Heidi is alive well, she’s changed her name to Paola and lives in San Pelayo: Walking the Picos de Europa, Spain

20 May

Lourdes, Aquilino, Paola and Pongo, the labrador, live in a large wood and stone three-storied converted farmhouse with a terracotta tile roof. Once owned by her grandmother, the house is surrounded on two sides by green fields where sheep graze, a fast flowing snow melt river runs below and snow-topped sky scraping mountains soar above. It looks like something out of a storybook. Luckily for us their home is also a guesthouse, Posada San Pelayo. We stayed with them for three nights while exploring the beautiful, unspoilt Picos de Europa.

On our only previous visit to the Picos we roared through the national park on a motorcycle, more interested in hairpin bends than the scenery. This time we came to hike. The late May weather defied forecast rain and we managed three glorious walks, each better than the last. In general Picos trails are well signed and reasonably well maintained, but where they cross private pasture land it can get a bit tricky.

Brez to La Canal des las Arredondas (2 hours): An afternoon circuit hike from Brez village took us up towards the peaks of the Macizo Oriental. Sheep with their spring lambs, a farmer droving stocky, black mountain ponies up to higher pastures, masses of wild flowers and these views kept us entertained. A stop in sleepy Mongrovejo for tea was the perfect end to the day.

This Mongrovejo mutt was sleeping in the middle of the road, it only moved when it got too hot.

Mirador de Fuente de Cable Car half way to Horcados Rojos and then back down to Fuente De (4 and 3/4 hours): The Fuente De cable car lifted us up 800 metres in three and a half minutes to start the walk at 1800 metres, which is above the snowline (in late May). Very quickly our boots were soaked but as it was sunny we weren’t bothered. Then as we ascended the snow deepened and we could see sections of the trail where avalanches had occurred. We walked across one in shade so we consoled ourselves that A) It had already dumped its overload of snow and B) It was frozen, however several more sections ahead had heaped snow on steep slopes already melting in the sun. Plus the trail would still have full sun on our return. Unfortunately there is only one trail up and back. As we pondered options two cross country skiiers slid past, alternately hiking and skiing. We agreed a summit hike would have to wait for better conditions and returned to just above the cable car lookout then hiked over the saddle and down the looping track, called Puertos de Aliva, all the way to the cable car base.

Selfie at the turn around point.

Over the saddle.

We got excited when we Aliva Rifugio came into view as it has a bar and cafe but it was closed. To add insult to injury as I was leading up and over a compacted snow drift I slipped and slid down on my backside landing squarely in a mud puddle. My khaki trousers turned a charming shade of brown… Still, it was glorious to be up with the birds and see different peaks come into view as we wound around the mountain. Snow melt made for lots more quagmires so we were sweaty, muddy messes when we got down. Nothing a cold beer couldn’t fix though.

Dobarganes to Pico Jano (3 hours walk time): I can’t imagine a finer walk. From Dobarganes village the path follows cattle trails, many of them steep. Early on the trail led to a wire fence beside a snoring guard dog, flat out in the sunshine. I looked at the sheep in the pasture beyond and noticed one that was different. It was a doe. As I stood watching, she slowly walked towards me and came within three metres, looking at me the whole time. We assume it was raised with the labrador and sheep as it was untroubled by us. As we continued upwards we passed small lakes, leafy green beech groves, trees hung with Spanish Moss and later alpine meadows in flower. 

Another highlight was encountering a herd of semi-wild horses relaxing in a grassy patch amongst a clump of trees. Almost every mare had a foal. A handsome, large, silver-maned stallion kept a close, but not unfriendly eye on us as we walked past. Just when we thought we couldn’t climb any more we reached the summit of Pico Jano, a grassy ridge with a distinctive rocky outcrop on the northern side. The beauty of this walk is that the summit is level with the tops of the many mountains that ring Pico Jano such that as you turn 360 degrees you see mountains everwhere you look. More wild horses, abundant wild flowers, eagles riding the thermals above us, cuckoos calling and woodpeckers pecking, this walk has it all except other hikers. We saw zero.

Another memorable meal was a very late lunch in the garden at Hotel Jiso where the vegetable stew turned out to be a delicious vegie melange. While sitting in the sun digesting our food a herd of cattle broke through the fence in search of lush grass. We laughed watching the waiter and chef chase them back onto the road where they soon found tasty nibbles in the verge a little further along.

My theory that hill people tend to be good people (based on experiences in Morocco, Sri Lanka, Dolomites, French Alps, Malaysia and elsewhere) has held up in the Picos. They look you in the eye, shake your hand firmly and treat each other and visitors kindly.

Potes (below)

We’re into the fifth month of this trip, with 11 of the 13 countries we’ll be visiting behind us. Far from tiring of travel, we’ve found it energising. Every destination has delivered fantastic experiences. Now it’s family time. I returned the rental car unscathed to Bilbao Airport and we’re preparing for a reunion with our two sons and their wives in Iceland.


Accommodation and Transport Note: Posada San Pelayo has eight comfortable rooms offered on a bed and breakfast basis. Our rate for room six, which has a gorgeous mountain view and gets full sun in the afternoon, was a ridiculously low 56 euros a night. Next time we’ll stay a week! Lunch and dinner will need to be taken elsewhere and getting to and from the start of walks is difficult without a car so renting one is recommended. We ate well at the camp ground cafetaria 150 metres downhill, at the Posada Peñas Arriba, 1.5k uphill, as well as in Potes. As with most popular spots avoid the summer holiday period, the narrow, mountain roads would be a nightmare.

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