Spain’s mountains made of cheese
The Picos de Europa in northern Spain was the country’s first national park. (Matt Munro)
“It’s like cheese under here,” I overheard a Spanish hiker say to his companion, high on the slopes of Spain’s Picos de Europa mountain range.
He was describing the multitude of caves that puncture the limestone slopes that spread across Asturias, Cantabria and Castilla y Leon regions in northern Spain. But if it was meant as a simile, it could also be taken literally -- because in a number of these caves, the local speciality, Cabrales cheese (a blue cheese similar to Roquefort) is quietly ageing in the gloom.
It is this cheese that gives the mountains much of their character. The Picos de Europa was Spain’s first national park, and it is a place where cows and goats still graze purely to maintain the local cheese industry. As they trim the grassy slopes of heather and gorse, they also open up spectacular views across the massif.
Rising to 2,648m above sea level at their highest point and stretching just 40km in length, the Picos de Europa -- the Peaks of Europe -- were apparently so named because they were the first piece of European land sailors sighted when coming across the Atlantic. Though virtually unknown compared to the likes of the Alps, Pyrenees and Dolomites, there is much to prove the Picos worthy of their grand name.
Two of the Picos’ caves, the Torca del Cerro del Cuevon and the Sima de la Cormisa, are among the deepest in the world, both plunging more than 1,500m into the earth . The mountains are gouged across by the Garganta del Cares, a gorge almost as deep as the Grand Canyon. And sat atop the range like a rocky prong is the peak of Naranjo de Bulnes, its shape more akin to the mountains in the windy wilds of Patagonia than the northern coast of Spain. This 500m-high fang of rock dominates the massif, and it is arguably the most striking peak in Spain. Rock climbers revere it for its long, exposed climbs, and for walkers it is the most magnetic destination in the Picos thanks to its dominating bulk.
The popular 10km trail to reach the base of Naranjo de Bulnes begins at the mouth of the Garganta del Cares in the village of Poncebos, 6km from the popular tourist town of Arenas de Cabrales. Walk this route and you will discover a place where mountain life has retained an authentic, unpolished edge. There are stone villages like Bulnes, 3km from Poncebos, still yet to be connected by road. Shepherds wander the slopes, herding goats along the trails and alpine expanses, beginning the cheese-making process. Even track notes caution about goat fleas rather than the usual bears or snakes. It is a journey that ascends through mountain pastures towards the barren heights of the range, peering deep into valleys and gorges and up to raw and rocky mountains. The scenery belies the relatively low altitudes, with great alpine hiking at just 2,000m above sea level.
At day’s end, the Vega de Urriellu mountain refuge at the base of the peak is the only accommodation option, offering basic meals and dormitory beds to walkers and climbers -- but a night here is an essential part of the Picos mountain experience. In the evenings, chamois (a goat-antelope species native to mountains in Europe) click across the surrounding rocks, and if the weather is clear you get the most unusual of mountain views, peering down onto ships far below on the Atlantic Ocean.
Once you have walked on the mountains, the most common way to get inside them is by hiking into the Garganta del Cares. This gorge wriggles through the Picos for 11km, with limestone cliffs and mountain slopes rising up to 1,500m overhead. Blasted into the limestone cliffs, and at times burrowing through them, is a walking track, the Ruta de Cares, which is said to be one of the busiest trails in Spain with up to 3,000 hikers each day in summer. It may also be one of the most spectacular walks in the country.