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Picos de Europa

26 May 2016

By Dave Mitchell


The mountainous Parque Nacional de Picos Europa resides a couple of hundred kilometers inland from the northern coast of Spain. It's a park of steep and rugged limestone cliffs, valleys and mountains. In fact everywhere we went we encountered flowing limestone, jagged limestone, huge limestone boulders, river-stones and scree. Its by no means pristine wilderness with traditional grazing and clearing into the high mountains, old mining sites and a smattering of hydro generation. The remaining forest cover contains wild boar, deer, mountain goats, wolves and bear. We saw plenty of bird life from the small Pitto to the giant hang-glider size vultures circling on the thermals.

The towns, then villages got progressively smaller as the road wound up to our destination. Like a full stop at the end of a long and winding sentence, the tiny town of Tresviso was for a week our home. Its very steep and narrow paved streets have been woven between the stone houses, which are perched on a north facing hillside. The village dogs laze in the sun while the local cats have the run of the red clay tile roofs. The one meter thick walls and tiny windows made our apartment feel like a bears cave. The village was in the early stages of awakening from winters hibernation with little activity evident. May and June are relatively quiet with snow hanging around the mountain tops and fickle weather. July is the start of summer holiday madness with the popular places packed to the gunnels.

Wrong Way

Our ride start was 10km back down the road towards the village of Sotres. We were heading for PR28, a short distance trail that circles the Sierra de la Corta and climbs to a refusio at 1800 meters. Ditte's knee was on the mend, but thought it best to start on the flatter section of the loop and do it anti-clockwise. We descended onto a high terrace via a 4WD track whilst looking down into a steep gorge where a mountain stream tumbled enthusiastically. Through a birch forest we rode, their beautiful bright green leaves the new growth of spring, catching the early morning sun like magic, with autumn leaves carpeting the forest floor. Stone walls and cleared hill sides marked the the farm-lets of Majada del Hoyo and soon after we commenced the climb, gradual at first to the bush-line where it slowly ramped up. The mountains were alive with the sound of running water from the rapidly melting snow. A stiff breeze was matching the fast moving clouds scudding across from the nor-west and we became enveloped about half way up a series of tight zig zags. Snow drifts across the trail proved a challenge for Ditte's wonky knee, requiring a bit of team work.

A strategically placed stone wall and sign post proved to be our undoing. We mistakenly took the left turn climbing ever upward on corkscrew switch-backs above the cloud and into sunshine. We reached a low pass at 1800 meters where the bench track disappeared for ever, into mountains of snow. This was a great spot to enjoy lunch and the expansive view of surrounding mountains, valleys full of valley mist and rising clouds of epic proportions. A local tramping couple put us back on track which we found after descending back to the sign post; a missing arrow and massively steep snow drift had obscured the descent. The cloud layer had by now re-enveloped us, so we took the safe option and headed back the way we had come up, taking a short side trip out towards the town of Beges. This gave us great views down into the Rio Urdon, across to Tresvisio and the gnarly switch-backs I had ridden to Vado de la Certosa a few days prior. The fickle weather gave us back the sun on the short climb back to the van. Ditte's dodgy knee was on the mend and had performed remarkably, I had spotted a few gnarly side trails to come back for. All was happiness and light back at the accomodation, feeding our faces along with drinking big mugs of local hot chocolate.

A Million to Two & One Dog

Tresviso awoke to full sun. It had to blink twice with the realization, as morning mist was the norm. The dogs came out early to their favorite snooze spots and the chickens left their homes to warm their feathers. Lizards emerged from under their limestone rocks and the cows, sheep and goats knew a good thing when they saw it. We emerged early from our cave and with kit packed headed back along the windy road to Sotres for (pan) bread and the start of our ride. Like girl scouts we came prepared with Wallace and Gromit's favorite food, cheese and crackers as alas the bread-man, was no where to be found, missing in action I suspect.

We pedalled on to a gravel valley road that climbed gradually beside bald faced mountain pinnacles with a generous coating of snow about the tops. Old stone walls surrounded fields of wild flowers at the edge of an almost abandoned village, its dwellings in every stage of disrepair. Sheep, not as kiwis would know them, grazed nearby in the upper valley, where the road turns 4WD and headed upward. We crossed a beautiful ancient stone arch bridge across an energetic whitewater mountain stream, no mortar was evident. The water looked perfectly clean and clear but we weren't having a bar of the stuff, considering the amount of grazing mammals everywhere. Our goal was the Refugio-Hotel de Alive at 1670 meters below a series of mighty peaks rising to over 2600 meters, and maybe further up to Refugio del Cable at 1800 meters where the Fuente De cable car comes up from the south side bringing walkers to these high meadows.

A long unrelenting climb took us beside the Llomba del Toro as a few 4X4s of varying shapes and sizes edged their way down towards us, and out to Sotres. We reached a final single track climb and grunted up to the refugio for a picnic lunch on their sunny and sheltered front deck. A gaggle of Spanish teenagers arrived with their teachers and had obviously come up via the cable car. After lunch with wind stopper snugly in place we continued up towards the next refugio, but soon vast snow drifts put paid to further exploration. We took a side-trip on the way back down to check out an amazing old church planted in the middle of nowhere, standing in a field full of wild flowers. Its big bronze bell and stain glass windows were still intact. New paint and stonework sealant covered it from bell tower to dungeon. We free-rode to its front door where two humans and a dog relaxed in the sun. Alex and Duncan introduced themselves, our neighbors, from just over the hill in Lyttelton. Well what are the odds?? We discussed the Spanish fly fishing laws, lack of sandflies, food and dogs and will surely see them at the Lyttelton market sometime in the future.

In the scheme of things we were a bit early in the snow receding stakes, but the mountains looked spectacular, half dressed with big white fluffy clouds racing overhead. The strong cool northerlies were keeping the air clear instead of hazy and the clear sky intensely blue. The ride back out was gravity assisted. That night we packed and the next day headed for the Spanish Pyrenees after a fantastic time in the Picos and some very narrow and windy roads under our belt.

Nitty Gritty

Check out: www.thepicosdeeuropa.com

Accommodation: www.villa.com