Lagos de Covadongas OR High in the Picos de Europa

There are roads that wind high into the mountains and then there are roads that are very windy and steep going high into the mountains.  CrossCountry Bob learned early all about driving those types of roads in his early years in the wilderness areas of British Columbia.  So no problem in Spain, right?  To be clear…yes and no…more or less…same but different.  Clear?

The high roads in Spain are not designed with snow in mind and this allows for sharp switchbacks and steep grades (sometimes at the same time).  Still not a big problem until they pretend that the road is wide enough for two cars to pass (usually but not always).  So CrossCountry Bob learned (quickly) exactly how close the right wheels were to the edge (and the drop).  Go slow and ease past when required.  Note, however, that winding corners entice some Spanish drivers to sneak ever closer to the back bumper.  Almost as if there were magnets in the cars activated by steep grades and sharp corners.  CrossCountry Bob is used to it now and has realized that maintaining a (very) minimum distance must be one of the first lessons taught in Spanish driving schools (even on the autovia (freeway), they will often kiss your rear bumper, signal, pull into the passing lane, go by, pull back in while seeming to almost kiss the front bumper.  Wheee!

Oh, by the way…there was, of course, a public market in a village on the way. Paintin’ Peggie found a pastry that made her tongue vibrate. It was an Asturian village so there were a few wandering about in the traditional local clothes and more kinds of cheese than one could try with daily sampling for a year!

Where was CrossCountry Bob?  Oh, yes, climbing high into the Picos on a steep, winding road.  An absolutely stunning climb, from sea level up to the Lakes of Covadongagos at 1,134 metres. Not super high, but over a short distance, the road must climb fast.

In high season, you can’t drive your own car on the last, fun 11 kilometres up to the top. But now, in early November, you can and although not crowded, the road was still respectably busy. Reaching the top, CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie saw why.  A green oasis with sweeping views.

 Even way up here, the green is liberally speckled with deposits from…

Hiking up to the ridges away from all the people lower down was the smart move.  Paintin’ Peggie could draw, CrossCountry Bob could write on the iPad and the cows could approach and observe, their bells tinkling (yes, seems a bit like Heidi in Switzerland).

Then (there is always a then), two mountain bikers stopped nearby.  Then a hiker appeared from the other direction.  Then they said hi to each other.  Then it turns out the hiker and bikers were from the same country (image CrossCountry Bob’s surprise!) and that meant, wow! Let’s talk (loudly) about this, that and the other irrelevancy (with volume progressively increasing).  All of this not far from Paintin’ Peggie, prompting her to eventually use the words ignorant and idiot in the same sentence.

Time for a loud chat!

After ten minutes of excited chatter, Paintin’ Peggie and CrossCountry Bob yielded the floor (the mountain) and moved on. You can’t change the nature of this type tourist is one of the sad, little truths that travel has taught CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie.

Soon after movin’ on, CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie wandered into quieter terrain and settled down to taste the vast expanse of land and sky.

A little later, CrossCountry Bob noticed with amusement that not everyone prefers “nature”, even here, as he watched a young lady of eleven or twelve demonstrate her boredom by repeatedly kicking a robust ball of horse dung (no can to kick up here) as she trudged downhill with a scowl behind her oblivious parents.  Then a clean kick and the horse dung leapt ahead, passing the parents in looping bounces.  That earned the young kick artiste a parental glare which she returned instantly with a roll of the eyes and her hands shoved even deeper into her jean pockets.  The world keeps turning.

Way high up it was still relatively warm but a drifting, cooler breeze told CrossCountry Bob it was time to begin the trek back to Llanes.  The downhill drive was smooth, only the odd driver too panicked to go close to the edge, causing CrossCountry Bob to slow to a crawl so they could sneak by without tearing off the side mirror (Europcar Rentals wouldn’t have been too fond of that result no matter how CrossCountry Bob might try to explain).

And so the last day in the Picos of Europa came to a close.  Perhaps fittingly, at the base of the mountain road, there was the obligatory church (CrossCountry Bob has lost count of the number of old, stone churches in Spain but their solid beauty is not diminished by number).

Can’t miss it…

And shortly after passing that church (stopping at these massive, medieval churches ended in Lourdes (remember?), CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie were back in Llanes

It was dinner in “el apartamento” by choice, the food on the table by 6 pm.  CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie can’t wait till 8 most nights, too tired, and even if 8 pm was doable energy wise, 40 straight days of restaurant food would leave CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie groaning and bloated (the wallet would be the opposite, profoundly empty and thin).  So, eating in made everyone happy (except the restaurants that couldn’t raid CrossCountry Bob’s wallet).

Dinner menu that night:  Mussels, fresh of course, green salad and red Rioja wine.

Nothing more needed except for the mandatory “el postre” (dessert), wisely purchased on the way home from one of the pastelerías ubiquitous in Spain. 

See you next time.  Bedtime now after another busy day in Spain.

Llanes OR Cliffs, Beaches and Mountains

Location: Playa de Villanueva

Time:  2:53 pm;

Date: Saturday, November 5;

Temperature: 19 degrees in the shade, short sleeves in the sun;

Mission: Sit on Playa de Villanueva (Villanueva Beach located a few kilometres from Llanes) with iPad and write blog in an attempt to get up-to-date;

Probability of getting some writing done: high;

Probability of bringing the blog right up to date: low

Excuse: too much going on during the day to write for long and CrossCountry Bob is not a prolific evening writer.  Paintin’ Peggie might refer to CrossCountry Bob writing in the evening as the definition of “hopeless” and CrossCountry Bob is old enough to not bother denying the obvious.

CrossCountry Bob last left you saying Adios to Haro and the Rioja wine region with the mighty duo bound for Llanes.  If one part of Spain could be called under-populated, it would be the northwest diagonal from Haro to the coast through mountain valleys, slow winding roads, few cars and fewer small villages.  The pictures tell the tale…

And of course, the BIG vultures in those mountains were a bit of a surprise. CrossCountry Bob didn’t see enough roadkill to keep these monsters occupied but they seemed in fine form.

No sunbathing allowed in this field!

Exiting the mountain valleys near Santander, there was a rapid transition from no more vultures and three stone house villages to the busier modern life of bigger towns and abundant tailgating Spaniards.

And then…the “Océano Atlántico” makes its first appearance.  “I love the ocean”, says Paintin’ Peggie, not for the first time.  CrossCountry Bob nods and slips those words into his “Pay Attention” folder.

Llanes, a town on the Atlantic coast, is the base for the next week. In Llanes, the Picos de Europa are next door and the ocean is a stroll away.  This time, CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie have chosen an in-town apartment for 7 days – wow! – a change of pace to be sure, but, hey, let’s just see how it goes. The plan is to eat dinners in the apartment and have lunches out to experience the local cuisine.  CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie are not cut out for restaurants that open at 8 pm for dinner.  And this pains CrossCountry Bob to say, but the usual Spanish cuisine is dull except for some tapas and a few specialties such as fresh calamari (both fried and grilled – the key is fresh squid, not frozen) and, of course, pulpo a la gallega (yummy – octopus sliced and fried with spices). Paintin’ Peggie took a pass on the pulpo as well as on this yummy revuelto – a mix of prawns and eel bits held together by scrambled egg.  CrossCountry Bob took a deep breath and tucked right in – and…it was rather tasty (decided a somewhat relieved CrossCountry Bob even if his stomach is mostly iron).

Lots of yummy bits!

LLanes is a tourist place for the most part, but pleasant enough in November with few tourists about.

The LLanes coastline is classic Asturian coast with meandering cliffs and small beaches tucked into rocky nooks like jigsaw puzzle pieces, all with the Picos de Europa as a backdrop…

The first big adventure into the Picos de Europe was to the Ruta del Dures.  Very popular in Spain provided you are relatively fit and don’t mind trails with looonnnng drop offs. CrossCountry Bob knew well enough to keep his eyes on the trail and not glance over the edge while walking.  That way, the vertigo stayed under control (just).  Paintin’ Peggie led the way onto the trail (up, up and up for the first two kilometres)

Paintin’ Peggie climbed (it seemed to CrossCountry Bob) like a chamois (recall that CrossCountry Bob groused that he had seen none of these).  Well, the theory is that if the chamois won’t come to CrossCountry Bob, then CrossCountry Bob will go the chamois.  Gotta love it when theory becomes fact…

By the time CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie had hiked in five kilometres it was enough.  After all, the knees of CrossCountry Bob are not fond of downhill on steep, rocky trails and five kilometres back out was going to max out what the knees had left in reserve.  Paintin’ Peggie had a few aches and pains kicking in as well but it was a price well paid.

Use caution, weak knees at work

For a change of pace and recovery time for the knees, CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie thought the next day would be a good time to visit a local market.  Most villages have a weekly public market, farm produce and clothes (?) being the main attractions.  Most markets are peaceful affairs but then CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie didn’t know that Potes might be different.  The only road in and out was also the market street and it was just contained chaos with traffic police blowing whistles and waving cars here and there (just like the movies!) and people wandering randomly (including crossing in front of cars without a glance). This was an area where wooden walking sticks were an almost mandatory accessory (for the men mostly – this is Spain after all).  CrossCountry Bob is not sure why but figured it was probably a Basque tradition but in any event it was clearly useful for prodding and pushing aside the abundant horse dung that almost seemed to be growing out of the pavement as a result of the large number of horses brought into town for what was, apparently, a horse auction or show.  Either way, CrossCountry Bob was tempted to buy one of those walking sticks but Paintin’ Peggie (ever practical) pointed out that it wouldn’t fit in the suitcase and it sure couldn’t be carried onboard the aircraft – so CrossCountry Bob reluctantly let that prospective purchase slide into the stupid bin.

With that done, here are a few market scenes taken from the car as we navigated our way along market street…

The Potes market was a fun and successful day (CrossCountry Bob defined success in this instance as avoiding stepping in the horse stuff and not getting whacked by old Spaniards waving their walking sticks about), but it was time to scoot on back to Llanes for food and refreshments.  After all, tomorrow was on the way and there would be no markets on that day but instead a trek waaaay up high into the Picos.  Should be more nature trails and less horse deposits up there but we shall see.  Spain can be a surprise.

Tune in shortly for that.

First Days in Spain OR No Tourists Here

The writing of this post started way inside the “La Ruta del Cares” (the Divine Gorge), with CrossCountry Bob perched near the edge (almost literally).  CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie were two hours into hiking the gorge and it was a sketching and rest stop before the hike out.  While Paintin’ Peggie sketched, CrossCountry Bob tapped valiantly on his iPad, cautiously keeping his vertigo in check by not looking up from the keyboard too rapidly…’cause if he did that…whoa, it was a long way down and CrossCountry Bob’s close companion called vertigo would immediately become very unhappy…

Yes, that is down, down, down…

But this post isn’t about the Divine Gorge…that comes later.

For CrossCountry Bob, Spain has previously been southern Spain, a hot, dry place with paella and beaches and lots of Moorish architecture mingled with the Christian Spanish churches.  Well, the northern part of Spain (just south of the Pyrenees) is not so hot, not so dry and no paella to be found.  A different kind of Spain, the edge of Basque country.  Filled with winding, narrow roads leading to farms and little villages.  And CrossCountry Bob and Painltin’ Peggie stayed in one of those little villages – Estello – a cluster of stone houses, tile roofs, population maybe one hundred (in a good year).  Just what CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie ordered up for a few days, stone floor included…

What to do in such a village besides reflect on “this sure ain’t Canada” ?  Well, that’s easy, start with a walk about to check out the village (that takes maybe ten minutes at 1 minute per house) and then go for a hike up the small mountain behind the village for a sweeping view of Estello nestled in its valley…

Not far from Estellos is a protruding mass of conglomerate rock towering above the village of Riglos.  These rocks attract sane people (Paintin’ Peggie painting the rocks) and crazy people (see the rock climbers in the photo below) and, of course, CrossCountry Bob who looks at the rocks and then wonders if they make wine in Riglos (they don’t, so CrossCountry Bob parks himself at a picnic table in the churchyard and works on his blog while Paintin’ Peggie draws – a beautiful balance.

After CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie were done painting and blogging in the shadows of Riglos, the next stop was calling and it was time to drive west, towards…where??  Well, with CrossCountry Bob behind the wheel, a good guess would be??…more wine country perhaps?  Yes!  And a bottle of Spanish wine is the prize to those who figured that out one step ahead of reading it (small print: you must come to Spain to collect your prize as pictured below)

A fine choice…if you are in Spain – not available in Canada (of course)

What wine region is in norther Spain?  The famous Rioja region, over a hundred years old and first rising to prominence when the French vines were decimated by a cute little aphid-like bug (grape phylloxera) that hitched a ride to Europe from North America around the middle of the 19th century.  The Bordeaux wine merchants were forced to import raw wine from Rioja and age and bottle it in Bordeaux (so the French wine makers maybe aren’t as pure as the tales they still spin, thinks CrossCountry Bob).  The grape phylloxera wasn’t fussy about vine location and Rioja soon went through a similar devastation.  Recovery, as in Bordeaux required the use of North American rootstock which was relatively immune to the grape phylloxera.  The important point to note as far as CrossCountry Bob is concerned is that the Spanish knew a good thing when they saw it and the vineyards and bodegas (Spanish wineries) today sprawl across the Rioja region

All those vineyards (65,000 hectares) produce over 250 million liters of quality Rioja wines (and that word “quality” is not local spin but rather the considered judgement of CrossCountry Bob after much direct sampling). And the price!  It staggers the imagination of CrossCountry Bob that a 8 euro bottle (as in $10.50 Canadian) is as much quality as CCBob requires (meaning great taste, smooth drinking and a pleasant accompaniment to the local tapas). True, you can spend 20 euros for a modest Grand Reserva and wow yourself (as CrossCountry Bob did of course) but it truly is not necessary (at least for CrossCountry Bob’s wallet sensitive taste buds).

To enjoy all this bounty, CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie chose Haro, a town nicely positioned to explore the region (meaning driving and walking exploration by day and eating tapas and drinking Rioja wine by night)

There was one required detour for CrossCountry Bob to the nearby town of Santa Domingo de la Calzada which is a well known stop on the El Camino de Santiago. There were signs, there were statutes, there were Alburgues (where pilgrims sleep)…but…no pilgrims. Wrong time of day figured CrossCountry Bob (it was early afternoon). Off and on CrossCountry Bob has considered doing the El Camino but having seen the long stretches of flat, not so interesting terrain to be crossed in central Spain, CrossCountry Bob is currently “off”, especially after checking out this sign…

Too far for CrossCountry Bob?

Santa Domingo was an interesting pueblo for a bit of shopping (Paintin’ Peggie found a biking jacket) and CrossCountry Bob (as usual) found nothing, but he was tempted by the shopping cart the Spanish abuelas favour…

Image CrossCountry Bob strolling the markets towing this snazzy cart

For the wrap, it was a cafe con leche (CrossCountry Bob’s second favourite drink in Spain). While sipping that cafe con leche, CrossCountry Bob noticed that a Spaniard loves a lottery ticket as much as a Canuck…

And then the wine adventure is contentedly slotted into the “fun and interesting experience’ compartment as Paintin’ Peggie and CrossCountry Bob turn their attention to the ocean. The “Oceano Atlantico” as it is referred to around here, draped up against the coast of northern Spain. Actual destination: the pueblo Llanes, Principado de Asturias.  There is hope that the fine weather tracking the travels of CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie will continue.  We shall see.