Saturday, October 29, 2016

Going Beyond the Tourist Track

If you want a view that will take your breath away, this is the trail for you. And if you´re not into hiking, you can still enjoy the view...
Welcome to Picos de Europa National Park, where the mountains are high and the cows are friendly. If you´re visiting in high season, you´ll need to park in one of several huge parking lots and take a bus up to the mountain (or, you could enter the park before 7a.m., not likely in Spain!). You´ll be glad, because the road is crazy. There will be times you´re sure the bus will have to stop and you´ll have to hike the rest of the way up, the turns are so tight, but you´ll get there. Rush to the info office, and to the washrooms, and then quickly head away from the crowds, following signs for PR PNPE 2, Lagos de Covadonga. 

the trail (source and more info)
First, you´ll stop at the Prince´s Lookout. There will still be plenty of people in the area to take some amazing pictures of your group. Don´t get caught up in the view, though, it´s stunning but there´s más y mejor (more and better) up ahead. Head through a garden, and take a picture with a wandering cow. Then follow the trail through part of an abandoned mine. You can walk right along part of an old mining cart track, through a tunnel, or go around to walk fully upright. There are some informative, interesting plaques about mining in the area here, and the rocks are quite beautiful. 

Next, you´ll come to a fork in the path. To the right, there´s a staircase and, obviously, a bar (still in Spain, remember?), and you should take a quick peak from the viewing platform here. On a clear day, you can see the Covadonga Lakes, and they are gorgeous! Most day trippers get stuck in this area. If you´re not looking for a hike, you could easily spend an hour or so by the water here, relaxing and enjoying a picnic, but I say walk back down and take the other fork.

lake ercina on a clear day (source)
You´ll be walking right along the shore of one of the lakes, Ercina. The grass is green, cow bells are ringing, flowers are blooming. If you didn´t know you were in Spain, you´d think you´d materialized on the set of Heidi. Shepherd huts, old men in straw hats smoking pipes, wild herbs. It´s that picturesque. There´s a bit of a rocky climb, but then a nice, open walk to a beech forest. Even in August, from here you might see snow on the highest peaks.

Keep walking, pass the requisite shrine, and get ready for some serious encounters with cows. There´s a huge farm way up there! Follow the road, descending to lake Enol, and you´ll come to another fork. Head back to the bar and lookout, or continue on to the visitor´s center to catch the bus back down to Earth. A morning well spent in a little bit of paradise. 

This is a 6km hike that takes from two to three hours, depending on how long you stop to admire the view... to complete the day, you could visit the Sanctuary of Covadonga, part of which is built right into the cliff side. But, if you have a baby, you might call it a day and head down into town for a satisfyingly huge Asturian lunch. 

Friday, October 28, 2016

Walking up an appetite

We biked all morning, and it was so much fun! Time for lunch.

"There´s a great home style place on the mountain top in the next village", our bike rental lady told us. "You can drive, but most people walk because you need a huge appetite and even then there´s no way you´ll finish what you´re served," she went on.

Man, was she right!

The route, Las Xanas, was stunning. We had struck a similar hike, Ruta del Cares, from our list, due to crowds and potential danger due to poor conditions. It´s gotten so popular in recent years that maintenance can´t keep up. I had been feeling nervous about it (a great reason to make other plans - don´t start trails you don´t feel comfortable walking on!), but disappointed because I knew we were missing out on some gorgeous scenery. Well, Las Xanas certainly made up for it. 

La Ruta de Las Xanas (source and info)
After a substantial climb, we walked along the edge of the gorge on a fairly flat, wide trail. There were other hikers, but it wasn´t overly crowded. The path was mostly rocky, but passed through a forest and ruins of a water mill, and crossed a grassy hill, before coming to a picturesque Roman church. From there, it was a smooth walk on asphalt into the village, where we enjoyed the most enormous lunch I have ever been served.

We ordered a typical Asturian dish, fabada, a bean stew, and it came in what I can only describe as a witches´ cauldron. It was served with bread which would have fed our family of three for a week, and followed by a plate of meat cooked over an open fire. I think we got through a third. Then there was dessert. When they say a bowl of rice pudding, they mean a super-sized bowl of rice pudding. And the coffee! Wow. To top it off, we ate in what had originally been a stable or work area in of a traditional house. Very atmospheric and lively, with voices from tourists from all over Europe mingling in the dim, smoky air. The price was also right. At 16 euro a person including wine, the menu del dia is the way to go. It really actually is the only way to go, since they only serve menus. The restaurant is aptly named Casa Generosa.

After all of the food, we were glad the return hike started out heading down hill. We made it back to the car in under two hours, despite being stuffed, bringing our total hike stats to 8km and just over 4 hours. I highly recommend this hike, including a stop for lunch at Casa Generosa, as an off-the-beaten track option for Asturias. As the Spaniards say, Muy recomendable y repetiremos.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Trail of Three Caves

Confession time: we drove this one. It was a really hot day, we were short on time, and we were pretty sure there was no way we´d make 13km in oh, half an hour, as our surrealist tour information officer had suggested.

So we drove to the caves and walked around the sites. A good decision.

This route is not called the Trail of Three Caves for nothing. It takes in the caves of Sare (in France), Urdax, and Zugarramurdi (both in Spain). They are each worth visiting for different reasons. All were inhabited at one time or another, and have guided tours available. The Sare Cave tours were fully booked, and since they were in French Tall Guy wasn´t too bothered about missing them.

We visited the Zugarramurdi Caves next. It was quite busy. The caves have become well-known thanks to a crazy Spanish movie, The Zugarramurdi Witches, filmed on location. There are some nice walking trails down to the river and through the caves. They are large and quite open, and although the area was quite beautiful, the best part of this tour was watching movie fans check out the site. They were so excited!

The Urdax Cave complex was well worth the visit. Stalagmites, Stalactites and an underground river made for an interesting hour. Cave access is by guided tour only, although the explanations are given by a recording of a "cave sprite"... Yeah... Thankfully the natural beauty makes up for the slightly cheesy commentary. It was nice and cool down in the cave, such a relief from the unseasonably hot weather. Baby loved looking around, and though the dramatic rescue of his water bottle from the underground river was hilarious (he tossed it in, it disappeared underground, then reappeared farther along the tour when the river came out again).

the jellyfish
While it was slightly disappointing not to hike between the three caves (we heard the route was lovely), it was a hot, hot day, and we were glad to have saved time and energy in order to enjoy our cave tours. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

When you´re hiking in Spain but then you´re in France

Borders. This trip reminded me once again how arbitrary they are, and how so often they´re just lines on a page. Hiking in the Pyrenees is a great example. One minute you´re walking around in Spain, the next thing you know the grass is greener and you´re looking at a sign that says vente de fromage. Mmmmm!

french sheep eating french grass, for some french cheese
The Harpy´s Cave is a hike that, while listed on our Irati Park map, is actually in France. We drove on the narrowest mountain road (goat track, really) I´ve been on, pulling aside and backing up oh so carefully several times to let other cars by, and once we thought we were good and lost, arrived at the end of the road. We got out, Tall Guy took a work call (how his phone works in the actual middle of nowhere, I´ll never understand), and then we took a narrow path downhill. 
those colours!
It was only about a 15 minute walk, but it took longer as we had to stop to admire the absolutely stunning colours. The afternoon sky was so blue, the grass such a rich green. Like velvet. So green I almost had to look away. We had a lot of impressive views on our trip, but this one was heart-wrenchingly beautiful. We passed a small cottage that could not have been quainter, and then arrived at the cave. The inside of the cave is, as they say, ni fu ni fa (not that impressive), but the wavy rock that forms it is spectacular. 
too cute
We headed back, uphill, to the car. It wasn´t overly steep, but Baby wanted to stop to admire each mountain flower on the way. So we did. They were beautiful, and what better way to teach him to remember to stop and smell the fleurs than stopping to smell the fleurs? 

a pastoral traffic jam

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Orbaitzeta:The Walk that Wasn´t

Sometimes, you make plans. You check out a destination online, and you even go to the tourist office that very morning, and everything seems great. But then it doesn´t work out...

This is basically what happened to our walk around the Royal Arms Factory near Orbaitzeta. The factory was built in 1784 on the site of a forge that had been in existence since the 1400s. After 100 years of production, the factory closed and was abandoned. Now overgrown with plants, it looks like something out of a fairy tale, maybe Sleeping Beauty. All of the information about Irati Park mentions the factory as a magical, must-see walking destination, and if you know me, you know I can´t resist a visit to historic ruins, so we put it on the list. 

When we arrived, we were sorry to see the entire area fenced off. In the past, a guided walk was optional. It´s now essential and must be prearranged, due to potential danger of crumbling buildings and visitors taking "souvenirs". You can walk along one wall and look down into what was a workshop, but honestly? It looked a bit like a neglected barnyard. Nothing magical at all, and barely a walk. We watched a family look around and head back to their car, giving up. I, however, was determined to see something, anything, just a little bit magical, so we nosed around a bit more. 

It was Baby who led the way, really. He had enjoyed the river so much earlier in the day we decided to let him splash around a bit before getting back into the car. We headed down to the water´s edge, and that´s when I noticed the little path. Could it be? It was. The view was ours and ours alone. Truly a beautiful area. Those arches! The plants! The light on the water! We couldn´t stop taking pictures, and I was half expecting someone to emerge from the tunnel in period costume. Maybe a blacksmith.

one of my dozens of pictures of the factory
 No one came out of the tunnel (just as well), and we didn´t attempt to access the ruins by this watery route. We´ll save an in-depth exploration for the future, when we´ll be sure to book a guide.