Alpine splendour in northern Spain's Picos de Europa

by Harri

The 22-kilometre gorge which separates Liébana, in northern Spain’s Picos de Europa, from the coast may explain why this stunning mountain landscape has escaped mainstream tourism

Our guidebook described the Picos de Europa, in northern Spain, as ‘one of Europe’s last mountain wilderness areas’; we were about to find out if it was as unspoilt as we hoped.

It was spring, a notoriously unpredictable season anywhere let alone in one of the highest mountain terrains in northern Europe. As keen hikers we’re not adverse to a refreshing shower or two, but to be on the safe side, we’d crammed our cases with fleeces, waterproofs, shorts and swimwear.

The big advantage of visiting the Picos so early in the season was the huge saving on accommodation costs. Our two-bedroom apartment in the historic Villa de Potes was costing us around €400; two months later and the price would almost double.

We flew with Ryanair from Bristol to Santander, happy to drive the 100km to our base in Potes, a small town in the eastern foothills of the Picos. Our journey didn’t get off to a great start when we found ourselves joining a convoy of equally baffled British tourists to complete several circuits of the airport car park. The exit barrier finally conquered, we were on our way – with no time to spare.

We made swift progress until we veered off the coastal highway to head inland where the 22-km gorge of Desfiladero de La Hermida forced us to slow down considerably. Craning our necks to look at its soaring vertical cliffs and overhanging outcrops (we read later that the midpoint at La Hermida receives no direct sunlight for five months of the year), we wondered if we’d badly underestimated the difficulty of this mountainous terrain. We’d come to hike not climb; worse still, we had our reluctant twelve-year-old daughter in tow.

Quite suddenly, the dark cliffs fell away, and all around us the undulating hills of the Liébana valley (the mountainous comarca of which Potes is capital) revealed themselves. It wasn’t difficult to find our apartment: Potes has just one road in and two roads out.

First day

What a difference a good night’s sleep makes! Poking our heads through our bedroom skylight in the early morning, we looked across the red-tiled roofs of Potes (which has a more Alpine than Spanish feel) towards green, forested hills, and beyond to the towering, jagged peaks of the Picos themselves, their snow-capped tops glistening in the sun.

Keen to get walking, we set off after breakfast on an eight-mile circular walk from our guidebook. Liébana offers a visual feast for jaded city dwellers with its lush meadows, abundant flowers, butterflies flitting from bloom to bloom, and the prettiest mountain cows imaginable. Only the numerous abandoned dwellings, occasionally an entire hamlet, are a reminder of just how poor this part of Spain really is.

By the time we reached the highest point of the walk, the heat was intense and we looked forward to a relaxing afternoon swim in the Villa de Potes’ outdoor pool. We’d no sooner thought ‘sunscreen’ than the nearby hills were enveloped in cloud and it was raining. A fine start followed by midday rain is apparently the norm in Spain’s northern mountains; it’s not until July that the weather becomes more settled. We never did try out that pool.

Fortunately, it was dry again when we ventured out for our evening meal, though Potes in May doesn’t attract the crowds typical of better known Spanish destinations. During our week in May, we witnessed several lively gatherings outside local bars but few people were dining out. As a result, we were able to secure front row seats for the Eurovision Song Contest, an event which every bar in Potes seemed to be following closely.

Potes does not go out of its way to cater for English-speaking visitors; a basic grasp of Spanish is essential to get the most out of your stay here and to be able to make an informed choice from a restaurant menu. One place we did discover and like was the Hotel Restaurante Casa Cayo (942 730 119; www.casacayo.com), a hotel restaurant serving delicious regional specialities – though as menus were in Spanish only, we weren’t entirely sure what these were! With its spacious, traditionally styled rooms similar to those in our own Villa de Potes, this also looked like a good accommodation choice if you prefer hotels to self-catering.

Garganta del Cares

Our third day – Saturday – saw us again braving the drive through the La Hermida gorge. We were heading for one of the region’s best known walks along the Garganta del Cares – quite literally the ‘throat’ of the Río Cares – on the northern side of the Picos.

Unlike Liébana, the Cares valley is easily accessible from the coast and is a popular destination for local people. After the solitude of Liébana, it was a shock to encounter quite so many friendly weekend walkers; we lost count of the number of ‘holas’ we responded to. We also noted one vital item in a Spanish hiker’s kit – an umbrella!

Caín, at the other end of the Cares gorge, is a bustling place full of hungry walkers. To cater for these, an array of shops and restaurants have sprung up in the village, many of the latter offering accommodation as well. The walk through the gorge is level and family friendly, with opportunities to swim in hotter weather.

The Fuente Dé cable car

Back in Liébana, we drove the next day to a cable-car station at the top of the valley. From here, we were rocketed up 800 metres in under four minutes to the high peaks above (+34 942 736 610; www.cantur.com).

Stepping out at the top was quite an experience. A metal viewing platform overhung the green valley far below, where it had been pleasantly warm. Up here, on the bare rock, an icy wind was blowing and the temperature was close to freezing. Just feet away, snow lay where it had gathered in hollows through the winter.

Leaving the shops and café of the cable-car station behind, we climbed higher still, to an altitude of almost 1800 metres; much higher and we’d have been in the snow. To the left was a path forking straight into whiteness; we were warned by a Spanish walker in full winter gear not to climb higher.

Heading down by a different route, we passed the impressively located Hotel Áliva (+34 942 730 999; www.cantur.com), a luxurious, mountain-top hotel accessible by dirt track only. Not yet open for the summer, it would have made a great setting for a Spanish version of The Shining!

Where to stay and when

Though a little inaccessible, Potes is a great base for exploring the southern reaches of the Picos. The Villa de Potes where we stayed offered excellent self-catering accommodation; of the town’s hotels, the Hotel Restaurante Casa Cayo looked extremely promising. There are also a number of campsites in Liébana that could be investigated.

For the north side of the Picos, the towns of Arenas de Cabrales and Cangas de Onís are better bases and have the added advantage of being within easy reach of the Asturian coast.

Wherever you decide to stay, be aware that the Picos is primarily a summer destination: the mountains in August can get extremely busy and accommodation prices reflect this. Visiting out of season is cheaper, but walkers may find the highest mountain paths closed by snow even at the end of May; wet, unsettled weather is also far more likely than in July and August.

Harri

One of my earliest ambitions was to be an explorer, and I spent many happy hours as a child reading about the great explorers of the past. While I still love to visit new countries, I have also learned that there is much to 'discover' in one's own backyard. A keen hiker, I feel there's no better way of getting to know an area than by foot.