From the dormitory window of our mountain cabin, the dawn breaks in a symphony of colors—pumpkin, saffron, and pale purple—that blaze across the eastern sky. As the sun slowly emerges, it spreads a salmon-colored carpet across the limestone. That’s where I see it for the first time.
Behind our hut looms the Naranjo de Bulnes, a smooth, sheer cliff that defiantly rises to over 500 metres. Naranjo de Bulnes is not the highest peak in these mountains, but it is the most famous.
The rock is riddled with iron ore and due to the color it emits at sunrise and sunset, the peak takes its name from the Spanish word for ‘orange’.
With Naranjo de Bulnes as a dizzying backdrop, we start our early morning hike from the hut. Through a glaciated valley in the shadow of the still rising sun we climb over boulders, descend through gorges and cross pockets of long snow.
Small spots soon appear on the Naranjo de Bulnes – climbers on their way to Spain’s most prestigious via ferrata. Then we realize that we are being watched. A chamois, hiding behind rocks a little above us, is secretly watching our steps.
As we begin to feel the heat of the sun on our faces, we can see the Cantabrian Sea through a jumble of limestone pinnacles. High above, the evergreen-blue sky is punched with criss-crossing contrails.
We make our way down through a valley formed during the Ice Age and now strewn with boulders. As we descend, the green of the valley is embroidered with purple irises and pink roses. At lunch we stop below, take off our boots and socks and dip our feet in the coolness of a gentle mountain stream.
I’m in the Los Picos de Europa (The Peaks of Europe) mountain range in northern Spain. Sculpted by millennia of glaciation, the Picos are a rectangular block of limestone split between three Spanish provinces: Asturias, Cantabria and León.
The Picos were the first sight of land that Spanish navigators saw when they returned to Europe from America, and it is believed that the mountain range’s name derives from this.
With my friends Clara and Siubhán, I join a friendly group of 11 hikers, led by our guide Rosana, for a six-day trek through Picos National Park, a Unesco Biosphere Reserve. Half of the group are English, but there is also an American, an Australian, a German and a Singaporean.
As we are about to start our hike on the first day, we see two griffon vultures sitting on a rock staring at us. Ahead of the vultures is a brindle, slightly disheveled Great Dane amidst a herd of excited goats. “The dog,” Rosana tells us, “is there to protect the goats from the wolves.”
Under a vast sky, we watch the sun set on the glittering peaks of the Massif Central
Founded in 1918, we are in the first national park created in Spain and the drumbeat of our walk is our encounters with chapters of Spanish history.
The hut at Vegarredonda where we stay, for example, was an ammunition depot during the Spanish Civil War and we walk along paths used by the Moors after their defeat in a battle that holds a central place in the Spanish psyche.
The victory of Pelayo, an Asturian noble, over a Moorish expedition in the early 8th century at the Battle of Covadonga in the Picos is thought to be the start of a centuries-long war, culminating in 1492 by Christian forces to regain control – the Reconquista – from Spain.
Our trek is a mix of rolling limestone peaks, jade-green meadows and tranquil glacial lakes, all accompanied by the tinkle of bells hanging from cows’ necks.
After a gentle ascent on our second day, all the ingredients from the elementary recipe of the Picos combine to form a sublime tableau: next to a terracotta-tiled hut and against the backdrop of the gnarled western massif, cows graze next to the expanse of Lake Ercina.
“This is Europe!” says Stacey, a former investment banker who grew up in Los Angeles. “Anything else is gravy.”
Rosana tells us that the Picos receive significantly fewer visitors than mountain ranges like the Dolomites, and it seems that most of the hikers we meet are Spanish.
She works as a biology teacher on Gran Canaria and leads hiking tours through the Picos in the summer. Friendly, enthusiastic and knowledgeable, it’s easy to see why she has won awards for her leadership. Rosana is also an expert on Picos cheeses. The area is known for Cabrales, a rich blue question with a sharp taste. Such is the reverence for Cabrales here that framed photos of the cheese adorn the walls of the mountain huts.
“Cabrales is made from a blend of cow, goat and sheep’s milk,” Rosana tells me. “It matured in limestone caves on the Picos. The humid conditions in the caves give the cheese its blue mold.”
There are three massifs over 2,500 meters in the Picos and about halfway through our trek we stay in a mountain hut from where we watch under a wide sky as the sun gradually sets on the sparkling peaks of the central massif.
The next morning, after a breakfast of homemade granola, infused with turmeric and cinnamon, served with hot milk, and a packed lunch of triple decker egg and chorizo sandwiches, we zigzag down a former shepherd’s trail for 1,200 meters to Cares Gorge – also called Divine Gorge.
The gorge, about 12 km long, connects the village of Poncebos in Asturias with Caín in Leòn. In the 1940s, engineers cut a rocky outcrop along one side of the gorge, about three meters wide and almost unhandled, for workers at the nearby hydroelectric power plant.
We walk carefully along the ledge, trying to capture the high-resolution views of the river 500 meters below us and the mountains looming 2,000 meters above it. The ledge follows the course of the river and we pass waterfalls, go through tunnels and short caves, see a bridge built for salmon to find their way upstream to their spawning grounds and cross the gorge at the bright green chamois bridge.
One of the most striking aspects of hiking the Picos is the “cloud-busting” feeling. As we descended to Cares Gorge, we started in the clouds and passed under them. The next day we climb into the clouds.
Starting near the village of Poncebos we cross the River Cares and as we climb we will see evergreen oaks growing laterally out of the gorge. After about two hours we stop for a café con leche in the village of Bulnes.
We follow the white and yellow trail markers and pass fields dotted with shepherds’ huts. Often the only sound is the crunch of our boots on the trail. When we reach our mountain hut, we have climbed about 2,000 meters. But because of the cloud, we can only see its outline. We cannot see anything of Naranjo de Bulnes behind.
That evening we could never have imagined what the next morning would bring.
Ryanair (ryanair.com) fly from Dublin to Santander, the closest airport to the Picos. Air Lingus (aerlingus.com) fly from Dublin to Bilbao. Brittany Ferries (brittany-ferries.ie) sailing from Rosslare to Bilbao.
Brendan toured with KE Adventure Travel (keadventure.com). The Traverse of the Picos de Europa is an eight-day tour with six days of hiking. With a daily hike of five to eight hours, she has ascents and descents of 800 to 1,000 meters per day, with an ascent of 2,000 meters on the fifth day. Accommodation is in a mix of cabins and small hotels. The price of €1,245 includes accommodation, meals and guidance.
https://www.independent.ie/life/travel/hiking-trail-in-northen-spain-has-all-the-elements-of-a-sublime-tableau-41925474.html Hiking trail in northern Spain has all the elements of a sublime tableau