Thursday, March 8, 2012

Trekking in the Picos – A Surreal Journey Through The Spanish Mountains

Above us projected the sharp peaks of the mountains, overlapping and competing for the sky. Below us were trees and fields of grass gambling with the altitude. Around us were the four panes of the cable car, the uncomfortably positioned handlebars of mountain bikes, and enthusiastic Germans discussing the mechanics of this gravity-defying structure. Armed with my walking boots and two good friends, I was exploring the Picos de Europa in northern Spain. The Fuente Dé cable car had picked us up from amongst the picnic tables at the end of the bus route, hauled us vertically up against the sheer rock face and spat us out into the mountains which stood desolate but gracious. As the operator, oblivious to the odd elbow nestling in his back, picked at the ends of his regal moustache, a single track cut through his rugged kingdom below, to reveal the fate which we were bypassing. Only a fool or a goat would attempt such a treacherous path.

Detangled from the mountain bikes, we barely had time to retie our boots before striding out, the whir of the cable car motor and hyperventilating camera shutters left behind us. After negotiating snarly shepherd dogs, who rose from their lazy stations in the shade to reveal their powerful physiques beneath ragged coats, we didn't meet another person. We dropped down from the unforgiving terrain to our path on the el lomo del toro; the spine of the bull. The track lay on a small ridge surrounded by steep green pastures which stooped away towards the slopes of the real, towering beasts either side of us. The grass was like paint running off to reveal the bare rock beneath. The spine of the bull slowly descended through the valley, negotiating its way between herds of horses and sheep, twisting to reveal a dramatic crag. The air was still and the sound of silence was calming yet there was something slightly sinister in the solitude: there was a crucifix silhouetted on an altar in the middle of a pasture. The mountain ridges around us lay dormant like the crested backs of prehistoric beings.

In the distance a cluster of buildings surrounded the path as it traced the basin of the valley. Ready for a break and curious to meet the souls living here, we slowed our pace and approached. The village seemed to morph into the landscape. To our left a wooden fence met the walls of a cave, creating a pen or enclosure. There was nothing inside. The terracotta roofs nestled in amongst the pastel colours of the valley, the dry stone walls as old as the limestone around them. A hand plough lay rusting against a wall. There was no one here. One building stood without a roof. Inside, the weeds and nettles had grown tall in the sunlight. Amongst the jungle a figure lay partially visible, dominated by the leaves. Its ashen bone reflected the midday sun, hollow sockets open, and two unspoiled, curved horns were tangled amongst everything. The skeleton lay disjointed, its limbs at peculiar angles, head slumped. We sat with our backs against the stone wall but the hostage remained inside. I imagined the village bustling and prospering during a spring harvest and wondered exactly what had happened here.

Further down the track we turned off into a separate scatter of hills. Clustered together and covered in thickening woods the hills encroached on us with a sense of claustrophobia. Whispers of mist met us with a chill. Concealed in this vacuum, our senses grasped for the world around us but were only met with the deep resonance of cattle bells to guide us. After a long afternoon battling through the mist, which became so thick we almost impaled ourselves on the horns of the grazing toros, we descended into Bulnes. Descend was definitely what we did – the path plunged into a valley so precipitously that no map’s contour lines could do it justice. It crossed over countless creeks and tributaries, conjuring up images of a swelling river at the bottom, engraving its power into the rugged landscape. The first buildings of Bulnes appeared alongside a narrow brook, slender and serene; we would find the menacing river the next day, further down the valley. To reach them we crossed a wooden bridge and were ushered into the small village square by a cobbled lane. Pulse rates dropping to a regular rhythm, we wandered off in different directions, thankful for an alternative to traipsing single file along the narrow mountain paths. Like a scene from a comedy, none of us had gone thirty paces before we hit the perimeter of the village and met each other again. Bulnes had a population of forty-five. The stone buildings couldn’t have imposed themselves on more than a 100 square metres of the green mountain valley.

Dazed, with our sugar levels in need of replenishing, we slumped ourselves on our packs and picked at the remnants of the bread, cheese and tomatoes we had rationed. The tomatoes from local markets were so red, succulent and foreign to me that I felt embarrassed to have called the pale, turgid things in Britain by the same name. The cobbles cooled my feet and with my eyes easily shutting they were the only indication that we had stumbled into a village – everything else was still except for the stream’s persistent chuckle. Only the shutters of one café were peeled back and crates of the local sidra (cider) were stacked behind the bar, against every wall and under tables. One bottle between the three of us was all our budgets and exhaustion could handle. We let the barmaid do the honours of pouring it traditionally from above her head into a glass held below her waist. It was rough and dry but refreshing and delicate as if bottled from a spring in the mountainside.

Until recently Bulnes had not been accessible by road, although we saw no evidence of motors as we searched for a spot to pitch our tent. Even the men constructing a stone dwelling across the river relied on donkeys to transport materials. Our tent, although concealed amongst foliage, looked out of place amongst the dry-stone walls and spluttering hand pumps; it was like taking a step back in time. After the perpetual trudge of hillwalking, heavy breathing and footsteps on the path, it was time to adjust to a new pace of life. An odd horde of goats, geese, chickens and an intimidating rooster gathered in a semi-circle around as we set up camp. Like a surreal story-time we contemplated each other, wondering what the other was doing there. By dawn the mist hadn't lifted, but had accumulated in the trees above us. Droplets launched an attack from the leaves onto our tent, eventually permeating through to our foreheads that peeped from the sleeping bags. Denied of any more rest we rose with a chorus of birdsong, roosters and hungry goats and prepared for the next leg of the journey.

As we walked out of the village and dropped below the mist, the river emerged beneath us, surging over rocks and propelling itself over waterfalls in rough, foaming shapes. The path narrowed and plunged precariously down to the river’s banks. The spray greeted us at the bottom and at ease walking on level ground, we crossed wooden bridges and negotiated stepping stones in the calmer bends of the river. In one sweeping curve a shallow pool had been created in the shelter of some boulders. Every pebble on the riverbed was visible and radiated in the reflection of the thick moss that smothered the rocks. Sheets of limestone rose above us and a ceiling of mist engulfed us as we floated in the cool water. Our aching limbs were soothed and our lack of showers alleviated. It would have been easy to let the flow carry us further down the valley but I'm glad we didn’t. The river eventually met the Carnes gorge - a domineering, fast flowing river. Where the two courses of water merged we picked up a road in pursuit of the next town. The spluttering fumes of locals abusing their accelerators came as quite a shock. We joined a sparse caravan of walkers, all appearing on the road from behind the folds of various valleys, some of whom we had walked alongside before reaching the cable car. It was as if we had all entered a fantastical land where any sense of time and place, altitude and distance, emotion and reason were suspended. Protagonists in our individual fairy-tales we reconvened in a silent awe, not quite sure what we had all just experienced. The rigid march of boots on tarmac brought us back to a reality we weren’t quite sure we liked.

Written by Ettie Shattock

Ettie's full profile can be found here.

1 comment:

  1. wonderful piece! Definitely felt the presence of the past seeping through the imagery, in landscape and materiality... The best things about discovering new places. Pretty sure that Apple Sidra is not the one being described though haha. Picos de Europa park is definitely on my to do list...