2000s Archive

Far and Away

continued (page 2 of 3)

Last spring, Gaby and I set ourselves up at Parador de Fuente Dé, a hotel that sits in a kind of basin at the foot of a staggering rock facade in the Cantabrian heart of Picos de Europa. (Inevitably when guests arrive and get out of their cars, heads tip way back and eyes widen as they look up, exactly like tourists from the heartland on their first visit to Manhattan.) We had not become mountaineers, but this time we had enough sense and respect for the true wilderness of the region to be prepared with compass, hats, proper footwear, bottled water, two apples, some salami in a ziplock bag, and a rudimentary map picked up at a small tourist office in Espinama, a slanting village along the road to Fuente Dé. Leaving the car in the minuscule town of Brez, which sits at about 2,000 feet, we struck out on a circular walk, vaguely marked on our map. Though the Picos are part of a parque nacional, you can’t count on there being well-marked routes, whether labeled “gran recorrido” or “pequeño recorrido.” There’s the occasional symbol painted on the trunk of a tree or small stone pyramid on the ground, but really, you have to rely on your sense of direction and the appearance of a path that comes and goes like a breeze. But the reward is profound. Climbing 900 feet above an old stone chapel and a village woman picking cherries from her tree, by an overgrown pasture, into a steep terrain that is by turns lush and arid, we wandered into a place where irises grew out from between boulders, where falcons flew overhead, where the gadunka-dunk of a cowbell ricocheted from peak to dramatic peak, where water rushed down from heaven itself, where two women alone could amble without a moment’s thought of peril aside from a giant slug along the way. Up on a plateau at about 2,300 feet, the air was clear, the sound was silence, and the rocks—some smooth, some honeycombed—were laced with mystery. Or untouched, anyway, by the troubles and conflicts of modern society.

Our pilgrimage continued to the west, into Asturias, where the Christian Reconquest began. The Visigothic nobleman Pelayo supposedly fought the advancing Muslims here in 722 a.d., and after a resounding victory at Covadonga, he was elected king, making Asturias the cradle of the Spanish monarchy. Cangas de Onís, on the banks of the river Sella where Pelayo established his court, is another good entry point to the Picos. En route from there to the stunning glacial lakes, Enol and Ercina, you can find a statue of Pelayo in front of the 19th-century basilica at Covadonga (whose spires mirror the surrounding peaks) and La Santa Cueva, a cave that’s dedicated to the Virgin of the battlefield. The drive to the lakes is slow, ear-popping, and twisty, interrupted every so often by blond cows-—with pointy horns and very long eyelashes—standing in the road. But the summits and scenery surrounding the lakes are some of the most breathtaking. We began a trek up beyond Lago de la Ercina, where, in contrast to the Cantabrian terrain, the ground was pure rock and mud, better suited to the cloven-hoofed than the Merrell-shod. But we turned back after an hour, heeding the advice of a local man in a bar who told us to beware of fast-moving clouds because they’re the harbinger of fog, which can quickly descend and lock the peaks in zero visibility, completely disorienting even the most seasoned hiker.

One evening, ditching our boots and trousers for something a little more stylish, we headed into town to have dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant, Casa Marcial. The town of Arriondas is one-horse, maybe two-, with a main street easily missed in a blink, a few utilitarian shops, another Michelin-starred restaurant, and a sleepy police station where the officer on duty was completely blasé when we went in to report what we thought might be a raging fire on one of the peaks. “There’s a lot of controlled burning around here,” he said.

Casa Marcial was not really in town at all, but rather a good distance up a dark country road, in a converted farmhouse. The young chef, Nacho Manzano, is an Asturian native whose sensibility reaches considerably further. That night, he served a natural oyster with free-range chicken, mustard greens, and bread crumbs; he used lapas (sea snails) in a creamy rice dish with jamón, chorizo, and the stalks of a regional starflower; and he paired seared foie gras with an apricot purée and the tiny white flowers from Queen Anne’s lace.

When Manzano, 34, came out of the kitchen to say hello to us and one other table in the stylish upstairs dining room, we remarked that it was brave of him to open such a sophisticated place so far out in the sticks. “I was born here,” he said, smiling. Yes, yes, of course, and Asturias is fantastic—“No,” he said, “in this house.” Indeed, he had been born in that farmhouse, not in a maternity ward nearby, and it was his greatest pride to still be there. That’s the lure of the mountains, the delighted spirit of the region, the hallmark of a patch of western Europe that still has the promise of secrets, discovery, flavor, and tradition. Hailed by serious tastemakers, but home to people moved more by curious mollusks than by stars bestowed. At the weekend, Manzano’s tables are full—and not with traveling or transplanted Yanks.

Perhaps the Picos de Europa are protected by the shadow of better-known spots in this part of Spain; or maybe they’re preserved by their own topography—a challenge in spring, treacherous and impassable in winter. An unspoiled enchantment hangs like mist in the air, even while progress marches on closer to sea level below them. Just outside Oviedo, the capital of Asturias, there are two fantastic remnants of the ninth century, the Church of Santa Maria del Naranco and the Chapel of San Miguel de Lillo, but in town, new bars serve paella in a tiny pan, and a modern aesthetic has transformed an old noble house into the Museo de Bellas Artes de Asturias. Gijón is a bustling port where a massive Chillida sculpture sits on a cliff overlooking the Cantabrian Sea and where an elaborate resort and spa is due to open this year.

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