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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.

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.

And close to Llanes, past a lot of new construction, there’s La Posada de Babel, a cool, modernist compound made up of three angular buildings on a sloping green hill, owned and run by Lucas Cajiao, a wiry man from Colombia, and his wife, Blanca, from Madrid. When we went down for dinner one night, we found Lucas reading Doctor Faustus next to one of the two fireplaces in the book-lined living room. He opened a nice bottle of César Príncipe for us and disappeared into the kitchen. It was his chef’s day off, so he was pitching in. After he’d served the last course of our six-course meal—which included quail breast and veal cheeks—he sat down and decanted a 1995 Clos Martinet Priorat, and we talked for hours as if we were all old friends. Finally, we walked up to our room—with clean white lines and a glass cube for a sitting room—in a steady rain that had been falling all day.

“I’m going to come back here,” Gaby said as we retired. “Just to rest