Sunday, 12 July 2020

Picos de Europa. Cares Gorge. Potes. A trip to the Towers of Europe.

Another holiday to a mountainous region- this time to visit the Picos de Europa, a group of very steep distinctive peaks in Northern Spain, lying inland and and slightly west of Santander. As they are only 20 miles from the coast and easily spotted from a great distance out at sea, often retaining snow into the summer months, they acted as a fishing boat visual reference and rough guide to the coastline in that region- hence 'The Towers of Europe.'
As we travelled along the northern Spanish coast from Bilbao we enjoyed the lush green surroundings  throughout the journey as this part of Spain gets enough rainfall and cool weather to remain verdant. Numerous deciduous forests and the long 400 mile spine of the Cordillera Cantabrica, a substantial 3000 to 5000 foot mountain range running parallel to the coast, of which the Picos are the highest crowning glory, stretching from the Pyrenees to La Coruna means that this area still retains wild boar, wolf, and bear, although these animals are scarce and seldom seen.
Our base for this trip was Fuente De, which had a terrific campsite surrounded by forests and steep peaks, see photos above, an adjoining bar, some shops and a cable car. There's not a lot in it but it's ideal for hill-walkers and the cable car lifts you up into the heart of the mountain vastness, via a daring single leap cable.
Probably due to the incredible steepness of the terrain here this amazing car ride is not for the fainthearted as its a single drop without any supporting poles or structure from this hut in one great swoop to the buildings below.  If it ever snaps you have a long time to contemplate your demise. When it sets off from the top station it also gives a great jolt downwards and you can hear the gasps from the passengers pressed up against the forward facing windows as they get to look straight down the biggest drop.
When I asked another friend in a different mountaineering club- the only person I could find that had been here- "what's it like?" he'd replied. " Think of the Dolomites... only steeper!"
I took that with a pinch of salt as I could not imagine anything steeper than the Dolomites but he was right enough.
Potes, one of the main small towns in the Picos district, where I picked up some colourful tee shirts depicting wolves, bears and wildcats.
A busy shopping street in Potes. This district is famous for it's smelly cheese yet while I was here I was never tempted to sample any as in this particular street I was convinced I had walked through dog shit, several times, yet no sign of it. Eventually, the penny dropped. I presume that was the distinctive aroma of the cheese wafting from the shops as the famous blue veined cheese Cabrales is reputed to have a very strong penetrating stench. I deliberately never got close enough to the product to verify this at close quarters by sniffing an actual cheese but would you make a cheese that smells so bad or am I dreaming?  I'm not joking that is what it smelled like to me from a distance without going into the actual shops in question yet cheese and food buffs apparently flock here for this unique experience to sample the 'Durian fruit' of blue cheeses. ... Obviously my heathen nose is not cultured or refined enough to tell the difference.  Having said that... San Miguel lager became our favourite beverage during this trip ( see sign above shop) as we popped into the Fuente De bar every evening after hard hot days on the hills. So it was not all bad as I enjoyed that taste and smell of that product and looked forward to a few cool pints of it every evening. Local dried fruit, nuts, cakes, and chocolate gave us energy during the day- alcohol soothed our tired limbs by nightfall... the basic few luxuries of camping and mountain life.

My companions on this trip were two club friends, Gordon and Jennie, who kindly invited me along and I jumped at the chance. This trip was undertaken in mid September and it was only for a week but that turned out to be perfectly timed as you will see later.
Gordon and Jennie were keen rock climbers back then, several grades above my own level, so while they did rock routes I was happy hill-walking on my own and sightseeing, meeting up every night in the campsite after full day's spent on the hills. Near this spot, in Potes, I visited a witchcraft museum which was very unusual and quite disturbing. Some of it featured exhibits from the Spanish Inquisition period with women in particular singled out for some truly gruesome punishments and tortures designed to make them confess their supposed sins against the Catholic church. It was a real eyeopener just how cruel and vindictive they were at ripping people apart in a variety of ways and the exhibits left absolutely nothing to the imagination. Nuff said.
I think this is the Veronica Bivouac Hut, a distinctly 1960s space age design. Another guy from our club, Julian from the Alta Via 2 trip, had been over in the Pyrenees on holiday and had then decided to spend a few extra days here with us. We had arranged to do a 3 day backpacking trip through the Picos together but he wanted to go rock climbing first. I was to meet him up here, in this high mountain bowl at 7,620 feet,  just above the cable car drop off. meeting around 4:00pm.
So I waited.... and waited... and waited.... and no show.
Around 7:00 or 8:00pm, with only a couple of hours daylight left I decided I'd have to do it alone. I had a very steep via ferrata to do down over a cliff, then a rocky valley and pass to negotiate, and didn't fancy doing them in darkness before I reached the next hut, where I was intending to wild camp. In the end Julian did show up, about 4 hours late, having been delayed on the rock climb, but by that time I'd gone and he just made the last cable car back down to Fuente De and the campsite, where his tent was.
I continued on through the mountains alone with the sun fast disappearing. I had enough food for three days hiking and we'd split my tent in half. Julian had the poles and inner tent- I had the flysheet and pegs with me but I reckoned I could just get by using my walking stick as a central pole and pegging the flysheet down in a circle, teepee style... and so it proved.  Luckily, it stayed dry.
My first night was spent a short distance from the Naranjo Hut, which I reached just as darkness fell, under the looming presence of this rock tower. 2,519 metres or 8,264 feet high and a severe multi pitch rock climb just to reach the summit.  It was too serious for me, although Gordon and Jennie climbed it successfully later but I had my own adventurous walking route planned. Up over this mountain massif then a big hard descent to the remote village of Bulnes then around to Cain via the Cares Gorge. I would then circle back over several different foothills to Fuente De. The Picos de Europa are roughly the size of the English Lake District but the summits here rise to eight and a half thousand feet or 2,600 metres.... and zero lakes. Loads of bare limestone though and three separate massifs, each containing a collection of peaks. The Cornion, The Urrielles, and the Lechugales, separated by deep gorges/valleys- the most famous being the Cares Gorge. 'Garganta del Cares' to give its full title.
Being based at Fuente De we climbed in the Urrielles Massif mainly but this is a view of one of the other Massif clusters- probably Lechugales Massif.
Another view of Naranjo de Bulnes, known as 'the orange'.... steep on every side and covered in impressive graded rock climbs. In the Italian Dolomites this peak might have Via Ferrata up it but Spain and the Picos are wilder and I now understood  what that other hill-walker meant as the peaks here are much more unprotected, many of them reached by near vertical gullies or serious scrambling routes or rock climbs- no comfort inducing metal cables or ladders here. Not that I could see anyway.
And the descent down to Bulnes was a leg killer. I don't know if I was mountain unfit for this trip... in my mid 40s by now... or the path was simply desperate... or wrongly modeled/graded for backpacking...or if it was just really hard descending to the gorge but my thighs and calf muscles were absolutely killing me for the rest of the journey. Every step down this steep natural staircase was a real strain on the limbs, rock steps badly spaced out by being for giants which soon caused agony stretching downwards to reach them with a heavy pack on my back so it was a real relief to enter the start of the deep gorge (seen above) as at least this path running through it was flat and easy. It was roasting hot by this time, mid afternoon, so I hid in the shade of a boulder and watched the vultures circling the cliffs above for a couple of hours. In places the Cares Gorge is 3000 foot deep with near vertical surrounding walls. It's so steep and difficult terrain no natural line through it exists--- instead a man made way has been carved across its sheer sides--- which was a godsend for me as I could only hobble along it by this stage. Very impressive place... and the only flat section of the Picos de Europa I discovered in a week. Everything else was straight up.... then straight back down again.
Carved tunnels through the limestone on the Cares Gorge path.
Due to the heat mid afternoon it got very sultry and dark down here, a thunderstorm building near this lookout platform.
But I pressed on and it started to lift and get sunny again.
A photo showing the sheer sides of the Cares Gorge.
A more elevated section, gaining some height.
Halfway along the gorge I came to this water refreshment hut. Getting water in a limestone gorge was not easy so this was well placed. I presume a natural spring or well was here as a short water filled stone trench was behind this hut. I did not drink the water- not sure if it was drinkable- but the hut owner had loads of soft drink cans in it to keep them cool for passersby and I bought two of them. This did me for the rest of the gorge.
A wild descent gully in the Picos de Europa..
Second night was spent camped out in the bushy foothills, crossing back over to Fuente De. That was a strange place as it was a creepy spot I picked and I heard loads of strange noises throughout the night half thinking they might be boar, wolf, or bear snuffling outside but it turned out to be feral goats then a cat of some sort, then a hunter with a rifle. A busy corridor for Picos wildlife passing my tent and only having the flysheet pegged down with gaps aplenty half of it tried to come inside. Not much sleep for poor Bobby defending his honour in the dark!
The next day was a half rest day as I could hardly move once I got back to the campsite around lunch time after a 6:00am start so I just pitched my tent beside the others then went to sleep, incredibly stiff and sore. The day after that I was semi recovered so I did some peaks and ridge walks, again in the Urrielles Massif- the only one we could reach easily from Fuente De. I also managed a very nice hill just outside the Picos de Europa district, reached by local bus. This was around Scottish Munro height- 4,500 feet or thereabouts and much less scary to walk on as it was gentle and grassy underfoot- like Ben Lomond say.... but really wild and beautiful. This was an outlying peak of the Cordillera Cantabrica, a vast northern coastal range roughly similar in size to Scotland's entire western seaboard, slightly longer than the Pyrenees, so plenty of scope for hill-walking here with grassy mountains from 3000 to 5000 feet high fading into the far distance, many of them distinctive and very appealing in their own right... just not as dramatic, serious, or high as the Picos set. Great backpacking mountains though or easy day shots. Although folk often think of the Costas, like Malaga, Benidorm, or Alicante when they think Spanish... inland Spain is the real gem. It's so vast and wild and largely unknown to outsiders with green forests, wide deserts, deep river valleys and empty beaches that it really is an unknown kingdom to most Europeans outside of the tourist hot spots. It's massive, full of amazing wildlife, and dozens of rarely visited mountain districts like Leon, Orense, Avila, Salamanca, Extremadura, Teruel, and Segovia. This trip certainly opened my eyes to its potential. Inland Spain is far more mountainous and wilder than France, which is mainly flat and cultivated in its centre, except around it's borders, where the high mountains occur, yet is little known or talked about.
Dead horse. I also became fascinated with vultures. I'd seen them from a distance in the Pyrenees but in this area I got to see them at work up close. A few days after I took this photo I returned to find this carcass half eaten with two vultures inside the stomach cavity. All I got was blurred shots though as I unintentionally scared them away. Amazing birds. Likewise the huge solitary Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture with its nine foot wingspan and bone dropping habits, which I also spotted later in another area.  A very different kind of Spain.
Our last two days here saw a dramatic change in the weather. From really hot lovely conditions to icy winds, the first snow and ice of mountain autumn and soaking cold rain falling on the tents. By the last day and the last week of September we were frozen solid, ice in all the puddles so we were happy to leave, being the last campers of the season by the feel of it... and certainly the last remaining tents on the campsite, which was now deserted. Time to go home.

Here's another Via Ferrata route I've done, above Cortina, with Brian and John, but this one is much easier- takes in the WW1 protected fighting tunnels, sky bridges, and the amazingly colourful Barbarella lift capsules. (If you do not get in fast you are left behind.) Not that scary, just highly enjoyable and beautiful surroundings..


Rosemary said...

I know that area well, it is my favourite part of Spain, and I also love the Asturian coast there too.
My eldest son is a Geologist - he spent a whole summer in the Picos de Europa doing research for his PhD.

Andy said...

You seem to be specialising in my wish list places, Pyrenees, Dolomites and now the Picos! Cracking video as well, a quintessential Dolomites Via Ferrata.

Anabel Marsh said...

Enjoying your reminiscences!

blueskyscotland said...

Hi Rosemary,
It is a lovely area and we only scratched the surface but glad I was able to visit. So many great places... only one lifetime to see them all. That's why I can't understand someone like George Michael, or other famous recent celebs, who apparently spent his last years living mostly indoors in one room yet could travel the world and see amazing things if he wished to do so. Trapped by extreme poverty or trapped by global fame seem to be a similar creature.

blueskyscotland said...

Cheers Andy,
That Via Ferrata was excellent and fairly easy but spectacular. There's a one way backpack through the Picos from Fuente De, via the Cares Gorge to Covadonga taking around a week which runs through the entire area. That might be better than bagging individual peaks as the few Europa ones I did were hard going and scary. Most of the summits I looked at in the guide book were really steep so not many easy ones, certainly not in our area.

blueskyscotland said...

Cheers Anabel,
I have been doing a few Covid 19 walks but writing these is more inspiring. Also inspiring tonight was a women surfer at 73 years of age still braving the waves on her board. Hopefully, I'll be like her if I live to collect my state pension... if they are still around that is and the country is not bankrupt first :o)

Carol said...

On that gorge-contouring path, is that a people-path going down the horrifically steep side of the gorge below the cut-out path in one of your photos?

The Cordillera Cantabrica sounds much more my cup of tea. My friend and fellow blogger moved to Central Spain somewhere amongst the mountains with his missus to live. He's really enjoying exploring all the mountains and wild areas. If I went to Spain, I'd be wanting to go and see that kind of thing - I can't imagine a beach holiday - I'd just be so bored!

Good idea to split the tent like that. The wild animals would scare me though - wouldn't want to bump into any of those on a lone hike.

blueskyscotland said...

Hi Carol,
Minor paths probably go down to the river, the Rio Cares, if it runs above ground in the deepest section. Being all limestone natural water can be very scarce in summer and I was so knackered from the descent I was happy with a flat path. By strange coincidence a Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture has been spotted recently in Northern England- a very rare sight indeed. type in Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture UK to see photos and info- probably a young bird flying over from the Pyrenees. With a 7 to 9 foot wing span and high altitude gliding ability, distance is no problem as long as it finds sufficient dead animal bones in the UK to keep it fed and healthy. An amazing bird.

Carol said...

I can't even imagine any kind of vulture in or over Britain! That must be a first. It must have heard how badly we're doing with the virus and come to pick us clean!

blueskyscotland said...

Hope it survives to find it's way back to the Alps or Pyrenees. Largest bird of prey ever to visit the UK.