Last week I began looking at my 10 favourite mountain treks, beginning with Gokyo Ri (Nepal) at No 10. Moving up the queue, things shift to Europe, but not to the usual mountain suspects.
9. Picos de Europa (Spain)
The Peaks of Europe aren’t the Alps, and they’re not the Pyrenees. The literal Peaks of Europe – the Picos de Europa – stand above the north coast of Spain. The limestone Picos are like a portion of the Dolomites holidaying on the Bay of Biscay, and though they top out at just 2600m, they have a beautifully barren quality that makes them feel significantly higher.
A couple of years ago I spent four days rambling across the Picos de Europa, wandering up to their heights and down into their depths, never really heading anywhere particular but always feeling as though I’d found somewhere. Somewhere magnificent, even if much of the rest of the world looked at the pure numbers and preferred the Alps.
Garganta del Cares
There are two principal natural features in the Picos: Garganta del Cares, a gorge almost as deep as the Grand Canyon; and Naranjo de Bulnes, a 2519m-high limestone spire that wouldn’t look out of place in Patagonia. I spent a day funnelling through the Cares gorge, where the path is chiselled and blasted into, and at times through, the limestone cliffs. Another night I bunked down in the refuge in touching distance of Naranjo de Bulnes. As I walked towards the hut in the evening, climbers inched towards the tip of Naranjo de Bulnes above me. In the morning, the same climbers hurried about the refuge, scrambling to get back onto Naranjo’s 500-metre-high rock summit.
Naranjo de Bulnes
But it was among the anonymous dolines and passes behind Naranjo de Bulnes that I found the Picos I liked best. Back here, in a wasteland of rock, chamois outnumbered hikers, and even as a lone walker I outnumbered the trees. Two thousand metres above sea level had rarely felt so high and wild.
As the vague path seemed to logically end in one valley, a chained route shot up an impossibly steep slope to a pass. I climbed on, crossing to the outside wall of the massif and around into the glacial valley that curled between two of the Picos’ three massifs.
Atop the chained route in empty mountain country behind Naranjo de Bulnes
The valley was cut by a faint public road, though I didn’t see a single vehicle – and yet I was in Spain, a country of 47 million people. Slowly the pounding of the loose gravel road bruised my feet and beside a roadside grave I stopped, removed my boots and lay back in the grass, listening to the world doing nothing.
Ahead was the seasonal farming village of Las Vegas del Toro, abandoned for the moment and looking timeless – in this Las Vegas there was no electricity, let alone neon. Dry-stone walls enclosed summer pastures, and village stables were hacked into the cliffs. It was as though I’d stepped back centuries and yet, if I chose, I could be sunning myself on the beaches of the Bay of Biscay inside an hour or two. Instead, I chose to walk back into the mountains.
* Adventure before Avarice hiked in the Picos de Europa with UTracks.