The sun is beating down on my head. Overhead the sky that peeks through the clouds is a clear blue. Rolling green hills ahead of me lead to distant mountain peaks capped with ice. I’m sitting on a rough handmade wooden bench at the side of the road. I know this, because our host was just completing a second one as we arrived earlier. When the sun is out, the heat is intense. Sporadically a car or tractor chugs past. Other than that there’s the sound of birds chirping, and a constant clinking clanking noise echoing about the valley. Cows roam the slopes ahead of me, the large metal bells clunking like I’m surrounded by an army of kids banging their pots and pans together. We’re high up in the mountains, in a tiny village called Labra – at the foot of Los Picos de Europa national park.
Later the clouds gather and we retreat indoors. Our little hotel, Montanas de Covadonga, faces out across the mountains and offers us a top floor balcony view of the evening sky. The road up here is small with harepin bends, an obvious sign that we’re heading away from civilisation. The equivalent of a pokey Irish village in the middle of nowhere, only at a much greater height. There are a smattering of small buildings in sight, no sign of a shop in the vicinity. The owner’s buddies use the place as their local bar whenever a football match is being broadcast.
It’s stunning scenery. The balcony in our room looks out towards those distant icy peaks that play hide and seek. The full view hidden from us until the skies clear and the snowy caps appear out of nowhere. I recheck periodically until the sun goes down, just to see if anything new has been revealed on the skyline.
Once more we are the sole guests of our hotel. A basic, but pleasant building with beautiful views. We eat our breakfast looking out of the picture frame windows. For once, there is something served that is recognisable as breakfast to us. Bowls of muesli, toast, cheese, meat and freshly squeezed orange juice, freshly ground coffee. A very pleasant change for us. The guest lounge is snug and crammed with books and board games. To the Rascal’s delight there’s a whole shelf devoted to dinosaur toys. To find any other diversions we have to take the long, narrow, winding road that leads back down from our hotel to the main route. In ‘rush hour’ we compete with herds of cows for passage along it.
About 10km away the bustling town of Cangas de Onís sprouts hotels, restaurants, and shops decked out with crazy dancing Austurian cows. It’s, well, touristy. At the moment there aren’t so many of those, but Cangas de Onís is still very busy. It’s a struggle to find parking on any of the side streets. It has the feel of a mountain ski resort – minus the snow. Here, like everywhere else in Spain, the locals offer the same standard fare of Pinxtos all day. Only a handful will serve dinner before eight, as a friendly local unnecessarily reminds us. This area is a mecca for hikers, bikers and all the outdoor hardy types. There are outdoor adventures to be had everywhere. Rafting or kayaking might tempt us if we were travelleling toddler-free. We stick to the driving routes instead and take two memorable car journeys through Los Picos de Europa relying on nought but the very terse description of the routes found here. We did the first two routes, but the third one was vetoed. A 5 1/2 hour non-stop round trip was more mountain than we could handle.
Cangas de Onís to Covadonga and the lakes of Enol and Ercina
The first day we head up the mountains in search of these lakes which are supposed to be pretty. We find ourselves trailing behind scores of buses with the same mission. The roads are unexpectedly good. Just as well as we climb higher and higher and find ourselves easing around harepin bends with sheer drops to the side. We make a brief stop at Covadonga to take in the sight of a beautiful church that people saw fit to construct right in the middle of what seems like nowhere. Surprisingly Covadonga has quite the historic significance despite the remote location. We take a toddler-friendly walk about before returning to the heat of the car to continue on up the road.
It would appear these lakes really are at the very top of one of the highest peaks around. The car engine groans as we endlessly swerve up steep inclines. Around the next bend the side of the road will just drop away leaving a vertigo-inducing view down below. The safest option is to fall in behind a tourist taxi and hope they know where they’re going. Not that there’s much choice in direction as the single road winds on upwards. There aren’t many choices for turning back, we’ve committed ourselves to keep on going. These lakes may not be worth the punishing drive, but the views on this journey are magnificent. If you can afford to take your eyes off the road that is. The road that has crumbled away in patches, leaving only a tattered cordon alerting motorists to the extra danger.
To make matters worse, the ubiquitous cows in the region have free reign to roam where they will. They obviously figure why make life difficult for themselves on their daily migration in search of water. There are miles of convenient human roads to meander along, urinating and defecating at will. They gaze morosely at the invading cars, daring them to challenge the cow right of way. The reek of cow dung soon permeates the car. The wheels are turning browner by the second. We sit there nervously as yet another disgruntled cow eyes us up and considers whether to challenge us. We’d rather not test who’s more mighty – cow or car?
We sit, for minutes at a time as cars seek to negotiate a way around indifferent cows that suddenly sidle sideways with no notice, brandishing their horns at any nearby paintwork. We inch our way up, wondering at each corner if it’s possible for us to climb much higher before falling off the end of the mountain. It is, around each bend lies yet another slope with a ragtag army of cows on the move.
And then suddenly, the land flattens out. We’re here. Wherever that is. Around another bend lies a glistening blue lake. One more steep hill and we reach the second, and final one. A wide carpark guarded by a cow-grille awaits. There tourists spill out and set up cameras and tripods to take shots of the aqua-blue lake with the icy peaks just behind. The sun is slowly baking the top of the world as the Rascal and I ascend wooden steps up a ridge where we can view both lakes on either side of us. It literally feels like we’ve reached the top of the world, running free across the grass.
Cangas de Onís along the Beyos Gorge to Oseja de Sajambre
The next day we take a very different route. South from Cangas de Onís, following the river as the mountains grow taller to each side. Eventually we find ourselves at the bottom of the gorge. If we thought the drive up the mountains was rough going, it was only a warm-up for this one. Forget roller coaster rides, who can beat the adrenalin rush of going around corners to find yourself facing oncoming traffic speeding on your side of the road? These roads are not for the faint-hearted. You’ll be lucky to catch a glimpse of the beautiful scenery when your attention is focused on the next potential near-death experience around the bend. There may still be imprints on the car seats from this white-knuckle ride.
We eventually reach our turnaround point . It’s quiet here, almost everything is closed, possibly for a siesta. We sit at the side of the road eating our packed lunch (croissants and cookies) before making the return nerve-wracking trip back to Cangas de Onís for our final dinner. After a truly horrendous meal the first evening, we finally found a decent Italian restaurant on a little side street. In the absence of any real alternative choices, we kept returning for pasta and pizza.
The following morning we load up the car once more and bid farewell to this place where the mountains stretch up higher than the clouds.