Thursday, 28 July 2011


from the window at Fuente De
An angel dropped us off in the mountains, and another one picked up our worn-out carcasses out on the plains a week later.
We started our hike at a clifftop monastery, and ended it -- spiritually at least -- at a severe little Cistercian sanctuary with 20 sisters singing psalms.

In between was seven days of breathtaking, knockout, spectacular scenes -- glacial cirques, thousand-foot walls of rock, gangs of Scouts camped out in meadows, salamanders, eagles, storks, owls, cows and calves, goats and kids, even a baby donkey. (Baby donkeys may be the most cute things on this planet.)

I walked the Camino Vadiniense with Kathy, my best camino mate. She traveled here from San Francisco to do this hike. She walks at the same speed I do, she knows a million stories and can identify all kinds of plants, and she knows how to pray. She has a disturbing ability to look chic and fashionable, even halfway down a mountain with a high wind blowing. But I forgive her for that.

It was cold up there, and lonesome. These mountains are prime tourist territory, and Spain is supposed to be on vacation about now. The "Crisis" is cutting deep up north, deep enough that the national bus company is only sending out one bus every three days from Leon to Potes. Tracy, an expat author and lover of arcane Spain, lives down in Andalucia, but was passing this way in her car. She gave Kathy and I a ride up to the mountains, saving us about seven hours on a combination of trains and buses. With Tracy we scanned facsimiles of bizarre apocolyptic manuscripts written in the neighborhood about a thousand years ago, and put on display in downtown Potes. We wandered the twee town, saw the nice (and empty) pilgrim albergue, and touched with our own fingers the True Cross relic so deeply revered at the Monastery of Santo Toribio de Liebana, up on the nearest mountain.

We left Tracy up there, and hiked 20 kilometers up the Deva river to Fuente De -- home to a cable-car that hauls the hardy another 500 or so meters up to the very top of the peaks and the trail-heads that scatter outward from there. It´s the edge of the Picos de Europa national park, a huge patch of skyscraper peaks that march in ranks right up to the Cantabrian Sea. We were, apparently, the only guests in our Fuente De hotel. The tour buses looked empty. The queues at the cable-car station just were not there. We were too tired to care very much, and the next day promised even more high-altitude wanderings.
the reservoir at Riaño

The maps tell us the mountain path we followed is only about 11 kilometers long, but it took us five hours to reach the Pandetrava Pass from Fuente De. We walked in glory, with eagles hovering overhead and long, green views down valleys and upward to the blue heaven. (The weather was very kind -- it was apparently pouring rain on the Leon side of the massif.) We ate a soft white cheese we bought in Camaleño, drank water from the springs along the route, cooled our toes in the watersheds and stock-watering tanks. The ten additional kilometers to Portilla de la Reina were gently downhill, following a babbling river past sheep herds and massive mastiff dogs. We were beat, and the paved surface was not kind to our feet. This is a stupendous camino, but it follows narrow valleys -- once you leave the mountain trail, there´s often noplace to walk but along the quiet country road. Which is covered in asphalt.
The locals

We slept in a private albergue in Portilla, a tiny town nestled in the folds of three mountains. The roof above us was new, and snapped and groaned all night. "It took those timbers a hundred years to grow. Now it will take them a hundred years to die," the owner said. I heard no other noise.
a water fountain/ancient tombstone

We walked a narrow gorge, then a tractor path along a stream with a thriving marijuana plantation on one bank. We dined like queens at a truck-stop in Boca de Huergano, and followed alongside the haunted reservoir of the Embalse de Riaño, a great blue  mountain lake made when the Esla was dammed in 1990. (It´s along here we found the tombstones and rock carvings left by the Vadiniense, a pre-Roman tribe that lived here before the Romans showed up, and gave their name to the trail.) The dam project drowned nine little towns in the river valley. Their church bells hang in a little memorial park in the new concrete-and-plaster town of Riaño. When the wind blows, the bells sing and wail.

These are just the first three days of the hike. I am now writing a guide to the path for the CSJ in London, and I need to get back to that... so hang on for more travelogue soon. Here are some photos from then, and maybe even one of Kathy´s videos!


Timecheck said...

Enjoying your trip, but you are making me realize that there are too many Caminos to walk.

ksam said...

OMG! Amazing pics...I want the Julie Andrews imitation...please!!! said...

Timecheck, this is one of the great things about Spain... There´s always another Camino out there, waiting for you to walk it!

Tracy Saunders. said...

Angel, my arse! Because of you I got to see some of the most beautiful countryside ever, and, fall in love with a horse I have been drawing since I was 6 years old. XX to both

Tracy Saunders. said...

Oh, and by the way, it was I who did the Julie Andrews bit ... luckily thre was no-one around to see or I would likely be writing this from the Sanatorium in Leon!!! Can one type in a straightjacket?