Picos de Europa

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September, 2016

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Anywhere from the Basque country to Asturias we see the ocean northwards and the Picos south. The route to central Spain goes over the top, as we found last year. This year we stayed by the sea and travelled by taxi into the mountains.

Wealthy we are not, and wondered how much such a trip would cost. Our only point of comparison was the journey two fellow tourists had made by taxi from Bloomsbury to Portsmouth, which would have ruined our holiday before it began. Spain is not the UK however, Brexit or otherwise. Between five and six hours by local taxi cost just 25 euros each for three passengers. Our bus journey from station to ferry port had cost £2 each and took ten minutes.

The taxi collected us at the hotel and before we began to climb into the mountains our driver had given a brief comment on each village we passed through, then stopped for a look at some folk art that would have given Spike Milligan delight. Asturias is still a region of great superstition, as we had seen previously on a visit to Ribadesella. The same gnomes and witches were in evidence inland as well as by the sea.

Quite another kind of belief appeared at Covadonga, once the road had seriously begun to climb. This was where the Visigoth Pelayo began the reconquest of Spain from the Moors, a process that was to take almost 700 years and involve later kings and soldiers of fortune such as El Cid. Pelayo settled for the reconquest of Asturias, declaring himself king and, some years after his death, being given a tomb in the Holy Cave at Covadonga.

The site is very much a place of pilgrimage, with a huge 19th century basilica as well as the cave and attendant chapel. There were many visitors, whereas along the Camino de Santiago, running past our hotel, the numbers seemed smaller because spread out but would perhaps have been as many.

Our journey was to different heights and sights, however. The Picos are home to some of the largest birds in Europe. While we had no hopes of seeing bears, wild boar or deer in the middle of the day we were looking forward to buzzards, eagles and vultures.

First, though, some tortuous climbing, fortunately by car. Having driven on another road and carefully avoided traffic coming towards us, we knew it was possible and had more faith in our driver than ourselves. There are viewpoints at certain bends in the road, with wonderful views across country that is as high as almost anywhere in the UK. And we had more to traverse. Nonetheless our first stop brought several raptors overhead and three vultures calmly perched on rocks across a gully.

A few “Oohs” and “Aahs” later we set off for the lakes. There are three although we only saw two. A noticeboard near one showed we stood at over 1100 metres, higher than Scafell Pike in the Lake District. There was even snow on a peak somewhere above the height of Ben Nevis. Some of the beautiful Asturian cattle that look like Jerseys with black noses were grazing as the next flight of vultures came over. How did they descend for winter we asked, and were told they would find their own way down and, being fitted with tracking devices, could be found by their owners. It was a good thing our driver had his own navigation system and was flexible about time. We stayed longer there than planned but were happy to reduce the time at our next stop, Cangas de Onis, where Pelayo had established his court.

First, of course, there was the journey down. Cangas de Onis is on the river Sella, not far from the estuary at Ribadesella, so near sea level. It has a so-called Roman bridge (Romanesque, I suspect), which is spectacular not to say extravagant. As if looking into the mountains beyond it there is a monument to the many emigrants from Asturias in the early twentieth century. Those who made money and returned became known as “Indianos” and built homes in South American style. Local people will point them out to visitors. There was also a splendid example of a granary raised on stones like legs as a protection against rats. (These are medieval in origin and appear all over Spain and Portugal; there is an English equivalent at Wandlebury, just outside Cambridge.)

Everyone on the outing had been delighted and agreed over dinner they would have paid much more for the privilege. No question but that it was easier than DIY (drive it yourself).


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