Picos de Europa

Wednesday 18th March 2009, Llanes, Asturias
Today has been really lovely! The sun shone before we were even awake and has hovered around 23 degrees all day, even high in the mountains amidst the snow.

After breakfast overlooking our wonderful cove we drove via narrow, deserted roads directly up into the mountains of the Picos. We passed through tiny villages where everyone turned to stare, where ladies in blue nylon overalls and heavy boots dug vegetable patches or chopped huge logs of wood and where the menfolk loaded tractors with tanks of pungent slurry to trundle off into the fields. The roads were steep and twisting, the hillsides green on the lower slopes, forested above and increasingly grey and rugged as we climbed higher into the mountains. In one little hamlet, way up in the hills, we discovered a tiny, open fronted shrine built into a cave in the rocks, overlooking a stream.

Village shrine somewhere in the Picos

Eventually we emerged onto the busier route up to Covadonga. Here there is a huge basilica built in pink stone, completely surrounded by towering hillsides. This shrine is honoured by the Spanish as the place where the Moors were eventually beaten back by Pelayo around 718, after they had conquered almost the whole of Spain. He is regarded as the national hero who started the reconquest of Spain and the eventual triumph of Christianity throughout the country. In a cave, high up the cliff face, is a chapel where Pelayo's tomb can be seen. It is visited by a constant stream of pilgrims and tourists. On the altar is a Barbie doll dressed virgin figure surrounded by flowers, and here the faithful come to pray. Others come to have their photos taken, but there are definitely genuine pilgrims here as well.

Generally Covadonga is a commercialised and touristy place but so early in the season we were spared much of the religious tackiness. In front of the basilica Ian was amazed to see a Spanish couple saying prayers with one of the priests who sprinked their very smart and expensive new car with holy water, blessing it and its owners so they would be safe driving in it!

Basilica at Covadonga

Pelayo, Covadonga

Shrine to Pelayo, Covadonga

Altar in Pelayo's shrine, Covadonga

Supposed tomb of Pelayo

Blessing a car at the basilica, Covadonga

From Covadonga a very steep and twisting road leads twelve kilometres up into the snowy summits of the Picos to a couple of green lakes. We made the trip up many years ago in a car and even then it was tough going. In Modestine it really stretched both her and me to the limits. The road was unfenced, twisting round upon itself, surrounded by the sheer jagged rock face with drops, just inches from our wheels, down to matchbox sized farmsteads far below. Most of the route was made in second gear and we needed to stop a couple of times at miradors to cool off. On our last visit we had risen through foggy white clouds to emerge into bright sunlight, the peaks of the surrounding mountains floating like islands amidst the cotton wool sea. Today there were no clouds but visibility was hazy, mainly caused by several scrub fires blazing on the mountainsides, sending up huge billows of grey smoke. Such fires have always been a problem in the Picos and may be the work of arsonists rather than controlled burning.

Hazy view of the Picos showing road above Covadonga

Mirador de la Reina, Above Covadonga

Nice place for a picnic

Eventually Modestine reached the lower of the two lakes. The road beyond was closed for repairs. Modestine settled thankfully beside the first lake. She'd done more than her fair share. If we wanted to see the second lake we could use our legs. It wasn't as bad as it looked. EU funding has left Spain so flush with money even the footpaths through the mountains are all beautifully paved with neat steps to ease the way! The views were sublime, the higher peaks of the mountains still completely snow covered. By now we were above the snow line and used handfuls of it to cool off. We discovered the remains of a disused iron mine and followed a tunnel through the rocks to emerge further along our return route.

Lower lake, above Covadonga

Higher lake, above Covadonga

Disused iron mine near the lakes above Covadonga

Back at the lower lake we threw snowballs into the lake to see how long it would take for them to melt. They bobbed around for so long we gave up and returned to Modestine. The lakes must have still been mighty chilly!

If Eric's owners are out there, please can you identify this flower. It's not in my picture book

The descent took almost as long as going up and again most of it required second gear. Our brakes had been redone during our recent MOT, which was just as well! Even so, they smelled rather strongly! On the way down to Cangas de Onis we saw billowing smoke and red tongues of flame all the way around one of the hillsides. A helicopter was engaged in the futile task of filling a trailing bucket of water in the nearby river before flying up the hillside to empty it onto the seat of the fire. It was a pitiable attempt to quench it but just below was a tiny village and nearby an entire forest of firs, both of which were at risk.

Ancient bridge, Cangas de Onis

Evening shadows at Cangas de Onis

Mountain fire with helicopter, near Cangas de Onis

Before we left our site this morning we'd trailed our electricity cable around our pitch and put up a board stating the pitch was occupied by a campervan, giving our registration number. As we've said, we had the best place on the site and have been relishing every second of our time here. We returned to find a large German caravan with an awning and a four wheel drive vehicle spread right across our pitch, completely blocking any view of the sea! We don't want to stereotype nationalities but the joke about the Germans ruthlessly bagging the best places is absolutely true! We felt inclined to park immediately behind them on the pitch so they couldn't get out but I still have a very painful throat infection and couldn't be bothered with the unpleasantness and hassle. We cannot think of any other nationality that could be so crass and rude. (We are sorry to say this. We have several very dear German friends and fortunately most German people we have encountered during our travels have been really friendly and nice.) When we stopped to collect our electricity cable and the few belongings we'd left to mark our pitch Ian commented to them in German that it was a pity they'd taken our place despite our notice. They scowled and were generally unpleasant, shouting and gesticulating after us as we left. They claim the campsite owner told them to go there. Somehow we doubt it. Certainly it was a large pitch for just us, but we are paying the same price so why should we be expected to move so they can have a larger pitch? So, owners of German vehicle registration number HN RX 121, may you be recognised throughout Europe on campsites by readers of this blog, and may you be shunned as campsite pariahs for ever!

Anyway, we've found rather a nice little corner for ourselves with a wider view of the sea. From here we can sit and watch a happy Spanish family preparing for their evening meal as they carve slices from an enormous leg of smoked ham hanging from a tree.

Thursday 19th March 2009, Llanes, Asturias
We have just realised that our first account of visiting the Picos fourteen years ago is on our website as a "retro-blog". Please can we ask interested readers to take a look, particularly at the entries for 3rd – 5th April 1995. The area impressed us enormously then and what we wrote is still pertinent today. There have been changes over the years of course. The area is nowhere near so isolated today. The roads that were being cut through back in 1995 are now well established and communications have opened the area up to visitors. Today people living here are more likely to own a car than a horse pulling a cart piled high with grass and you are more likely to encounter a tractor load of slurry on the village street than a lady pushing a wheelbarrow full of manure. That said though, we have seen both carts of grass and barrow loads of manure today.

Today we made our way up into the Picos to Arenas de Cabrales. The hotel where we stayed is still there looking very smart, but the field of cattle beside the river, visible from our bedroom, is now a huge car park. The main high street has several smart bars and shops selling regional produce – mainly cheese, cider and honey. Ian needed a sunhat as it has been really hot. Twelve euros seemed ridiculously expensive so we left it. Later in the day we found one in the non-tourist little town of Panes for four euros instead.

Behind the main street of Arenes life seemed largely unchanged. Elderly ladies still sat in the sunshine at their front doors knitting socks, washing still festooned the dilapidated wooden balconies and roofs were still held down with heavy stones. Chickens scratched in the street, cattle peered from doorways that could as easily have been houses as stables and everywhere was the all pervading aroma of dung. Overlooking the village was the high, snowy peak of one of the highest mountain of the Picos, Naranjo de Bulnes, at 2,519 metres high.

A chance to chat. Ladies at the vegetable stall in Arenes de Cabrales

Naranjo de Bulnes seen from Arenes de Cabrales

We drove up to Poncebos where the road peters out into little more than a couple of goat tracks leading up into the mountains, following an azure river along the side of the Cain Gorge, or up the steep, twisting, hazardous ravine to the isolated mountain village of Bulnes. Here was a complete surprise. In 1995 we were almost the only people around. Now there is a large car park and a funicular railway to carry the hundreds of passengers there today, even outside the tourist season, directly up to Bulnes along a track bored directly up through the mountainside! It is a state of the art construction and must have totally transformed the lives of the residents of Bulnes. No longer are they cut off for months on end by winter snows. No longer does everything needed in the village have to be brought up the mountain track by pack mule. No longer is the tunnel, cut through the rock at Poncebos, used for tethering donkeys and storing bales of hay - although the rusting iron rings can still be seen on the tunnel wall. Instead the residents have traded their mules for motorcars housed in their own car park at the base of the funicular and they have free transport whenever they wish on the half-hourly semi-vertical journey through the inside of the mountain. We wonder how they have adapted to such a total change in their lifestyle and whether they welcome the hundreds of tourists that now appear daily in the streets of their once lonely village.

The mountain track up to the village still exists and hikers, with a better head for heights than us, were making their way slowly up through the grey, bare rock, scrambling over the tumbled boulders along the track.

Foot bridge at the start of the climb up to Bulnes

We opted to take the path up towards Cain, through the deep, narrow, sheer sided gorge, along a path scratched into the cliff face. It started off easily enough. In shady spots beside our feet, were deep purple violets and sunny primroses and the scenery was still the most stunning we have seen anywhere, ever! Soon though, our way was littered with fallen stones, scree and rocks. The path rose higher above the fast, clear waters of the river down in the ravine. The grey limestone cliffs rose sheer, stark and bare high above us and tiny, stunted trees clung to any likely crevice. At one point several brick-sized stones tumbled down from the rocks above to land on the path just in front of Ian! It was not a place to linger!

Start of our walk along the Cain Gorge

Further along the Cain Gorge

River and dry mountains, Cain Gorge

Along the Cain Gorge

Distant view of Naranjo de Bulnes

After a few kilometres we encountered a huge fall of scree completely blocking our way. A young Spanish couple ahead of us started to clamber up the unstable landslip and countless others had done likewise. We however decided we'd gone far enough and stopped on a sunny, safe-looking ledge which we shared with lizards, above the tumbling river for a basic picnic lunch before starting the trek back along the path. Here completely different vistas opened to us. Up here there was nothing but bare rock. We saw no eagles or vultures as we'd seen on our first visit and any goats were sticking to the easier slopes lower down where there was at least grass to eat.

One of many scree slopes, Cain Gorge

Our path is blocked by scree, Cain Gorge

Ian takes a walk in the Picos, Cain Gorge

Grey, arid, limestone rock, Cain Gorge

Jill returning along the narrow path, Cain Gorge

It was already late afternoon by the time we rejoined Modestine and drove down out of the gorge. We returned to our campsite on the coast here at Celoria via the little town of Panes, too insignificant to be mentioned in guide books. It was a pleasant little place with one main street of individual shops selling things of real use to the community. There were wooden pitchforks, axes and rustic baskets in every possible shape and size made from woven willow. We even saw an entire goatskin for use as a water container with a stopper on the end of one of the bulging legs! Here, amongst the ironmongery and cooking pots in a hardware shop Ian finally found a replacement sunhat! How many have we bought since we started these travels? We've completely lost count!

Hardware shop, Panes