Picos de Europa: Is this jaw-dropping mountain range Spain's most underrated tourist attraction?
It was a bit Hitchcockian. As I picnicked atop the wind-whipped peak, a chough landed by my feet. I looked away, taking in the panorama from one of northern Spainâs highest peaks. When I looked back, three more choughs had appeared, standing in formation with the first. Again, I gazed away, across the drop-offs, scree tumbles and shards of granite. And again I looked back. Now six â" no, eight â" of the jet-black birds gazed back with their 16 expressionless eyes. A dark army amassed from thin air.
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Creepy. But somehow appropriate on the stark summit of Torres de los Horcados Rojos. This 2,502m mountain sits within the wild Picos de Europa, a meetin g of massifs that was designated a national park in 1918 â" Spainâs first such protected wilderness. Yet even after 100 years the Picos is still largely overlooked by Brits, most of whom seek the countryâs more Costa-raucous brand of wildness. High up in these mountains, itâs likely to be just you and the choughs.
The Picos de Europa is actually the best of both worlds. This dramatic uprising of multi-folded limestone is only 20km from the sea, so combining sand and summits is easily done. However, my partner and I were concentrating on the latter, following a self-guided hike through the massif and surrounding valleys, staying at family-run inns, keen to see what a century of protection has done for this lesser-visited part of Spain.
Our route started in the hillside village of Cahecho, a small cluster of honied stone in the LiÃ©bana Valley outside the national park. From here, weâd spend a week weaving gently westwards, advancing on the mountains past quie t villages and a rampage of wildflowers. The route would take us via three provinces too: first Cantabria, then LeÃ³n, finishing in Asturias.Picos de Europa offers visitors a chance to enjoy slow travel (Sarah Baxter)
Right away, this was a different Spain. Day one revealed a landscape of hazy green and clunking cowbells that could have been the foothills of the Alps. We saw no one on the countryside trails that wound past holm oaks and fresh-cut pasture. It was only descending into Potes that humanity interrupted. This unassuming old town is one of Europeâs most important Roman Catholic sites; nearby Santo Toribio de LiÃ©bana monastery houses the largest relic of Christâs cross, and was a preeminent medieval pilgrimage site. We too walked into the town, to stock up on bread and chorizo, brows e the narrow lanes and check out the views from the 15th-century tower.
After a bright morning advancing into the mountains, we found ourselves easing into Spanish strolling. And while we werenât in the national park just yet, we started to appreciate its founding principles. Creating the Picos de Europa was about preserving its landscapes, but also upholding its traditional ways â" an increasing struggle in the 21st century. On our first afternoon we walked through the atmospheric abandoned village of Porceida, which laid bare the hardships of modern rural living. Empty houses slumped into the earth; weeds and cobwebs consumed everything.Lake Enol in the Picos de Europa mountain range (Getty Images)
That evening we stayed in the hamlet of Tollo, at a beautiful, art-filled posada, conver ted from an old farmhouse. Berta, a vet, showed us to our room while Ricardo, an architect, brought us drinks. âThe economic crisis led to us take on the house as we struggled to find jobs in our professions,â he explained. âBut we also love the slower pace of life in the mountains.â
We loved it too, and spent the following five days revelling in slow travel through the Spanish countryside, largely alone. We strolled through meadows impossibly bright with butterflies and wildflowers. We undulated over grassy slopes, rambling moors and vulture-patrolled outcrops. We ate cheese that tasted of the mountains. And we ascended into the Picosâ strikingly alien upper reaches to commune with the choughs.
On our final day, we tackled the parkâs signature hike, heading northwards through the Cares Gorge to Poncebos. This limestone defile, slicing between the Central and Western Picos massifs, is jaw-dropping. At times itâs so narrow you feel the need to breathe i n; at times itâs so precipitous you can barely breathe at all.The scenic Asturian mountains of Picos de Europa (Sarah Baxter)
When the national park was designated in 1918, lengthways access along the gorge was a new phenomenon. From 1916, a canal was blasted into the rock walls to feed a hydroelectric station, and an accompanying service path teetered alongside, inching over ledges and under arches. Itâs now one of the best day walks in Spain. Before this the only paths hereabouts were shepherdsâ trails, used by herdsmen whoâd bring their flocks to summer on seemingly unreachable pastures, living in caves, making famed Picos cheese. Few still work these inhospitable mountains now; through binoculars I spied a ruined summer hamlet on the opposite slopes, deserted save for a few goats.
No, the people keeping the landscape alive now are the tourists, especially along this A-list trail. Itâs a wild, white-knuckle walk, with sheer drops and looming tops. It was also wild at its finish: the bar in Poncebos bubbled with singing Spaniards drinking Asturian sidra. It was quite the contrast to our previous daysâ hiking, when weâd seen virtually no one. But if these modest crowds help preserve these under-sung mountains for another 100 years, Iâd raise a cider to that.
Ryanair flies direct from Edinburgh and London Stansted to Santander from around Â£15 one way.
Specialist tour operator Pura Aventura offers an eight-day Picos de Europa Inn to Inn walking holiday from Â£1,050pp, including full-board accommodation, transfers from Santander, luggage transfers between hotels, and walking maps and notes.
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