Your Words, Not Ours - The Picos de Europa

This article is a client contribution. It was kindly written for us by Fiona Churchill, and all the photographs below are hers. She travelled with us to the Picos de Europa in August 2015.

Take it away Fiona...

As an "Exodus junkie" - if that is what I can call myself - I find myself heading towards my thirty-second trip. Thirty-one trips have taken me to many varied destinations from Timbuktu (and back again) to Cambodia, Uzbekistan, Tanzania and Tibet to name just a few, and these have offered equally diverse experiences.

This time, I find myself heading to Europe - yes, that's right, to Spain. I have always felt that I should accomplish the long haul destinations first - but - seeing pictures of Northern Spain has tempted me into dipping my toes into a European destination: the Picos de Europa.

Hotel Torrecerredo, Picos de Europa Hotel Torrecerredo, Picos de Europa

So, what am I expecting? I am guessing I am NOT expecting to put my feet up as this is a trekking trip - beaches and pool sides are for putting your feet up, hills are for climbing!! I am however, expecting scenery, like-minded travellers and fun.

Saturday.

I have already met a member of the group at Stansted airport. He was very easy to spot in amongst the throng of people at security in tight vest tops, short shorts and flimsy sandals clutching liquid bags full to the brim with mascaras, lip sticks, perfumes and foundation. There he is - the only person wearing zip-off trousers, a well-worn backpack slung over his shoulder and trekking boots, all reminding me of how lucky I am to be having such an adventurous trip.

The rest of the group, similarly clad, all gradually materialised - a diverse bunch of people from retirees to teachers, I.T. consultants, health visitors and nurses all varying in age from 30's to 70's. This is definitely one of the joys of group adventure travel.

Sunday.

An excellent walk straight from the hotel and directly up the mountain gets us off to a good start. Today, I am reminded of how dependent the body is on food for fuel. So often, during my normal working life, I take this for granted - never pushing my body to this extent - but here, in the mountains, I can feel my energy levels drop in relation to the exertion. The hotel has provided us all with crunchy baguettes packed with a filling chosen the night before from three options, and unlimited chocolate and cereal bars. "Grazing" is the key for me and with numerous stops to enjoy the scenery and the option to walk at your own pace, there is plenty of opportunity for me to "graze away" and power myself up the hills.

Carava Day 1 Carava

All the uphill walking is eventually rewarded with stunning views and today the mist lifts just as we all cleared the trees and rounded the corner. Limestone escarpments towering over the valley below with griffon vultures and eagles circling above and below - what can beat that?

Monday and Tuesday.

Two extremely varied and very different walks convince me that there really is something for everyone on this trip. Pandescura Peak in the Western Mastiff is sublime - we ascend on goat tracks, which periodically pass through high bracken, before the scene opens out into meadows with goats and cows grazing. We head upwards again for the finale, a heady 360 degree view from the limestone peak. I love the magical sounds of cow and goat bells echoing around the valley below - goodness knows how the shepherds locate their livestock as the animals, despite their bells, appear from behind undergrowth lifting their heads to survey us before disappearing again, their bells echoing as if they were way down in the valley behind us. Sum total of other walkers on this route: one shepherd!

Day 3 Pandescura Peak. Day 3 Pandescura Peak.

Pandescura-Peak Day 3 Pandescura Peak

In complete contrast, the following day sees us follow the Cares Gorge, snaking through a deep valley on well cut and levelled paths blasted into the rock face. The ease of the path means I can concentrate more on the spectacular gorge. This is a very popular walk and, as it can be approached from either end, there are many more people enjoying it. The path was created in the 1940's as part of the hydroelectric development which is still in use today. Much of the path snakes along the side of the gorge with the river far below before passing through tunnels blasted through the limestone. With no chance of straying off the path, Alvaro (our local guide) gives us the freedom to reach Cain at our own pace - time for stops - yes plenty!! With restaurants and a bar in Cain, we have time for drinks before the returning along the same path.

Day 4 Cares Gorge Day 4 Cares Gorge

Wednesday and Thursday.

Again I can't help but notice a huge contrast between the leisurely coastal walk I completed on the "Free Day" whilst wearing sandals and today's walk, again booted up, straight through an overgrown forest. We push through the undergrowth, with occasional glimpses of limestone peaks to motivate me to keep going, spurring me ever upwards with anticipation of what was to come. Finally the undergrowth gives way to a rocky path and meadows leading upwards to Cabeza La Meza peak in the distance. Cabeza La Meza is the highest point so far at 1612 meters (although not the highest point of the week). Lunch, tucked just under the summit, is perhaps the wildest location I have ever eaten - no signs of any other walkers today, not even a shepherd - just us and our baguettes enjoying a spectacular view and feeling on top of the world.

Arenas-de-Cabrales Arenas de Cabrales

Friday.

Today we reached the highest point of the week. Most of the track was on disused zinc mine paths. Evidence of the mining industry that took place in this area until the 1970's is all around with caves (now interestingly used a cold storage for the local cheese) and some old metal equipment such as rails and a metal wheeled trolley.

Alvara has been so good at encouraging us and this morning is no different: the thought of a hot cup of coffee an hour and ten minutes into the walk makes the continuous uphill track disappear with relative ease. His enthusiasm for the local area and showing us the views has really kept the group going. However, his excitement nearly boils over when he spots a Chamois antelope and her youngster skipping down the hillside below us. Alvaro himself has been much like a mountain goat - running down a hill to then run back without his backpack which has been left as a marker at a junction so that we can all walk at our own pace.

The views from today's peak (Mancondui Peak at 2000 meters) are breathtaking. Nothing beats looking down at mountains peeking out from cloud cover, all beneath your feet.

6 Pandebano Col Day 6 Pandebano Col

It's a dog's life

Alvaro really added so much to this trip with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the flora, fauna and history. But perhaps his demonstration of how the local mastiff dogs are trained to play "submission" to the wolves whilst protecting the livestock is the funniest thing I have seen in a while. Lying on his back in a meadow with all four limbs curled up, then leaping into action, ready to take the imaginary wolf out by surprise, will be an image that will live with me for a long time. We have met a few working dogs over the week who have taken their role seriously - standing to attention in front of their charges and barking at us as we pass, only relaxing once we have moved on - but we have also met more dogs who have been far more laid back - barking for a minute, then lying back down in the grass to resume their sunbathing. One dog even joined us for the rest of our walk, leaving his charges behind to fend for themselves without even a backward glance!

I have thoroughly enjoyed the trip and with such an expert leader and guide I have had time to just relax and enjoy the scenery…. and the food!! Whilst we have not conquered every peak, or even climbed the tallest peak in the region, I have realised that you don’t necessarily have to be on "top of the world" to feel "on top of the world". Europe, yes, I will most definitely be heading there again for more adventure and discovery. The Picos de Europa has shown me that even in a relatively small area, the scenery can be very diverse from Cares Gorge, with its own micro climate in amongst the towering limestone escarpments, to the meadows of Pandescura Peak supporting local livestock of goats, horses and cows and the high limestone mountains of Mancondiu Peak and meandering coastal paths of Llanes.

Follow in Fiona's footsteps: Walking the Picos de Europa

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