Hikers look for parks and natural spaces to explore wherever they go – and we are no exception. Pulling out the map, we spied Urkiola Natural Park, in the heart of Basque Country just south of Durango in northern Spain. A quick internet search unearthed hiking options worth investigating.
The road winds up and up and up from Durango to Urkiola Pass.
Driving past the imposing Urkiola Sanctuary shrouded in fog, we parked and began the gentle uphill climb into the heart of the park.From the Sanctuary, it is easy to follow the signposts indicating the route to go up Mount Urkiolagirre.
The fog slowly lifted. Wire fences separate herds of belled livestock. The path climbs gently up the verdant pasture land.
It takes about half an hour to reach the small summit of Urkiolagirre, where photogenic Basque ponies demand to be photographed. Look for the orientation table with the names of some of Urkiola’s limestone peaks and other notable points of interest.
The way down from the peak leads to the Asuntze col, with the Pol-Pol spring and its reddish waters. There are several well-marked paths from the col. A signpost lists various trail options. We chose to head up to Larrano.
It took less than half an hour to climb up to the Larrano col. Here stone herder cabins and the tiny Santa Barbara Chapel capture the imagination.
This lush, grassy pass overlooking the town of Durango would be a good place to stop, but the rocky series of small summits to the southeast were calling our names.
Up and up and up – the trail winds to the first summit
There isn’t a readily identifiable trail. We headed up, following a fence line and animal trails and then funnelling into a rocky access point where a more obvious route appeared.
A short scramble and we summited the first small peak with stunning views of the countryside. Hiking options in northern Spain are endless. Urkiola Natural Park is only one of the hidden gems in this region.
Have you hiked in northern Spain? What gems have you uncovered?
When You Go:
Read more about the Hiking Routes through Urkiola Natural Park here.
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Cave paintings – they are history, art and exploration all rolled into one sweet package. How could we come to northern Spain and not check out some of their painted caves?
First up, the star of northern Spain’s painted caves – Altamira.
The Cave of Altamira
Altamira has an intriguing history – in addition to the prehistoric paintings dating back some 14,000 years.
This painted cave is 30 kilometres (19 miles) west of Santander on the northern coast of Spain, in the province of Cantabria. A roof collapse blocked the entrance 13,000 years ago, sealing off the paintings inside. In 1868, a hunter stumbled across the treasure. Eight years later, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola saw the cave for the first time.
An amateur archaeologist, Sanz de Sautuola returned to excavate the entrance to the cave. During one of his visits, his daughter Maria found paintings of bison on the ceiling of a side chamber.
Nobody believed that the paintings were paleolithic art. After 20 years of controversy about their status, the authentic nature of the Altamira paintings was recognized in 1902. Archaeologists discovered engraved animal bones in subsequent digs. One of these carved bones dated to 14,480 years ago.
Maria’s chamber contains most of the paintings. There are red hematite and black charcoal bison images, horses, and a doe – which at 2.5 metres (8.2 feet) is the biggest painting in the collection. Altamira was finally designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 – more than 100 years after its discovery.
“After Altamira, everything is decadence.” – Picasso stating his belief that in Altamira, art had reached maturity.
On one hand, a visit to Altamira is exciting. On the other, it is a mixed bag. The original painted cave closed in 2001 to protect the art. Understandable. Altamira Museum’s Neo-Cave is a replica of the 270-metre (885 feet) long cave and its paintings.
We purchased our entrance tickets and at the same time were given a spot on a cave tour. Touring the museum during the wait, we had time to learn more about the painting process and techniques.
The reconstructed Altamira cave is a carefully crafted exhibition. Every detail of the cave paintings is faithfully replicated. But the fact that it is climate-controlled, it has no loose stones or pointed outcrops or low ceiling dips to avoid, and that there are not even faint sounds of dripping water makes it all seem a bit soulless. Even though it’s perfect, it’s kind of like looking at a good forgery of a masterpiece.
Seventeen painted caves now make up the UNESCO designated Paleolithic Cave Art of the Cantabrian Coast. These include caves in Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country.
There are seven painted caves in the province of Cantabria: Chufín, El Castillo, Las Monedas, El Pendo, Cullalvera, Covalanas and Hornos de la Peña. Because many of the sites are only open Tuesdays to Sundays, timing is key. We lucked out with visits to El Castillo and Las Monedas – both part of the Monte Castillo cave complex near Puente Viesgo.
Cueva El Castillo
King of the castle, archaeological excavations date the use of this cave back 150,000 years. Cuevo El Castillo was re-discovered in 1903.
The tour starts in the museum and walks under the protective roof to the rubble left from the archaeological digs before entering the cave. A real cave! And there are more than 275 different example of Paleolithic art in its dark recesses. Now this is what I was looking forward to experiencing.
Puntas – or dots – are a common art form in the cave. There are over 300 dots between the entrance and the end of the cave paintings. Why were they put there? It seems like a obvious question. Sadly, there is no obvious answer.
In addition to the dots, there are paintings of horses, bison, does, aurochs, stags, goats and a mammoth. Dozens of 40,000-year-old handprints mark the inner walls of the cave. Who left them here? What do they symbolize?
My mind is abuzz with thoughts and images and questions – oh, so many questions.
Cueva Las Monedas
In 1952 Cueva Las Monedas’ existence came into the light, along with its 12,000-year-old artwork. The cave itself is the longest cave in Monte El Castillo – stretching 800 metres (more than 2600 feet) from the entrance.
The paintings themselves are interesting, but it’s the story of the 23 Spanish coins dating back to the 16th century that really sparks the imagination.
When were the coins left in Cueva Las Monedas? Who left them? And why?
Maybe I’ll never find the answers to all the questions these painted caves bring about. Then again, if it means taking another trip back to northern Spain to continue the quest, I could live with that!
When You Go:
We stayed at the Hotel Villa Arce just outside of Puente Viesgo. In good weather, it has a view of Monte El Castillo.
Be sure to book ahead of time as painted caves are popular tours.
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Zipping up close to 700 metres (2300 feet) without breaking a sweat sounds like heaven. Indeed, the cable car at Fuente Dé is a little slice of bliss. Exploring the hiking trails of Picos de Europa in Northern Spain just got a whole lot easier!
The Southeastern Side of Picos de Europa
There are places that make your heart sing. Picos de Europa is one of those places. From Arenas de Cabrales, we moved southeast to Potes to continue our exploration of Picos from Fuente Dé.
It is an easy half hour drive from Potes up to Fuente Dé. The rugged stone wall at the end of the valley draws eyes away from the cable car – or teléforico – passing overhead.
We couldn’t help snapping a few pics before heading over to the terminal for the ride up into the still partially snow-covered alpine. The cable car has been hauling people up the mountainside since the 1960s.
Hiking around Fuente Dé
Mere minutes after boarding, we are standing at the cable car summit. Packs on backs, light hikers laced tight on eager feet and we’re off.
Within 20 minutes there are no crowds and only a few other people working their way through lingering patches of snow.
We took route PR24 in a clockwise direction. The trail climbs up to a pass before heading down the other side to a red-roofed refugio (closed until summer).
From the refugio, we took a short detour up onto a rise in search of the elusive chamois.
And wouldn’t you know it, we saw one!
We climbed back up to the route, past Hotel Áliva (again, closed for the season) and down towards an old church.
The Virgen de la Salud Puerto de Aliva stands out in the meadows like a beacon to all who wander nearby.
Heading Down from the Alpine
From here the trail joins up with a gravel road for a short distance as it descends back down toward Espinama.
We pass an historic fountain before descending into a thick oak forest. Towards the end of the hike, the trail surface became a bit of a mud bog in early May.
The sight of the cable car at Fuente Dé looked even sweeter than it did on our initial approach. What a hike!
Trail PR 24 – over and out.
If You Go:
The cable car at Fuente Dé cost 11 Euros each on our visit.
The circular route following PR 24 – including countless detours and an extended picnic time – took us 6 ½ hours. Total distance was 16.8 kilometres (10.4 miles).
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More than 500 workers carved over 70 tunnels to carry water from Cain to Poncebos for a hydroelectric project. The project started in 1915 and was finished in 1921. Eleven workers died. Of course we didn’t know any of this when we started out. All we knew is that we were going to hike into the famous Cares Gorge, in Picos de Europa, Spain.
The Spectacular Gorge
The Cares Gorge (Garganta del Cares) is a cleft running through the heart of the Picos de Europa mountain range. Carved by the Cares River, this massive rift reaches more than 1000 metres (3300 feet) deep in places. It stretches 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) in length.
Portions of the Cares River were diverted in the early 1900s for a hydroelectric power. Some of the water from the Cares flows through a canal that is built into the mountainside. The maintenance path for the canal is now an extremely popular hiking path through Cares Gorge.
It is possible to do the hike in either direction. Because we based out of Arenas de Cabrales, we started at Poncebos. The six kilometre (3.7 mile) drive snakes high into the mountains. After one false start, parking too early and crossing over the canal before the bridge and tunnel, we found the trailhead.
It is a steep, rocky climb up to the pass. Near the summit, old stone buildings speak to another life. It is also here that the first signs of the canal appear. At the summit, interpretive signs tell the story of the canal’s construction. Who knew?
Down, down, down – the path levels off as it hugs the cliff above, below and on top of the leaky canal. Stone retaining walls and short tunnels help maintain the grade. We catch occasional glimpses of the fast-flowing, blue Cares River far below. There are numerous side trails – goat tracks for the most part – veering off down into the canyon. The views continue to make us stop again and again for photo after photo.
Should you consider doing even a portion of this walk if in northern Spain?
Without a doubt!
Tips for Hiking the Cares Gorge
Be prepared for hundreds of people if on a weekend.
There are no washrooms or trash cans along the route, use Leave No Trace principles.
Sporadic signposts help mark distances.
Weather can change without warning, pack an umbrella and windcoat.
Don’t forget your camera.
To get to the trailhead, take route AS-264 to Poncebos from Arenas de Cabrales. Drive across the bridge and through the tunnel and watch for the sign “Funicular de Bulnes.” Take the right fork of the road here and continue uphill to the gate and trailhead.
Get a hiking guidebook:
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For me, the thought of travel to northern Spain was always about hiking the Camino de Santiago. That was always the goal. While it’s good to have a goal, some trips have a way of morphing from an original idea to something even better than you could imagine. Discovering Picos de Europa took our exploration of northern Spain in a different direction.
Ideas and a Different Reality
It all started with the Camino de Santiago. If you’ve ever seen the movie, The Way, starring Martin Sheen, you’ve seen portions of this historic route. I’ve had a guidebook and map on my bookshelf for years. It’s on the list to do eventually, but…
The reality is that the Camino wanders not only along forest and mountain paths, but across vast stretches of farmland, through towns and along sections of roadway across northern Spain. It is a long and winding path. Furthermore, the section we were considering ran some 750 kilometres (465 miles) from St Jean Pied de Port in France through the Basque Pyrenees, across the plains and on to Santiago de Compostela. Check out A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago: St. Jean – Roncesvalles – Santiago if you’d like to to learn more.
The more we researched, the less it sounded like a trek we could realistically do with only one month of holidays and a host other “must-sees” on the list.
Flipping through the The Rough Guide to Spain, we stumbled across Picos de Europa – a small mountainous region in Asturias and Cantabria. A couple quick keystrokes and we were looking at pictures of rugged and snow-capped limestone peaks and deep river gorges. Without a doubt, we knew Picos de Europa was our kind of place. In addition, we discovered that Cantabria was also home to one of the best collections of cave paintings in Europe. Our path was set.
Picos de Europa
Spain’s oldest national park (est. 1918) is located about a seven-hour drive north of Madrid. The area has been inhabited since Paleolithic times. The region’s lush meadows, forests and alpine pastures have been farmed for the past 5,000 years.
Picos de Europa straddles three provinces in northern Spain: Asturias, Cantabria and León. The peaks rise up just 20 kilometres (12 ½ miles) inland of Spain’s northern coast. It is home to such endangered species as the Cantabrian brown bear, the Iberian lynx and the Cantabrian chamoix.
The mountain range itself is relatively small, stretching only about 40 kilometres (25 miles) east to west and 20 kilometres (12 ½ miles) north to south, but it rises like a steep barricade. As a result, the roads wind through narrow valleys and it takes more than you’d think to get from one section to another. None of the main roads cut through the centre of the massif, so we decided to base out of Arenas de Cabrales for our first foray into Picos de Europa.
If You Go:
Picos de Europa is about a seven-hour drive north of Madrid. Flying into Santander and renting a car might be a good idea if short on time. More information about Picos de Europa can be found online from the Tourism Office of Spain.
Next up: Hiking Cares Gorge
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