifully restored vintage coffee machine which could as well grace any city cafe in Paris or Milan. It was very inspiring to see the couple bringing new life, fresh ideas and creativity into a small and isolated mountain community.
The next morning dawned bright and sunny again as memories of the previous days mist and steep descents were forgotten. Our hosts offered to show us their recently reopened cheese cave which was tucked away into the side of a nearby mountain. Chees from the Picos is well-known and revered varieties include the famous blue cabrales cheese made from a mixture of cow, goat and sheep’s milk. The Picón cheese made in Beges follows a similar formula and is traditionally made by straining the curd through horse hair. The salted cheeses are then sent to be matured in limestone caves for a year or so where they acquire their characteristic blue veining.
Our hosts were keen to keep these local traditions alive and had invested considerable resources in opening up an old cave again for cheese production. The way into the cave was quite a squeeze and after some initial effort, we were rewarded with remarkable views of stalagmites and stalactites (the “tites” come down). Most remarkable of all were some rather well matured cheeses with had been left behind by the previous incumbent of the cave; some 25 years previously. Being a little conservative in our eating habits we decided not to sample these !
Over the Collado de Pelea
Leaving Beges we headed through beautiful and more gentle green countryside passed the hamlet of La Quintana and toward the Collado de Pelea. Following another stiff climb to the top of the Col, we were rewarded with excellent views down to the Rio Deva Vallee and the pastoral landscapes surrounding Potes. Wild horses grazed peacefully in the meadows and we found a great viewpoint to enjoy a leisurely lunch overlooking the Cantabrian mountains.
This last day of our circular trek, was one of the hardest on the knees with continued ascents and descents through the wooded countryside (though fortunately mainly downhill). Around Pendusa, we passed by some remarkable groves of ancient sweet chestnut trees which have been pollarded by generations of local farmers to provide a source of poles and small timber. In Britain these would have graced any collection of veteran trees.
We passed through a number of small villages, mostly quiet and deserted with little sign of life. It would be sad if these communities die out and merely become holiday retreats for urbanites. The rich, local traditions and intimate connections that people have with their landscape will be lost at the expense of the Picos’ diversity as a whole .
One long final descent and we were into the medieval streets of Potes, our knees now protesting with every step. Rounding a corner we saw our accommodation and a welcoming small street cafe beckoning; time for a break and a chance to rest weary legs !
The Macizo Occidental
Somewhat recovered from the exertions of our trek through the Central Picos, we were also keen to visit the Macizo Occidental or Western range. This part of the Picos has a damper and more humid climate than further East and has large in tact areas of natural beech forest.
We travelled around the periphery of the park to the village of Soto de Sajambre where we based ourselves for a couple of nights in another small pension. The next day made an excursion up toward the peak of Pena de Dobres, passing through the extensive montane meadows around Vegavaño and along a rough path through extensive beech woods to the Col below the peak.
These remoter areas of the Picos are home to diverse mammals including remnant populations of the Cantabrian brown bear, Iberian wolves, wild boar and red deer. In total there are some 60 mammal species in the Picos, many of which developed in comparitive isolation when this part of Europe was cut off from surrounding populations by the ice sheets of the Pleistocene.
Brown Bears particularly remain under threat, having been persecuted relentlessly by illegal hunting and through infrastructure development. The development of a new ski resort at the San Glorio pass has been particularly controversial with years of bitter fighting between state-backed developers and conservationists. Despite this, construction goes ahead with considerable destruction of the bear’s habitats for hotels, lifts and carparking.
We were not fortunate enough to see any of the larger mammals of the Picos with the exception of chamois. Despite this the beech forests are fascinating to explore with beautiful damp glades with white asphodel and myriad of attractive insect species including colourful fritillaries, skippers, coppers and blue butterflies. The woods are also full of bird life including tree pipits, nuthatches, flycatchers, treecreepers and more exotically capercaillies (which unlike their Scottish counterparts live in deciduous woods).
We made our way back to Soto de Sajambre stopping off at the Refugio Vegavaño en route for a welcome cup of coffee in front of a warm wood fire. The Refugio’s warden has developed an interesting side line making child-size papier-mache gnomes which can be found liberally scattered in hotels and catering establishments throughout the region. Along with the chance to sample the twenty five year old Picón cheese, we decided to miss out on the chance to give a gnome a home on this occasion.
The Garganta Del Cares
Another “must see” location in the Western Picos is the Garganta Del Cares gorge which splits the Central ranges from the Urrielos. The so-called “Divine Gorge” is some 2000m deep in places and runs for 12km between Cain in the North and Puento Poncebos in the South.
The gorge has been cut over millenia through the erosive action of the Rio Cares river. In the 1940s, an airy walkway was constructed through the gorge to service a hydroelectric canal. This route has now become one of the most popular walks through the Picos and visitors can now explore the Garganta Del Cares through a series of narrow terraces, tunnels and dramatic bridges high above the tumbling waters of the Cares.
In July and August it can become very busy here but we were fortunate enough to find things somewhat quieter. We walked through the gorge taking time to admire the dramatic mountain scenery and to watch enormous griffin vultures circling high in the sky overhead. We then retraced our steps back along the route and it was interesting to see how the scenery unfolded from a different perspective.
At the end of the gorge, close to Cain, is a restored wolf trap of a type used in previous centuries to round up, what were then, considered (and in some instances still are) to be dangerous threats to life and limb. It seems that the myth of the “Big, Bad Wolf” still lives on in many parts of Europe today leading to ongoing persecution by landowners and hunters.
To the Coast of Asturias
Returning again to Cain, we somewhat reluctantly decided it was time to leave the mountains behind and to make our way down to the Asturian coast for a few days of relaxation. We headed by road through the Desfiladero de Beyos (which marks the Western boundary of the Picos) to the town of Gangues d’Onis and then onwards through the coastal mountain ranges to the fishing town of Llanes. En route we were lucky enough to get some superb views looking out to sea from ridge-top vantage points.
Llanes is a perfect mix of historic fishing town and small tourist resort. The old, walled town boasts an attractive and bustling harbour with some lively bars and eateries located in the brightly painted buildings which line the waterfront. There are also some splendid small beaches located in rocky coves not too far from the town centre. Later in summer Llanes gets busy as hoards of Madrileños make their seasonal migration to the coast in search of beaches, and more importantly, cool breezes away from the stifling heat of the city. Fortunately we found Llanes to be a quiet, laid back and uncongested town during the month of June, making it just the right place for us to unwind.
The whole coastline of Asturias is, as yet, relatively undeveloped and consequently escapes the invasion of foreign visitors found in the Costas on the Mediterranean Coast of Spain. This is probably by virtue of the fact that the sea temperature is in comparison relatively cool and in addition the weather is much more unpredictable than further South. However, I think the climate gives the Costa Verde a special appeal; it’s incredibly green and in places, still relatively wild and untouched in character.
This is starting to change however, as new roads are built along the coast and apartment blocks start to spring up in ever-increasing abundance, mainly to serve the needs (and investment interests) of the Madrileños. It is my hope that this surge in construction does not destroy the integrity of the Costa Verde. The worst impacts of development need to be mitigated through a strong planning system or we risk turning the Costa Verde into yet another series of characterless concrete resorts ruled by big business as has tragically happened in many parts of the Mediterranean and Adriatic. Once again I believe that sustainable “green” tourism based on local diversity should be the way forward.
We headed to Ribadesella, the next town located westward along the coast and found this to be a charming old seaside resort with a compact old town set against an impressive backdrop of mountains. We enjoyed walking around the streets of the Old Town and window shopping in some of the diverse array of specialist shops selling local cheeses, wine, crafts, fruit and vegetables.
Close to the town you can also visit the Tito Bustillo caves where 15,000 – 20,000 years ago, prehistoric men adorned the cave walls deep underground with hunting scenes. There are special measures taken to preserve correct temperature and humidity underground to preserve the quality of the images. The caves also boast spectacular stalactites and stalagmites and are well worth a visit. Even older relics dating back to the Jurassic period can be found along the coast in Ribadesella, where its possible to see fossilised dinosaur footprints, shells and tree trunks.
There are numerous further interesting small towns and villages right along the Asturian coast including the impressive fishing village of Lastres, with its cluster of terracotta roofs perched haphazardly on a steep hillside overlooking a small and sheltered harbour. To mark the end of our tour we checked into a charming small hotel at La Isla overlooking a beautiful sandy cove. The hotel was run by a formidible old sea-captain with a great, white beard who, for much of the day, stared wistfully out to the ocean whilst his poor, stressed wife scurried around hectically serving the needs of visiting guests.
We took a walk along the nearby beach at Vega, one of Northern Spain’s best surf locations, and enjoyed watching the boarding fraternity battling with big the Atlantic rollers. Vega is a chilled out sor of place and very much the hang-out of the folks who forgot to ditch their Volkswagon camper vans back in the 1980s. As well as being a generally “cool” place to hang out, Vega is a great venue for fossil hunting. We found many fossilised shells and other interesting but indistinguisable objects, although we failed to turn up any more dinosaur footprints.
As the evening light faded and the informal surfer’s bars started to buzz with chatter and tales of boarding bravado, we sat late on the beach enjoying the fresh, salt wind and the roar of the breakers pounding the shore. This was surely the way life was meant to be lived rather than the daily battle through commuter traffic that most of us learn to put up with as part of our routine.
The next night was midsummer night and traditionally the time when fire festivals, a custom dating back to pagan times, occur all along the Asturian coastline. We joined the local bonfire in the village of La Isla and felt at home amongst the hospitable local people; the event seeming very reminiscent of a Guy Fawkes bonfire party back home but without the fireworks. Just up the coast, a much rowdier event was taking place with revellers enjoying non-stop party music and dancing through to the wee small hours. Whilst it sounded tempting to be with the crowds, I think we were happy to enjoy the low-key, intimacy of the more authentic local gathering.
The next day it was time to head back to Santander and then onwards to jobs, flats, daily routines and the global finacial systems which sustain us. At that time me and Martina were living apart, split by geography in different countries and so it was quite a transition from our carefree travelling lifestyle “back home” to the “daily grind”.
Back here in Aachen, the snow now lies thick on the ground muffling the sound of traffic on the ring road not far away; a tolling church bells helps to break the stillness.
Looking back on this trip through Northern Spain a few years ago and it’s hard now to imagine being quite so free and easy with our two small children in tow. Although we’re more rooted now, that’s rather more by default than by design. Like everything else, that will change again over time, as we start to push the boundaries forward and involve the children in more adventurous trips and activities.
Time to plan another small adventure; now it’s more likely to involve spending time in adventure playgrounds and watching cows grazing in meadows than on scaling summits; however the lure of the mountains is great and who knows there might even be the chance to surreptitiously bag a quick peak. The Alps beckon…
Super article- stunning photos and insightful.