“If you think what you’ve seen today was beautiful, wait until tomorrow!”
The words race round my brain when I wake on my second morning in Asturias. My second thought is relief that my limbs feel quite normal, not showing any signs of strain from that short but hilly walk the day before.
The weather has been forecast to be better than the previous day, but it isn’t looking that way when Juanjo collects me, and he warns that part of the day’s schedule might not be possible on account of the low cloud. We were slated to visit a spot with a grand view of Naranjo de Bulnes, el Pozo de la Oración. Naranjo de Bulnes is Asturias’s most famous peak, a mecca for climbers wanting to test their nerve, not the highest, but the sheerest. This was the landscape he’d had in mind when he’d spoken those words the evening before.
It isn’t long before it becomes obvious that the low cloud will dictate our day, given that my “mission” is to observe the area’s beauty, and report back my impressions to Paradores de España, but Juanjo has Plan B. I suppose that an experienced mountain guide (and Juanjo is an accredited international mountain guide) always has Plan B, if not C and even D. The weather doesn’t ruin just picnics – though living in a sub-tropical climate tends to make me forget this!
Even though the hoped-for views aren’t on the agenda, the promise does come true however, as we drive though ever more picturesque hillsides of Atlantic forest, and come to a halt at the beginning of the Rio Cares Gorge. Perhaps my inclination to view everything with total innocence was a good one, because nothing has prepared me for the scale nor the intensity of this place. Much as I love words, I am running out of adjectives, and, honestly, I have a lump in my throat when I see the towering sides of the gorge and the incredible blue of the River Cares.
The Rio Cares Gorge is probably Spain’s best-known walking trail (barring the Camino de Santiago, which is, obviously something more than a walking trail). As we approach the river I am almost shocked by its incredible color. At the foot of grey rock faces, sprouting green vegetation, a tumble of pure turquoise races downwards. I’ve seen nothing like it before, ever. Think Lord of the Rings meets the color of the sea on a white sand Caribbean beach, and you may understand.
We walk a little way along the river, not on the high, hiking trail, which we can see above us, but lower. The river’s power has been harnessed to provide energy further along, and the trail was first hewn for maintenance workers, but is now a hugely popular hiking trail. I ache to return and walk it! I keep expecting that vivid color to change, perhaps it’s a trick of the light, but no, even when we get closer, crossing el Puente de la Jaya, it is still that stunning color. My visit is a whirlwind, but you know that feeling when you have left a small piece of your heart somewhere? You just know that you have to go back to find it? That’s how I feel about this magical place….I’m no way done with it.
Our schedule now gone by the board, Juanjo suggests we go to Sotres to see if we can bring forward the planned visit to a local Cabrales cheesemaker which had been arranged for 4 o’clock. Perhaps the mists might clear afterwards and we can find our sought-after views.
Sotres charms me at first sight. The village began as a mujada – a collection of cabins, such as the one we visited the previous day,where shepherds spend the summer with their animals – but over time people stayed, and built permanent homes. Even now there are only around 80 houses, and many used as holiday homes, because subsequently folk had to move away in search of work in the larger towns below. It’s straggly but neat, houses balance on the hillsides, and the streets are quiet, yet even so gridlock happens as three cars approach the same space – the streets are also narrow and curving. Juanjo points out the tubes emerging at intervals along the streets, soon the electric company will be running all the cable underground, so that the infamous towers which spoil so many landscapes, worldwide, won’t be interrupting the vistas of Picos de Europa. We stop at Casa Cipriano, which is a rural hotel which belongs to Juanjo’s family, and he introduces me to his wife, Sonia, to whom I warm instantly.
He makes the arrangements, and we walk up to the cheesemakers, and a warm welcome from Rogelio Lopez and his wife Maria Eugenia, who is tending the day’s milk production which will become the wonderful Cabrales cheese. Cabrales is the only blue cheese whose color is completely natural, not induced in any way.The colors of the brimming shelves of the store-room, where the finished cheeses spend fifteen days, mostly vary from white to yellow. The lighter colors the more recent ones, and the darker ones the cheeses which are ready to take up to the cave for the real maturing to begin. Spanish cheeses, as all European cheeses now, have a Protected Designation of Origin, rather like wines, certification and a guarantee that they are made in the prescribed manner, with only local ingredients, and in the region noted. Rogelio proudly shows me the labels which only accredited cheesemakers can affix to their packaging. I wrote about both these artisan cheese for Spain Scoop here.
And then the most incredible moment – he slices a cheese, and I’m surprised that the color is greyish rather than the bright hue I associate with blue cheese. He shaves off a little and offers it to me. It is utterly, unexpectedly creamy on my tongue, and then the full flavor breaks, strong and earthy, but at the same time light and smooth. Absolutely delicious. I’m hooked. It’s my first ever taste of Cabrales and it has me, like a moth to a flame.
Next we are off to the cave where the cheeses mature. Yesterday we weren’t able to see the Gamoneu, but today it is allowed. The air is damp, rain hovers as we crunch to a halt outside a wide cave entrance (well, wide in my limited cave experience). There are several abortive attempts to start a generator, but it isn’t playing, so we don head-torches and enter cautiously.
The humidity inside runs at 95%, the smell of cheese is pungent, and the sound of water running accompanies our steps. The ceiling is high, and without the torches the darkness would be complete. It reminds me for all the world of a church, and I am very aware that to many foodies that is exactly how they would view this place. It’s a huge priviledge to be here, and I am more than a little awed. Wooden trestle shelving lines the walls, and we come to Rogelio’s section, where the cheeses are stored according to age. They remain here for a minimum of two months, whilst acquiring that wonderful color and flavor, and every fifteen days they have to be turned by hand.
Later, over a scrumptious lunch back in Casa Cipriano, Juanjo and Rogelio talk about the problems and the charms in living in this fairly remote location. Almost impossible to live here without a 4×4, in winter snow shoes are sometimes required, and yet……I get the best internet connection of my visit, here in this tiny village in the mountains!
The talk turns to a burning local issue, and I see the other side of an environmental problem from the one I normally appreciate. Picos de Europa is a Biosphere and a National Park, and the animals therein are protected,which includes a rapidly expanding wolf population. Once on the point of extinction, they have made a dramatic comeback, and are a real worry to local farmers. Many sheep and goats are being killed. Wolves, I am told are the only animals which kill for the thrill. Often they don’t even eat the animal they kill. Other cattle die because in fleeing from their predators they fall into ravines or are injured in other ways, and there is a growing movement for a cull. It’s a tough question. Perhaps if realistic compensation were offered it might be less of a problem, but right now that isn’t on the table. If the farmers continue to lose livestock at the current rate it will affect their livelihoods ….. and, foodies, beware……ultimately the production of Cabrales may be affected.
Later I learn that the war-cry of ancient Asturians was likened to the howl of a wolf, and also that the hills ring with tales of werewolves….connections run deep here.
Lunch ends with Cabrales and crusty bread – of course, and Juanjo demonstrates the art of pouring the local cider from on high, so that it hits the side of the glass in just the right way to slightly aerate it, no tourist gimmicks here!
We leave to see if the cloud has lifted, but if anything it is now lower and thicker than before. Chances of seeing Naranjo de Bulnes or Urriellu, to give it its local name, are finally off the table. We do however take a drive which passes by a solitary mule, chomping on the rich grasses. He ambles over to suss us out when we have to stop to open a gate. The point at which we have stopped is the end of the road for supply vehicles to a refugio above, a place used by climbers who have Urriellu on their bucket list. The rest of the way supplies have to be taken by this humble, traditional beast. I definitely feel sorry for him, alone here despite the lush pasture.
Although our views are capped by shifting clouds, they are still spectacular, with every inch we cover I promise myself to come back and spend some slow time in this landscape which is so completely different from that in which I’ve been living. For now my time is up. It has been a kaleidoscope of greens and blues and browns, and everything about my short time here has been memorable…..and, yes, the second day’s views even more impressive than the first.
I went to Asturias as representative of Spain Scoop (check them out for my stories about this trip and about the Canary Islands). They had been invited by InfoAsturias and Paradores de España in a joint initiative to mark the opening of a new parador in Corias. The stories filed by the five writers who were invited are to be considered by the decorators in creating a true, Asturian atmosphere in the new parador. Although I was a guest of Paradores and InfoAsturias there was no necessity for me to write anything on this blog. I wrote this post and the previous one simply because the area made a lasting impression on me,and I genuinely can’t wait for an opportunity to return.