by Ben Ross, The Telegraph, September 25, 2018
As the darkly attractive Spaniard handed my wife and me our rubber suits and harnesses and began the process of zipping us in and tightening buckles, it was only natural that my thoughts should turn to our honeymoon... No, wait: it’s not what you think. There’s a perfectly innocent explanation that involves mountains, memories and a 100-year-old national park. So clear that image from your mind, and I’ll start again.
Just over a century ago a chap called Pedro Pidal, Marquis of Villaviciosa and an Asturian senator, returned from a visit to Yellowstone and Yosemite in the US with a burning ambition to introduce the idea of national parks to Spain. “If we do not guard the possessed paradise between the lost paradise and the promised paradise,” he said, “we do not deserve, like Adam, to have any paradise.” Well, quite.
In 1918, as a result of his efforts, Covadonga National Park was established in the Cantabrian Mountains, with the protected area extended in 1995 to its present boundaries, which take in chunks of Asturias, Cantabria and Castilla y León – a total of 250 square miles. This year therefore marks the centenary of what is now called the Picos de Europa National Park, an extraordinary prickling of scenery that lurks just inland from the Asturian coast and is easily reached from the UK via Asturias, Santander or Bilbao airports. It’s an immensely popular destination for Spanish tourists, yet rather less visited by us Britons, which is a peculiar state of affairs when you consider the abundant virtues on show: staggering, razor-sharp peaks, endless hiking paths and adjacent Atlantic beaches that are reminiscent of the best bits of south Cornwall.
My wife and I visited the Picos de Europa for a few days back in 2001 having just got married, part of a 420-mile road trip eastwards from Santiago de Compostela to Bilbao. We were young, we were in love. Mostly, we walked romantic walks and ate romantic meals in rustic restaurants, although I remember some embarrassingly inept canoeing from the town of Arriondas and a nerve-racking journey up a series of switchbacks to the lakes at Covadonga, whereupon impenetrable fog completely shrouded us from the promised view.
Something – probably not the fog, I admit – clearly resonated with us, because we’d long talked of revisiting the Picos. However, this time – for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health – we found ourselves encumbered by our two sons, aged 15 and 12. So, yes, the romance would be dialled down a notch, but we could still do plenty of canoeing (inept or otherwise), and indeed try out a platter of other activities.
Pura Aventura has been bringing outdoor types on tailor-made trips here for almost 20 years. Diego Martín, one of its founders, met us at the dinky seaside town of Llanes. An immensely welcoming man (“a geographer by background, with a little of everything thrown in”) he allowed us time for a round of ice cream before herding us off for some mountain-biking near the hamlet of Nueva (via his home village of Poo; no sniggering at the back, boys).
We pedalled through green fields and past rocky inlets, we paused at a seaweed-clogged blowhole, we peered at bright, sandy beaches stippled with sunbathers. Behind us reared the Picos themselves, limestone mountains reminiscent of the Italian Dolomites, washed in a pink evening glow.
Diego clearly loves the area, helping to design the local visitors’ centre and being closely involved in the reintroduction of the bearded vulture, which became extinct here in the Fifties. He was keen to emphasise that the region, national park or not, has to work for everyone: “The approach is to look at the whole area – the wildlife ecosystem and the people.”
As if to prove the point, he took us to meet Francisco José Díaz Sánchez (“Pepin” for short, thankfully). Pepin leads regular Spanish-speaking tours of the little village of Sirviella, where he lives. He also brews the local green cider and can play the Asturian stick game, which involves trying to pick a pebble off the ground by leaning on a bendy branch and then pushing your way back up to vertical without moving your hands and feet. (He was very good at it; we were not.) His cider was splendid, poured straight into the glass from above head height for added frothiness, to much awed applause from our children. We all tried a glass or two over an Espicha meal – a feast of Asturias specialities that went big on tortilla and local cheese – while Diego translated the drollest highlights of Pepin’s banter.
That night we stayed near the town of Cangas de Onis at La Casona de Con, a rural farmhouse converted into a charming boutique hotel – exactly the sort of place my wife and I would happily have smooched around in 15 years before. Two brothers run the show: Javier was front of house, delivering sage advice on timings, walks and regional highlights, while Inigo stayed in the tiny kitchen to conjure sumptuous evening meals served in the glass-walled dining room. Our rooms turned rustic chic up to the max, with a shared balcony, plenty of artfully distressed furniture and background noise confined to the bleating of goats.
You’ll be wondering about all those activities, though. After a day spent on the coast with Diego, where we learnt to paddle-board in the bay at Poo (seriously, it’s not funny, guys), and enjoyed a spot of sea kayaking, we were entrusted to Alex Asensio for our adventures in the Picos themselves.
Alex is an ex-film stuntman who immediately had the boys in his thrall with his all-round action-adventure attitude. We spent a morning in canoes, paddling from the town of Panes back towards the coast along the Deva river, as he coached us over mini-rapids and pointed out the local bird life before rustling up a picnic lunch served on our upturned vessel. Then it was time for a via ferrata route, which saw us climbing way above our comfort zone while fastened to a skein of wire cables. A couple of narrow bridges strung over deep gorges were an opportunity for the boys to demonstrate fearlessness to Alex, while my wife and I tiptoed across rather less assertively.
The Picos range is split into three main massifs: the eastern, western and central peaks. The latter two are separated by the mile-deep Cares Gorge, with the village of Caín at one end and a car park heaving with people in walking books at the other. It’s one of the most popular day hikes in Spain: a six-hour route over 14 miles (22.5km) initially designed to provide access to the local hydroelectric scheme. The two of us had tried it in 2001 and my diary entry for the day speaks of “a dizzy, dehydrated walk back” in search of a bottle of water.
This time we packed plenty of liquid to sustain us, and the gorge was easily as magical as I remembered: a narrow sliver of gravelled path dwarfed by sheer mountain scenery, with the greenery of the river valley giving way almost immediately to brutal, grey rock that shuddered upwards to the sky. Raptors wheeled above us, goats scrambled next to us, before the route suddenly carved into the hillside, forming a long, dank tunnel. Lunch at one of the hiker-friendly restaurants in Caín set us up for the return journey, which the boys managed with surprisingly cheerful aplomb.
Thus encouraged, we attempted one of the region’s other great walks, at Fuente Dé, to the south west. One of the peculiarities of a visit to the Picos is that you scarcely see another soul for hours, and then you find they’re all trying to do the same walk at the same time. The two cabins of the Fuente Dé cable car take only 20 passengers each (€16 adults; €6 children) and several hundred people were queuing for them when we first attempted to reach the top, admittedly rather late one morning. A strict, numbered, ticketing system meant we had to change our plans, rising much earlier the next day to be among the first to head upwards.
Our reward was an other-worldly hike on a lonely plateau of pastureland at 3,576ft that reveals the bleak mountain-scape in close-up for the first time. The five-hour ramble back to the valley floor is an exercise in reacclimatisation, as the breathless peaks give way once more to the gracious greenery of the valley floor.
By now we were staying at Posada San Pelayo hotel, a cheerily neat place with a small pool set in immaculate gardens, plenty of hanging baskets of flowers, and a dog called Bongo. It’s a wonderful spot to lay down your hiking stick, and the restaurant in the nearby campsite delivers hearty tapas without the need to hail a cab to the nearby town of Potes, but from Alex’s point of view there was to be no hanging around: it was rubber suit time.
I’d looked up canyoning before we left the UK, as it was one of the very few things excluded from my basic travel insurance. Apparently it is “the sport of jumping into a fast-flowing mountain stream and allowing oneself to be carried downstream at high speed”. My wife and I took some convincing that this was a good idea, but Alex prevailed, emphasising that it was a tremendous way to appreciate the smaller-scale wonders of the Picos.
Canyoning is not allowed within the national park itself, so Alex took us to the Rubó river, a decent-sized torrent just to the north. Suitably attired, we bounced, slithered and dived our way along the water course for an hour or so, which gave me the chance to ponder my life journey so far: what exactly had changed about that young fellow at play in the Picos with his new wife, and this very middle-aged chap doing exactly the same, only this time as part of a family dressed in orange neoprene outfits?
Perhaps I’d gained a sense of the ridiculous, which is probably an asset when it comes to being a dad. As a husband, though, I scarcely needed this fresh reminder of the joy that beauty brings when it’s right in front of you.
How to do it
Pura Aventura (01273 676712; pura-aventura.com) designs tailor-made holidays to the Picos de Europa for families, ranging from seven to 14 nights. A seven-night trip similar to the Ross family’s itinerary costs from £970pp, including accommodation in two rooms, mid-sized rental car, all breakfasts, two lunches, four dinners and two full days’ guided watersports and hiking. Price excludes international travel from the UK. The closest airports to the Picos de Europa National Park are Santander and Asturias, with Bilbao just over three hours away. Recommended April to October.