We travelled with Brittany Ferries on a twenty four hour crossing to Santander. During the voyage Ian pored over maps and phrase books attempted to master enough Spanish for us to survive the shock of finding ourselves for the first time in the centre of a major Spanish city, unable to speak the language and with little idea of our onward route. At that stage, as embryonic Eurotravellers, it was all new, exciting and rather daunting.
The weather during the crossing was calm and reasonably mild but, disappointingly, the sun we'd been promised failed to materialize. The sea and the sky were uniformly grey with a mist shrouding passing tankers and hiding the French coast. The crossing was wonderfully smooth and the slight roll lulled us to sleep in our cabin that night.
Monday 3rd April 1995, Arena de Cabrales
We're now in the Picos de Europa staying in a hotel of the same name in the little town of Arenas de Cabrales, some fifty miles from Santander. At the moment we're both feeling relaxed and slightly mellow after a pleasant supper and a litre of vino tinto de la casa.
On board the boat this morning Ian woke me about 8.00am to say that he'd been up on deck, there was brilliant sunshine and we were due to arrive in Santander in three hours. After orange juice and rolls we went out on deck and wallowed in the warm sunshine, sitting there learning Spanish until we were driven back inside by a clinging fog that closed in around us as we neared the Spanish coast.
In the town we made our way to the peninsula of La Magdelana where we parked and carried our picnic down to a pleasant sandy beach where Spanish businessmen were spending their lunch hour playing volley ball and swimming whilst others sunbathed. The fog had lifted by this time and there was steam rising from the clean, white beach as the sand dried. The beach was scattered with rocky outcrops crowned by religious statues.
Finishing our picnic we walked onto the headland of La Magdelana, a sort of public park for the citizens of Santander and home to a wonderful free zoo with lions, seals, penguins and polar bears. The palace at the top was closed for restoration work to be completed.
We saw the flamboyant casino from the traffic lights as we left the city and followed the route out towards Oviedo. Ian was, as usual, an excellent navigator, whilst I fulfilled my usual role as petrified driver and tried, reasonably well I feel, not to get too overwrought by it all!
Around 4.00pm we arrived, following a dramatic and highly scenic route, at this little town of Arenes de Cabrales in the heart of the Cantabrian mountains. We located this little hotel on the main street and took possession of a clean, pleasant room with two single beds, a tiled floor and a gleaming white bathroom. Our room overlooks a clear mountain stream, crossed by cattle wearing gently clanging cowbells, sounding like a gamelan orchestra, whilst a range of limestone mountains rises up behind the hotel - high, grey and bare beneath the bright blue sky. It is amazing to think that I have driven only 91 miles from Exeter to this deserted mountain village, a world away, in Northern Spain!
After settling in we ventured out to investigate the village. It is larger than it at first appeared with tumbled-down, decaying old houses crowded in behind the main street and straggling away up the hillside. The roads are not properly surfaced and cattle are herded down through these narrow calles about 7.00pm into barns sited amongst the houses. Actually it's quite difficult to tell which are which. Some houses seem to be taken over as stables and vice-versa! Beautiful but derelict Spanish balconies are used for storing bales of straw and omnipresent lines of washing festoon the facades of the buildings. Throughout the village there is the pervading but not unpleasant agricultural aroma of manure! The main produce of the area is said to be goats' milk cheese but we now suspect that it may also be the location for the EC dung mountain! It appears to be the main product with huge steaming piles of it on every corner, in every garden and even beside the tracks across the fields. Village ladies in aprons push wheelbarrows filled with dung out of their houses (or more probably, stables) down the street and dump it on a fast growing communal pile by the roadside! People walk along the road with dung shovels or pitchforks over their shoulder - and not only the menfolk! Elderly white haired señoras in black have them! So too do middle-aged housewives in blue nylon overalls! We imagine these implements must be generations old, handed down from father to daughter or mother to son as treasured family heirlooms! The key to family wealth - measured by the size of their very own dung pile!
This small open area in a mountain valley is very rich and fertile. We took a walk across the fields beside the bubbling green and white stream. This is a limestone area and the water has a unique colour. The pastures are green and lush with beautiful spring flowers - primroses, dandelions, violets and daisies. No snow lingers here and the weather today was hot and sunny, the mists of the morning having long since lifted.
Everyone we passed seemed friendly and greeted us by "hola" or "buenos" and we soon got into the habit.
Eventually we passed a tumble-down, house looking sadly neglected and deserted with no access road of any kind but graced by the largest dung heap we have seen to date. Outside sat an elderly farmer reading his newspaper, quite immobile and only feet from his personal fortune - amassed through a lifetime of industrious labour - piled high beside his door.
We continued downstream and the mountains began to close in around us. Goats browsed on the rocks on either side of the stream. Eventually the path became no more than a goat track and we retraced our steps to the village, passing the farmer in his doorway, still immobile and seeming intent on the same page of his paper.
We wandered around the village, marvelling at the chaos of tumbled old houses with their rounded red roof tiles, generally badly broken and held down by heavy stones. All the roofs looked old and dangerous, and far from watertight. We would not choose to linger beneath the eaves of any of them.
Back in the main street it was alive with teenagers walking up and down in groups. There seemed to be hundreds of them. All out to be seen and to eye-up the competition. Ian says that it's a common activity in Spain and is called the passeo. As suddenly as it began, it ended and they just melted away leaving the street deserted.
Eventually we returned to our hotel and went downstairs for supper about 8.45pm. The only other diners were two English couples who were quite sociable. Ian impressed everyone - including himself -by ordering supper in quite passable Spanish and everything arrived correctly! Not bad considering he only really started learning it a couple of weeks ago! I chose entrecôte in piquant sauce whilst Ian chose kid goat stew in the hope that it would have him leaping around the mountains the next day. We followed it with rice pudding.
Tuesday 4th April 1995
How do I describe today? It was a first in every way for both of us, and one we'll always remember. We've been quite stunned by the magnificence of the mountain scenery but we also feel rather daunted and intimidated by it. This is an arid and inhospitable landscape. We find it hard to understand why anyone would choose to live so far from the nearest civilization with the only access to one's village by pack mule and as far as we can ascertain, the only employment comes from rearing a few goats on terrain that is so hostile it seems impossible that they can survive!
We drove through Poncebos along a rock-strewn road, through tunnels blasted out of the rock until the path simply degenerated into a track partway up the mountainside, with the river, tumbling in aquamarine pools and falls, over rocks fat below and the mountain tops still hidden in the morning mist above.
We followed this deserted track on foot towards Cain for a couple of miles seeing nobody en route. The mist lifted, lizards appeared to absorb the sun's heat, a few goats bleated on the crags above us and the path wound steadily upwards, gradually decreasing in width until at times we were scrambling over recent rock falls blocking the path, with the shadows of eagles as they soared and swooped following the thermals created by the rising mist from the peaks above.
Eventually the narrow ledge we followed became completely blocked by landslip of scree and we were forced to turn back. The views in either direction were quite spectacular, with peaks rising ever higher above us as we'd cautiously progressed up through the ravine. The highest was still covered with snow while others were grey, ragged, sheer and arid. No foothold even for goats here though a few stunted chestnut trees somehow defied gravity and clung to fissures and ledges in the seemingly sheer rock face, growing generally at 90 degrees from the cliff.
Turning to descend we were faced with a view of the river, hundreds of feet below, tumbling over boulders and twisting its way through the narrow defiladero in a series of azure pools and waterfalls of stunning clarity and brightness.
We eventually got back to the car, looking like a matchbox toy against the grey-black mountainside towering behind it. We had seen only one other couple all morning.
Naively believing the guidebook, we opted for the bridle path to Bulnes, which is supposed to be easier and less dramatic than the route to Cain which we had just abandoned. Do not trust a guidebook! It started steeply in a series of hairpin bends, crossing the river by a narrow, high bridge with a beautifully shaped arch beneath but no parapets, and snaked away up the valley. At first it climbed beside the river and we scrambled optimistically upwards until we realised we were rising far up above the river and following a narrow ledge up the cliff face whilst the mountain on the other side of the narrow gorge towered hundreds of feet above us. It is quite a frightening experience to realise how small and insignificant you are, alone in the vast, grey, inhospitable mountains, devoid here even of the tenacious chestnut trees. (There were flowers in abundance wherever they could gain a foothold, with violets and cowslips flourishing in tiny crevices in the rock face.)
Ian has a wonky knee and the need to keep climbing ever upwards, edging around corners of rock, overlooking huge precipices, and knowing he'd have to come down the same way, caused him much anxiety. Possibly too, me reminding him of Holmes, Moriarty and the Reichenbach Falls may have exacerbated his sense of insecurity! Vertigo on the narrow, unfenced, loose-stoned path was a problem for both of us. From time to time we could hear dislodged stones as they bounced and clattered for seconds before finally splashing into the river below. The sun was now well up and there was no shade. Eventually the path became really narrow and spiralled up in a series of uneven rocky footholds with nothing to hold onto and nothing to protect the walker from the drop below. Into the bargain it was impossible to look up at the peaks around us as the eye kept going up and up without reaching the top. The mountain on the other side of the ravine seemed to move towards us and there was a real risk of vertigo. We chickened-out and very slowly and cautiously retraced our route several kilometres down the path, bending from time to time to pass beneath rough overhangs where the path had been scratched directly into the rockface.
Sheltering from the sun in a rare patch of shade we were duly ashamed when we were passed by a small Spanish septuagenarian with a stick and rucksack leading one panniered donkey and followed by another. He scrambled rapidly up the path and disappeared around the rock above us. Obviously packhorses are the only way of getting supplies up to the village of Bulnes and he has probably been using the path all his life!
Safely back at the river we scrambled down to a clear pool below the old stone bridge which rose precariously from boulders on either side of the river. There we rested, dipping our feet in the icy water and finishing the remains of our packed lunch of bread, water and ham. As we sat there a drover lead three horses across the bridge towards Bulnes, holding the first by the tail, while two others followed, silhouetted against the mountains. When we eventually returned to the car we noticed a donkey, tethered by the drover we had seen earlier, in the shade of the entrance to a tunnel on the road just before the path to Bulnes, and in the tunnel, bales of fodder for the animals were stored in the dry.
Deciding that perhaps driving would be less hair-raising we set off in the late afternoon on the twelve kilometres drive to Sotres. Considering the obstacles that have to be overcome and the remoteness of the small communities served, the roads are excellent. This one started off through a series of tunnels blasted through the rock then climbed up the mountainside to become the motoring equivalent of the footpaths and bridleways we had experienced that morning - sheer above and sheer below, frequently without any barrier. Fortunately we met little traffic - most of it four-wheel drive - and were able to stop from time to time to admire the snow-capped peaks and deep ravines. Here and there goats regarded us curiously as we passed. There were the occasional shepherd's huts dotted across the mountainside and in one small settlement a bar had two or three vehicles parked in front.
At last a series of hairpin bends brought us to Sotres. A bar and a small posada on the main street catered for summer visitors. Tracks continued to hamlets further out and up the hillside ran a straggling mixture of ruined farm buildings, old houses with tiles held down by heaps of stones and modern blocks of flats which would not have looked out of place in Santander. These buildings were not aligned along streets but jumbled together with rough pathways threading between them, lined with heaps of rubble, rusty cars and the inevitable dunghill upon which hens scratched and cocks crowed. Goats, mouflons and donkeys wandered at liberty between the houses, the bells around their necks gently clanking, producing a very comforting, agreeable sound that seemed to echo from every corner of the village and from the pastures beyond, carried clearly in the high mountain air.
Leaving Sotres we started the descent. We'd managed the ascent mainly in second gear but at times we needed first to come down! Hairpin bends without barriers revealed tiny matchbox hamlets way below on the valley floor. Goats scrambling up the rocky ledges beside the road or settling to sleep on the road itself. Recently fallen stones were scattered at intervals along our route and there was the ever present risk of encountering a vehicle ascending round the next bend! Being right-hand drive made little difference as the road is single track anyway. On the occasions we did have to pull over to pass, my wheels were inches from the edge of the unfenced road. It took us about thirty minutes to drive the twelve kilometres down, back through the tunnels and arches blasted out of the rock face.
On our return to the hotel after such an adventurous day Ian decided that, in view of his lack of prowess on the mountain paths, despite his goat stew last night, chicken would be a more appropriate meal this evening!
Wednesday 5th April 1995
This morning, after an uninspiring Spanish breakfast of orange juice, coffee, commercially produced little toasts with packaged butter and jam, cake and dried out flat doughnuts in plastic bags we set off, rather late in the morning, towards Cangas de Onis.
Shortly after leaving Arenas we came to a complete halt whilst we waited for road repairs and widening to be carried out. The roads in this part of Spain are few and of necessity follow the narrow valleys. Generally they are wider versions of the footpaths scratched along the sides of the rockface with poor surfacing, unfenced edges and hairpin bends. In this region EC development grants are enabling improvements to be carried out to the main route through to Oviedo. Considering the terrain the roads are a masterpiece of engineering though total chaos is inevitable whilst work progresses. Scoured surfaces run for miles, through villages where the local children, old men and dogs hinder activities by standing all day watching, and up steep ravines where heavy plant equipment and lorries block the roads and create a white haze of powdered rock when drilling and blasting have to be carried out. Everywhere is covered in dust and mud. Within minutes our car had changed colour to a hazy grey-blue. Roadworkers direct the traffic and delays of forty minutes are commonplace. We were able to sit in the queue for half an hour watching a worker forcing dynamite sticks into a series of drilled holes in the rock, the explosives being lowered on a rope to him by another worker high above where a lorry stood perched on the very edge of the cliff. We were waved through eventually and trundled over unsurfaced roads for a further few kilometres before the next section of road improvements. We noted on our return that the rock had been blasted and the debris removed from the road. They really seem to be working very efficiently given the problems they are facing. Where roads have been improved the surface is excellent, properly banked and a credit to Spanish engineering skills.
Along the roadside and on the outskirts of every village we passed through there were small, elderly men, all wearing identical black berets and leaning on walking sticks as they trotted purposefully along. Where they were going we never discovered. We imagined them as being employed by the Government, picked up in the morning and deposited at isolated spots along the road as some sort of tourist attraction, and collected every evening after dark! Within the villages they sat in groups on benches against sunny walls, or leaned on the parapet of the bridge watching the water below. It is all so very different from England where many of our older people seem hidden away, isolated indoors or confined to retirement homes. In Spain life out of doors is companionable for the elderly and they are getting fresh air and exercise.
Our impression of social and domestic life, in the north at least, is that the Spanish are diminutive, very friendly and heavy smokers. Whereas the men seem to spend hours sitting or standing around in groups chatting, the women seem to always be very busy, both in the villages and out in the fields where we saw them scything and raking grass for fodder or herding cattle in for milking. Their counterpart to the black beret is either a large apron or a blue nylon overall. In the fields they wear wooden shoes with three spikes beneath to give a grip on the steep slopes. The wheelbarrow seems to be the most heavily used vehicle, invariably piled high with grass or dung. Dogs are abundant and they are extremely docile, generally lying in the road and expecting everyone to step over them or drive around them. Everywhere we have been we cannot fail to notice washing hanging out to dry. There are lines of it from balconies, upper windows, flats, in fields and orchards, even spread over walls. It is always out, day and night, and always of a brilliant white, despite the clothing generally worn being of dark colours or even black.
Our route took us through to the more fertile foothills of the Picos into Asturias. Still there was no evidence of arable farming, everywhere being rich green pasture and fruit trees just coming into blossom. One notable domestic feature of Northern Spain is the ratproof grain stores built up on stone piles and known locally as horreos. Every little farmstead has its own which stands either beside the property or out in the orchards. They are very picturesque and such a feature of the region that even today they are still being built, though generally are no longer used for their original purpose. The area below frequently provides drying space for laundry or is used for storing garden furniture and garaging cars or wagons. We even saw one in an orchard that had been enclosed below and converted into a small cosy pub with a bar and an open fire smelling of wood smoke.
We turned off the main route and followed a well maintained road up a valley to the commercialised but picturesque pilgrimage site of Covadonga. This is on the pilgrim route of Saint Iago de Compostella and is the site where Pelayo, the first king of Asturias, successfully repulsed the Moors in 718AD and began the reconquest of Spain. There is a beautiful basilica in warm pink stone superbly set, high on a rocky spur in a lush green valley, surrounded on all sides by mist topped, grey, bare mountains.
Covadonga has developed to cater for pilgrims and the Spanish tourist trade. There is a seminary and the area is clean and pleasant. A huge car park and ample toilets are provided for coachloads of Spanish pilgrims visiting the holy shrine of Our Lady of Covadonga. She is said to have appeared to Pelayo and inspired him in his great battle against the Infidel. The shrine is in a cave reached today by a specially cut tunnel through the rock. From the cave a waterfall tumbles to a pool below into which many of the pilgrims throw coins. (Such a mixture of belief, superstition and commercialism.) Pelayo and his family are enshrined in this cave beside the altar where the statue of the Virgin stands clothed in silks and lace looking like an overdressed Barbie doll, clutching an equally overdressed infant Jesus. We found it all rather tacky. Spanish visitors chattered loudly together as they jostled each other out of the way in order to have their photograph taken in front of the altar. They seemed oblivious of the prominent notice in Spanish, that even we could understand, requesting people to maintain a respectful silence and not to take photographs. There was only one genuine pilgrim lady that we saw, kneeling by the altar and trying to pray amidst the hubbub of Spanish tourists. She was obviously filled with emotion and near to tears. Her faith at least was very genuine.
On the road below the cave were tourist boutiques selling souvenirs - silver-plated grottoes, crosses, spoons, cigarette lighters, bottle openers and tee-shirts, all bearing pictures of Our Lady of Covadonga! Megatacky!
Leaving Covadonga we followed a badly surfaced road as it wound twelve kilometres up the mountainside until it opened into an arena at about 1260 metres high with a couple of smooth, chalky blue clear lakes surrounded by snow-covered mountain peaks rising even higher beyond. Behind and below us, obliterating the route of our ascent, lay an undulating eiderdown of dense white cloud through which rose the clear peaks of further mountains. Above the cloud level there was hot, bright sunshine and we picnicked overlooking one of the lakes on which wildfowl were swimming. Around us was an abundance of spring flowers - tiny violets, a miniature species of pale narcissus and vivid blue mountain gentians. Nearby was an overnight mountain shelter built from wood but boasting a solar panel for battery powered electricity. A footpath disappeared up into the snowy mountains for here we were on the snowline with white patches in sheltered hollows around us. As we ate we attracted the attention of a murder (yes that is the collective term!) of red-legged, yellow-billed crows, one of which allowed me to hand feed it with the ham from my sandwich.
Later, when we started our descent, the cloud had lifted considerably revealing the Mirador de la Reine. (Viewpoint of the Kingdom of Asturias.) Here we sat in the bright sunlight and watched seven eagles - or more probably vultures - soaring and circling. Three settled on a ridge whilst the others, observed through binoculars, seemed to be heading straight at us, their long necks and bald white heads peering keenly down. This type is presumably a scavenger rather than a hunter and we watched one swoop down and land on the carcass of a dead goat, folding its huge wings as it settled. At one point there were several of these monsterous birds feeding together and they became quite vicious and raucous with each other, spreading their wings protectively over their particular piece. The crows were also scavenging with them and a couple of times they mobbed the vultures in flight. We must have watched for nearly an hour before continuing down and taking the road on towards Cangas de Onis where we were relieved to find a garage as it was the first we have seen since arriving in Spain!
After the isolation of the area so far, Cangas de Onis struck us as a lovely little town with one main, bustling street. The sun was hot as we wandered across a high, arched, romanesque, cobbled footbridge over a bright azure stream bubbling around boulders where fishermen passed the afternoon. The town, as ever, is set against the backdrop of the mountains and though commerce may dominate the main street, immediately behind the countryside takes over with chickens, flowering orchards and the ubiquitous aroma of manure. Beneath the bridge hangs a large cross.
Back in the main street we bought postcards and sat with cold drinks in front of one of the several bars watching the world. Church bells chimed the hour, children played in the street, there were cafes, restaurants and other bars like ours, with tables and sunshades on the pavement outside. A few short side-streets revealed hotels, flats, garages, leather makers and iron mongers selling cowbells. Somehow it all felt very Spanish and very friendly and unhurried with early evening shoppers stopping to chat to each other and occasionally to wish us "buenas".
Having lingered everywhere for longer than we'd expected we abandoned a half formed plan to continue to Ribadesella and return along the coastal route via Llanes. Instead we retraced our route through the roadworks back to Arenas de Cabrales, by which time the sun was setting over the mountains, 'though it was still rather early for supper - given the Spanish preference for eating late.
We decided to spend the time between dusk and dark driving up a steep side road from Arenas linking isolated hamlets and farmsteads to the main road. The route was, like all minor roads here, badly surfaced and little more than a desolate mountain track. We drove up to the isolated, miserable hamlet of Arangas. The sun had set behind the snowy crags of Naranjo de Bulnes which now loomed huge and black, brooding menacingly over the village. We found it most depressing and rather frightening. How and why does a small community come to scratch a living in such enforced self-sufficiency and complete isolation on such poor terrain? The economy can only be based on goats and cheese making. Where are children educated? What must be the mental state of people living for ever hemmed in by dark, inhospitable mountains?
We descended again, only too willingly, back to the welcome light and warmth of our hotel and a very pleasant supper of peppered pork, apple tart and house red wine.
Thursday 6th April 1995
We left Arenas de Cabrales this morning and made our way down the Gargantas de Cares to Panes and from there through the Desfiladero de la Hermida towards Potes. The sun was bright and the air wonderfully fresh. There was very little traffic and we were able to potter slowly along the circuitous route, peering upwards through the windscreen, frequently unable to see the top of the gorge. At Hermida, a small roadside village, we stopped to look at the terracing where an attempt has been made to grow fruit and vegetables on the steep lower slopes of the ravine above the fast flowing river. Looking vertically upwards we could see the exposed grey rock at the top of the Desfiladero, still veiled with wisps of morning cloud, contrasting with the green terraces below and the brilliant blue of the sky above.
We continued to follow the river to Lebeña where we turned off to visit a renowned pre-romanesque mozarabic church - Santa Maria de Lebeña.
The tiny church proved to be worthy of its reputation. Built in a soft pink stone with carved lintels and corbels it is set in blossoming apple orchards by a little stream. Beside it lies a tiny vineyard and immediately surrounding it are small meadows of rich grass and spring flowers. There is an atmosphere of peaceful tranquillity with the only sounds being the water and birdsong. Above, but complementing rather than overshadowing, is the snow-capped mountain of Peña Vieja.
Outside the church a miniscule young woman sat making lace with her large dog sound asleep at her feet. As guardian of the church she took an enormous ancient key, unlocked the huge wooden church door and showed us inside, dark after the bright sunshine. Electric light and printed English guide sheets enabled us to supplement the explanation of the church's history that she made in Spanish. The Church was established by a local lord in the tenth century and has a small central altar with a pre-Celtic altar stone some 2000 years old with a sun symbol on it. The church is quite beautiful, inside and out, and is one of the high spots of our holiday.
We continued on through Potes along a well maintained road towards Fuente-De at the very top of a wide blind valley. We stopped at Espinama, a village balanced unevenly on the sloping hillside and full of narrow cobbled passageways between randomly scattered houses and barns. Across a tiny footbridge we watched half a dozen mares with their new foals as they respectively grazed and frisked in their drystone-walled meadow. Throughout the village there were flowers in tubs, on window-ledges, or blooming against the warm stonework of the houses.
In the local shop we bought bread - known as pan de molde and it turned out to be pretty mouldy too! We also purchased ham and a couple of huge Spanish tomatoes - rivalling their oranges in size. The shopkeeper's shy daughter was learning English at school and we spent a pleasant few minutes with her whilst her friendly father encouraged her to try out her skills on some real English people!
Eventually we reached Fuente-De, which is no more than a cafe and a carpark filled with coach loads of Spanish teenagers, a huge ugly Parador and a sheer cliff face - the top of which is 1,926 metres above sea level. It is said to be the deepest canyon in the World after the Grand Canyon. A teleférico runs every few minutes and takes three minutes to rise the last 850 metres to the summit. Hang gliders were launching themselves off the cliff face halfway up (how did they get there?) seemingly oblivious to the danger posed by the cable!
We picnicked looking up at the summit with the cable car passing immediately above us. A huge, friendly but rather stupid St. Bernard-type dog approached us pestering for food and attention. We tried ignoring it in the hope it would go away but it stood huffing down my neck and sloppering over me. As I stoically continued to pretend it wasn't there it knocked me over and sat on me! It was frighteningly heavy and Ian had great difficulty trying to shift it! Eventually it wandered off after food from the Spanish youngsters leaving me rather shaken and covered in dog dribble!
We bought a coffee and as we sat on the terrace waiting for the first cable car of the afternoon a coachload of English school children arrived from Cambridge and queue jumped everyone, taking over the first three cable cars. We were so indignant we jettisoned plans to go to the top which would be overrun with English kids and made our way back down the valley, turning off to the mountain top monastery of Ste. Toribio de Liebaña.
This proved to be everything one ever imagined about a Spanish monastery! The church itself has the largest known piece of the original cross of Christ set in a gold reliquary. One of the monks permitted us to look at it in a locked side chapel. Founded in the eighth century the monastery is where Beato wrote the original commentary on the Apocalypse. A facsimile is mounted on boards in the shady cloisters surrounding a rose garden, not yet in bloom, with a fountain playing in the centre.
The sun was really hot and the pink stone monastery sat warmly on the green mountaintop from where the minute, red-roofed town of Potes could be seen in the valley way below. The mountains rose, like giant teeth, all around, their jagged peaks grey and their fissures still packed with snow. Above all was a cloudless sky of incredible blue!
We took a footpath up still higher through some woods filled with primroses where we discovered the trickling rivulet that fed the holy well in the monastery courtyard. Emerging from the wood into the glaring sunlight the dusty path lead towards a belfry and ruined hermitage. Basking lizards scurried into the dry undergrowth at our approach. Rounding a bend we came suddenly face to face with a long range of serrated, snow-topped mountains that seemed very close indeed. It really did cause the heart to jump and we both felt momentary taken-aback and overawed.
We sat on the walls of the hermitage, looking down on Potes through binoculars. The air was clean and still with a freshness despite the warmth of the day. The light though was too bright for my eyes and I needed my sunglasses. There was nobody else around. We descended again to the monastery where the darkened church gave welcome relief from the external glare.
Down in Potes we found a modern hotel in the centre of the old part of the town participating in the scheme run by Brittany Ferries. The staff are very pleasant and friendly but do not speak any English. Ian's command of Spanish was tested to the limit explaining to the charming receptionist how to fill out the necessary forms whilst she explained to us that it was her first time alone on the desk! The room is very pleasant and clean with a marble floor and an ensuite bathroom.
Old Potes is really Spanish! It has cobbled streets, crumbling tiled roofs, old balconies, arches, alleys, doorways, geraniums, the smell of dung, cocks crowing, tiny wild cats in the alleyways and dogs sleeping in the streets. There are cars crammed into all sorts of impossible corners and the narrow streets don't look as if they were ever intended to take anything larger than hand carts.
This evening we ate in a local restaurant. The patron was charming and spoke a lovely broken English advising us in detail about what we should try. In the end we had Fabada - the Asturian soup of beans and sausage - followed by the pork chop specialty and caramel pudding. We also had a carafe of local wine. A good meal and a very agreeable evening in pleasant company for 950 pesetas each! (£4.75p!)
We wandered around the calles of the old town by moonlight before returning to our room where we watched Spanish TV and stretched our ability to understand.
Friday 7 April 1995
After the usual prepackaged Spanish breakfast we inched our car between the walls of the houses and along the cobbled streets to the main square. We then had a final look round the old town in daylight and, by the Torre del Infantado, a medieval fortified building, we bought some chorizo (spicy sausage) - the butcher leaving bloodstains on the wrappings - some home-made bread from a small baker's shop and other picnic food from the supermarket. Then we set off southward, winding up the valley and stopping above Valdeprado to admire the red roofs of the village against the backdrop of the green hills with the snowcapped rocky mountains in the distance. The pass of Piedras Luengas a little further on is 1345 metres above sea-level with a rickety wooden viewing platform. Then there was the long descent, the scenery not quite so spectacular, to Cervera de Pisuerga. We parked on the outskirts of what appeared a dead, dusty and rather dreary town, but persistence enabled us to discover an attractive centre with arcaded shopping streets, the typical wooden balconies on the houses and a bar (one of several) where we had tapas and a drink. There was not much to detain us so we drove on to Aguilar de Campóo through bare, dusty scenery, looking in vain for somewhere to picnic. At one point we alarmed an old lady with a shopping bag plodding along the empty road through the afternoon heat by offering her a lift, which she declined with a nervous smile.
Aguilar is an industrial town with a monastery, a castle on a hill, town gates, part of the walls and a number of grand buildings, some of them rather dilapidated. Our abiding impression though is of an overpowering smell of biscuits from the local factory, growing hunger and the impossibility of parking in the shade a car whose gearbox was getting stiffer by the minute. We had intended to stay there but, after eating our lunch at about three o'clock in a rather messy park by the river, we took a brief look at a neighbouring convent and drove on through the bleak and open landscape, past the industrial town of Reinosa and along the banks of the Ebro reservoir, about fifteen miles long by up to four wide - very pleasant scenery with dry-stone walls and lower rocky hillsides. Then we turned north over another pass - this one a mere 920 metres - only to lose all the height we had gained during the day in the space of twenty minutes of hair-raising descent which left our brakes burning.
We descended to a wide, fertile plain with cattle and sheep, orchards, large 18th century manor houses and a general air of affluence. Admittedly in Ontaneda it had the air of being somewhat decayed in places but we found a Brittany Ferries approved inn occupying a restored manor house on the road through the valley overlooking the River Pas with the hills rising into the mist behind - very pleasant and peaceful. The Posada de Pas was a large square building with its own swimming pool, tennis courts and restaurant - only two star but worth several more. We had an excellent double room with ensuite bathroom. It was spotless and beautifully furnished with a double bed, television and telephone and had timber beams and wooden shutters. We used one Brittany Ferries voucher, value £27.50, for both of us including breakfast. Excellent value!
We ate dinner that evening in the hotel restaurant. It too was excellent value offering tapas, asparagus with assorted sauces, seafood for me and stuffed peppers for Ian, followed by rice pudding and ice cream. Served in the beautifully furnished hotel conservatory at pretty tables with flowers, white damask cloths and napkins, the cost was 2800 pesetas, (£17.00) for the two of us, including bread, wine and service.
We went for a stroll around the village, cut in two by the main road. Above the pasada the church bell was summoning the village ladies to vespers while a group of young girls were having their confirmation lesson on the low church wall. On the other side of the road, below the posada, the village stretched to the river Pas and we followed a track towards the centre of Ontaneda, past little old houses in various states of dilapidation or completion. Most had dogs, goats and chickens either in their gardens or scratching in the road outside. The washing, as everywhere we have visited in northern Spain, was still hanging from the fronts of many of the houses though dusk was beginning to fall. Orange and lemon trees, covered in bright fruit, flourished in the gardens and sheltered corners, against old, grey, tumbling walls. We passed the village cemetery where, because of the lack of soil covering the bedrock, people have to be buried above ground, in layered cells, about seven foot deep and just large enough to contain a coffin. Many were open, waiting to be occupied. Once filled the entrances were closed by marble, inscribed slabs. We have noticed such cemeteries just outside many of the villages we have passed through.
Saturday 8th April 1995, Pechon
We left Ontaneda after a better than average Spanish desayuno which included chilled orange juice and lots of coffee. We drove up the valley towards Vega de Pas following a route taken by a cycling race - circuit montagna. The route rose steeply upwards with beautiful scenery and vistas into the valley below. Eventually we reached the top of the pass - Puerto de Braguia. Whilst we stood on the roof of this world admiring the beauty and tranquility of our surroundings, the local dustcart roared by on its route to the local incinerator - a tall smoking chimney on the very highest point for miles around! A bread van drew up and deposited three huge loaves in a bag hung in a little stone shelter to be collected by the isolated inhabitants living out along the various tracks, radiating from the summit, that serve the tiny, thinly scattered cabins used for tending cattle.
We descended into Villacarriedo with its palace built in flamboyant baroque style in the eighteenth century with money made in the New World. Next to the palace in the older part of the village stands the church. A wedding party arrived and the bride was photographed in the sunshine before everyone disappeared into the church. A farmer rode down the street on horseback. The horse was harnessed to a cart piled high with freshly cut grass for animal fodder. Villagers not wealthy enough to own their own horses carried grass in huge baskets on their backs. All carried scythes and rakes and there was little sign of mechanization. There was no sign of arable farming, the economy being founded squarely on cattle, sheep, goats, chickens and horses.
After a drink in a bar with a French style loo we drove on towards Puente Viesgo to visit the Cueva del Castillo, one of several in the same hillside and boasting the best Cro-Magnum Man wall paintings after Altimira, which is closed to the public. The first surprise was that as citizens of the EEC we did not have to pay! Significant subsidies are received to support and develop this area of Spain. These caves are currently receiving funding which explains why our money was refused!
The extensive caves are well provided with steps and lights - tastefully done. The formations in the limestone were beautiful but most wonderful were the drawings, often using the natural outlines of the rock. These outlines were usually in red, of bisons, horses, aurochs and negative images of hands made by blowing paint onto the outstretched hand. The outlines were sketchlike but capture the idea of the animals with a wonderfully natural effect. Why, 15,000 years ago did these ancestors of modern man struggle to remote caves, high on a hillside and plunge into the depths of utter darkness to make these drawings? We fell into conversation with a German professor of pre-history and ancient history at Gottingen University who was cave hopping around Cantabria with his wife, and he was fascinated by the whole thing.
We then moved on to the coastal village of Pechon where we're spending the night at a posada on the clifftop. The people are very friendly and the patron has given us a postcard of the local beach and explained on a paper serviette exactly how to reach it. He has told us to make ourselves "a casa". It is now midnight and we're sitting in the conservatory which in daylight overlooks the sea. There are still groups of local people arriving to be fed! We've finished our supper of tapas and whitebait, chicken/pork and chips with salad and beer, peaches and syrup. The waiter and customers look set to still be chattering and shouting at each other about the football match they've been watching until early tomorrow morning. For us though, it's bed now.
Sunday 9th April 1995.
Things were still happening downstairs at 3a.m. but were not really a disturbance to us. We had the same waiter for breakfast at 9.a.m. Did he go to bed? The patron was really friendly and nice. He drew maps marking routes of good places for us to go. Our room last night was freezing but today there is beautiful sunshine and from our bedroom window we can look down across the rooftops of the village to the cliffs and the sea. Birds are singing and there is a lemon tree in full fruit just below our window.
A walk around the maze of unsurfaced village paths last night showed fruit trees tucked away in every little corner, all bearing ripening fruit - oranges, lemons, tangerines and apricots. The little stone church above the village has a pineapple palm that quite dwarfs the church itself. Palms abound here. It's hard to believe that the Picos are a mere half hour drive inland behind us!
There is a house in the village built like a boat, complete with portholes, ladders, anchor, captain's bridge, funnel and bow doors which open to reveal the garage! It's a real chuckle but quite out of place in the heart of an ancient stone village of houses with beautifully turned wooden balconies and blooming geraniums. The Spanish seem to have no concept of planning permission. Flats and half finished speculative developments are all over the cliffs. Northern Spain will fast become as spoilt as the South is reputed to be at this rate. Spain seems to be a country where nothing is ever completed. Buildings are started with enthusiasm, usually from the top downwards, so that you will see a lovely new roof on stilts, then they build half the garden wall and install a few chickens, and a dog before starting the basement and moving in. Often the middle floor never seems to get built and people live amidst permanent rubble and dung heaps.
The coast is rocky and there is a beautiful estuary, Tino Mayor, with gulls and bobbing boats. Both the sea and the estuary are an irridescent blue-green colour.
Midnight, Hotel Altamira, Santillana del Mar.
After yet another boring Spanish breakfast this morning we left Pechon and set off, following a suggestion made to us by the patron of the posada, who, along with the waiter, were so delightfully friendly and helpful they more than made up for the faults of the accommodation.
We drove along to the estuary of Tina Mayor where we watched the clear water of the river as it met the sea, breaking gently on limestone rocks and sandy coves. The slopes to the sea were covered in a mixture of pines and eucalyptus trees and we gathered some leaves, fruit and bark. Now the car smells powerfully of a refreshing anticongestant.
The gears in the car have stiffened up again and the accelerator is now playing up. Despite these not inconsiderable handicaps we ventured up into the mountains for a last visit, crossing the main road and making our way up and across the ria of Tina Menor, through eucalyptus groves and rich green fields under a brilliant sky. We passed through little villages which seemed to hum with activity. No doubt thing are different on Sundays with families out enjoying the sunshine. Soon we could again see snow capped mountains above us with lower ones in the foreground. As we got higher it became apparent that there were patches of flames and smoke on the hillsides. We have concluded that this must be controlled burning but don't understand why.
We passed a smart little old lady returning from church with a bunch of palms - the Sunday before Easter.
Our route continued upwards and at about 500 metres we stopped to look back down the valley over the route we had travelled, and upwards to what was still to be done. The road was surprisingly busy in the opposite direction and I was permanently forced to the very edge of the unfenced road as traffic streamed down from above. Very little traffic was going up with us. It then occurred to us that being Sunday, visitors were out from Burgos, Madrid, Santandar, Oviedo and Bilbao (judging by the car registration plates), and being as scared of the roads as me, but having more sense, they were all doing the mountain circuit in the other direction to avoid driving on the outside edge!
We reached the top of the pass at 611 metres where a cowman was rounding up his cattle and driving them off down a track, the gentle sound of their bells still being heard long after they had disappeared from view.
Descending towards the valley of the river Saja we reached an excellent road which we followed to Barcena Mayor, a beautifully preserved Cantabrian village with cobbled streets that is very popular with Spanish day trippers. We sat, shaded from the glare of the sun, at a table on the wooden, creeper clad-veranda of an albergue on the river's edge. Here we enjoyed orange and lemon sorbets served in the skins of the fruits themselves and possibly taken from the fruiting trees in the garden surrounding the inn. In the streets dogs dozed peacefully, oblivious to the visitors around them. Cattle wandered around, followed by their calves, and children fished for newts at the village fountain.
At a tiny house we bought a craftwork Spanish bracelet as a present for our daughter Kate.
We retraced our route down the valley towards the sea, diverting along an unmade road to a small church commanding a superb view of the coast near Pumalverde. We continued down to Comillas, a pleasant seaside town of about five and a half thousand inhabitants. It was humming with activity as families enjoyed Sunday afternoon in the old streets and squares. The town is reputed for its many eccentric buildings designed by avant-garde architects but we didn't realise this at the time and saw no evidence of it as we only visited the older part of the town. We visited the necropolis where everyone was buried above ground on a clifftop site overlooking the sea.
By this time it was about 7.30pm so we followed the coast road to Santillana del Mar where we had arranged to stay. At the entrance to the village a policeman was diverting people to a car park as vehicles are not permitted in the village during daylight hours. Once he understood that we needed to unload luggage at our hotel he asked if we spoke French and then explained we could park briefly to check-in but must then return. He then waved us through into an amazing, perfectly restored mediaeval town of stone houses and cobbled streets, thronging with local tourists. Cattle made their way down the main street, having been brought in from the surrounding fields for the night. Somehow we missed the hotel and ended up in narrow streets at the top of the village with people milling around and a gearbox that refused to allow me to reverse! Having located our hotel we managed to edge back, across a ford in the main street, to park outside a former manor house with a coats-of-arm above the entrance, huge stone walls, a cobbled forecourt, wooden beams and corbels, and dark wood window frames and shutters.
Having checked in we were conducted up a vast central staircase in massive dark wood, past landings furnished as lounges, walls hung with oil paintings and heavy tapestries, a clavichord on one landing, Spanish chests, dark wood chairs and carved benches, aspidistras in copper tubs, sixteenth century carved statues of local saints - St. Roche was one, with his wounded knee. There are vases of flowers and armchairs upholstered in brightly embossed silky fabrics adding patches of colour against the dark panels and grey stone walls. An old gaming table stands ready for use and portraits of Spanish worthies hang from the walls. Terracotta and bronze busts add to the ambiance.
An oak door leads into our room which is at least twelve feet high with original beams and timbering. Wooden shutters open on to a verandah above the street from where we can look up and down at the whole facade of buildings - from the Parador Gil Blas to the romanesque collegiate church dating from the eleventh century with its beautiful cloisters, rounded arches and columns with their delicate tracery and detailed carvings of animals.
The room is dauntingly large with two single beds, massive wardrobes, dark chairs and tables, gilt mirrors and another oak door leading to an ensuite bathroom with everything one could require, including a hairdryer and a sanitisation seal across the lavatory seat!
Ian was so stunned he even said he might have to change his jeans before going for dinner and that we'd be flat broke after a meal here! In the event he didn't and we weren't. A very enjoyable meal of the day in the restaurant only cost us 1600 pesatas each and included Fabada/seafood paella, roast suckling pig/chicken breasts in cream followed by a huge and delicious chocolate mousse. Wine and bread was included.
Then time for a last stroll around the now almost deserted village by lamplight. It was very atmospheric with a beautiful clear sky and half moon refecting in the cobbled streets. By this time there was a definite chill in the air after the heat of the day.
Monday 10th April 1995
Our night in the Hotel Altamira shattered the impression we'd formed on our arrival. The building was most definitely not designed as an hotel. The boards of our ceiling are the floorboards of the room above.
We went to bed about midnight and were awakened some time later by the upstairs guests returning from an evening on the town. The sounds of toilets, showers, waste pipes and TV gave way to chattering, giggling and then the unmistakeable sound of rhythic bonking, cries of delight and groans of ecstasy. Just as we settled back to sleep it all began again. We were obliged to listen to three sessions between 2 and 6 a.m. Then came the shower again before another irate guest, with more courage than us, finally went and hammered on their door! They were obviously totally unaware of the hotel's lack of sound proofing.
Between 6 and 8a.m. there was silence from upstairs but cats yowled, cocks crowed, dustcarts roared and shuddered as they raced through the narrow streets between the close, high house facades which greatly amplified the noise. Other vehicles also passed by intermittently despite it being a pedestrianised town. The church clock struck both the hour and the half hour all night and for good measure struck the hour twice over! The room was hot but opening the window onto the balcony exposed one to view from the window of the room on the opposite side of the narrow street and made the street noises even worse. We were only too glad to get up after an awful night and we descended to breakfast feeling as jaded as we assume the upstairs guests must have been. (They didn't appear, no doubt catching up on some much needed sleep!)
We spent the morning wandering around Santillana in the bright sunshine. We admired the truly magnificent romanesque church from the outside before going round to the cloisters with their white, rounded arches, ornately carved capitals and dark timbered roofs. Gregorian chant sounded softly over the tanoy and a fountain played in the garden. In the church was a massive organ and the windows above the alter were formed from sheets of natural stone – marble or alabaster – through which the light glowed a pale orange.
We drove up to the Altamira caves - our main reason for choosing to come to this particular location. We realised we would only be able to see facsimilies of the famous cave paintings and a couple of the caves showing natural formations because the actual cave has been closed to the public to preserve the prehistoric paintings. This, being Spain and not France we assumed we would see what we had come for. Word must have come before us however. The barricades were manned and the Spanish had stuck up their own adaptation of the French and German banners "fermé contre les Maxted" and "geschlosen gegen die Maxteds". This one announced very definitely "cerrade contra los Maxtedos". My diaries seem to be a continual account of places we've failed to visit!
Having become philosophical about such things over the years we returned to the village and visited the museum of religious archives and artifacts. It was packed full of religious statues, statuettes, Barbie-doll virgins, paintings, severed heads, crucified Christs and bits of carved marble, all crammed into the most beautiful, galleried Spanish mansion, now taken over by the Catholic Church. One was reminded forcefully that the Spanish Inquisition had certainly existed and the religious art depicted was very much of that genre.
Tuesday 11th April 1995. On board the Val du Loire
We slept better last night as the bonkers had moved on. Unfortunately the dustcarts hadn't and the clock was still on double time.
We woke to discover the ferry left from Santander one hour earlier than we'd realised! Following a mad dash with breakfast and packing we made it to the ferry with three minutes to spare. We then waited for ages to be loaded onto the ship which eventually left forty minutes late. Whilst waiting to board we wrote in the dust coating our faithful vehicle Wotan "recuede de Asturia y Cantabria" on the roof. This caused some mild curiosity from fellow passengers as our car was years older and dirtier than any of theirs. A pleasant man from the Midlands came to ask if I'd recovered from my encounter with the dog at Fuenta-De! He'd been curious to see our car registration number right up there and had at first thought it a local vehicle until he realised it was just a 16 year old British one. He'd then seen the huge dog wanting our lunch and jostling me out of the way. We hadn't notice him there but I felt rather silly to know he'd watched me being scrobbled by a St. Bernard dog!
We sat on deck watching the gleaming peaks of the snowy Picos from up to eighty miles out to sea rising above the industrial haze of Santander. Eventually we left the deck in search of lunch, anticipating a calm, peaceful return to Plymouth. It was not to be....
About 2.30pm, some four hours out from Santander, the ship juddered violently and proceeded to turn rapidly in a complete circle causing a massive wash but staying stable. The engine was presumably put into reverse and we found the whole episode very frightening, particularly after Kate's all too recent experience on the Quiberon. On deck everyone was peering over the side and there was general uncertainty. As the sea was calm and sunny, several passengers were convinced it was a training exercise. Then we saw one of the lifeboats pushed outwards, ready to lower, with crew members in lifejackets on board.
There followed a series of announcements in Spanish asking for a particular passenger to identify himself. Eventually there was a trilingual announcement that a passenger had jumped overboard, that the ship was searching the area, that help had been sent for and assistance requested from any other ships in local waters. The passenger was wearing a yellow tee-shirt.
For hours now we have been circling in the same area of the Bay of Biscay but have seen nothing hopeful, not even another vessel! Everyone has been scanning the sea to the horizon in vain. Eventually a light plane arrived and it has been sweeping back and forth. I think it must have now returned to Spain to refuel and has been replaced by another one. About an hour and a half ago a helicopter appeared and has been searching at a lower level. Through binoculars we watched it home-in on a particular area of water and lower someone down. There has been no announcement however and it looks as if they didn't find anything hopeful.
As I was writing this in the bar, something flashed past the window and landed in the sea. It was a ship's lifebelt from the upper deck attached to a red cylinder which emitted a light and a bright purple smoke flare. Two helicopters appeared just above the ship which turned full-circle and cut engines.
Along with many other passengers we rushed to the top deck and watched as the lifeboat was lowered and started to search around the ship. Further flares were dropped making a tight circle and one helicopter hovered above to direct the lifeboat. Everyone was then asked to leave the area whilst they bought the lifeboat aboard again. The helicopters moved off and an announcement was made that the body of the man who had jumped overboard had been recovered. We are now continuing to Plymouth with him on board. According to conversations we have overheard it seems the man was a Spaniard of around 35. Someone saw him jump but we don't know whether he was travelling alone or with other passengers. We will be delayed a good five hours reaching Plymouth tomorrow. It is obvious he wouldn't have been found alive but I suppose there is some small satisfaction in having found and recovered him. I'm most impressed with the Spanish and French rescue services and with Brittany Ferries who always cope well in the various crises we seem to get into with them. One wonders what the financial cost must have been for the recovery and what the legal implications may be with Spanish, French and British authorities involved.
Throughout the entire operation we have not set eyes on a single vessel. It brings it home to us just how much larger the Bay of Biscay is than the English Channel. It's very fortunate for us all that it's been warm, calm and sunny.
It was a peculiar experience watching the sky as the ship circled. On one side the sun was gently sinking whilst on the other a pale half-moon shone softly from a clear blue sky. Then they moved around to the opposite sides and continued to rotate again and again. The captain certainly deserves congratulating on his smooth handling of this vast ship.
Wednesday 12th April 1995
We have just finished a French petit dejeuner of croissants, petit pain, beurre, confiture and coffee. So nice not to have to cope with those awful Spanish desayunos with sweet crumbly Madeira cake and sugar coated flaky doughnuts with a choice of thimblefuls of violently strong black coffee or bucketfuls of white milky coffee.
We are now halfway back across the Channel and are due to arrive in Plymouth about 2.30pm. Fellow passengers are joking about which side of us the sun is at the moment and warning of U-turns.