The Picos de Europa National Park is a 647 square kilometre wonderland that straddles Asturias, Cantabria and Castile and León. This does not feel like Spain, that parched and arid land so beloved of British and Irish tourists who head to the southern costas
in their droves each summer to soak up the Mediterranean sun, for everything here is green. A thousand different shades of green.
Lush vegetation blankets this part of northern Spain. Its golden sandy beaches and craggy cliffs are pounded by the surf rolling in from the cool Atlantic Ocean, and forests of chestnut, hazel, oak, birch and beech, sweep up towards the towering limestone monoliths, spires and peaks that crown the Picos de Europa National Park. Many of these are twice as high as anything in Britain or Ireland. Above the forests, dazzling displays of flora await discovery in lush alpine meadows threaded together by ancient mule paths and transhumance routes, used for driving cattle to summer pastures. Here crème caramel coloured cows graze and small shepherds’ huts with red ceramic roof tiles dot the landscape. The area is home to vultures, wolves, wildcats, chamois, wild boar and Cantabrian brown bears.
It’s early July and everything feels inexplicably fresh here, for the proximity to the Atlantic creates a temperate climate more akin to that of Britain and Ireland. Summers are mild and numerous days see cloud and mist creep over the tops of the dramatic limestone peaks like a slow tsunami. This region has long been known to wealthy madrileños
who head north to holiday homes from the dusty arid plains of the south, for here they are ensured a welcome respite from the searing summer heat. But foreign travellers have yet to discover the Picos de Europa in large numbers.
We base ourselves at the modest, but very comfortable, two star Arcea Mirador de Cabrales
, an hotel built right above the Cares River in Puente Poncebos, which is the starting point for the trek up the Garganta de Cares
(the Throat of the Cares). This is one of the most popular walking routes (the GR-202) which traverses the Macizo Central
, the middle of three massifs that comprise the Picos. Above our hotel at the top of a series of hairpin bends which peter out at Camarmeña, a cluster of small stone houses with rust red ceramic tiled roofs and a tiny church clinging like limpets to the side of a mountain, is one of the park’s most famous viewpoints. In front of us, and crowning the top of a smoky blue triangle of land wedged between the steep sides of the Bulnes gorge, is Europe’s version of Patagonia.
Known as Picu Urriellu
in Asturian, the 2,519 metre high Naranjo de Bulnes
, a towering chimney of grey-white Palaeozoic limestone soaring above its spiky neighbours, is on every Spanish rock climber’s wish list. Thin veils of cloud in the valley below churn slowly in the early evening heat and the weakening rays of the sun bathe the mountain in a honey coloured glow. Naranjo
means ‘orange tree’ in Spanish, the mountain so named as it turns this colour at sunset. Climbing to the refugio below the Naranjo is a must for every traveller to this region, and we wait at the hotel until the weather forecast is for fine and settled weather.
Maintaining access to some of the remoter mountain villages with dwindling populations is a struggle, but the village of Bulnes, virtually hanging off the hillside at the top of a subsidiary branch of the main Cares Gorge, has found a solution. Connected since 2001 by a funicular railway from Poncebos which runs for some 2 km up through the mountain, this remarkable feat of engineering ensures that the 30 odd permanent inhabitants of this picturesque mountain village, formerly reachable only by foot or on mule, remains accessible all year round. The journey takes around 7 minutes and is free to inhabitants, while visitors must pay over 22 euro return to use it. We share our late-afternoon ride up to Bulnes with a tractor, bales of hay, a handful of locals, and several bemused tourists, saving ourselves at least an hour's climb.
Bulnes is a picture postcard village of two halves: Alto and Bajo. The cobbled streets and flower-garlanded tapas
bars of the latter hug the bank of the small river that rushes down towards the Cares Gorge, and is very popular with day-trippers. Passing through the lower half of the village, and carrying heavy rucksacks in what seems like a steam-laundry climate, we begin the very steep ascent up an old and rough paved transhumance trail towards the rich pastures of Vega de las Cuerres
. At first, beech woods obscure the mountain views and the track is fringed with waist high ferns. The vegetation eventually thins and we catch sight of deep green pastures blanketing the plunging slopes below the massif which is crowned by the iconic Naranjo de Bulnes
. We have arrived at the majadas
, where handsome brown cows graze amid the ruins of ancient shepherds’ huts.
Never mind the amazing views, every few feet we stop to admire the breathtaking colourful assemblages of flora in the small stone walled meadows that border the track. The chorus of insects is deafening and we spot several species of butterfly and moth feeding on the nectar of these wild flowers. These include kidney vetch, ox eye daisies, bloody crane’s-bill, pale flax, meadow buttercups, musk-mallow, greater yellow-rattle, white asphodel, maiden pink, rock cinquefoil, round-headed rampion, the prickly lilac-flowered ‘thistle’ Carduncellus mitissimus
, several species of orchid, and the beautiful purple English iris. Higher up we encounter ling heather which lends a delightful mauve blush to the thousand shades of green. It’s a shame about the presence of horse flies though, and predictably, Kernowclimber gets bitten!
Near the top of the Collado
(Col of) Pandébano
we pass right through a herd of docile cows and their calves, their bells clanking loudly as they graze contentedly on the lush grass. If we continued on, we’d reach Sotres, but we branch off towards the Refugio de la Terenosa
nestled amid several old shepherds’ huts where we plan to stay the night. The refugio is run by a whippet-thin bearded man who speaks no English. He runs a very tight ship and the place is spotless. He does not want our mucky boots to dirt the floor he was vigorously sweeping as we arrive, and we are ushered outside to a sunny terrace where he brings us tapas of crispy bread, cabrales
cheese and stewed kid goat, plus the all important cold beer to quench our raging thirst!
We watch in silence as white cloud gathers and slowly churns in the valley below, and the clear sky above the nearby mountain tops turns warm apricot as the sun sinks lower. A couple of mules laden with rubbish from the refugio we will climb to tomorrow clatter up to the hut, the muleteer stopping for a quick beer before heading down to Sotres. As night falls, it turns chilly quite quickly and we retire to the equally spotless dormitory where we sleep like logs.
The morning is crisp, there’s not a cloud in the sky and no mist in the valley. We make a reasonably early start to avoid the crowds, but also because the air temperature is still cool and part of the trail is in the shade. From the refugio, the path climbs a long gentle slope to a distinctive cleft in a ridge. The delicate aroma of wild thyme and dianthus periodically fills the air, and we spot many alpine plants including harebells, alpine aster, rock rose, mountain avens and alpine toadflax. Behind the peaks of the Peña del Maín
, the Atlantic Ocean finally floats into view and one realises why these mountains got their name: they were the first land seen by sailors returning to Europe from the New World.
A number of wild goats are blocking the path through a cleft in the ridge and we’re momentarily distracted by them so don’t instantly see the view that makes all walkers stop and grab their cameras. We gaze in awe at the trail threading its way round the edge of a huge couloir above which piles of barren limestone sweep up to a dragon’s back of limestone peaks, chief of which is the iconic chimney of rock, the Naranjo de Bulnes
. The path rises steadily upward in what becomes a tough ascent up a series of zig-zags. The air is hot, dry and thin, and the dust kicked up by the passage of our feet lodges in the back of our parched throats.
Eventually the trail levels out and the Refugio de la Vega de Urriellu
looms into view. It looks somewhat lost and diminutive below the towering majesty of the Naranjo de Bulnes
, in which shadow it sits. The scenery is stark but awe-inspiring, with piebald patches of snow still clinging stubbornly to the flanks of the jagged mountains and craggy ridges all around. The only sound is the bleat of sheep and the constant clanking of their bells. After a cool beer we find a spot to pitch our tent which is permissible above 1,600 metres between the hours of sunset and sunrise. Patches of deep blue gentian dot the wiry grass, we’re elated to spot the scarlet and grey flash of a Wallcreeper and we spend the afternoon walking in the immediate vicinity while watching a number of rock climbers attempting to scale the sheer face of Picu Urriellu
After a hearty dinner at the refugio, we retire to our tent to set up our photography equipment and wait for the mountain to do its magic. A herd of rebecos
(chamoix) suddenly become visible against a large patch of snow and we watch as these graceful and agile little animals dance their way across a shelf of rock behind the refugio
Fortunately, the ‘Naranjo’ lives up to its name, and we are treated to a marvellous spectacle as the dark shadows of the mountains opposite race up its face as the sun sinks lower in the sky, turning it shades of gold, apricot, orange, rust red, and finally black, as a full moon floats up behind it, and a shower of stars erupt across the heavens.
The return the next day to Bulnes, where we catch the funicular back down to Poncebos, involves a 1,300 metre descent in searing heat. We are grateful for the cold beer at the Refugio de la Terenosa
and a tasty meal of wild boar eaten with gusto on a shady flower scented terrace of a tapas bar in the chocolate box-pretty village of Bulnes.
It is possible to climb the 20km to the Refugio de la Vega de Urriellu
and back from Poncebos in a day, but why rush when you can take your time amid some of the most spectacular scenery Spain has to offer?
See the video which includes our climb to the Naranjo de Bulnes at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZGzWabcfCXA