In Search of Snow Covered Mountains
In the blink of an eye it caught my eye! Like white tips of chalk against the partial cloudy sky in the distance. Because I geographically knew absolutely nothing when it came to Northern Spain I was delighted to learn, it’s mountainous! I know those mountains are far and I know they’re sorta-kinda the way my bus is going, east via the coastal route towards Lastres somewhere in the middle of Northern Spain. This bus will take take me a good distance closer in that direction when I get off in Ribadesella, yet beyond there I’ll have to plunge straight south, into the heart of the mountains. Without fully realizing it then, I had an important mission to find those snow covered mountains!
The Mission at Hand
You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here in the first place, what is my ultimate mission for being here in the first place. If not, then here it is anyways: I want to see the slice of Europe in between here and Lithuania without a plane.
So far it’s been three weeks since leaving Porto to walk (and walk) the Camino de Santiago north to Santiago de Compostela from where I started this zoo of a trip. For two weeks now I’ve been walking, busing, sightseeing, busing, training (via train), sleeping and repeat. It’s been strenuous at times but that comes with the territory. This is how for I’ve gone so far.
And this is how far I still have to go.
After some initial struggle finding my way out of the farmland this morning, I luckily waited at an unmarked bus stop long enough for the bus to arrive, late. I almost missed it when I lost hope that it would arrive and was walking away when it miraculously arrived, then chased after it for what felt like minutes.
Three buses later and I’m entering the beautiful Ribadesella, founded on the mouth of the river Sella. I didn’t know then but I would be following this river up it’s source. Ribadesella will be the last coastal city I’ll be seeing for a long time. And sunshine too 🤤 – Luckily I didn’t know that then.
So I walked around the city until I wanted to complain how heavy my bags were, then went to sip wine, as I have been doing since starting this trip.
The Next Step
At this point I’m expecting this to be a small 1-2 day detour to see a pretty picture I saw in a cheesy guide book a day earlier.
There was no other image to accompany this one, so it left my imagination to wander. Is this some city carved into the mountain? Is this going to be like a mini dwarven colony like in Lord of the Rings, or at the least like the Pueblo Indians of Mesa Verde?
Where I am going is apparently called Cangas de Onís. Beside this fantasy I have in my mind, I know nothing more than hoping to see a cool mountain side thingy.
Into the Mountains
In all honesty I was half-expecting to kill two birds with one stone by visiting Cangas de Onís. The train from Ribadesella headed straight south puncturing deeper and deeper into the ever expanding green hills until they were tall enough to block out vast sections of the afternoon sun. Hardly a cloud was in the sky, the detour looked convenient and promising 😀
Cangas de Onís
I didn’t seriously expect to see a dwarven cave city nor frosty mountains here for it was too far easy to get here. Secondly the mountains are still a ways away. I arrive at Cangas and realize that either the guide book led me astray or I was too impatient reading the guidebook description that I mistook the wrong city. Though walking around I do see a lot of signs for Covadonga… I’ll wander through this village then try that.
Throughout this trip, I’ve been doing my best to stick to a €25/day schedule. Not only does it put a leash on my wine & pastry in-take, but also in other ways. In this case I was outraged that the bus would charge me €1.50 to go 15km compared to the more favorable longer bus rides. I decided to save a €1.50 and walk towards Covadonga. If I’m lucky I’ll meet some people at the campsite 5km from Cangas, who can take me the rest of the way in the morning. And thus I hike out of Cangas de Onís along the outskirts of the mountain range.
The view along the walk was touristy but still interesting. Businesses built on the through traffic of people passing to-and-fro to Covadonga. Must be something there!
Partially exhausted, I arrive at the campgrounds and stumble around trying to get someone’s attention and I set my things down. Finally someone comes out and in short, this conversation occurs:
Him: We’re closed!
Me: But where can I sleep?
Him: I don’t know, sleep on the side of the road. We’re closed.
Me: Lame 😒
With no choice I zigzag down the road going from store to restaurant looking for some land to sleep on. This goes on for close to an hour with every owner and client’s response being “Yo no sé” (I don’t know). Being as Spain is very tricky about where you can wild camp, and being in Asturias, one of the 5 regions where it is completely prohibited, I feel a tingle of nervousness. I dare anyways with the mindset that if I don’t bother anyone and nobody sees me then it should be fine, and secondly I’m getting tired I need to sleep. Eventually I come across an unfenced field with an abandoned house on it and I pitch my tent by the river for the night. The field behind which I’m camping has a small hill to hide me from the road.
Tomorrow I’ll continue to Covadonga. Now I sleep.
I wake up at 8 the next morning and notice the tent’s not letting any light. Outside is as gray as an ashtray and I smell rain. At this point I have two options: pack up now and hope it doesn’t rain in the 40 minutes it takes me to do that, or wait and gamble being stuck in a tent for several hours.
I do not wait. Me and the clothes I’m wearing are not waterproof, but the bags are, that’s all that matters. I scramble to pack up as a few drops stain my face. Before I know it, I’m ready to go.
An hour goes by, the hills are encroaching, and the raindrops are approaching. The rain is just picking up. By the time I reach the park entrance, the rain is pounding down and I pause for a half hour and eat my breakfast of bread, chorizo, cheese and hot sauce then wash it down with water. Once the rain stops pelting bullets I get impatient and continue. After walking past enough tourist traps I start approaching a shape that looks… pretty.
I skirt through the canopied pathway leading up the hill towards the cathedral. The rain is still raining but at least here are some places to sight see and hide from the rain. Covadonga is gorgeous though tiny but apparently not a dwarven mountain village. It has one sanctuary tunnel and a badass cathedral!
Having gotten that far, I wasn’t satisfied to turn back the way I came and continue along the coast. I was hungry for something more, I wasn’t exactly sure what so I took a bus back to Cangas and schemed about my next destination.
Some time around then while traveling to-and-fro Cangas de Onís I noticed on an oddity on my map. The shape of this lake surrounding the city of Riaño was so fascinating to me. I had to see what it looked like! Look closely at the lake around the map marker in the bottom, you’ll notice it’s really freakin’ big and there’s not much around it.
This lake is just over the border in Castilla y Léon. From there I’ll head north-east into Cantabria and retreat back to the coast! I’m excited by that because each region is like a country with it’s own culture, specialties and sometimes distinct languages.
Right from the start I get a strange feeling about where I’m going. First there are no bus routes that travel that short distance. Only one bus can take me halfway to village of Oseja de Sajambre in the neighboring region. I’ll worry about the following leg into Cantabria later.
One thing about me, whenever I’m awaiting a bus or train and I’m not completely certain where/when it will come, I ask almost every person of authority or person who doesn’t look lost. Through that, I start a conversation with a grandmother also going south. The conversation is light and polite until eventually I mention I’m going to Riaño. Her face changed from one of lightheartedness to somber one. “What an unfortunate place”, she mentions. I ask her what she means and all that I can figure out is that it was once a bustling valley full of people and prosperity. Before the reservoir at least…
At this point it’s raining hard, our bus is snaking through the mountains and I finally get my thrill traveling through Lord of the Rings-like territory. For an hour the bus progresses and I can’t help but jump from the left side of the bus, to the right side, back again to the left so to catch glimpses of the mountain peaks through the bus window.
Upon wishing this ride would keep driving for another hour, I find myself in Oseja de Sajambre. It’s still early and I don’t know what to do next. The clouds are still pelting wet bullets at me. So I do what I always do when faced with this dilemma, I go sip wine! I trudge through the rain to the nearest bar and motion for a drink.
I’m at a loss for words when the bar owner asks why a tourist like me would visit on such a rainy day. On top of that, I can’t help but notice the way he pronounces hoy, the word for today; it sounds like Ho-jee, like Portuguese. I make sense of my predicament then explain it to the other bar owner and his two patrons. I sip my wine as I try to make sense of their thick accented responses. I make out one patron saying that the rain could go on all night. As for getting to Riaño, no one knows. I sit and I sip…
After twenty minutes of rain watching goes by, I notice the bar owner calling to me. “Huh?” He tells me that that man unpacking his truck is driving to Riaño. Ask him if he can take you! I throw on my bags and run to him.
Me: Hola, I heard you’re going to Riaño, could you take me with?
Him: Yes I’me going though I have very little space. Do you have a lot of stuff?
Me: *swallow* Umm, depends what you mean by that. 2 Bags?
We barely fit in the truck on the way there and I have to carry my large bag on my lap, but it’s better than walking! As we start driving I realize, if it’s this hard to getting there, how hard will it be to get out?
The 30 kilometers between Oseja de Sajambre and Riaño is mostly quiet. The driver is a native of Oseja in his early 30s, so I abandon my formal talk and try to start a conversation and lighten the air. In such situations when the driver is not curious about me I realize how difficult it can be to find common ground between people that grew up in a place so different from mine. I feel somewhat foolish geeking out over this beautiful mountain view whereas he sees this everyday and is not fazed. Regardless, I’m happy to be getting a ride, even if the ride is uncomfortably quiet and I can’t get out of here afterwards.
After a half hour of snaking up and down the mountain we approach the reservoir and I see something strange cut through it…
I sit in the car half confused. Is that a road… going directly into the water? My driver answers me, yes. He’s not too sure when exactly this happened either as it seems like he was still too young to grasp what was happening when they created the reservoir.
The story of Riaño and the 7 other villages that inhabited this valley is tragic.
Uncovering nuggets of history for Riaño was difficult because everybody was giving me different numbers as to how long it’s been. Only afterwards could I dig up the truth online. In 1986 despite protests and much opposition, the Spanish government finished it’s dam which would improve irrigation land for the areas further downstream the Esla river and forsake the eight villages that resided there.
What was once here was a valley of fertile farming and cattle raising. What once looked like this…
A new city was built on the banks of the reservoir to house all of the displaced inhabitants yet all but 532 of the residents left this valley forever (2010 Census). New Riaño is pretty in the tourist sense that is appealing. Judging by how quiet and empty it was, I can’t speak much more about the city.
While wandering the streets of Riaño (or new Riaño because the old one was demolished), I get sniffed down by a thick-accented native who starts explaining from the outset how he knew I was a pilgrim, from my outlook. He is eager to show me the church on the hill where he’s stashed his tourist pamphlets for lost puppets like me. I chat with him and end up learning a lot more then I expected, first about the area, then about his personal life (apparently he’s planning a surprise trip home for his Slovakian wife for their next anniversary).
The Long Leg
At this point of the journey I have my eyes set on the first city that google maps shows me up the highway, Potes. I learn that there are no buses directly going over the border of this other autonomous region of Cantabria. Luckily I learn there’s a Camino de Santiago route going up all the way to Potes. Though I have no intention to walk all 55 kilometers (35 miles) to Potes, I find it comforting knowing there could be a cheap albergue to sleep in up ahead. But not here…
Here’s what’s ahead of me:
Roughly 55 kilometers of barren road. By barren I mean there are 30 minute stretches of walking on the highway without seeing a car sometimes. The fact that I had gotten to Riaño from Oseja confused the native just earlier. I try my luck by getting a wine before leaving Riaño but the bar owner seems uninterested… I could tell trying to catch a ride here would be like mining for coal in El Dorado; the nature here is golden, the cars and people just aren’t here.
I leave the city (to chase this magical rainbow) and I start scheming where I can sleep. I decide that I will walk until a better idea comes about (aka hope to get lucky). I really hope I don’t have to walk the entire 55 kilometers to Potes.
For those of you trying to visualize what it feels like to walk so far, remember back to grade school when you had to run the mile in gym class. Now imagine how fatigued you felt halfway through that mile. You were probably not a debilitated running mess, but you probably weren’t fresh either. Now combine that feeling of fatigue with standing in line at the DMV or post office for hours on end. Sometimes the views are amazing and sometimes you’re walking through mind-numbing heat along busy roads. I don’t know but today it’s definitely going to rain again…
And so after trotting down the road some more I pitch my tent right by the highway not giving a f*ck if it’s illegal. There is nobody here to tell me I can’t.
The next morning I find it difficult rolling out of my sleeping quilt. Being as I’m over a kilometer in elevation I forget how cold it gets up here. As I’m hurrying to pack my soaked tent fly, I notice my hands are freezing because it’s 4° C. The sooner I get packed, the sooner I move and the sooner my body warms me up. And then I walk…
The entire morning I walk. I see the only bus in the area pass me early on. Like always, I’m miles away from the closest bus station nor is there any internet service here so that I can find out if/when the next bus comes. Nope, I eat breakfast, and I walk some more…
After three hours of walking a grandfather picks me up and drives takes me the remaining two kilometers to the closest city, Portilla de la Reina. He apologizes that he can’t take me further, nor can his wife who he just called up to ask. I’m happy to have saved 20 minutes of walking at the least though I’m still 35 km away from the nearest city with a bus station aka Potes. It’s still early in the day and thus like habit, I order a glass of wine and use it’s inebriating effects to instill confidence in the long walk ahead of me. And I walk!!!
I walk and I get lost in my own waiting at the DMV kind of world. The mountains here are interesting and beautiful, yet after the seventy-thousandth one you start wanting something more.
Then suddenly, like a gust of fresh wind, the sun appears and rekindles my mood.
The view is getting more interesting and I am using any advantage to motivate myself because I still have at least 28 kilometers to go. And with another gust of luck I notice that this white truck just stopped for me. Almost not believing it to be real, I run to it, and learn the driver has some errands to take care of in Potes… Potes!?
Like a giddy child who just got the Christmas gift he was hoping for, I jump in the car with a smile glued to my face, and we go!
The driver is a long haired man in his forties or fifties working as a forest ranger. I’m happy this driver is more open and easier to converse with; it always eases the tension of the ride. He is on his way back from Salamanca, several hours south, and he finds me for the last 30 minutes of his drive. Though we find much to talk about, I find it difficult to look at him when I talk, only because the scenery that we’re flying past is too breathtaking to overlook. I mention all the foods & drinks that I read are typical Cantabrian, like Aguardient de Orujo and Quesada, and I’m delighted to learn that I’ll be able to find all of that in Potes 😀
Having crossed the border to Cantabria I learn that we have just reached an elevation of one mile and the rest of the way to Potes will be downhill. The road snakes through clouds that had been waiting for us on the other side. Potes, I learn is at the bottom of this valley, only 300 meters in elevation, where it is warmer. So I sit on my jolly butt and enjoy the ride!
I had no expectations for Potes. The city is built on a foundation of stone with it’s cobble streets, archways and houses. The city center is sprinkled with outdoor restaurants and shops and centered on the intersection of two rivers that cut through. Looking up you cannot missing the looming snow-covered mountains all around you. This is Potes…
And this is the view from a viewpoint 3km outside of Potes.
Words fail to describe what it was like for me to stay in Potes. I was enthralled by it’s picturesque beauty, it’s clay roofs and small shops tucked away one behind another. After some initial asking around, I found the municipal pilgrim albergue to spend the night and wash all three pairs of reeking clothes for the first time in three days. Plus, I could walk around the city in good weather and without all of my bags. It was such a relief from a beautiful but strenuous and unpredictable journey through the hinterlands of Spain. Whether it was main reason or not, from Potes I finally saw my snow covered mountains right in front of me; I am satisfied to return to the coast. Tomorrow I can take a stress-free bus from here, right now I am happy.
My take away from these past few days is that sometimes the struggle creates the reward. I don’t think I would have appreciated Potes as much had I taken a bus from Ribadesella directly. It’s impossible to say what makes us fall in love with places though I’m willing to bet that it has to do with our unique experiences with that place. Maybe we had an exciting chance encounter and we associate that good experience with that place, when its not so much the place we fell in love with but the experience. With that said, I can’t promise you’ll fall for this city like I did, but maybe with this in mind it may convince you to take the long route, just for the sake of adventure!
“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
– Ursula K. Le Guin