I caught sight of the Cantabrian mountains as our ferry pulled into Santander, big giant beasts of mountains with snow stuck to them which loomed over the city. While the coast embraced spring, the mountains stayed in view for the first few days as we acclimatised to Spain and headed slowly West towards the Picos de Europa national park. Though the place we were cycling to was right next to them, I rashly decided that the Picos wouldn’t be as high, or as snowy, more an easy warm up before we tackled harder things such as the Pyrenees. Slightly wrong there as Justin’s post shows.
We did ease gently into the park. After our first afternoon pedalling down through the first of many breathtaking limestone gorges (fixing just one puncture along the way), we stopped at the campsite outside Las Arenas for two nights. Views of the hills around us were hypnotic and I soon got used to the sound of hundreds of bells almost creating a melody as the cows bent down to graze. The weather was warm and we walked past the cemetery behind our campsite and watched a field of cows at close quarters, before heading to the town itself to watch the locals over a bottle of cider poured through an electronic pump.
After an easy 30 km or so to Cangas de Onis, we turned South and hit the mountains proper. It also became apparent that late March is still off season. Some campsites weren’t yet open for the summer trade, restaurants and cafes in the smaller villages weren’t open, and on some of the roads we only saw the occasional farmer, some who just stopped and stared open-mouthed as we cycled past with full loads. The only other cyclists we saw were kitted out in racing lycra and would have thought a single bottle of water was excess weight.
Between mountain passes we were invited to pitch our tent under the eaves of the reception area of an empty campsite at Santa Marina, the caretaker holding Justin’s cheeks towards the North and telling us that it would be mucho frio overnight. We spent that evening sitting on wooden steps sheltered from the wind by the corner of the building watching the weather change on the mountains around us and spying a herd of horses being brought down the road in the far distance. It might have had no facilities but it was one of the best campsites yet.
Some of the landscape was desolate and bitterly cold but we were climbing mountains, (in sight of snow, then in snow, then… its snowing!) and saw flocks of tiny birds everywhere, interspersed with the occasional sighting of bigger birds with gigantic wing-spans swooping down valleys with only us as witnesses. We followed rivers uphill until they turned into streams, we found tiny bits of farmland etched into the mountain side. The mountains were all around us and every corner brought another view to drink in. We saw the beginnings of spring with tiny mountain flowers, rivers full of melted snow and calves and foals taking their first steps.
After five days in the Picos we reached Potes, a tourist hub still busy in the winter months and what should have been our last night in the Picos. We had found an open campsite with proper hot showers 8 km up the road at La Vega and were so charmed by what we had seen already that after our first night at the campsite we decided to stay on for another two.
Maybe its the sense of space in the off season, or maybe the closeness to the wildlife, and quietness when you walk up mountain tracks, but the Picos are really special and I can’t believe we had the opportunity to cycle through them so early in our trip.