Northern Spain’s Picos de Europa – A Spectacular Drive

August 17th, 2010

Deep gorges cutting through mountains, secret villages in high alpine valleys, serene lakes, bubbling rivers and historic market towns await those who take the loop around the Picos de Europa, surely one of the great drives of Europe.

This national park rears skywards just behind the coast to the west of Santander and is easily reached from the city.

It is possible to undertake the full route in a long day, but that would be without some outstanding diversions and too little time to simply stop and wonder. Take three or four days, leaving room for a couple of nights on the stupendous coast, plus a stay in Santander, for a wonderful week’s touring.

The Picos de Europa is not vast but it does justify the word spectacular; more so than much of the Alps, in my opinion.

Out of Santander, head for Panes and you’re at the start of this magical tour in about an hour. Suddenly the road south disappears into the Desfiladero de la Hermida, a narrow, twisting slot through rock walls with jagged tops, following the Deva river which cut this ravine over the millennia.

A first side excursion comes at the hamlet of Hermida and leads up into the Picos to the tiny villages of Bejes and Quintana, lonely places that share the silent landscape with a few cows and goats.

Back in the gorge, the road opens into the sunny Liébana valley and, passing an excellent new visitor centre, reaches Potes, one of the “gateway” towns around the national park which have accommodation bookable through Brittany Ferries. Here, there are charming cafés and restaurants set above the river.

Most travellers head down the side valley that eats deep into the Picos to Fuente De, where a cable car glides up one of the most impressive sheer rock walls you’ll ever see. The vista from the top is everything you’d imagine, but do try to go for a hike, either into the stark high ground or down through a breathtaking upper valley.

You need to return to Potes to take the quiet road around the southern part of the park. It winds up past untouched forested valleys to the Puerto de San Glorio pass, where from above 5,000ft there are stupendous views south-east across strange, cloud-skirted peaks or, from a side road, back down into the Liébana valley.

Soon drivers can take a turn-off to Posada de Valdeón. Hemmed in by formidable mountains, it’s a cute place with more cows than people in the streets. From here it’s a short drive up to the south end of the Cares gorge through which a path clings to the mighty walls. It’s an astonishing walk, high above the river.

The scenery is superb all the way out of Valdeón on the way to Oseja de Sajambre and the beginning of another drive through a deep ravine. The Desfiladero de los Beyos mirrors that of Hermida on the other side of the park, with the bonus of a large waterfall.

Cangas de Onis, the next stop, is another friendly market town, boasting an ancient footbridge over the Sella river, a historic parador, cider bars and some good restaurants.

Heading east from here, there’s a must-take diversion up to Covadonga, an important cultural village and religious sanctuary where, in the eighth century, Christians won a significant battle against the Moors. Admire the imposing basilica on a ridge and the shrine of the Holy Cave.

Confident motorists (you’ll need to take the shuttle bus in summer) can head up the spindly lane to a pair of lakes, Enol and Ercina, set in aweinspiring mountain scenery, a divine place for a walk.

Back downhill, the loop road follows a magnificent valley to Arenas de Cabrales, a good place for lunch or to stay overnight (and to try the local blue cheese). A route south leads to the north entrance to the Cares gorge at Poncebos and another opportunity to take a hike through this bewitching natural wonder.

A recommended alternative is to jump on the funicular that bores more than a mile through the mountain to emerge into an alpine wonderland, a hidden valley that is home to the bucolic stone village of Bulnes. You can wander to the upper part and wonder how people lived here before the transport system was built just 10 years ago; until then, the only access was via a precipitous path.

From Poncebos, the little road winds through to the old Picos villages of Sotres and Tresviso, which again are on excellent walking routes.

Retracing the route, it’s a short run back to Panes and Santander, where you’ll ponder on a memorable short tour — and go in search of another camera memory card to replace the one you’ve just stuffed full.

Story from Telegraph


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