Story and photography by Mark Furniss
In June of last year, my wife was going away to Germany for a week for a family commitment, and rather than sit at home twiddling my thumbs, I figured I might as well make the most of it and also take a short trip. While I scanned the budget airline destinations, Santander in northern Spain caught my eye. I was already familiar with the sun-and-sangria areas of the Mediterranean coast, and after doing a bit of research, hiking in the Picos de Europa (Peaks of Europe) of northern Spain appealed to me. Out came the credit card, and after a two-hour flight from my home in Ireland, I arrived in Santander.
As I only had a week to spare, I planned out a walking route in advance to make the most of my limited time. My schedule didn’t afford me time to explore the streets of Santander—as soon as I arrived, I hit the road to the town of Potes, the start of my hike.
The drive to Potes took about an hour, and it was spectacular. It was a struggle to keep my eyes on the narrow, winding roads as they meandered through immense limestone walls that towered over the route like skyscrapers. After reaching my lodging for the evening in one piece and freshening up, I ventured out for a stroll and a bite to eat. The town of Potes is postcard pretty, with its traditional golden limestone buildings that run along the Quiviesa River, which is crossed by a network of stone bridges.
On reaching the town square, I chose a restaurant at random and prepared to fuel up for the following day’s trek. Here is where I first encountered my only gripe with the whole trip. The region of Asturias prides itself on its cuisine, with dishes such as fabada (a sausage and bean casserole) and cocido montañés (another stew with white beans, pork ribs, pork belly, black pudding, chorizo, ham, and bones). This is great for meat lovers, but for a vegetarian like me, there is very little on the typical local menu that doesn’t include pork in some form. So, my meal that evening was iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and local goat cheese. The dinner was agreeable, but after a week of the same meal twice a day, it got tiresome. After one or two grande cervezas, though, I was set for the following day’s hike.
The weather in the north of Spain is pretty unpredictable due to its topography, but I was blessed with sunshine in the morning for the trek to my next stop of Sotres, with the highest elevation of all the villages in the Picos de Europa. Naturally, my journey involved an awful lot of up. The climb wasn’t such a hardship—the scenery was breathtaking, and the brow of each hill enticed me with the promise of another spectacular view at the other side. Having never visited the region before, I was surprised by the lushness that I wouldn’t have associated with Spain; I could easily imagine I was in the Swiss Alps. Spring flowers carpeted the meadows, and I passed abandoned villages that stood higgledy-piggledy like ghostly reminders of a thriving agricultural past. I found it hard to imagine that anyone would want to leave this place, but the harsh realities of living in such an isolated community compared to the comfort and conveniences of modern towns outweigh most romantic notions of “the simple life.”
When I reached Sotres in the late afternoon, I was tired but exhilarated and ready for my supper of lettuce and goat cheese.
I awoke the following morning to rain and thick fog; nevertheless, I donned my rain poncho and plowed on to my next destination of Poncebos. Although gray and drizzly, the landscape still had an eerie beauty, especially around the abandoned villages. The fog seemed to stifle the land, with the silence occasionally punctuated by the distant clanking of a cowbell. As the morning became afternoon, the clouds began to lift and reveal the mountains. Vultures sat on craggy outcrops with their wings spread, trying to dry their feathers as wisps of steam drifted up from the forested valley floor. Before I reached Poncebos, I decided to make a refreshment stop in the village of Bulnes, which involved a descent down a long, narrow dirt track. The morning’s rainfall had reduced the path to a muddy stream. I was halfway down the sludgy slope when the urgent clanging of cowbells startled me. In the nick of time, I jumped out of the way as a stampede of cows came hurtling past me. I had inadvertently got myself stuck in the traffic of a huge herd being cajoled down the mountain by local cowboys who were moving them to greener pastures across the valley.
Spring flowers carpeted the meadows, and I passed abandoned villages that stood higgledy-piggledy like ghostly reminders of a thriving agricultural past.
The rest of my descent was spent evading rampaging cattle and avoiding ending up flat on my back covered in mud and cow dung. When I eventually reached Bulnes, I calmed my frayed nerves with a couple of cold cervezas, and there was also a pleasant change to the usual menu—a bowl of patatas alioli (garlic potatoes). After lunch, I enjoyed a relatively leisurely and thankfully hazard-free stroll down to Poncebos.
The following day, I headed from Poncebos to Cain via the Cares Gorge. The clear turquoise waters of the Cares River have carved a deep ravine—up to a mile deep in some places—between the central and western massifs of the Picos. The twelve-kilometer Cares Gorge Trail that runs along it was initially a maintenance track excavated into the cliff face in the 1920s to service an accompanying canal that feeds a hydroelectricity station in Poncebos. Today it is primarily a walking trail—possibly one of the most spectacular trails in the world! This trail is the one that prompted me to book my plane ticket, and it didn’t disappoint. Apart from a steady incline for the first two kilometers, the trail is pretty level, but it hugs and winds its way around the sides of the cliffs, sometimes with vertigo-inducing drop-offs of over a hundred meters to the river below. Each bend in the trail seems to expose a more spectacular view than the last. When I arrived in Cain, I would have happily gone back to Poncebos and done the whole thing again the following day, but I had a schedule to keep.
From Cain, the final stop of my trek was Espinama, whose proximity to the Fuente Dé cable car enabled me to reach the higher areas of the Picos. On the last full day of my trip, I obtained my cable car ticket an hour before the first car of the day left the station and joined a sizable queue of skiers, snowboarders, hikers, and day-trippers. The cable cars take about twenty passengers at a time, so the crowd reduced quickly. As I alighted from the cable car at the upper terminus, the panoramic vistas took my breath away.
I planned to explore the Picos above the snow line for a while and then tackle the descent on foot. Who’d have thought you could build a snowman in June in Spain? I spent an enjoyable couple of hours at the top observing the chamois (shaggy-haired, mountain goat–like creatures) while they expertly navigated the icy slopes above me. On the way back down, I trekked through several ecozones, from subalpine shrubland to coniferous and deciduous forests and then through lush meadows, before reaching my lodgings in Espinama.
That evening, while picking at my greens and goat cheese, I enjoyed a few more grande cervezas and reflected on an unforgettable trip. Volveré!
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