Picos de Europa, Part 1 (Santander and the Ruta de Cares)

So, I left you guys for a couple weeks with those photos of the beautiful Cañones del Sil, which you probably think are one of the most beautiful places in Spain – and you’d be right.

But then I went to the Picos de Europa. You see, we had a good stretch there in October that was just perfect fall weather – not too hot, not too cold, clear blue skies, just a light breeze, and a warm sun, and people, these kinds of days do not happen all that often here in rainy ol’ Galicia. So we had to take advantage of it….oh, and there was also a five-day holiday. That about sealed the deal.

So we packed up the car and drove the six hours to Santander, where we spent the night with our lovely friends Nico and Anabel, who made us a ridiculous breakfast and then forced us to work it off with a lengthy bike tour of Santander’s beaches and hills (oh, woe is me!).

Of course, Santander was gorgeous and the drive was beautiful (northern Spain, unlike central Spain, is just breathtakingly beautiful and lots of fun to drive through), but the best was yet to come. Though we’d already passed through green, mountainous Asturias on our way to Cantabria (similar to Galicia and famous for its happy cows and excellent fabada), we left Santander and headed back west into the mountains, passing though deep valleys as the mountains began to rise ever higher around us. Rolling, undulating waves of dark green pine and eucalyptus hills gave way to steep rocky cliffs and dark valleys. The walls of stone began to close in around us, and soon it was clear that the tiny road we were driving along was actually carved out of the rock, and should we careen off the road, we would surely plummet to an unfortunate fate at the bottom of a deep ravine. We went further into the hills, away from the main highway, away from the towns and fields that dotted the land up until now, until it was just us and the rock, and the trees, and the road.

Then, suddenly, the towns appeared again, little clusters of houses and bars and cheese shops nestled secretly into the hollows of the mountains. We followed the path past all of them until we came to the end, to a place called Arenas de Cabrales. This tiny tourist town appeared out of nowhere, carved perfectly out of a valley, with a picturesque mountain backdrop rising behind it.

We settled into our tiny mountain hotel and enjoyed a dinner of pork, peppers, and cider (hard cider, an Asturian specialty) on the terrace of a bar in the brisk night air, and then went to bed early in preparation for the Big Hike of the next day.

The Big Hike (well, for me anyway) is a 24km trail called the Ruta de Cares, that, like all the roads in the Picos de Europa, is carved out of the mountain itself and perches precariously on the edge of vast cliffs. This is me, ready for the hike, before all the sweating and suffering began:

The route led into the mountains and again the cliffs rose up around us as we walked, feeling smaller and more insignificant with each step. We left the world behind, and there was only us, and the rock, and the crunch of our boots on the gravel and the sound of our breathing in our ears. All around us there was only stone, and trees, and sky; far below us the river flowed lazily between boulders, stopping to puddle in places and then picking up speed and flowing over in little waterfalls.

And we were alone. Or at least, I thought we were. What perhaps amazed me more than the scenery itself was the sight of tiny stone houses, almost imperceptible at first, etched into the stone walls. How could people live here? Why would you want to? It’s beautiful, yes, but not an easy place to live, permanently on the verge of an untimely fall, almost completely isolated during the long winter months. But there they were, cottage after cottage, hidden in the valleys and clinging to the rocks, as immovable as the mountains themselves.

We walked for miles, and when we were tired and hot and we’d been walking for hours, we stopped to rest in the shade of a walnut tree and unpacked our picnic lunch of ham, bread, and fruit. We rested awhile, and then it was time to head back. We didn’t make it to the end of the trail, but our 6-hour walk gave us plenty of breathtaking views.

We walked in silence, contemplative and pondering, lost in our own thoughts, until we rounded a corner and came face to face with a bunch of mountain goats.

We’d been hearing them in the hills all day, but they blended so effortlessly into the mottled gray stone face that we could never seem to find them. I bowed them on and allowed them to pass us on the path. One should never make an enemy of a mountain goat.

And then once we saw a few, we couldn’t stop seeing them. Do you see any in this picture? (We counted 18).

Of course, seeing the goats was one of the highlights of the hike for me, regardless of the fact that they looked at us disparagingly as we huffed and puffed our way down the trail, the goats skipping effortlessly from stone to stone.

When we finally arrived back in town, a good cider (properly aerated with nifty little contraptions) and dinner was in order, complete with queso de cabrales, the famous blue cheese of the region.

We went to bed aching but satisfied and accomplished, and we still had a day of sightseeing ahead of us, scenery so beautiful it would blow the Ruta de Cares right out of the water. But that’s another story…

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