Over the Hill

Hostal Nevandi in Espinama is probably my favorite of the places we have stayed. L&I decided on the meal for two at dinner. First was a large plate of serrano ham with onions, tomatoes, vinaigrette etc and very tasty it was too. Next was a vegetarian’s nightmare: a vast platter of grilled veal, lamb, salchichon, chorizo, pork and bunny with a topping of chips. This was followed by ice cream and washed down with a very acceptable bottle of red. Total price for the two of us: €34.

We didn’t really need breakfast, but… The coffee was excellent and I had Corn Flakes with the bread, ham and Philly filling any possible gaps. L snaffled a couple of bananas for today’s walk.

The walk started steeply up through beech and oak woodland and continued in that vein for the first half of the 12km, then spent the rest of the time descending through pastureland. Once out of the woods, we were bathed in sun for the whole way, though distant cloud bubbled up in a way that was quite attractive, at least from a distance.

There seemed to be the remains of a wedding party at the tables outside Mogrovejo’s one and only bar so we wandered up to the deserted village of Sebrango, emptied of people when a landslide demolished many of the houses a few years ago and the utility companies refused to reinstate power etc.

Back in Mogrovejo, I received a message from Mrs M saying we obviously hadn’t walked hard or far enough if we had finished already: I had been ill-advised enough to advertise the completion of the 8 days’ trek. I needed a beer to regain my composure and L reacted in sympathy.

L texted Mike – our ‘travel agent’ who came to collect us and take us back to Casa Gustavo. We then wandered up to the (free) visitor centre, which is pretty good value and quite interesting.

L and I have taken to playing what he calls ‘crossword chess’: alternately filling in answers in an old Times cryptic and teasing each other for slowness. Occasionally, we allow ourselves to show admiration at the other’s verbal dexterity. We are doing this on the balcony of this marvelous old house as the sun slowly slips behind the peaks. I was about to say I have no worries, but I suppose boiled chicken may be on the menu.

Tomorrow, lift to Unquera, bus to Bilbao, quick look round , bus to airport, shuttle to hotel and then Sunday fly to Edimburgo and bus to Inverness.

Pictures will follow, when time and inclination allow.


Yesterday, today and tomorrow

I’ve just posted yesterday’s blog, which refers to yesterday as “today”. Today’s blog refers to today and means today, unless of course you’re reading it some other time. For clarity, I’m writing this on the 5th October and we’ve arrived in Espinama, with one more day’s walking to do.

The refuge at Collado Jermoso was pretty acceptable: the common areas fine, the food good, the views stupendous and the draft beer excellent value. Given the general remoteness and inaccessibility of the refuge, having any beer is pretty impressive: having chilled draft is almost unbelievable. The downside to the place, as with most refuges, is the sleeping accommodation: L and I were on the upper tier of a bunk bed arrangement which slept four on each level. Thank goodness there were only three on the bottom and just us two on top. I was tucked under a coombe ceiling which limited my mobility and added to the excitement of my nocturnal visit to the composting toilets (Sit up – ouch, find, switch on and partially cover head torch, wriggle out – ouch – from sleeping bag, clamber down to floor – no ladder – stagger downstairs dodging beams, pad through through dining room… reverse).

However, without refuges we would probably never get to such superb spots and watch the sun sinking behind row upon row of distant mountain peaks.

Today’s walk was child’s play compared to yesterday but still demanding enough. The path was mostly pretty good, the scenery stupendous and the weather almost too warm, with a blue sky and an occasional cooling breeze. Much of the walk was high-level and we intended taking the cable car down the 800 or so metres to Fuente De (Gateway to The Picos, complete with coach parties, gondola station, car parking, hotel and – for all I know – “Kiss Me Quick” hats). A minor slip up in navigation meant we missed a turning and ended up descending steeply all the way by foot which was a bit of a pain. Now down in civilisation again, we had a cool cerveza then walked, partly by main road, partly by little side roads, to Espinama.

I was here four years ago with Brian – twice in fact – and we picked up a very large stray dog on our way which would not be persuaded to leave us alone, following us through the mist over hill and dale, being at least partly responsible for Brian’s shocking experience with an electric fence. This time there was no dog, no mist and no electric shock. We did however have plenty of hill and dale.

We are staying in excellent little Hotel Nevandi, which provides us with a nice room, a great shower and a friendly welcome. They sell a remarkably refreshing lemon beer and provided us free, gratis and for nothing with a sort of tuna & macedoine of vegetables in a mayonnaise sauce, accompanied by bread and crisps. As L said, it would help to keep him going over the next seven or eight hours until Spanish teatime.

Tomorrow – our last day’s walking – we go to Mogrovejo, a new place for both of us, where Mike is due to collect us and take us back to his house for an overnight stay. I didn’t discover whether they have wifi, so you may not hear from me again until we’re in Bilbao or even Inverness.

¡Hasta luego!

PS: note to Sonia. I suggest you prime the washing machine and ensure there’s plenty heavy duty chemical, biological and nuclear powder.

Blood, Sweat & Beers

Today has been a killer. Excellent weather but a long and – at times – very steep ascent. The total distance was short but the height gained (and sometimes lost only to be wrestled back from gravity a few minutes later) was about 1300m.

We left Casa Campo after a barely adequate breakfast and paying for last night’s meal at about 10:00 then walked back to Cordiñanes, which we passed yesterday, having a brief diversion due to a demolished bridge.

Then the climb began.

It was stiff from the start, but at times, especially latterly, involved scrambling: as L. commented, it was two or three steps forward and then a break to get your breath back. The “official” time, depending on which signpost you read is 4 or 5 hours. We did it in 3:40, though L. beat me by five minutes.

The spot is called Collado Jermoso: “the beautiful pass” and lives up to its name. I stayed here 16years ago and the refuge has been significantly upgraded since then. Not only does it have toilets, it has draft beer at acceptable prices.

As I wrote this, L. was lying back on a picnic bench and bemoaning his difficulty sitting up. We both agreed we used to be able to do a lot more, but can’t remember what it was we could do more of.

In the super weather of the last couple of days we have seen lots of little brown lizards, a slow worm and – circling in the sky – lots of vultures which add a sense of depth and scale to the view.

More to follow…

A gorgeous day

Let me start by saying today has been the best day so far: in terms of weather, scenery, walking… And, as far as the first of those goes, it was something of a surprise.

But first, last night. Once again our meal had not been included (and neither had breakfast). Given the costs involved this – financially speaking – is not a problem. L had a supposedly small tuna salad, I had eggs, chips and chorizo, we both had cheese and shared a bottle of wine: about fifteen quid in total.

We woke to a grey smirr, low cloud and were further discouraged by the bombón meteorologica (weather dolly bird) on tv who showed cloud, rain and storms right over our heads. The waitress was rather more positive, saying it wouldn’t rain, but the cloud might not lift.

The Cares Gorge, which formed the first half of today’s walk, is stupendous: 13km on a good path through limestone peaks towering above us and the Rio Cares, hundreds of metres below, its water clear enough for us to see every pebble on the river bed. Time (and the need to order another beer) doesn’t allow me to go into more detail, but the smirr dissipated, the clouds disappeared, the sky turned blue and the sun shone down.

When you’re trying to “sell” a trip like this to a friend, you have to strike a balance and not overdo the description in case reality disappoints, so I was both delighted and relieved that L was as smitten with the walk as I was.

Our destination, Posada de Valdeon, was familiar to me from the trip with Brian four years ago and we’re staying in the same place, possibly the same room. Whilst the establishment is called Begoña, we are farmed out to the very appropriately named Casa Campo, owned by an elderly Englishman with a rather theatrical manner and a nice line in ear-studs. The building features a lot of marble flooring, some rather kitsch statuary and many other smaller objets d’art.

I must be honest: I have been stinking. L has done some hand-washing and even walked with damp knickers, socks etc. hanging off his rucksack. I’m a little more conscious of my image, but the result of several days in dampish weather means – according to Mr C – that my tee-shirt has become pretty niffy, despite occasional changes of clothing. L used to pass similar comments on the Chemin de Stevenson and if I were more sensitive I might have taken offence. However, even before beer, I have done some washing.

Begoña serves evening meals between 9pm and 10pm, so we have a while to wait.

Tomorrow will be a shortish day in terms of distance, but will involve a very steep ascent to the refuge at Collado Jermoso, where I do not expect wifi, so it’ll be a day or two until my next report.

Sorry about the photos. If I can’t send any from here, I’ll post some from home.

Fowl Whether?

We spent a few relatively abstemious hours in the bar of Sotres’s Casa Cipriano reading, playing games and failing to make a lot of sense of the news in the local paper though it was good to see an article extolling the virtues of tap water as opposed to the bottled variety. The tension mounted: what would be for dinner? At last we took the plunge and sat down to a meal that seemed to whisk past, so fast was the service. We started with fabada, a local stew of butter beans, ham, chorizo and black pudding: it was as good as I remembered and Laurie tucked into his with gusto. We also both chose breaded veal with chips and a dressing of the local blue cheese. Not a chicken, hen or pollo in sight! The “homemade” puddings were something of a let-down as the only “de la casa” aspect seemed to be a tin opener for Laurie’s rice pudding and a whisk to mix the powder from which my “creme brulee” had been conjured. The wine was red, rough and ready, so acceptable.

We had a disappointment after breakfast when it turned out that, unlike our night in Bejes, we had been reserved on a B&B basis, so had to pay for our dinner: at least we’d gone for the table d’hote. We will have to see how this develops in the days ahead.

Our walk to Urriellu refuge was consistently up-hill – which was much as we expected. The weather was fine: cloudy mostly above the tops, dry and coolish. Not bad for walking. As we ascended we moved from the definitely green environs of Sotres to the rocky and limestone mountainsides. Pico Urriellu is a striking lump of rock that sticks up 400m vertically on all sides and its conquering by a Spaniard some years back was possibly the start of the country’s mountaineering history. It is nicknamed El Naranjo because of some orange colouring on its rockface.

The refuge is large, but pretty basic: our dorm sleeps 24 on tiered shelving with 6 per shelf packed a bit like sardines. If one sleeper turns over, I think the rest will be rotated as well. The communal dining and sitting area is beginning to warm up now that the stove is on and L&I have completed two Times crosswords, bar one clue in the second.

Our meal was not at all bad: soup, followed by stew and a banana. We chatted in pidgin Spanish and its English equivalent with the other ‘guests’. A Spanish chap and woman had flown from Ibiza where they work in order to climb Picu Urriellu. They had 3 female friends accompanying them. A Canadian woman in her fifties was spending six weeks alone walking in Spain. She had a silly little map of the Picos that gave no more than a minimal overview of the area and she spoke no Spanish.

I don’t think anyone slept well: certainly L&I didn’t. The loos – of the squat variety, which is never a great joy – seemed an obstacle course away. The refuge provided duvets and pillows and I had a sleeping bag liner: L had brought his own sleeping bag.

In the morning the weather was horrid: a steadily soaking drizzle falling through dense low cloud which limited visibility to a few yards. The poor Ibizans were beginning to accept that there would be no climbing today and all five would have to fly home dissatisfied. L&I decided that the best thing would be to retrace our steps from yesterday until the turn-off for Bulnes. It was not a pleasant walk: full waterproof gear dripping inside with condensation, low visibility, slippy wet paths…

The section down to the pretty little village of Bulnes was particularly treacherous and we both agreed our wives would hate this. Mind you, so did we!

When I was first in Bulnes, sixteen years ago, it was reputedly the only village in Europe without a road. Soon after I passed through, they opened an underground funicular railway. On the way to the station, we met an English guy out reconnoitring the route to Picu Urrielu in case it was too hard for a group of Nepalese sherpas he was going to bring.

For the sake of my marriage, I’m keeping shtum about the price of a one way ticket down to Poncebos and what passes round here for civilisation, but it did cause a sharp intake of breath, particularly from Laurie who – I think – rather fancied walking down: he makes no allowance for age! Arrival in Poncebos was met by increased temperature and, soon after, sun. However, the forecast for tomorrow is not great and that’s me trying to give it a positive spin.

During the long dark watches of the night in the refuge, I just lay sweating and trying to balance the hassle of going to the loo (sit up, bang head, wriggle out of bedding, bang head, slip on the Crocs® provided by the refuge, stagger out of the dorm, along the corridor and down the metal stairs, then into the squattery…, reverse the process) with the putative relief to gained. Laurie, however, used his time more creatively – at least by his lights – and came up with some terrible Spanish-themed puns. Earlier in the day we had discussed the patrician Rees-Mogg, whom Laurie now refers to as being “the Tory adored by the right wing”. Geddit? If you can take another, he now reckons he should have said “leave that cat alone, ya…” when I discouraged a moggie from drinking my cup of coffee at a wayside cafe / refuge en route for Urriellu.

Anyway, having arrived in the Garganta del Cares hotel, we both felt the better of a shower and dry, non-odiferous clothing. After a refreshing beer and being talked at for a while by the Canadian woman who was just passing through, one of us – who had wanted to walk down from Bulnes – was ready for a siesta, whilst the other one climbed up a very steep road to explore. I must show you the pictures.

It’s always difficult to know when to post this blog: from the reader’s point of view, bedtime would make sense, but not from the writer’s. So you’ll have to wait for tonight’s food review. Anyway, I’ll try to add a few photos from the last few days. I may not manage.

As a footnote, whilst I was writing the above, L went out for a stroll and I fell asleep.


Play “Misty” for me

If you were paying attention yesterday, you’ll have noticed my antipathy to boiled chicken: you will therefore understand my disappointment that the meal in the Albergue was… well I hardly need to continue, do I? Even the chips had a boiled feel, having been microwaved back up to temperature with the chicken.

I don’t want to seem churlish as mine host and his missus were very pleasant and amenable. The beer was surprisingly cheap as well and we were allowed to have our meal at a sensible time. L was particularly impressed by the coffee.

The Spanish nature-lovers turned up and were exemplary guests, making very little noise coming to bed after their much-later-than-us meal. They were getting up at sparrow-fart to watch rutting deer, bless their little cotton socks, but made virtually no noise at all.

L & I breakfasted at a more sensible 8:30 then set off.

Today’s trek was a smidgen under 20km and reached 1600m or so. It was probably a very picturesque walk, but we spent the day in low cloud with occasional drizzle. It wasn’t cold, though, and I did most of the walk in a damp tee shirt. Laurie wrapped up a bit more but sportingly bared his legs to the elements. We both felt we did well: there was a long climb out of Bejes – an attractive wee village with its terracotta half-pipe tiled roofs – then cattle at ridiculous altitudes, a sign saying the Spanish equivalent of “Road Closed”*, more cows, a disused mine and a long descent into Sotres. Sotres is a bigger place than Bejes and has a number of hotels and one or two shops, all roofed with the culturally-required terracotta tiles. On a sunny day it would be touristically pretty, but today’s weather has caused the crowds to atrophy and given a rather grey cast to everything.

Our accommodation in Sotres is a notch or two up from last night. We have a twin room with good-sized en suite. The shower even has what I laughingly referred to as a Gwyneth Paltrow attachment: a thin wand that one could imagine might emit steam.

Mr C has a healthy appetite and we tucked into two bocadillos: “proper” (not Spanish) omelettes in huge pieces of “Mediterranean” bread. I couldn’t finish mine, but L wolfed his way through his whilst I cursed at my phone: this morning it chose to tell me it had a download ready for me and I said the equivalent of “let’s do it”, which took half an hour and added all sorts of complications that quite honestly I could do without. I’ve also learned fingerprint recognition doesn’t work with wet fingers and you have to type your password in a minimum of 97 times before you can switch the fingerprint stuff off.

I remain resolutely optimistic that we won’t get boiled chicken for tea, poor sad deluded fool that I am.

Tomorrow we leave civilization behind and strike out into the centre of the Picos for our first refuge night. Rumour has it that tomorrow will be sunny, which would be great as the scenery should be superb. I very much doubt we’ll have Internet access, but I promise to tell you all about it in a couple of days when we should reach Casa Begoñia in Posada de Valdeon.

Hasta luego, amigos.

*I don’t want this detail to mislead you into envisaging us walking on a road. We were on a Land Rover track, occasionally passed by Spanish livestock-keepers in old vans, matchstick-thin fag end glued to lower lip, out tending their cattle and uttering at most a terse ¡Hola! in reply to our greetings.

Peaks and Troughs (mostly the former)

It’s a couple of days since I resuscitated the blog and quite a bit has happened, nearly all of it good.

Sonia gave Laurie and me a lift to the bus station and the trip began on a Megabus to Edinburgh Airport. The journey was mostly uneventful, but we both enjoyed crossing the Firth of Forth via the new Queensferry Crossing: it is a truly beautiful structure, the Moire patterns made by the cables changing as our viewing angle did. Halbeath Park and Ride / coach junction is – to be honest – somewhat less visually appealing but our half hour there passed reasonably well and we sped to the airport (the driver was running late) as if the future of mankind hung in the balance and the bus was in reality the 747 its route number suggested.

Baggage drop and security went smoothly, then we sat down to fish pie in Weatherspoons.

The flight to Bilbao was also uneventful, followed by a smooth transfer to the Holiday Inn Express where I had booked to spend the night. These places are much of a muchness, but the room was comfortable with air conditioning Laurie was able to switch off. We landed at 22:20, so it was after eleven before we were in our room.

Thursday started early – as Laurie is learning to say, ‘earlier than was strictly necessary’. There were a number of connections we had to make to reach our destination and some of them were going to be a bit tight unless everything fell into place…

Breakfast started at 5am and we tucked into coffee, croissants etc., then got the hotel’s shuttle service back to the airport to take the bus /into town. Despite some angst over times, the purchase of tickets and the like, we eventually got a bus to the Bilbao bus station, where we had a short time to find the coach to Santander.

Coach found – not a simple task due to the way Spaniards point when giving directions – we were told by the driver that we couldn’t buy a ticket on board and had to remove our luggage from the hold and then go to the ticket office. He added by way of encouragement that he’d be away by the time we got back. So we hurried. When we got back to the coach triumphantly waving our tickets he took one look at them and refused us entry on the basis the ticket said the 7:30 bus. This seemed to be a serious problem, as we needed to get this bus to make our next connection which would lead to the Picos. Tears didn’t seem to work, so we sat down and waited. Laurie fiddled with his phone and then announced triumphantly that there was another connection at 10:15 (he later pointed out I’d known this all along), so spirits rose again.

Eventually we arrived in Santander’s underground bus station and, after a wait, were transferred to Aliezo. Aliezo is a little one-man-and-his-dog sort of village a few hundred yards off the main road, though none the less pretty for that. Steeply up the hill from there is Casa Gustavo, the home of Mike and Lisa who are organising the day to day details of accommodation etc.

(Four years ago, I spent 10 days or so walking in the area with another friend – Brian Macgill – and we had used Mike & Lisa for their services then.)

It turned out that Lisa was in the UK on family business and Mike was alone looking after Lisa’s mum, who suffers from dementia. It was interesting to note that she could speak a few words of Spanish to the local cook and played a tolerable game of Scrabble, but asked every five minutes where Lisa was, was surprised and concerned when told she was in England, then repeated the process a few minutes later.

The house Mike and Lisa have is a charming old building with beams, squint floors and quirky doors. After a cup of tea, we took a wander into Potes, which is a nice wee town, and had a beer. Whilst indulging in Bacchus’initiation rites, we watched a Spanish News channel and they are certainly getting their bragas in a twist over the Catalonia Independence question: it will be interesting to see how this develops: Mike says the Spanish Government have sent naval vessels to Catalonian ports and there certainly seems to be a standoff at the moment.

I had been to Potes before, and was naturally hoping Laurie would like it, which he seemed to do. Back at Casa Gustavo, we had a separate room each and an evening meal which put me in mind of a week of chicken-related meals from ‘The Pauper’s Cookbook’ when Sonia and I were first married and finding life expensive. Funnily enough, I’ve not been a great fan of boiled hen ever since.

After a good night’s sleep and breakfast, L and I started our first day’s walking.

The total distance we walked was 16km, not a lot, as Laurie says, but steep at times with about 1100m of ascent. This latter number is due to a misjudgement on my part. Mr C. has been muttering on and off about having been feeling under the weather and not being very fit. So when, in this safe and secure knowledge, I suggested nipping up a nearby peak I felt on fairly safe ground. Blow me, did he not only agree but enthuse and we toiled up Pico Agero, adding 300m onto our daily climb. To be fair to L and me, I did enjoy the climb and the satisfaction of reaching the top at 1352m. After that, it was a steep descent from the col, most of it on ridged concrete, to the village of Bejes. Mike takes a rather relaxed view of information provision and we had some difficulty locating the albergue we are staying in. This is a Youth Hostel type place: we’re in a dormitory and expecting another seven Spaniards (4 in our dorm) who will be here to look at the wildlife.

Anyway that’s us about up to date. The weather has been warm (not to say hot) and dry, but we expect rain and thunder tomorrow. C’est la vie, as they say a bit North of here.