day 8 :

saturday, 2 june

The weather looked promising when we awoke this morning, better than almost every day on our trip so far. Last night, Joanne, one of the hotel owners, asked us if we had thought about what we were going to do this day, and after seeing that we had no firm plans, she recommended we go see the nearby lakes, since they're a famous attraction in this area. Given the cooperative weather, we asked Nigel, the other hotel owner, for a copy of the trail description from the hotel's book of hiking trails. He said the hike was easy – a few kilometer walk around some lakes in the mountains. So, off we went, driving up, and up, and up, high into the Picos de Europa, following the signs for Los Lagos.

When we reached the dirt parking area near one of the lakes at mid-morning, it was nearly full. The sun was brilliant in the sky, and people were walking all over – along a path to one of the lakes, up a long flight of steps to a ridge with a view of both lakes, to the bar at the end of the parking lot. And then there were the cows – there were nearly as many cows as people in the expansive field, grazing on grass and flowers. The cows were clearly used to people, even tolerant of the ones who walked right up next to them so that their friends could take a picture. From the look of things, we thought we were in for a crowded hike this morning.

A few minutes into our hike, the scene changed quickly. As we were standing alongside Lake Ercina, there were very few people nearby: just a few scattered hikers following the same path we were taking. One sound was constant: cow bells. Bells were clanging, near and far, with similar pitches. No matter where we went, there was a cow not far away. We journeyed on, scrambling over rocks as we climbed uphill toward an old stone house. An elderly woman stood by the house, chatting with a man who had just finished herding his mountain goats. The sun beat down as clothes hung on a line to dry. We followed the path a little further, until the worn dirt trail became more and more indistinct. We pulled out our trail description to see where to go next, and the next few hours felt a bit like a treasure hunt: occasionally we'd get a clue from our sheet as to where we were headed, but more often than not we had to look for visual clues to guide us to the next waypoint.

The scenery along the way was beautiful – huge mountain peaks nearby and in the distance, trees growing out of rock fields, hillsides covered with buttercups and other wildflowers, running streams and dry stream beds to cross, valleys and dells, and abandoned stone farmhouses left to crumble. Cows, goats, and sheep dotted the mountains and walked right by us, bells clanging, focused solely on where to find the next patch of grass or flowers. How we would've liked a tape recorder or video camera to record the sounds with the sights! As we went on, we noticed little rock piles that other hikers had placed in key spots to mark the otherwise indiscernible path. We rounded a corner past a large rock, and were faced with two large cows sitting in the middle of the (unusually) well-worn path, staring at us coolly. Two other cows climbed the rocks above us, acting like mountain cows, searching for wildflowers to nibble on. Rather than trying to climb over the cows, we went down a rocky side slope that joined up with the path shortly after. Finally, after cresting one last hill, we saw Lake Enol, and knew that we were close to completing the circuit. Walking right down the water's edge, we used a series of stepping stones beneath a cliff, holding onto the rock wall for balance, and then we were in the clear. While we wouldn't necessarily agree that it was an "easy" hike, it wasn't difficult and was certainly memorable and worth doing again.

On our drive back down the mountain, we saw a woman by a roadside stand with a sign that said "Queso." Eric had been wanting to try some local Asturian cheese, so we pulled over to see what was for sale. There was just one cheese – gamoneú, a cave-aged specialty cheese from the region. We tried a sample which was quite good, so we bought a hunk. When we ate the cheese for a snack later in the day, its texture was not at all like what we had sampled – it was dry and crumbly. Caveat emptor!

All of this hiking had given us a big appetite, so we headed into Cangas de Onís for lunch at La Sifoneria, a typical sidra (cider) and tapas bar. Sidra is served a bit like txakolí in the Basque region – the server holds a glass down low and the sidra bottle up high, and pours a stream into the glass, not worrying about the splash and spray that goes everywhere in the process. Only a quarter- or half-inch of sidra gets poured, and you down it immediately, before the bubbles disappear. However, don't forget to leave a small sip in the bottom of your glass, which you're supposed to throw on the ground (escanciar) – this is from old Asturias culture, where you give back to the Earth a part of anything that was taken from it. To go with our cider, we sampled another traditional item from Asturia: fabada. This hearty dish is made with broad white beans, chorizo, morcilla, and the foreshank of a pig. Simple, but tasty.

We wrapped up the day with a walk around Cangas de Onís to see the old Roman bridge, and then backtracked a bit to the nearby town of Covadonga to see the church and Cova Dominica ("Cavern of the Lady"). Covadonga was the site of the first major victory against the occupying Moors, and the church and cavern were built in honor afterwards. Both sites were clearly enormous undertakings. The cavern is quite lengthy, burrowing straight through mountain rock, and ending at an open-air chapel under the cliff face, perched above a high waterfall.


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