Every time we told people in Australia that we were going to visit the Picos de Europa the response was invariably the same: “Where?”. Compared to say The Dolomites, or The Pyrenees, The Picos are relatively unknown – at least Downunder – but they deserve to be up there with the other mountain ranges as they are stunning, and we have only scratched the surface of what they have to offer.
They are called the Picos de Europa, or Peaks of Europe in English, as they were the first sight of Europe for ships arriving from the Americas. They sit 20km inland from the northern coast of Spain, with the highest peak reaching 2,650 meters. From San Sebastián to Arenas de Cabrales, the main township in the Central Massif, is 288kms. So it took us most of the day to reach Arenas by public transport.
We set off to the San Sebastián bus terminal with plenty of time up our sleeve for coffee before boarding our 9.10am bus to Llanes. We had a 15 minute window of opportunity at Llanes before catching the bus to Arenas. But, as you know, the best laid plans often go astray. We enjoyed our coffee and turned up bright eyed and bushy tailed for the bus. Only problem, no bus. Thirty minutes later a replacement bus screeches into the allotted bay, and a bus load of very agitated passengers pile on board. We know our window of opportunity has been blown out of the water. What can you do? Nada.
The trip is a bit of a milk run, as we stop at what seems like every town between San Sebastián and Llanes. We do not make up time, so are not surprised to see a completely empty bus station when we pull into Llanes. But we were surprised to find the station locked up tight, so no chance for claiming a refund on the ticket. Never mind. We trundle off in search of a taxi, only to find none at the rank. Never mind again. Sheenagh whips out her phone and her Spanish and manages to organize a taxi to take us on the 30 minute journey to Arenas. 10 minutes later we are in the cab and on our way.
We are staying at Hotel Torrecerredo. The hotel website had promised rooms with a view and we are not disappointed. What a view it is.
Arenas de Cabrales is a charming, small, village. Quiet now but it is obviously jam packed in the season. Every second building is either a cafe or a local produce store. After we have finished oh and ahhing at our view we have a wander round the village to get the lie of the land.
The area is famous not only for its mountain range but also for its blue cheese, Queso de Cabrales. Once upon a time, the cheese was made by the shepherds in their small mountain huts and left to mature in the many limestone caves that are dotted through the mountains. The cheese was made from goat and sheep’s milk with a dash of cows milk. Upon maturation, the cheeses would be wrapped in leaves and brought down from the mountains for sale.
But, since the local cheese became recognized as unique to this area and acquired an EU DO (Designation of Origin) status, all the romance has gone from its production. No longer is it made in the small stone huts of the goat herders. No longer is it wrapped in leaves. And no longer is it made predominately from goats milk – rather, it is mainly made from cows milk due to the greater milk production of cows compared to goats or sheep. But, it is still matured for 3-5 months in the caves.
We learn all this from our tour of one of the local cheese makers, where we also get to taste, and smell, the cheese. Which they serve with a dash of the local cider. Luckily, the very kind lady serving us the samples didn’t stay to watch our faces, as the cider was tipped out into the Rio Cares flowing beside the cheesery, and I held my nose whilst tasting the cheese. Blue cheese is one of life’s great dividers and I happen to fall on the hell no side. Sheenagh and Pete however assured me that it was good blue cheese. I’ll take their word for it. All three of us however agreed on the cider – disgusting.
We go to bed not only well fed by Jim, mine host, but also with a clear plan of attack for the next day, which dawns with clear blue skies. Our plan is to set out from nearby Poncebos and hike up to Bulnes, then further up again to the Pandebano Pass and over to Sotres. Jim has very kindly offered to drive us to the start of the walk and collect us from the end.
We had originally planned to take the funicular up to Bulnes, but Jim had persuaded us to walk, claiming it was a beautiful hike, and how right he was. A bit of a slog, but oh so worth it.
We were more than ready for a coffee at Bulnes. From some way away we could spy a stone building on high, with what seemed like a terrace and umbrellas. The thought of sitting on the terrace drinking coffee spurred us on. As we got closer we saw that we had a choice to make: a last, steep, climb to the cafe or skip coffee and keep pushing on to Pandebano Pass. Up to coffee was the decision, so we slogged on up. We were greeted at the top by the charming but rather surprised owner of Mirador la Llende – surprised because he wasn’t expecting to see 3 very puffed walkers poke their heads over the embankment of the hill. Turns out that if we had continued straight ahead we would have reached the village of Bulnes and then been able to walk up the paved, albeit steep, road to the cafe, rather than make like goats and scramble up the face of the hill itself! Never mind, as it was well worth the scramble – a fabulous view, a reasonable coffee and we even managed to rustle up a take away tapas picnic lunch from the very obliging host (again, Sheenagh’s Spanish lessons came in very handy).
We were more than ready for our picnic lunch when we finally reach the Pass, although the temptation to at first spin around in circles singing the hills are alive or high on the hills lived a lonely goatherd was almost overwhelming. A temptation I, thankfully for the others, resisted.
From here it was a relatively easy one hour walk downhill towards the township of Sotres, via some hungry donkeys who were reluctant to accept No we don’t have any food left, and the remnants of a Roman road (they sure got around, those Romans). As arranged, our lift back to the hotel was waiting as we arrived. I do love it when a plan comes together.
Next morning the heavens were singing a different song – low cloud and drizzle, with heavier rain forecast for later in the afternoon, continuing into the next day. We bit the bullet and decided to walk the famous Cares Gorge regardless, worried that Thursday’s weather would be worse, and not prepared to leave the Picos without doing this walk. Again, Jim obliged by transporting us back to Poncebos for the start of the walk.
The track runs along the Cares Gorge from Poncebos to Cain, a distance of some 11kms (so, 22kms return). The track is actually the path built to allow for maintenance workers to get to the hydro electric water canal, which was built between 1916 – 1925. The canal, and the path, is an amazing engineering feat, clinging to the side of the rock walls and often burrowing through the rock itself. The Gorge walk is the most popular in the Picos, and even today – a wet weekday at the very beginning of the season – there is a constant parade of fellow walkers (which makes a quick “bush wee” very difficult, and stressful, to achieve!). Even in the wet conditions, the drama of the setting is easy to admire.
Luckily it is only a light drizzle on the way out, but a kilometer out of Cain the rain has become consistent, so we decide to turn back. It is then heads down and just walk, as we get wetter and wetter. No time now for admiring anything. Good thing we had taken all our photos on the way out. Even better that there is a welcoming bar awaiting back at Poncebos, where the staff don’t mind if we leave big pools of water all over their floor.
Imagine how cross we are next morning when we wake to clearer skies and even periods of sunshine. Oh well. The rain does eventually arrive around 3 o’clock, so we would have ended up wet if we had waited to do the walk today. Instead, we enjoyed a late start to the day and another wander around Arenas.
Tomorrow Pete and I start our 7 day hike from here back to Llanes, through what is known as the Asturias, while Sheenagh returns by bus to San Sebastián (fingers crossed for connecting buses). We have put the Picos on our Must Return list, as there is still so much to see. Wish us luck for the next part of our adventure, as this area is verdant green for a reason, and as I finish writing this the rain has closed in and I can no longer see the mountains. Must be gin tonic time then.