Written by Lucy Brzoska
On a clear August night, we walked out of the tiny village of El Puertu.The absence of mist was almost uncanny and stars were visible in their millions.All around, out of the darkness, came the sound of bells.
El Puertu (1,486 m) was founded as a summer settlement by Vaqueiros de Alzada, the herders who’d take their animals and possessions up to high pasture as soon as weather permitted. Strong and athletic, Asturian cows are perfectly adapted to their mountain habitat.One day we were startled to see horns charging towards us through the broom, as two vacas roxas galloped down the slope, paused and then ran up hill again. Among other things, visiting the Somiedo natural park is about walking among cows and learning how not to upset their Mastiff guardians.
The best pasture is on the irrigated level ground around the village, green even in late summer. This land is carefully divided by long dry stone walls, home to a variety of creatures.
I went out with a torch one night, when the habitual mantle of damp mist had settled down on El Puertu, and found myriads of orange-eyed Common toads (Bufo bufo) had come out of the walls to hunt.This toad wasn’t distracted by the scrutiny and snatched up a beetle with its tongue.
Just down the road to the north lies El Peral, another village of Vaqueiros.It’s famous for its well-maintained teitos, traditional stone houses thatched with broom.The only surviving teito in El Puertu is slowly falling down, although the storks remain loyal to it, their nest getting lower each year as the building crumbles.Perched on the border with Leon, El Puertu is one of the few villages in Asturias to have nesting storks.
The presence of bears was tangible in signs and stories, if not sightings. A taxi driver from the nearby valley of Laciana told us that a mother and cubs have approached his village close enough to be seen clearly from the bar. One theory is that the mother is keeping her young away from the male bears, always a threat, by ranging in areas they would avoid.
The mountain slopes of Somiedo are covered in bilberry bushes and we were told that late August, when the berries are ripe, is a good time to glimpse a sweet-toothed bear out in the open. No luck on that score, but it was exciting to sit looking down at El Peral, knowing a bear had recently wandered past.