Articles in ‘Cordillera Cantabrica’

A couple of hours to kill on a mountain

Written by Lucy Brzoska

I watched Marcus disappear upwards through the gap. He was on his way to the summit of the vertiginous Peña Ubiña, a thin grey wedge of a mountain, one of the highest (2,417 m) of the Cantabrian Cordillera. I had a 2-hour wait ahead on this rocky crag on my own.

We’d started climbing early to avoid the heat of the day. The path, beginning in Torrebarrio, is unrelentingly steep.  Floating over the mountain side came a song reminiscent of a blackbird’s:  it was from a Rufous rock thrush perched on a boulder. A small band of migrating Common swifts flew overhead.

Though rated as a relatively easy climb, the exposed Peña Ubiña makes my head spin.  But I always look forward to reaching a citadel about 250 metres from the top, the last place I can get to without my legs turning to jelly. Through the ramparts on one side, I can see Babia, and the valley of San Emiliano.

Bells ring out as a long line of sheep are being herded down from mountain pasture.  The grass at the end of a dry summer has been bitten to the quick, and the flock is on its way to the river valleys.  They are accompanied by mastiffs, an ancient breed of livestock guardians, who wear metal collars and have thick dewlaps to protect their throats from wolves.


La Majua and beyond

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Two kilometres into the walk, we stop in La Majua where there’s a bar by the bridge.  Hens strut, builders fix pipes, villagers gossip, house martins feed their young, and a man goes back and forth in his madreños, wheeling rocks over the bridge in a barrow.


Not only the old folk wear these practical wooden clogs.  In El Puertu after the rain a strapping youth in track-suit bottoms pounded across the road in his.  They keep your feet warm and dry and raise them out of the dung and mud.


We head north to the Asturian border.  If the walk had a soundtrack, there’d be a crescendo when the track suddenly curves and you’re confronted with the river tumbling down in a series of falls.  The top of the valley is almost sealed off by rocks forming a narrow ravine – La Foz.


There’s an icy spring by the river where people converge for feasts.  A can of beer left in the water for 15 minutes tastes fresh out of the fridge.  I found an Apollo butterfly on a thistle, the first I’d ever seen.  It was so translucent you could see the purple flower through its wings.  It seemed fragile, as if you could blow the pigmentation away like dust.


Though worn around the edges, it was stunningly beautiful.


At the top of the ravine, the way is barred by a stone wall and wooden sticks.  You climb up and around, and you’re in a different world.


You’re cupped inside a circle of mountains.  It’s often cold and inhospitable in here, with an uneasy threat of descending mist that billows out of nowhere and fills up the cirque in an instance.  But today was calm and hot. A short-toed eagle was soaring, white against the blue sky.  The herd of chamois retreated to a slightly higher spot.  We lay on the grass observed by wheatears.  Later, we climbed to the rim of the cup and looked at the lunar landscape beyond.


On the Puerto de Somiedo

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.