2000s Archive

Far and Away

Originally Published March 2007
Bridging Asturias and Cantabria, Spain’s Picos de Europa soar dramatically into the clouds, yielding scenery out of a fairy tale and a way of life immune to the march of time.
Women walking dog; Mountain scenery.

Against our better judgment, at Fuente Dé we boarded an old cable car whose lofty destination, at that moment, was obscured by dark, foreboding clouds. I held on tight inside the four- by six-foot car and kept telling myself, Just don’t look down. But looking up didn’t keep our stomachs in place, as jagged peaks, pocked black and gray, came suddenly into view. Disembarking, we stepped out of the clouds and into the sky—about 5,900 feet up, atop the sheer rock faces of the Picos de Europa. The mountain range—literally, the Peaks of Europe—bridges the regions of Asturias and Cantabria, in northern Spain, and is cut through by a series of rivers that create gorges as seductive and eerie as anything from Middle-earth. Whereas the Pyrenees are long and majestic and the Alps high and pristine, the Picos de Europa are condensed, hastily jutting up, only 12 miles south of the Cantabrian Sea, an abrupt limestone mass in what’s known as Green Spain. They’re about halfway between Bilbao and Santiago de Compostela, but you’d never know it. Around every bend on the ascent along narrow and circuitous roads, there’s another spiny, looming formation that looks like a sleeping dinosaur who could unfurl himself at the next bloom of spring. Three hundred million years of glacial shift and force of water created this steep landscape, and from the silence of its valleys and from perches on its spurs, you can hear the echoes of time.

At the cable-car depot, there was little sign of human life, just a great uneven expanse of lunar terrain. My friend Gabriella and I set off to explore, as foolhardy and ill-prepared for what lay ahead as we had been when we’d met 23 years earlier, in the twilight of our adolescence.

She wore sandals; I had tennis sneakers on. We had no water, no map, and only a vague idea of a refugio that lay somewhere out there among the scrubby vegetation and limestone crags. We followed instinct and the position of the sun in the sky. We followed skinny paths worn into the ground by small groups of cows, the donga-donga of their bells trilling faintly in the distance. (Each herd has its own ring, so owners can identify their cows from afar.) For hours we didn’t hear another sound or see another soul—unless you count cows lazily grazing here and there. Finally we spotted the refugio—essentially a rural weigh station that serves food and drink—on a grassy hill way up high. There were a few all-terrain vehicles parked outside, but the place was quiet, apart from a bartender, a leathery farmer on a stool, and a couple of rock climbers having a picnic at a table outside. Gaby and I didn’t have enough energy or daylight to get back down to the cable car on foot, so she gamely asked the bartender if there was someone we could hire to drive us. The farmer agreed to take us in his beat-up old Land Rover, but insisted on finishing his snifter of brandy first.

“You can’t rush a Spaniard’s lunch,” said Gaby, who many years before had left the States, settled in San Sebastián, and married a Basque man there. Since she left the U.S., we’d made a habit of meeting up in unusual places to see what we could see; and though there is an ocean between us, I spend more time with her than with some of my friends who live down the street in New York City. We both recognize the privilege of our freedom and our trips together, uncommitted as each of us is to children or deskbound jobs. As we sat in the late-afternoon sun high up in the mountains, waiting for our driver, we laughed at our own folly. It was the summer of 2001, when our knowledge of danger was worldly but not earth-shattering, as it would be come September. Still, Gaby was terrified as we sat in the backseat of the Land Rover, bumping over loose rock and then following a narrow shelf of a road that left no margin of error between us and a straight drop, thousands of feet down.

“He doesn’t want to die any more than we do,” I said, trying to reassure her, when the farmer stepped on the brakes. He leaped out of the car and scrambled up a steep hill to a little plateau; out of nowhere and from different directions, a crowd of men began to gather. Somehow the news had spread: A cow had fallen down a well. Our driver scrambled back down, spoke rapidly about plans to rig block-and-tackle to haul the poor beast up, and got us to the cable car in no time. I don’t remember if we even had a chance to pay him, as his Land Rover disappeared around a bend, small rocks tumbling in its wake. He was so eager to get back to the action.

Five years later, the whole world has changed, but Picos de Europa has not. The people and the customs are much the same as they have been for thousands of years. Wild boar is a delicacy; Cabrales cheese is still crafted locally; fabada, a traditional stew made with pork and white beans (in Asturias) or chickpeas (in Cantabria), can be found both at little roadside bars and in the grander dining rooms of the area; in tiny villages, families live in small stone houses whose front doors are next to the cow stalls, which are next to the chicken coop, all in a line and just as close as rooms in a railroad flat. In recent years, the area has attracted more tourists looking for unbeaten paths—Spaniards, of course, but also German hikers with tanned legs and canvas shorts, British ramblers with walking sticks and sturdy shoes, Scandinavian spelunkers who come to see caves that are adorned with well-preserved 14,000-year-old drawings, and the odd Italian loner wearing woven trousers and carrying climbing rope over one shoulder. In summer, kayak-rental outfits do a booming business, but during the rest of the year, life continues along at its own pace, which is to say very slowly.

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