Asturias is the heart of green Spain. Its lush landscapes offer some truly incredible walking – from clifftop trails to the spectacular Picos de Europa mountains.
Head for Heights
WORDS: Matthew Jones
The fresh Atlantic breeze has a salt tang as waves crash in over scarred rocks, fifty feet below. The ocean changes colour as the sun breaks in and out of the clouds, taking on all manner of hues from cerulean blue to steely grey. I am standing atop the cliff edge at Cabo Peñas, the most northerly tip of Asturias. It’s the midway point of a coastal route between Playa Verdicio and the fishing village of Luanco, a spot that marks the apex of a unique triangular spit dividing eastern and western Asturias.
This part of northern Spain has been sculpted by the sea over many centuries. Asturias has more than 340km of undulating coast, a result of the forceful Atlantic grabbing and pulling at the land. As our guide Diego explains, Cabo Peñas also marks the drop-off point at the edge of a tectonic plate, beyond which lies a deep-water trench filled with mysterious marine life, where sperm whales do battle with elusive giant squid – the kraken of Spanish maritime legend.
‘In the summer of 2013, a fisherman found a giant squid floating near here and landed it at Gijón’, says Diego. ‘It was more than nine metres long and weighed over 80 kilos’. Diego is Asturian by birth, and although he has walked and climbed all over the world, he loves this region. His passion is infectious as he explains the unique ecological habitat that this coastline provides. I try to listen intently, but as we descend towards Luanco, I stare out at the Bay of Biscay and find myself imagining what else lurks in these waters.
The spectacular views and unusual geology of the Asturian coast are two justifications for the long-running campaign to create a continuous coast path from the western border with Galicia to the Cantabrian border in the east. To date, however, this ambition has been thwarted by financial constraints and lack of cohesion between the region’s local councils – it seems a familiar tale.
Fortunately, the coastal trails that already exist here are well-marked and teeming with wildflowers, insects and birdlife, from wheeling gulls to hovering kestrels. The beaches, surrounded by rockpools that beg to be explored, have distinctive dark-coloured sand typical of this part of northern Spain. Diego calls it a natural paradise – a slogan adopted by the Asturian tourist board.
But dramatic coastline is just one aspect of what Asturias has to offer for walkers. This is the heart of green Spain; a lush, temperate landscape. As we head inland from the coast, we pass through verdant forest where the flora is fifty shades of green, clinging to the sides of steep valleys. Asturias boasts six natural parks with protected status, as well as a national park, the dramatic Picos de Europa mountains. They form part of the Cordillera Cantabrica range, which stretches for some 300km. These mist-shrouded mountains are penetrated by winding roads – not for the faint hearted – that seem to climb ever upward.
Although the Picos de Europa is the most well-known of Asturias’ parks, taking the time to head off the beaten track and into one of the region’s other designated natural parks is its own reward. The Parque Natural de Redes is one such example. Also part of the Cordillera Cantabrica range, it is one of Asturias’ less frequented areas, yet boasts some of its most spectacular scenery.
The next day, we follow one of the 14 waymarked trails that run through Redes. It is a day spent walking in perfect tranquillity and experiencing local culture. Traditional ways of life endure through the cattle that still roam the upland slopes, grazing among purple heather. Shepherds check on their herds, although their traditional mount, the Asturçon or Asturian pony, seems to have given way to sputtering quad bikes. Tracing a path through high valleys and over the saddles of mountains, we descend into pastures dotted with stone-built shepherds’ huts – majadas – that form a rustic counterpoint to the stunning backdrop of cloud-wreathed peaks and rocky escarpments. And the park’s highest points reach impressive altitudes too. As I gaze up at Pico Torres, some 2,104m above sea level, I realise that it would dwarf Ben Nevis or Snowdon.
But the lower slopes and cols of the range offer impressive views whilst remaining achievable, and the walking here is neither demanding nor technical. That isn’t to say that the region’s dense foliage can’t quite literally stop you in your tracks. Even at an altitude of 1,500m we’re still below the treeline, and branches occasionally snag my arms as I thread my way along a path that plunges through oak, beech and birch woodland, interspersed with clusters of ferns and wildflowers. There are many unusual species here, including gamon or white asphodel; a tall, white flower that, as our second guide, Mario, informs us, was traditionally used in both local cheese making and as a pig feed.
A wealth of wildlife
Cows cross the path frequently, a cacophony of bells ringing through the mountains as they low and swing their heads, tails twitching. Looking up, we spot vultures and eagles. Life thrives here – it’s a world apart from the grey granite landscapes of Britain’s highest places.
Walkers also share part of this mountain range with a population of approximately 150 Cantabrian brown bears, a huge draw for tourists from Madrid and southern Spain, who see the bears as a symbol of Asturias’ untouched wilderness, as well as a unique photo (or increasingly, social media) opportunity. Although the bears are notoriously timid, I am quite relieved not to encounter one face-to-face, and thereby avoid the uncomfortable prospect of claiming a bear 'selfie'.
Other signature species of the region include the capercaillie, the chamois and the rare lammergeier or bearded vulture. This majestic bird, which has a wingspan of nearly 3 metres, has recently been reintroduced to the Picos de Europa from a breeding population in the Pyrenees. It’s an ambitious five-year project, costing an estimated €1.2 million, which aims to re-establish this unique species in Asturias. At present there are two young adults in the national park, one male and one female, along with two juveniles.
The prospect of seeing a lammergeier is a major attraction for birdwatchers, but the Picos de Europa is home to a multitude of other birds that excite British twitchers. These include birds of prey like golden and short-toed eagles as well as the griffon vulture, and smaller alpine birds from crag martins to red billed choughs and black redstarts. These birds are commonly found along the Cares Gorge, one of the most spectacular walks in the whole of Asturias. That’s where we headed for our third day in Asturias.
Through the Cares Gorge
With binoculars slung around my neck and rucksack on my back, I’m ready to start the 12km gorge walk from the town of Poncebos, following the course of the Rio Cares. This river divides the western and central massifs of the Picos de Europa, running along the bottom of a narrow gorge that splits its jagged limestone peaks. A mile deep in places, it affords the opportunity to walk alongside a fast-flowing water channel, which was constructed between 1915 and 1921 to provide hydroelectric power to a plant at Poncebos. The route we’re walking today follows the channel’s service and maintenance path, which is dramatically carved into the side of the gorge, high above the river itself.
After an initial uphill pull, I’m relieved to find that the walking is fairly level, although I’m thankful that I have a good head for heights. To one side, the path drops away precipitously, and I’m careful to watch my step. I envy the sure-footed mountain goats, which now live feral here among the rocky slopes and caves. They bleat loudly and tug at the scrubby grass that grows in patches on the steep sides of the gorge.
Huge views open up before us, and the lower gorge is grand in every sense as the path winds high above the Cares river, just discernible as a glistening blue thread far below. The character of the walk changes perceptibly as we enter the narrower and more confined reaches of the upper gorge. Thinly wooded gullies soar for hundreds of metres between cliffs and crags, and I crane my neck to see impossibly distant peaks framed between their walls.
The path itself, painstakingly built with picks, shovels and sticks of dynamite, provides continual surprises and genuine drama as it winds vertiginously along the walls of the gorge, crossing an impressive viaduct before dipping through arches and natural stone galleries. Walking the route from Poncebos to the village of Caín actually involves crossing the border between Asturias and the province of Castile-León to the south. A slowly rusting metal sign bolted to the rock marks the border.
The approach to Caín is marked by two spectacular bridges and a section of metal mesh walkway, which, we are informed, was built after part of the path collapsed in 2012. I cross this cautiously, looking beyond the toes of my boots at the rock, dropping away dizzyingly below me. As we near Caín, we enter a set of dripping, low-ceilinged tunnels. This darkness is a stark contrast from the brilliant sunshine, and I blink as my eyes adjust to the gloom. I stoop so as not to hit my head on the limestone rock, looking ahead to a patch of bright white that gradually that grows larger and larger. Before I know it, we’re beyond the light at the end of the tunnel and reach the dam that marks the end of the gorge walk.
As we walk along the track to the village of Caín, I look backwards through the narrow, V-shaped gorge. The dripping cliffs seem to close in and I feel as though I’m leaving a secret behind. It’s how I feel about Asturias as a whole: a place of natural riches just waiting to be discovered.
TIME/DISTANCE: Set aside a whole day if you want to walk the Cares gorge from Poncebos to Caín and back, the only practical way without vehicle support at the other end. The path is easy walking and ascends from 218m to 460m, taking around three and a half hours at a steady pace, the first half an hour or so being uphill. Knock off half an hour for the return journey. Be aware that this is a very popular route in peak season.
TRAVEL TO: Walk the Cares Gorge with Inntravel, on their Picos de Europa self-guided walking holiday, starting from £760pp based on two sharing. Enter our competition to win this fantastic holiday. Easyjet flies to Asturias (Oviedo) from £43.
FURTHER INFO: www.inntravel.co.uk