Take a hike through Spain's Picos de Europa
The Picos de Europa aren't well known, but Spain's limestone mountains will pique your interest, writesAlf Alderson
Turning off the Cantabrian Highway along Spain's verdant north coast and heading inland to the Desfiladero de la Hermida, you soon encounter an ever-narrowing chasm where the cold, clear waters of the Rio Deva bounce between thickly vegetated rock walls.
Even on the sunniest of days, an air of gloom hangs over the dank, vertiginous road as it winds its way up towards the Picos de Europa. It's a far cry from the open skies and landscapes of the coast, and it's easy to understand why medieval travellers were reluctant to venture into the mountains when Stygian routes such as this were the only gateway to the high peaks.
Eventually, the road snakes out of the gloomy gorge and opens up onto bright pastures, above which tower the grey-white crags and pinnacles of the Picos de Europa.
It's a little surprising after the almost Lost World feel of the narrow Deva valley to eventually drive into the bustling town of Potes; blue skies and vibrant street life encourage me to pull over and enjoy a coffee and a spot of people watching before continuing onwards and upwards, until my car could go no further.
I've arrived at the hamlet of Fuente De, which lies in a large meadow that is, quite literally, at the end of the road and comprises little more than a large parador alongside the only cable car in the Picos de Europa. This combination of comfortable accommodation at the foot of the peaks and easy access into them makes it an ideal base from which to explore.
Purists will be appalled at the idea of using a cable car to access the hills, but for those of us with more prosaic views on such matters, it's not just an impressive feat of engineering, but also a very practical, stress-free means of getting from Fuente De to the top station, more than 600 metres above, in a matter of minutes.
There is a problem, though: it's a national holiday, and I discover an hour-long queue waiting patiently in the midday sun for a lift to the heights. I decide I can walk up to the top station in that time; I arrive about three hours later, having scrabbled along barely marked paths and almost fallen down an unmarked mine shaft.
But in return for the sweat and drama of a hike in glorious solitude, I have expansive views of the Picos' southern foothills, where dark blue forests roll away to the more arid landscapes of central Spain.
In very clear weather, it's even possible to see all the way to the Bay of Biscay; it was Spanish sailors crossing the bay's choppy waters who first named these mountains the "Peaks of Europe", since they were the first sight of land they'd had when returning from across the seas.
Being limestone, the Picos de Europa are subject to intense erosion by rainwater, producing a dramatic karst landscape of towering crags, dark, cold caves and caverns and sun-blasted limestone pavements. The highest peaks, such as Torre del Lambrión (2,642 metres), which has a small but permanent snowfield, and the spectacular spike of Naranjo de Bulnes (2,519 metres) were not climbed until the late 19th century, and development has been far less marked here than in better-known European ranges such as the Alps and the Pyrenees.
Most visitors simply ride up in the cable car, wander a couple of hundred metres into the mountains and then, wary of abominable snowmen, altitude sickness and distance from a source of beer, they scurry back to the cable car station and the noisy fug of humanity.
But for more adventurous souls, hopping out of the cable car is just the beginning. I use it the following day for my first real foray, rising just as the sun was peeping over the top of Peña Remona, turning the area's easterly facing crags shades of gold.
My early start ensures that I am at the front of the queue for the first ride of the day, and three hours later, I stand alone on the pointy summit of Pico de Santa Ana (2,595 metres). On its north and south flanks, the summit plummets hundreds of metres to crumbling scree slopes; to sit at the top by oneself, admiring the alpine views and watching distant walkers scrabbling around like ants on neighbouring peaks is worth scuffing the toes of my boots.
I return to Fuente De in the afternoon at the tail end of a storm, thunder still echoing off the rock walls above and lightning slicing through the bruised sky. Weather like this is common in summer, so the next day I set off early to beat the rain. My route takes me up the 29 relentlessly steep switchbacks of the Canal del Embudo and into the huge Vega de Liordes, the largest meadow in the Picos.
From there, a further stiff climb takes me to a high mountain col, where I enjoy my lunch with just a couple of chamois for company, followed by a long and dusty return on more gently angled trails.
It's hard to keep hydrated with the combination of exercise, heat and altitude, so the return to Fuente De and a cold beer is welcome, as is the chance to sit outside in the gathering gloom and contemplate the savage peaks above, brilliantly lit by the last of the evening sun.
I would have liked to stay longer. And having since learned that the Picos de Europa have ski tours in the winter, I may venture back for more.
Air France flies from Hong Kong to Bilbao, Spain, via Paris. From Bilbao, it's a three-hour drive to the Picos de Europa.
The Parador de Fuente De features traditional alpine-style interiors and is the best bet for easy access to the mountains. Full board costs from €180 (HK$1,085) a night.
Tel: +34 942 736 651