Day 5 – Fuente De
After an evening of enjoying internet from Benny directly for the first time since we’d been away, we then additionally enjoyed the on-site bakery in the morning, picking up croissants, pain au chocolats and a still warm baguette. The appetising fresh bakery smell filled our senses as we enjoyed the breakfast yummies, before packing up and heading to the Fuente De cable car, a few miles deeper into the mountains.
Despite our early arrival we were met with the mundaneness of having to queue for about half an hour, the price we had to pay (along with €11 each for one way) for the four minute steep ascent in the gondola to the top of the mountain pass. We could have undertaken a three hour steep slog up the mountain on foot instead but with this walk, recognised as one of the ‘must do‘ activities in the Picos, it simply recommends the approximately four hour trek back down the mountain as the key highlight. An unusual concept for us as regular walkers as we’re so used to earning our summits before descending. However, when in Rome (or in this instance Spain) we decided we’d go with the recommendations, experience the cable car trip, and then enjoy a fabulous, easy walking day to return.
The twenty souls who were our four minute standing companions compacted into the small cable car, all dispersed quickly in their chosen direction upon alighting. We enjoyed looking over the edge from the viewing platform at the next cable car coming up following our path from the valley hundreds of metres below. We had a twenty minute ascent to the highest point of the walk, which brought us to the start of the downhill path.
By then, we were already afforded spectacular views of massive lumps of barren jagged rock set against a beautiful blue sky with a few fluffy white clouds, an open cathedral of fantastic vistas in whichever direction your eyes chose to look. We absorbed this visual spectacular and, after taking a brief detour up a small side path to take photos from a slightly different angle, we were soon on our way along the well defined chalky track as it gradually snaked down the mountain in front of us.
From time to time we heard the now familiar ringing of livestock bells fixed around the necks of either horses, cows , goats or sheep, all of which we saw on the mountains through the day. Loose horses on the mountains were on occasion accompanied by their nursing young foals, delicate and unsure on their thin, gangly legs.
There was one large hotel refugio with a restaurant and cafeteria about a third of the way down, for visitors who wanted to stay within the mountain constraints. Even though there were a selection of walks available to undertake from the cable car drop-off position, we were still surprised that nobody else seemed to follow the same route as us. We loved that we only saw two further people that day, so we fully enjoyed the tranquillity and solitude of this beautiful countryside and its scenery at our leisure.
Although predominantly downhill and having feasted on lovely bakery items for breakfast, as lunchtime approached we were definitely ready for our al fresco picnic. We chose an open grassed location on a small hillock, which gave us lovely vistas in all directions. Sitting enjoying our lunch this Monday lunchtime, we couldn’t help but comment to each other how different our Monday lunchtime could have been should we still be working hard in our respective Northamptonshire offices. The contrast was stark.
In this middle part of the walk, lower on the hills, the terrain changed from bare rocky massifs to more open pasture like hillsides, before we then approached the lower level woodland area. We continued to observe nature’s array of wildlife, seeing tiny blue butterflies flitter around bushes with bright orange berries, giving continual stimulation to our eyes. On this beautiful hot day out in the sunshine, we enjoyed the deep cooling impact of the forest glades, which were carpeted with curling red autumnal leaves and showed vivid green moss on the north facing side of the tree’s gnarled trunks.
We had an interesting navigational issue at one point, caused by livestock on the lower hills (that’s our excuse anyway). We were following the well marked trail on smaller paths and tracks on the lower hills, with the occasional detour around the odd roaming cow. We gradually realised that although we were still following a well-worn track, we hadn’t seen any of the signpost markers for a while, and ended up reaching a dead end at an impassable thicket of brambles. After further furtive wandering about trying to locate the correct path, we retraced our steps to the last known marker and saw that an enormous cow, that we’d earlier deviated from the path to get around, had been obscuring the way marker. We made it back on the correct path and continued on our way.
After a very satisfying and stunning 16km we had completed our walk. We topped up with supplies at a supermarket on the way to our next overnight location on the north side of the Picos mountains about an hour and a half away, at the campsite ‘Naranjo de Bulnes’. Here we enjoyed a very relaxing evening in the sunshine with supermarket pizzas as our infrequent fast food alternative to replace our spent calories. Oh, and we had a glass or two of red as well, to ensure we stayed well hydrated too.
Day 6 – Cares gorge (Garanta del Cares)
From the campsite it was an 8km drive to the start of the Cares Gorge walk, another well-touted walk in the Picos mountains. The car park really only catered for car sized vehicles, but with a corner spot and some tricky manoeuvring, we were able to get into a space diagonally without compromising any other parking bays (too much). We’d made an early start, so whilst the car park was nearly empty we weren’t to know what the demand on spaces might be later that day. (as it turned out, it was overflowing when we returned later). A parking fine or clamping would be significantly annoying, so we felt it worth taking the time and trouble to park our six metre long Benny as sensibly as we could.
In the early 1900s a hydro-electric water system was constructed in the hillside along the Cares river, and the accompanying path was built to allow the workers to construct, manage and maintain the hydro-electric system. This system is still in place, and you could at several points see some of the man-made water channels in the mountainside. With it being very sensitively done and mostly within the rock of the mountain, it created a great and interesting walking path along the entire length of the gorge from Poncebos to Cain, approximately 15km in one direction.
We’ve reached a pattern where the mornings and evenings are cold or at least cool, and it takes until early to mid-afternoon before the air temperature is lifted to comfortable, then shortly after becomes delightfully warm, for us Brits. The locals, when spotted, are still to be seen in coats.
This morning was no different, with a real chill in the air before the sun had properly risen and generated its intensity onto the day, so the initial, and only uphill, part of the walk was undertaken at the best time of day. Largely the walk was flat, on fine gravel paths, but winding along the contours of the mountainside, often in and out of arches and tunnels, where the marks of drilled dynamite holes could still be clearly noted. The route afforded fabulous vistas in both directions along the gorge, with the backdrop of amazing blue skies. Touted as one of the top 10 walks to do in Spain, we couldn’t help but agree with this accolade; however we were surprised that in late September, with the weather milder and perfect for walking, there were still relatively few fellow walkers on the trail.
The level of light between portions of the chasm in the sun and shade was a deep contrast, making it difficult to see on occasions, as our eyes adjusted to the change. The gorge was definitely hard to photograph due to this intense contrast, so we could never properly capture the extent, size or quality of the views we experienced on every section.
On the rare occasions when it was visible, the water in the river far below looked an incredibly clear turquoise colour, presumably from mineral deposits from the surface runoff. These uncommon glimpses continued along the whole route, teasing us with beautiful, inviting deep clear pools at regular intervals that were completely inaccessible.
Narrow chalky paths, down to not much more than 1m wide on occasions, with solid cliffs on the inside and shear drops on the outside, made the walk one to be avoided if vertigo was an issue. On only one occasion was there a built barrier, where the cliff itself was not cut sufficiently to allow proper headroom, so a small platform bridge was constructed, tentatively cantilevering out over the river below.
For the last few kilometres the scenery changed, with much more greenery on the slopes, replacing the rugged silver of the bare stone. After reaching the gorge walk end at the village of Cain, our turn around point, we had a brief look around the town before returning to a small river pool we’d spotted about 1km back, on the opposite side of the river. Some steep stone steps led to a small steel bridge that crossed us over the river and we detoured briefly around to this small pool, crystal clear and shimmering blue. Aaron had a paddle and cooled his feet while we enjoyed the gorge and watched other walkers pass by from our sheltered picnic spot.
A little over half way now, we returned via the same narrow route, meandering through the arches and passageways formed through the rocks where the path was unable to be constructed on the outside of the cliff face. The entire scheme was an impressive feat of manpower and engineering, covering such a long pathway in through such a gorge.
We encountered goats resting on the path, as if guarding the upcoming tunnels cut into the rock, completely at home and unafraid of passing walkers. The return leg opened up different perspectives along the gorge. With the later hour, the sun was high in the sky and lit up much more of the depth, allowing us to see deeper and further and experience the cliff faces lit up in all their glory. The air was also much hotter now, making the walk back an altogether different experience.
Our GPS tracker’s satellites couldn’t penetrate the stony depths of the high-sided gorge to provide an accurate distance walked, but the return trip, with the extra distance to our parking location, was somewhere in the region of 30km. This was definitely our longest walk to date, and arguably the most beautiful. We returned for a second night at the same campsite, Naranjo de Bulnes, to review photos, enjoy memories and rest aching muscles.
Day 7 – Onwards
We had one last walk planned for this morning, around Covodongo lakes, but the weather let us down with a drizzly rain and dull grey blanket of cloud that didn’t look like it was leaving any time soon. So rather than sully the memory of the Picos with a wet, cold walk, we decided to head on instead, back to the coast. It was definitely moving day weather.
Adios Picos, it was very nice to meet you. Perhaps we’ll see you again.