“It’s like cheese under here,” I overheard a Spanish hiker say to his companion, high on the slopes of Spain’s Picos de Europa mountain range.
He was describing the multitude of caves that puncture the limestone slopes that spread across Asturias, Cantabria and Castilla y Leon regions in northern Spain. But if it was meant as a simile, it could also be taken literally — because in a number of these caves, the local speciality, Cabrales cheese (a blue cheese similar to Roquefort) is quietly ageing in the gloom.
It is this cheese that gives the mountains much of their character. The Picos de Europa was Spain’s first national park, and it is a place where cows and goats still graze purely to maintain the local cheese industry. As they trim the grassy slopes of heather and gorse, they also open up spectacular views across the massif.
Rising to 2,648m above sea level at their highest point and stretching just 40km in length, the Picos de Europa — the Peaks of Europe — were apparently so named because they were the first piece of European land sailors sighted when coming across the Atlantic. Though virtually unknown compared to the likes of the Alps, Pyrenees and Dolomites, there is much to prove the Picos worthy of their grand name.
Two of the Picos’ caves, the Torca del Cerro del Cuevon and the Sima de la Cormisa, are among the deepest in the world, both plunging more than 1,500m into the earth . The mountains are gouged across by theGarganta del Cares, a gorge almost as deep as the Grand Canyon. And sat atop the range like a rocky prong is the peak of Naranjo de Bulnes, its shape more akin to the mountains in the windy wilds of Patagonia than the northern coast of Spain. This 500m-high fang of rock dominates the massif, and it is arguably the most striking peak in Spain. Rock climbers revere it for its long, exposed climbs, and for walkers it is the most magnetic destination in the Picos thanks to its dominating bulk.
The popular 10km trail to reach the base of Naranjo de Bulnes begins at the mouth of the Garganta del Cares in the village of Poncebos, 6km from the popular tourist town of Arenas de Cabrales. Walk this route and you will discover a place where mountain life has retained an authentic, unpolished edge. There are stone villages like Bulnes, 3km from Poncebos, still yet to be connected by road. Shepherds wander the slopes, herding goats along the trails and alpine expanses, beginning the cheese-making process. Even track notes caution about goat fleas rather than the usual bears or snakes. It is a journey that ascends through mountain pastures towards the barren heights of the range, peering deep into valleys and gorges and up to raw and rocky mountains. The scenery belies the relatively low altitudes, with great alpine hiking at just 2,000m above sea level.
At day’s end, the Vega de Urriellu mountain refuge at the base of the peak is the only accommodation option, offering basic meals and dormitory beds to walkers and climbers — but a night here is an essential part of the Picos mountain experience. In the evenings, chamois (a goat-antelope species native to mountains in Europe) click across the surrounding rocks, and if the weather is clear you get the most unusual of mountain views, peering down onto ships far below on the Atlantic Ocean.
Once you have walked on the mountains, the most common way to get inside them is by hiking into the Garganta del Cares. This gorge wriggles through the Picos for 11km, with limestone cliffs and mountain slopes rising up to 1,500m overhead. Blasted into the limestone cliffs, and at times burrowing through them, is a walking track, the Ruta de Cares, which is said to be one of the busiest trails in Spain with up to 3,000 hikers each day in summer. It may also be one of the most spectacular walks in the country.
From Poncebos, the trail rises up the gorge beside a channel that feeds water to the hydroelectricity plant powering Arenas de Cabrales. Far below, beside the gin-clear Cares River, is the remnant of a road that authorities tried to whittle through the gorge before Word War II. The folly of the exercise is quickly realised down the route as the gorge becomes little wider than a footpath. The road may have failed, but the walking trail is a marvel in itself. Dynamite scars remain imprinted in the cliffs, and walkers pass through a multitude of small tunnels as the gorge thins towards the village of Cain. Finally, the river becomes so narrow — if you were to stand in the middle of the riverbed, you could just about touch both rock walls — and the cliffs so steep, the trail is forced into a tunnel several hundred metres long.
At the tunnel’s end, the gorge butterflies into a wide valley enclosing the town of Cain. A soundtrack of rushing water is audible throughout Cain, a town filled with hotels, souvenir stands and restaurants. It is a chance to rest and perhaps try the local cheese, tucking into tapas at one of the many restaurants, before beginning the return walk back through the gorge to Poncebos.
Filed Under: Research