When one thinks of Spain, bullfighting, flamenco, and tapas images stir. The Spain Scoop adds the delights of outdoor wilderness, high peaks, and the buzzards of Asturias in Northern Spain. Linda Wainwright, our writer from Tenerife Island, puts away her flip flops and laces up her hiking boots to add her expert advice.
By Linda Wainwright
Sailing was a dangerous and uncertain business hundreds of years ago. The Americas were an exotic and challenging place. So the sight of the mountains of Asturias, which became known as Picos de Europa (The Peaks of Europe), was an emotional moment for returning Spaniards. It is said that the limestone summits were their first sight of land, and home.
I love stories like that, tales which connect people to places, yet the sheer beauty of Asturias might be ambiance enough for me. It is, quite simply, overwhelming. I’m here to cast a “fresh eye” over the National Park, which bears the name of the mountains; to report back an impression free of preconceived notions.
I know little about the region, so preconceived notions are few. I vaguely learned in school that it was Spain’s wealthiest province, rich in minerals, that there is a Prince of Asturias Prize given to people honored for their work in various fields. I also know that Woody Allen is in love with Oviedo.
On my first morning I am whisked away to visit Covadonga, which was where this National Park began in 1918. Although it was extended in 1995 to its present size of 230,000 acres, and now includes parts of Cantabria and Castilla y León, Covadonga is at its beating heart. Originally named Parque Nacional de la Montaña de Covadonga (National park of the Covadonga Mountains) it covered around 42,000 acres. Today it is the largest national park in Europe.
My guide, Juanjo, is the fountain of knowledge you want a guide to be. Born and bred in the mountains, his knowledge is extensive. I marvel at how he picks out a single orchid from an array of wildflowers on a hillside, or can tell me that the majestic birds circling overhead are vultures or buzzards, according to the way they cruise the sky above the peaks.
He tells me the story of Pedro Pidal y Bernaldo de Quiros, Marques de Villaviciosa, whose inspiration and work the National Park was, around a hundred years ago. The Marques was an early conservationist and in general a Renaissance man, a politician, author and journalist, lawyer, expert at archery and shooting, and famous alpine hiker. He was the first, in 1904, to climb Naranjo de Bulnes, a vertical wall of a peak, the most difficult climb in Spain. As a senator he lent passionate support to the creation of the Spain’s national parks, and in particular Parque Nacional de la Montaña de Covadonga.
In Asturias today there are six biospheres, and talking with Asturias Turismo it is clear that they are very conscious of the responsibility they have inherited to maintain the integrity of the region. We drive from Covadonga up a narrow, winding road, on which we encounter as many mountain cattle as cars, to the Lakes Enol and Ercina. En route, Juanjo explains that this road is closed to traffic during July and August between the hours of 8am and 6pm, thus reducing the possibility of contamination by day-trippers. Only genuine country lovers would go so early or so late in the day. It’s a wise decision one can only respect, not to give in to the temptation to create a holiday village or some other money-spinning project in this tranquil area.
When we arrive at Lago Ercina there are a few tourists around, but we soon leave them behind as we stride out over the pastureland to visit a local shepherd, who spends his summers up here, relatively cut off from the stresses of modern life.
I spend two days driving through or strolling some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen; lush Mediterranean forests of oak, ash, and beech; high pastures dotted with simple stone cabins and contented mountain cattle and goats; small villages where everything has to be brought up from below, because there are no shops; dramatic waterfalls and tumbling rivers; and the breathtaking peaks and gorges of the higher mountains.
At one point we stop to open a gate, following a route forbidden to the general public, but which Juanjo can follow as an official mountain guide. A lonely mule trots over to investigate us. He is the local transport from this spot upwards. Above us there is a Refugio de Urriellu, a refuge used by climbers scaling the summits. This is the end of the road for modern vehicles, from this point supplies are taken up on his strong back.
If I have a regret about the trip it’s not seeing the famed peak of Naranjo de Bulnes (known as Picu Urriellu by locals). In photographs it looks formidable. It isn’t the highest climb in Spain but it is the most challenging. I have no doubt that the mists, which hide it from us during my stay, are a part of what makes it a challenge.
You don’t have to be a climber to enjoy this wonderful, natural space. There is hiking and trekking at all levels. We did very little, and a knee problem slowed me down, but I was enchanted by everything around me, not least the people, who were super-friendly and helpful. If you are even less able to get around there are guided drives in 4 x 4s. If you are adventurous there is potholing and canyoning, and in winter cross country skiing and snowshoeing. For camping you need special permissions. If driving your own car you don’t have access to every road in the region, another sign of the dedication to conservation, and another reason to go with an accredited mountain guide.
Leaving Asturias is hard. I have so much still to see. I leave with a strong sense that the future of the region’s environment is in safe hands. The Asturians I’ve met are not only friendly, but also passionate about their surroundings, and if they should not live up to the responsibilities, then the impressively-titled Pedro Pidal y Bernaldo de Quiros, Marques de Villaviciosa will be aware of it. In the introduction to a book written about the mountains by Julián Delgado Úbeda, the Marques wrote:
“Under these humid ferns, tended by water from the Peaks, and against these rocks shaped by cold winds, I will leave my bones, to settle back into the earth over the centuries.” (My translation)
Linda transplanted to the Canary Islands more than 20 years ago. Having embraced her Third Age, she can be found wandering around the islands, usually with camera and notepad in hand. She blogs at http://islandmomma.wordpress.com/
**I was the guest of Spain’s Paradores Hotels and Turismo de Asturias. Spain Scoop’s invitation was to give them feedback, as a first time visitor, of my impressions of Asturias. My honest opinion was what was asked for, so I can truthfully say that all these observations are my very own.