MANILA, Philippines – I love to travel because of the varied experiences it brings; for how it opens our eyes to the beauty and wonder of the world; and for the adventures and the challenges that expand our souls.
One of the things on my travel bucket list was to hike up a mountain. Mount Pulag was on my list, but somehow this trip never materialized due to timing issues. Little did I know that my first hike experience would be in Northern Spain at the Picos de Europa, specifically in the Principalities of Asturias and Cantabria.
Asturias, in northwest Spain, is known for its rugged coast, mountains, religious sites and medieval architecture. For us Filipinos, it is probably best known for its most famous regional dish, which is fabada Asturiana. Cantabria, on the other hand, is known for its hiking trails and ski areas, along with caves with unusual stalactite and calcite formations. It is also known for its famous dish callos.
My husband Renato and I decided to continue on with our adventures after our Camino de Compostela pilgrimage when we were asked by a close friend if we would like to explore Asturias. We were interested, but we got really excited when we found out that we were going to explore the region by hiking. So with great anticipation we were led by our mountaineer and guide, Mario, through an eight-day adventure that would span mountains and valleys, rivers and sea, fauna, flora and fabada.
On our way to Asturias, we stopped over at Praia das Catedrais (literally translated to “Beach of the Cathedrals”) in Ribadeo, Lugo, Spain. This unusually stunning beach is considered a natural monument as it blends the beauty of the sea with arresting rock formations. It is so named because the rock formations resemble spired domes and arches within arches formed through years of erosion and wind. You literally feel as if you’ve stumbled upon a cathedral of the sea.
From Praia das Catedrais we proceeded to the Asturias region. The zig-zagging roads and the heavenly scent of pine reminded me of my childhood trips to Baguio. While the drive over made me feel queasy, the sight that greeted us made me soon forget the discomfort. Mountain ranges surrounded by waterfalls and rivers took my breath away. Amid such beauty, one really knows that there is a God, and that he is an artist.We stayed at the Quirros Valley, which was to be our home for the next three nights. Quirros Valley offers spectacular views of mountains, landscapes, valleys and meadows. We were hosted by a lovely couple named Lucia and Juan Carlos (who, incidentally, also own the Spanish Steps). They were also responsible for organizing our entire Camino and Asturian/Cantabrian hike.
We drove to the nearby Desfiladero de Las Xanas, one of Asturia’s best-kept secrets. It is an eight-kilometer round-trip walk through a spectacular gorge 400 meters high. Las Xanas Gorge is a unique geological formation, shaped by the stream of the same name. The hike was tough, but upon reaching the top it was worth the climb. Above us was a chapel and next to the Chapel of Sta. Ana is a Yew tree that is approximately 1,000 years old. It is also referred to as the Tree of Life and Death. The tree is believed to be poisonous so if a prisoner were captured, the villagers would make him eat the fruit of the Yew tree. Since this was the meeting point of the villagers, the Church decided it would be the best place to build a chapel.
In the village, we ate in a tiny restaurant called Casa Generos, owned by an elderly lady who prepares the best home-cooked fabada (simmered for hours with chorizo, morcilla and ham), goat stew and the famous broad bean, a delicious white bean that is grown in the area. After the meal, my friend Christine and I decided to run back down. So instead of the two and a half hours it took us to get up, we were able to descend in only 45 minutes. Renato decided to take a nap, while Mario, being a mountaineer, went off trail and cut through the mountains like he was skiing down the mountains to take the bus back up and pick up those who were left behind.
Since it was raining, Mario advised us not to hike since the rocks might be slippery, and we instead went to Oviedo and visited the city. It was a relaxing break after the rigorous hike the day before.
We visited a valley in a neighboring town called Bermiego. One of the highlights of this place was the Bermiego Yew tree, which is an ancient tree estimated to be 1,500 years old; it’s believed to be the oldest tree in Europe.
The morphology of the Bermiego Yew is almost perfect. Its crown measures 15 meters and is 10 meters high, and the trunk is from 6.5 to 7 meters in diameter. This ancient yew was declared a natural monument on April 27, 1995, so that it is protected, and included in the conservation plan for the natural treasures of Asturia.
We took a 45-minute drive east of Cangas to one of the most visited and hiked routes in Spain — the Ruta del Cares. The Cares Route, placed in the very heart ofPicos de Europa National Park, is also known as “La Garganta Divina” (The Divine Gorge). It is a unique route that showcases nature at its height. The route runs along for 12 kilometers of path dug into limestone rocks, surrounded by mountains over 2,000 meters in height, and always sharing the untamed Cares River. We started off at the foot to have a view of the tallest mountain of the Picos Europa, Mt. Urreliu, which faces the north. We hiked up for two hours. Since the river runs through the trail, we could hear the sound of the water flowing strongly the whole time. At times, we would encounter lots of sheep and goats grazing with their bells ringing in our ears. Eventually, we stopped at a spot to eat our packed lunch. Truly a divine experience!
We took the Fuente De cable car. The line covers an almost 800-meter vertical drop so that we could hike at Picos de Europe (Peaks of Europe). so called as they were the first sight of Europe for ships arriving from the Americas.
The Peaks are jagged and have formed over a period of more than 100 million years. It used to be below sea level, hence the limestone rocks.
As we began our way down the trail we came upon a lake. Swimming is not allowed as the lake is within a National Park. So yes, we resisted the temptation!
After the hike, we met up with our other friends for a pilgrimage visit to the Monastery of Santo Toribio De Liebana. The monastery is one of the five places in Christianity that, together with Rome, Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela and Caravaca de la Cruz, has the privilege of issuing perpetual indulgences. The monastery was founded prior to the 6th century. According to tradition, the monastery venerates that largest piece of the Lignum Crucis (the Cross of Christ) discovered in Jerusalem by Saint Helena of Constantinople. Brought from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher by Saint Turibius of Astorga, the left arm of the True Cross is kept on a gilded silver reliquary.
For our final hiking day we went to a nearby village, Lon. Our trail was supposed to be a circular one, and we were supposed to end up in a village called Brezo. Unfortunately, we decided not to do the full route and we ended up backtracking after two hours. Our mountaineer talked about the trees and plants around us. We were so excited to have found some wild strawberries, which are quite rare.
On our last day, we made one more stop before heading to the airport. We stopped at Sta. Maria de Lebena, which was built around the year 925. The Church has Mozarabic design — the building style of Christians who stayed in the Iberian Peninsula after the Arab invasion of 711 CE. The style shows the assimilation of such Islamic decorative motifs and forms as the horseshoe-shaped arch and the ribbed dome, and is unique in the northern part of Spain. The freestanding bell tower is of a later age. Next to the church is a century-old olive tree, possibly dating back to the origins of the church.
Despite our super hectic schedule, I left Asturias feeling content and fulfilled. It is through trips like these that I am able to spend quality bonding time with my husband. With all the amazing mountain ranges, gorgeous valleys, divine vistas and delectable dishes, my favorite view remains this — the sight of my husband beside me through my journeys and travels. Truly a sight to behold!