Pick the Picos for your next walking holiday
The Spanish Pyrenees and the Sierra Nevada may be well known as destinations for walkers and climbers, but best known does not necessarily mean they’re the best. Located just a few kilometres inland from the glorious coastline of the Bay of Biscay is the Picos de Europa mountain range. Reaching heights of over 2500m, the often snow-capped peaks can be seen from up to 200km away and provide endless opportunities for some most enjoyable walks.
During the month of August, thousands of Spaniards flock to these ‘hidden’ gems to escape the furnace like heat of Madrid and beyond. But for the rest of the year, hardly another soul is seen on the trails. The only other people encountered are sun-weathered local farmers, tending goats, sheep and cows, whose milk is the key ingredient in the strong blue cheese for which the area is so well known amongst cheese connoisseurs. Here a traditional way of life has been maintained in what was Spain’s first national park. No insecticides are used, so in the early summer months, the lush alpine pastures become a sea of colour from wild flowers, with a butterfly to match each and every one. Loping mastiffs laze around in the shade of beech trees, guarding their flocks from the ever-present threat of wolves, which still thrive in the area. Unfortunately, these shy creatures are rarely spotted by walkers, unlike the ever-present Griffon and Egyptian vultures that soar in the thermals in search of sustenance. The rocky outcrops and deep gorges provide the habitat for a variety of interesting birds including Capercaile, Golden eagles and the rare and beautiful Wall creeper.
Walking here is a pleasure at almost any time of the year. At lower altitudes, a network of Roman paths link dozens of small, secluded villages dotted across the countryside, some of which only gained road access and electricity at the end of the last century. As you climb higher the pastures and forest give way to more barren scenery, where only the hardiest of plants survive. Here, wild chamois and Ibex rule the roost and these days, with the protection of the park, it is perhaps the hunter who is captured by the staring gaze of the prey. It is in this area that the highest peaks are found, many of which are easily ascended. In the heart of this landscape, the towering 550m west face of the emblematic ‘Naranjo de Bulnes’ provides an imposing focal point for photographers. This climbing Mecca was not conquered until 1903 and last year provided the setting for a new route ‘Orbayo’ which is currently regarded as the hardest ‘Big Wall’ rock climb in the world!
The saying goes “what goes up must come down”, but in the Picos the opposite is sometimes true. For years, these limestone mountains have hosted numerous international deep caving expeditions. Cavers who wish to discover the mysteries of the subterranean caverns must be prepared to be underground for several days.The caverns were formed over millions of years by water erosion, but on the surface, both water and wind have played their part in creating what has quite rightly been described as “The most scenic exposure of compact limestone in western Europe”.
Our B-graded Peaks & Gorges Trekking holiday holiday does not require you to delve deep underground or dangle from a rope but instead allows you to enjoy five guided day walks. Each evening you can relax in a family-run hotel on the outskirts of the small market town of Arenas de Cabrales. The hotel enjoys wonderful views of the mountains and serves a wide variety of delicious, regional foods. Your hosts, Jim & Pilar will do their utmost to make your stay as comfortable as possible. Victor - who leads the trip - is an inspiration to everyone; coming from a long line of ‘mountain goats’, Victor’s knowledge, enthusiasm, and love of these mountains is second to none. Pick the Picos for your next walking holiday and you’ll discover that the best things are not always the best known – not yet anyway!
By Jim Thomson