A Tour of the Picos de Europa
On the Puerto de St Glorio pass
IT's become an annual event. My old pal Hamish Telfer and I gather together some pennies from our respective old age pensions, see how much dosh we can spare, and head off on our bikes somewhere for a couple of weeks.
It began with a wintry ride between Land's End and John O'Groats and we were so wet and cold we promised something warmer the next year so we cycled from the English Channel to the Med at Montpellier. Unfortunately we experienced one of the wettest springs France has experienced in years.
The next year we were lucky. We decided not to let weather forecasts influence us and in our new found ignorance of what the weather Gods were going to do we struck it fine - all the way from Mizen Head to Malin Head, the length of Ireland's West Coast, aka the Wild Atlantic Way. A wonderful trip made memorable by the Irish folk we met along the way, and a wee drop Guinness from time to time.
This year we searched for something a bit different. We had completed the three end-to-ends we had set for ourselves so freed from that restriction we looked towards warm weather, a reasonable Euro/pound rate and access. We eventually chose Spain and since we could catch a ferry from Plymouth to Santander we plumped for a tour of the Picos de Europa.
Ever since my days of editing Climber Magazine this mountain range has been on my radar. Apparently Spanish and Portugese explorers named the range because they were the first mountains they glimpsed after sailing across the Atlantic, and fantastic mountains they are.
For years I wanted to go and hike there, and now that I've had an introduction to the high limestone peaks, the varied plateaux and incredible rocky gorges I've promised myself a return trip in the campervan - but first we had to cycle the region.
From the outset we knew the route would be hilly so we decided to take a soft option and disregard the temptation to put in big mileages. Our eventual circuit was in the region of 280 miles and about 25,000 feet of climbing, but we enjoyed a couple of good walks too. Our only slight disaster is that out of nine nights we only camped on three of them - most of the campsites were closed for the season.
This was a bit of a nuisance because we had to carry camping gear around with us but we found some great, and very reasonably priced hotels, so it didn't hit us in the pockets too hard. Unlike rip-off Britain all the hotels in Spain (like most of mainland Europe) charge by the room and not the person, so we found hotels that charged between 40 and 80 Euros per night B/B for a room with two single beds.
Eating out was relatively cheap too...
The Plymouth to Santander ferry wasn't cheap but it was fairly luxurious and we had a smooth crossing to Santander. A number of folk had warned us that getting out of Santander and on to the coast road wasn't that easy so we did the smart thing - we jumped aboard a terrific little single track railway train and travelled the 44 miles to Unquera, close to the Picos de Europa National Park, fore the grand total of five Euros each. The loaded bikes travelled free.
A view of the mountains from the excellent Potes campsite
We arrived in Unquera in the early evening and asked some local women where the campsite was. They explained it was closed for the season, but there was one along the road in Panes. That was on our route and it was only about six miles away so off we went into the gloaming, only to discover that campsite was also closed. And so began our association with Spanish hotels. - a room with two single beds for the grand sum of 40 Euros.
Next day saw up climb gradually up an amazing road which ran through a long narrow gorge to the old town of Potes, within sight of the big hills of the Picos. It was only 20 miles or so and we found a campsite that was open, although it was about a mile up a steep hill!
On the gradual climb up to Fuente De
It was a lovely campsite though and we checked in for two nights. Our second day involved an out-and-back trip up to the cable car at Fuente De, a 14 mile ride with an ascent of about 2700ft. It took us a couple of hours to get there and a mere 40 minutes to get back to Potes!
In between we took the cable car up to about 6000 ft and had a bit of a wander amongst the phenomenal limestone peaks. It was an extraordinary landscape, more of a moonscape, with some marvellous looking ridges than we dared not attempt in cycling shoes!
High above Fuente De in the heart of the Picos
Our next day was potentially the biggy - about 40 miles and about 6000ft of climbing over the Puerto de St Glorio pass and then over another, smaller, pass to Posada de Valdeon. We used age as an excuse and decided, if we could, we'd break it into two days. Much depended on whether we could find a campsite, a wild camp, or another cheap hotel.
Hamish reaches the top of the Puerta de St Glorio
The St Glorio pass was long, but never terribly steep, and it was early afternoon by the time we crossed it. At the foot of the pass, in a tiny village called Llanaves de la Reina, we found a hotel that offered us a room at 50 Euros for both of us - we took it!
One of the main problems with Spain, especially for hungry cyclists, is that the Spanish don't eat until late and in this hotel, which was otherwise great, the restaurant didn't open until 8.30pm. We were famished by then and hastily devoured fish soup and a game stew. It was wonderful - and of course a nice bottle of local white wine washed it all nicely down.
Our next day was short but the weather, which up until now had been hot - about 26C, finally broke. In pouring rain and almost freezing temperatures we trundled over a 5000ft pass and raced down to Posada de Valdeon reaching speeds of 40mph! This time we didn't really want a campsite, all we wanted was a hot shower where we could thaw out. We found one almost immediately, checked in and noticed through the window there was snow on the tops!
In the Cares Gorge
The weather improved substantially by lunchtime and we decided we'd take a walk along the Cares Gorge, a must-see in this part of Spain. The only problem was the start of the walk, in a village called Cain, lay about 2000ft below us and while we could zoom down the 6 or 7 miles fairly rapidly it would be a long haul back on the bikes at the end of our walk. After some soul searching we asked the senorita in the hotel if she could order us a taxi. And the taxi driver agreed to come back for us in about 3 hours time.
That gave us enough time to see something of this fabulous gorge. The river crashes down deep below formidable rock walls and we watched eagles and vultures high about us. This is definitely somewhere I have to return to, and walk through the entire length of the Gorge to Poncebos on the north side of the Picos range.
The view from the Puerto de Panderruedas
We had looked forward to the next day because we had been promised a 28 mile descent down to Cangas de Onis. What we didn't know was that we start with a 7 mile climb over the Puerto de Panderruedas at 4800ft. It was hot again on the climb, and freezing in the shady descent. We had to continually stop in sunny spots to soak in some sunshine, before crashing downhill again in the bitter cold of the shady forest. When we reached the lovely little village of Oseja de Sajambre we instantly downed two large cups of hot coffee each...
The rest of the day was excellent, until we reached Cangas. It felt like a big town and neither of us like big towns so we cycled through it in search, yet again, of a campsite. It was closed, so we carried on to the rather religious village of Covadonga where we mixed with the pilgrims and those in search of a spiritual blessing. We even saw a priest, with holy water and incense, bless someone's motor bike. It all seemed rather weird...
We had hoped to cycle on to the Covadonga lakes the next morning but the weather was foul, so instead we decided to head for the coast, just for a change. Again, that involved another big climb over the Mirador del Fito before a fast descent to the coast at Colunga where our map promised a choice of campsites. They were all shut and the only hotel we tried was apparently full. I don't think it was but I suspect the manager didn't like the look of us, or maybe it was the smell...
Insread we rode eastwards along the coast and checked into a rather posh but delightful boutique hotel at Caravia, the priciest room of the trip at 80 Euros for both of us. It was wonderful luxury, other than the fact the bed was too soft for me and I ended up on the floor on my Therm a Rest!
On the coastal fringe...
We had assumed the seaside campsites would still be open but we were wrong so we headed back to the mountains, and you've guessed it, over another high pass. The downhill was wonderful though, through the little town of Poo - couldn't resist a photo for my wee grandaughter Grace who falls about laughing whenever the word is mentioned, and on to a campsite - yippee- at Arenas de Cabrales. The only problem was that the campsite was about a mile outside the town and the restaurant was closed so we set up camp, had a shower, cooked a meal (we had a fortnight's worth of camp food to get through) and toddled into Arenas for a couple of beers, a fine end to the day.
Next day we would loop the loop so to speak, complete the circle, and a long and easy descent ook us back to Panes and Unquera. We didn't return to Santander by train though, although we could have. Instead we cycled on to St Vicente where we stayed the night - in another hotel where a couple of mosquitos made it a long and itchy experience.
Final day involved a 40 mile bike ride along the coast back to Santander, a rolling undulating ride with a total ascent of about 3000ft. But it didn't matter, we had a long and luxurious ferry crossing to recover.
Sorry, I know it's childish but I couldn't resist it
It had been a terrific trip, albeit hilly. We saw loads of Marmot Tour riders on their carbon road bikes bashing up and down the hills but we preferred our slower, and certainly heavier, passage around the area. It was surprisingly easy to reach the Picos and the prices of everything pleasantly surprised us too. The mountain villages were wonderful and next time I would avoid the coastal strip, although it is popular with surfers. St Vicente de Baquerra, the only coastal town was stopped overnight, was touristy and a bit rip-off inclined. Our dinner bill was the most expensive of the trip and the paella we were offered wasn't very good - but that's tourist land for you.
Everywhere else was wonderful, people were polite and courteous to the two old codgers on bikes and we loved the little crumbly villages, the white limestone peaks and the glorious deciduous woodlands on the lower slopes. And to remind me of home we even heard red deer stags roaring at the rut! I couldn't recommend the Picos de Europa highly enough.
I rode on my Surly Disc Trucker. Just before the trip I had changed the drop handlebars for butterfly trekking bars, principly so I could use a decent sizes Apidura bar bag. Drop bars limit the size of bar bad you can use, and besides, I couldn't get on with the bar end shifters that came with the Surly.
I used the large Apidura bar bag with the extra pocket wallet which clips on the front. This was ideal for the various odds and ends you want to have at your fingertips - iPhone, sunglasses, suncream, compass etc. In the bar bag I carried my tent, them a rest and cooking gear.
The loaded bikes
I had fitted a rack on the back and used two Ortlieb panniers. I would have much rather used an Apidura saddle bag but I couldn't get all the gear in it. Annoyingly, if we hadn't taken camping gear we could have coped with only a couple of small bags.
A couple of Alpkit stem bags carried some tools and snacks and a small top tube bar contained my camera. It all worked beatifully.