Those Roman dudes got around. Their deserted gold mines have created strange formations that are great for viewing and hiking. Las Médulas is a lesser known destination to explore and you may find a chunk of gold the Romans overlooked.
By Chris Ciolli
Far from the crowds in Barcelona, Madrid, and Costa de Sol, Leon is less frequented by throngs of tourists. There is a wealth of lush green space, amazing food, and history on every twisty road.
So I’m somewhat surprised when, while blissfully short, my Barcelona-Leon flight is packed. Even with my legs and arms crossed, I’m wedged in. I’m stuck between a beautiful twenty-something who flips her hair in my eyes. She speaks rapid-fire Spanish into her cell phone until a flight attendant asks her to turn it off. To my right is a tall, red-bearded Scotsman. Apart from a massive backpack that barely fits into the overhead compartment, he’s traveling with a motley crew of young pilgrims outfitted to start St. James’ Way. Maybe it’s just me, but hopping a plane and starting from Leon seems like cheating, even if it’s still days and days of walking to get to Santiago. But who am I to judge? I flew straight to Santiago and still got to salute the apostle’s remains. Besides, I’m in Leon for a far less spiritual purpose, to see what’s left of the Roman Empire’s largest open-air gold mine.
It was an hour and a half drive from Leon’s miniscule airport, in a small car full of Spaniards, to Las Médulas. I’m excited to get out and enjoy the open space away from other people’s elbows and knees. Walking up to the Mirador de Orellán viewing area, I stifle a gasp as I look out at the red-orange spires and turrets spiraling up and towering above clouds of green leaves. Las Médulas de Oro is stark and shocking in its beauty. Despite its vaguely natural appearance, it’s a credit to the power of human beings to drastically modify landscapes. The strangely lunar landscape of this UNESCO World Heritage Site was created using a technique called ruina montium, wherein water from aqueducts was forced through cavities in the mountains, eventually collapsing large sections of them.
Per Roman Procurator Pliny the Elder, 20,000 pounds of gold were extracted a year. Once the mine was abandoned, the trees and plants took over again, creating the dramatic landscape that exists today. I walk, mulling it all over. Who found gold here in the first place? More importantly, who decided gold was worth risking lives and wrecking mountains for?
There are numerous itineraries and paths to meander, leading to hilltop forts, Roman era villages and through the mine itself. The mine holds a certain appeal until I think about the lives lost there. An aerial view will have to suffice, because I can’t face stepping foot in the tunnels without a stiff drink to calm my claustrophobia, and I left my cava in Catalonia, at home with my cat. My flimsy sandals aren’t really cut out for hiking anyway, I tell myself. So I stay put.
Once my companions disperse to other parts of the park, quiet reigns and little brown birds flit about like leaves in the wind. A rabbit scrambles across the valley between two peaks. What does he think about all this? Is he as overwhelmed by it all as I am? Somehow I doubt it.
Before I know it, my friends are back and it’s time to cram angular appendages back into our economy clown car and head on down the road. I can practically taste that stiff drink I needed earlier in my immediate future.
In the tiny bar in Ponferrada I opt for aguardiente de cerezas, despite my local friends’ advice to the contrary. “Que fuerte” –so strong. My cloudy glass of liquor comes with three brown fruits the size of my thumbnail. These cherries are alcohol in the flesh, no color or flavor to make them identifiable as fruit. They resemble olives but taste of rubbing alcohol. There’s nothing quite like contemplating wrecked mountains over cherry-scented Spanish moonshine in good company.
How to get to the gold mines:
The nearest airport to Las Médulas is Leon, but it is within easy driving distance of A Coruña, Asturias, Santiago, and Madrid airports as well. There are trains and buses to Ponferrada from Barcelona and Madrid, and from there visitors can rent a car, take a taxi, bike or hike to the park. Nearby, visitors may also want to explore Cornatel Castle, Villavieja Village, and Carucedo Lake.
Chris Ciolli is a Barcelona-based writer and translator. She’s an unashamed travel junkie with a coffee habit who takes a book (or few) with her everywhere she goes. Read about her travels at MidwesternerAbroad.com, her tips for life in the Catalan capital at Barcelonaforidiots.com and check out her art at Triflesandquirks.com. Follow her on twitter @ChrisCiolli.