This in-depth article will tell you all that you need to know about exploring the Asturias region and the Picos de Europa mountains in northern Spain. It’s a narrative of the 17 day road trip that I took with my friend Debbie in the autumn of 2018.
Debs and I had already travelled together in S E Asia and we had also been on a road trip in the south of Spain a couple of years previously so we knew that we would have a lot of fun on this trip. Our intention this time was to get to know Asturias and also dip our toes into the neighbouring regions of Rioja, Cantabria and Castilla y Leon.
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You can replicate all or part of the trip yourself and I am happy to respond to any questions that you might have about our trip so please do drop me a message or comment below – I would love to hear from you.
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Day 1: Exploring Logrono
The old town of Logrono was our starting point for this road trip which would take us mainly through the region of Asturias. Our journey north to our starting point had taken us through the wine region of Rioja with rows and rows of vineyards and across a huge flat plain where the farmers were busy finishing gathering in their harvest of cereal, straw and hay. This was the end of October and autumn was here.
Arriving in Logrono we checked into our backpackers hostel which was conveniently situated just a few blocks outside the old quarter. We quickly settled in and then after dumping our bags we set off to explore.
Logrono is a delightful town with the River Ebro running through it and boasts a huge cathedral and narrow cobbled streets in the old town. Despite this being a road trip we had a lot of walking planned and so we began as we meant to go on and we explored Logrono on foot.
We crossed the river via the old iron bridge and we walked back the other way across the even older stone bridge. We stumbled across a tiny little museum, the El Cubo Artillero del Revellin which is based inside the last standing piece of the old city walls and we also visited the Science Museum – both of these museums are free to enter.
That first evening we walked around the old town and we ate pinxos in the area around the famous Calle Laurel. At the end of October the weather here was still warm enough to stand outside and enjoy the buzz of the crowds who were munching on their snacks and in true Spanish style, chattering away at the tops of their voices.
Pinxos are a type of snack that are found in the northern region of Spain. They are more than bite-sized, they are usually served on pieces of bread and they have the most scrumptious flavours. Salchita (sausage) bacalao (cod) and pork feature heavily. Many come with creamy sauces or simple tomato and olive oil. They cost just a euro or a bit more for the fancier ones and are a great way to fill up on some exquisite tastes.
The pinxos are displayed in glass fronted counters along the bars where traditionally you choose one or two with a drink, chatter loudly with your friends and then move on to the next place and repeat.
The town of Logrono has taken pinxos to the next level and the bars are all busy in the evenings with locals and tourists alike vying for the best seats and the chefs vying for the most eye-catching displays.
After we had eaten our fill we returned to our hostel where we got a good night’s sleep in the 22 bed dormitory that was popular with walkers who were attempting the Camino de Santiago.
Day 2: Pancorbo and Reinosa
We were aware of the peligrinos (pilgrims) quietly packing their rucksacks in the dark before dawn so that they could head off early but both Debs and I are quite used to sleeping in dormitories so they didn’t really disturb us. We rose at a more acceptable time and went out to a nearby cafe for a coffee and a pastry to kick-start the day.
Debs drove Betty the Berlingo north and because the weather was threatening to change for the worse we stuck to the motorway at this stage. Along this part of the route the road was cut high into the side of the mountains and with several long tunnels and viaducts swooping across valleys the motorway offered the best views of the changing landscape below.
Needing a break and deciding to come off onto a smaller road we got confused at a junction where we accidentally took a wrong turning and found ourselves in a small village.
I should point out at this stage that getting lost was never usually a hassle and both Debbie and I were happy to discover what lay in a different direction. Vague Spanish road signs, my confusion at reading my map and Debbie’s complete inability to remember her left from her right all took us up the wrong roads and frequently.
This time was no different and as it was time for a break anyway we parked up in a village that we discovered was called Pancorbo and we walked around to stretch our legs.
What a find this little village was! We didn’t realise it at this stage but these gems would just continued to fall into our laps on the whole trip. This medieval village was about to have its annual pony fair but even without that event happening on the day of our accidental visit, the village is well worth a poke around.
There are so many cobbled streets with so many old houses, often half timbered, many built on stone stilts and all with terracotta tiles that it’s a photographer’s dream.
We followed a stone path up behind the houses and found an old stone arch which was once part of a very old castle on the mountainside above and we watched birds of prey (vultures and buzzards I think) launching off the jagged cliffs and the castle ruins.
On a large field at one end of the town some of the local black ponies, called the Losino which are unique to this area and which run semi-wild up on the mountains for much of the year were displayed in pens. Pony rides and carriage rides around the village were offered for free and some small stalls with artisan goods were doing a brisk trade. Debbie and I took advantage of a carriage ride around the village alongside a laughing local family and we bought some local sheep’s cheese for our supper from one of the stalls.
The village had a bizarre atmosphere on the day we arrived, and I am not sure if it was because of the horse fair or not. Surrounded by the mountain peaks we felt as if we had been transported back to South America. The physical appearance of many here bore a strong similarity to people that I had seen in Peru and Bolivia – possibly some of the villagers’ ancestors had returned after the Spanish colonised that part of the world – but also the music that was being played, the clothes worn, the friendliness of the people and the proud horses all added to the charm.
Debs and I felt as if we had dropped into some parallel universe because approaching this little village (prior to our wrong turn) we hadn’t even been aware of the massive mountains which loom over the town and in some optical illusion, immediately upon leaving the village the mountains disappeared from behind! It was a strange phenomenon like turning a corner and dropping through a hidden portal, but if you do have time, factor in a stop and see the mountains and the strange houses in this village.
Continuing to Reinosa
Refreshed and continuing our journey north the road climbed steeper and steeper when a thick mist came down to swallow us up. We stopped for a hot chocolate at a roadside bar which was packed with Sunday walkers and dragon-boat teams. With everybody softly steaming in the damp, warm atmosphere and the smell of wood-smoke hanging in the air it reminded me of a skiing holiday. We were very close to the huge lake called the Embalse de Ebro which explained the dragon boat teams and which must be very nice on a sunny day but views of which were proving rather elusive to us due to the low clouds, mist and the drizzle.
Warm and full of hot chocolate we continued around the lake and dropped down into the town of Reinosa to find our accommodation for the night.
This small budget hotel, although not too much to look at from the outside was perfect for us and we were welcomed into our cosy room before deciding to brave the elements.
Wrapping up warmly we walked briskly down to the small town centre. This was much like the others in the region with grand houses built from stone, an even grander town hall, large plazas and imposing churches. The sensible locals had broken out their ski gear several weeks earlier than normal against the biting cold which had descended upon them and they were padding around in salopettes and thick jackets.
The hotel guy had joked with us that autumn had missed the town this year and it had been plunged straight from summer into winter. Our best course of action seemed to be to find a warm little bar which served a very nice red rioja wine before heading back for a hot shower, a supper of sheep’s cheese and an early night.
Get your Lonely Planet Guide here which will help you with your own road trip around the north (or anywhere) in Spain.
Day 3: Santillano del Mar & LLanes
By the time that we got up the next morning it was raining hard and it was even colder but despite the weather, after checking out of our hotel we headed just a few miles out of town to find the source of the River Ebro. I have been to the delta where the river flows into the Mediterranean Sea many times and Debs lives in a village on the banks of the Ebro so we were both very interested to find the birthplace of the longest river on the Iberian peninsula.
A short walk among autumnal leaves brought us to a pool with some remarkable blue and green hues and where the water rippled and bubbled as the springs gave life to the river.
After taking a couple of photos it was back in the car and north towards the beaches. Just before the coast we parked up and wandered around the town of Santillana del Mar which has been described as ‘the prettiest village in Spain’ by Jean-Paul Sartres.
Even in the rain it was easy to see how that description could have been earned although there are many other villages just as pretty in different ways.
This village became rich from the profits off the back of South American conquistadors and on their return, many people purchased titles. They became barons and lords and upgraded their houses to mansions, complete with coats of arms. A vast proportion of the village were wealthy enough not to work anymore and they reflected this wealth in their homes.
Despite the rain there were hordes of tourists wandering in and out of the numerous artisan delicatessens and souvenir shops and poking around the back lanes. The village must be over-run with people in the summer but it wasn’t too bad when we were there.
Continuing north we next parked up for a wander around the seaside town of Corillas. This town’s claim to fame are several buildings designed in the style of the Catalan architect Gaudi. To be honest, we were beginning to fade a bit as the bitter wind blew in off the sea so we didn’t explore too much. We found a cute little restaurant where we tucked ourselves away and ate a Menu del Dia before moving on to our final destination of the day at Llanes.
The seaside town of Llanes
We sort of assumed that Llanes would have lots of accommodation being on the coast, out of season and on the route of the Camino de Santiago but we did start to panic a little bit when phone calls revealed that everything in our budget was fully booked.
Both myself and Debbie are seasoned travellers so panic wasn’t an option and we instead decided to settle ourselves in a bar with wifi and to ask around. We eventually found a pilgrim’s hostel which had space. Not being pilgrims we weren’t allowed to take advantage of the very reasonable priced dormitory but were obliged to take a private room; although as it came with free off-road parking and a breakfast we were very happy anyway.
After checking in, the drizzle seemed to be easing so we parked up Betty and we went to see what Llanes had to offer. This town has a lovely ambience with a large, very old neighbourhood, ancient stone town walls surrounding much of it, a harbour and beaches. There were plenty of places to eat and drink and they also specialised in sidre.
The sidre (apple cider) in this part of Spain is poured into small glasses from a great height in order to aerate it. It’s naturally flat unlike the sparkling cider that we are used to in the UK but this pouring gives it body and a bit of fizz. It’s normal to buy a large bottle and share between friends. This way it stays cold and after the first pouring by the bar staff it will often be capped with a tapon, which is a cork with a hole in so that you can pour the following glasses yourself with hopefully minimum mess.
We did see some restaurants where the sidre was poured out over a deep metal bin but the best places were where the staff and the locals accurately hit the glass every time, freehand and usually whilst not even looking at either the bottle or the glass.
We climbed some stone steps to the mirador (a viewpoint) on the cliffs to see the sunset and to watch the high waves from the backend of the storm lash the concrete sea defences.
But more interesting was a ‘blowhole’ in the cliffs. The incoming tide was forcing the sea up and through one of the thousands of cracks and blowing it up in a spray. There are many of these blowholes all along this stretch of coastline thanks to the geological makeup of the cliffs where underground caverns have been carved over billions of years and something very simple gave us much enjoyment as we stood and watched.
Day 4 and the blowhole at Bufones de Pria
We liked the town of Llanes so much that we decided to extend our booking for a second night and take some time to explore it properly. A bonus was that the sun had come out so We took a long walk out along the coast path where we watched men collect pink seaweed and spread it out to dry in the sun. They told me that they use this weed that had been washed ashore in the storm as a food and also use it in an elixir for health (jarabe).
We came across a beautiful beach with some strange rocks that were poking out of the sand and the bay like rows of jagged teeth and we climbed up to the top of the cliffs to what was once a fort where we lay on the wall in the sun, had a picnic and then in true Spanish style, we took a siesta and we fell asleep in the sun!
We decided to take advantage of the good weather so we walked back into Llanes, collected the car and drove west along the coast road (via the comically named town of Poo) and towards the cliffs where we had heard that there was a spectacular blowhole at Bufones de Pria.
It turned out that we had got ourselves a little bit lost and didn’t take the conventional path to the site, and by the time we had hiked along a cliff path deep in bracken and gorse and reached the blowhole the tide had just passed its peak.
There was quite a crowd of people who had been patiently waiting for decent photographs – they had approached along a much wider and more accessible path then we did – but due to the stormy weather the previous day, our blowhole in the town of Llanes had actually put on a better show for us.
If you are keen on geology this bit of land up on the cliffs was fascinating. The rocks are rough and spiky with countless fissures – the huge ones fall all the way to the base of the cliffs and form the blowholes. The noise of the sea pounding the base of the cliffs below is immense and all the time there is a constant dull booming and a loud shwooshing noise like an underground train approaching from its tunnel.
This part of the Asturian coastline is similar in so many ways to Devon and Cornwall in the UK with high cliffs, rugged coastal paths and small sandy beaches in the coves far below and driving further west to the incredibly pretty seaside town of Ribadesella confirmed this.
Set at the mouth of a river where sandy deposits had formed a beautiful stretch of beach this town had a small marina and pedestrianised streets with the regulatory old buildings and a church with a gorgeous ceiling. It was nothing too spectacular until we took a stiff walk up a short hill, behind the town and out onto a look-out point where we were treated to yet another splendid sunset overlooking the bay and a spectacular vista below.
Day 5: Cabrales cheese and Arenas de Cabrales
After breakfast in our hostel we checked out and were on the road again – this time heading inland for the Picos de Europa and the area that was the main attraction for both of us on this road trip. The sun was out and it was promising to be a gloriously warm day. It wasn’t a long drive to our next guesthouse so we took a detour to a viewpoint marked on our map.
Being Spain we ended up in a tiny village but with no indication of which way to go for the mirador. We parked up and did what we do best and we asked a farmer for directions. He was enjoying the sun over a cup of coffee outside his barn and he directed us to a small path out of the village.
Following his directions we walked up to a nobbly hilltop and a field of maize. Walking around the small field and therefore around the nobbly top of the hill we were treated to views of both the coast and the Pico mountains at the same time.
What are the Picos de Europa?
The mountains in the Picos have a distinct shape with sharp angles and jagged points. They cover 20 square kms, are close to the northern coastline of Spain and appear to be relatively unknown outside of Spain despite having some of the most iconic rock climbing and some amazing hiking routes. The high pastures are grazed by gentle looking cows, sheep and goats, all with tinkling bells around their necks, and the pretty towns and villages are very welcoming.
The food and drink here is wholesome and hearty and we found the people who live and work here to be extremely friendly. They also speak Castellano (Spanish) with a very clear accent which is also a bonus if, like me, you are learning the language.
There are many villages dotted around the mountain range but no good roads cross the mountain range in its entirety, although as I have already said, there is a fabulous network of hiking routes. Many people base themselves in one of the larger towns and go out on day trips from their base whilst others like ourselves approach the Picos from various directions, circling around the outside and accessing different areas by bus, by car or by motorbike.
Arenas de Cabrales
For the next two nights Debs and I based ourselves in Arenas de Cabrales. This town has a sleepy Alpine charm about it with a river running through, a nice selection of low-key bars and restaurants, green fields all around with the soft brown cows who all have bells around their necks and with views of the nearby mountain peaks.
As we had arrived too early to check in to our guesthouse we continued to Poncebos to check it out in preparation for our planned trip the following day.
Poncebos is the start (or the end point) of the Ruta de Cares – a hike along a gorge which everybody raves about and that we planned to hike along. It is also the base station of a funicular that runs up to a mountain village called Bulnes. It all looked a bit grim as we drove past and when we discovered that the funicular was going to cost us 22 euros we decided to give it a miss and to drive the road upwards and into the sun – well actually Debbie planned to turn the car around but there was no opportunity to do so for the next 10 kms on the narrow track!
This track took us up and up and along the side of a glacial valley, up high and into a cute little mountain village called Sotres where we parked up and wandered around in the sun. We followed the start of a hiking trail and we ambled along for a while and yodelled at a herd of mountain goats which were grazing ahead of us. The views were terrific, the sun strong and the peace and quiet brought a lump to my throat. THIS was what I had been hoping to find on this trip.
There was magic at every turn, whether in the sound of the cow bells, the eagles soaring high above or the carpets of delicate autumn crocuses which gave the pasture a soft lilac sheen.
Don’t forget, please don’t go on any trip without adequate travel insurance. You never know quite when a freak accident might strike, whether it is turning your ankle while hiking or coming face to face with a bear (check the small print as I’m not sure if bear attacks would be covered!). I have used Alpha Travel Insurance for a few years now and whilst I have never had to claim so far (touch wood), I have always found them to be very competitive. You can get a quote at this link.
After a picnic with the best views of the day we drove back to the junction at Poncebos to investigate where the start point was for the Ruta de Cares hiking trail. We happened across one of the park rangers and an innocent question about where the trail began led to him spending three quarters of an hour with a map of the Picos draped across the bonnet of his car. Victor enthusiastically pointed out the best bits of the Picos to us and gave us loads of valuable information about the bears that Debbie was so excited to see.
That encounter with Victor proved exactly why it pays not to make too many plans in advance because we completely altered our itinerary there and then thanks to his insider information about the best bits of the Pico mountains and the regions of Asturias and Cantabria.
We returned to our hostel with its cute outside kitchen and garden complete with hammocks (I love a hammock; shame it was too cold) and after checking in we walked a little way up the road to the Cuevas de Cabrales.
The Cuevas del Queso Cabrales/Cabrales Cheese Caves
I wasn’t too sure what to expect at these caves.
Were there goats, caves or was this a cheese factory?
Lasting just under an hour our guide led us through a labyrinth of caves cut under the mountainside and she explained (in fast Spanish) about how the local registered cheese had to be matured naturally in caves in order to be allowed to display the coveted green foil wrapper. The atmosphere and temperature in the caves which are dotted all through this region provide the perfect conditions for maturing the cheese which is one of the main industries of the area.
Our tour ended with a small taster of the different types of cheeses and some sidre – although having bought some of the cheese earlier that day we could appreciate just how creamy and blue (and smelly) it was.
That evening we went out for dinner in the town and tried one of the local specialities of chorizo en sidre and chips in a creamy blue cheese sauce.
Lakes of Covadonga: Day 6
We had a busy day ahead of us so first we set off for Cangas de Onis. Victor had advised us to pop in to both the tourist office and the office for the National Parks to get information about the hiking trails and some maps.
This town looked very interesting but we didn’t have time to stop today as we were on mission to go to the lakes of Covadonga.
If you visit these lakes in the summer or at weekends there is a system of car parks and shuttle buses to take you up the narrow roads to the top. Without a traffic-management system the whole route becomes gridlocked but we were here mid-week so we could take our time and only hope that Betty wouldn’t overheat.
We drove up the long road through the halfway point of Covadonga with its spectacular church set on the peak of a rock and we continued upwards along a series of hairpin bends for miles.
I began to freak out as the road became incredibly narrow with few passing points and even less safety barriers and it began to get congested. As the road deteriorated even further I resorted to muttering and mumbling like a mad woman to deal with my anxiety while Debbie patiently manoeuvred close to the crumbling edge and the sheer drop down the mountain below us to allow others to pass from the other direction!
Finally reaching the car park for the start point of our lake hike and practising my mindfulness like mad I managed to relax – and also thanks to Debbie’s foresight to move the car to the lower cark so that I didn’t spend our hike worrying about the worse stretch of road.
After a very necessary visit to the toilet we set off on our circular hike around the two lakes of Enol and Ercina.
The air was clean and clear and the hike which took us under 3 hours meandered past the lakes, through a forest and up and over pastures which were dotted with tiny stone huts for shepherds and hikers to shelter in.
I had seen images of these lakes on other travel blogs and I was thrilled to be walking around them high up in the mountains. The tallest peaks above us still had snow in some deep pockets from the previous winter and as you looked across the pastures there was a hint of purple to the grass where trillions of the lilac autumn crocuses were blooming.
The marked walk was easy although we did have a bit of confusion at one point when it wasn’t too clear which way the path went. We rested at the end in deckchairs outside a bar and looking over the wide U-shaped valley and watched some shepherds leading a herd of cows to a holding pen from where they would be carted lower down the mountain for the winter.
After we had descending halfway back down the mountain in the car we made a stop at Covadonga for a poke around the imposing cathedral. Yes, it’s spectacular but it’s far more impressive from the road as you see it in the distance below but remember to avoid the place at weekends if you want to drive here yourself.
We returned to the restaurant of the previous night in Arenas de Cabrales where an epic language fail produced what looked like a plate of noodles. I don’t think that I would have been able to eat them even if I had continued to believe that they were noodles because of the weird taste but even less so when Debbie informed me that they were baby eels.
Now I do eat fish and seafood but these eels had no distinguishing features at all. No eyes, or fins and all I could think of was that they were white earthworms. I have eaten worse (for example crickets in Thailand) but the flavour of the accompanying sauce was so strong it was making me gag.
I filled up instead on bread and sidre. In this restaurant the waitress poured our sidre from its required height over a deep metal bin to avoid splashes on the floor and then she left the bottle with us on our table with its tapon – a cork with a hole in it – so that we could replicate the effect.
Day 7; Cangas de Onis and Gijon
We headed back to the coast for a few days as bad weather in the mountains was coinciding with a holiday weekend and expensive accommodation. We made a stop to explore Cangas de Onis in more depth (we had passed through the previous day) and we did some shopping in some of the many gift shops. We walked across the ancient Roman bridge and we treated ourselves to a lunch – a Menu del Dia and our first taste of fabada asturiana and chachopo de ternera asturiana before navigating our way around the port city of Gijon.
Due to the lack of accommodation over this holiday weekend we had reserved three nights in an AirBnB apartment in Gijon which ended up being quite a strange experience.
If you have never used AirBnB before, you can use this link here to get a discount off your first trip
Our host was lovely and super friendly but for some reason she decided to pack too many people into too small a space, whilst she was also decorating a room. Our bedroom which looked nice in the photos was crammed full of spare furniture and the lock to our door was broken. In the middle of the night we were woken by another guest who had got disorientated on his way to the loo and who was very confusedly standing in our room.
We had access to the roof terrace but due to the decorating work and the fact that another guest and our hostess were sharing that room we had to clamber in and out of our window. We also had access to the kitchen but there was never any room in there – there were simply too many people in too small a space. We had no choice but to make the best of a bad job but it was all very clean and we were only planning to use it as a base.
That first evening Debbie and I walked along the beach and into Gijon. On the surface this city looks like any other city in Spain but there was a dark edge to it – dark as in no light rather than dark sinister, but like our accommodation, we were just staying there as a base from which to explore further afield so it didn’t bother us too much.
Day 8: Dinosaur footprints
After a slow start we jumped in the car and headed east along the north edge of Spain.
We parked up and wandered around the small town of Villaviciosa which was not technically on the coast but on a river. We had coffee in the sun and took it easy, checking out some of the beautiful homes and buildings in the small town centre.
It was all nice and laid back and sleepy and while we had no real timetable to follow we wanted to get quite a long way along the coast so we forced ourselves back to the car and headed off again.
Our next stop was at La Griega Beach and after a picnic overlooking the wide sandy beach we followed the coast path along the cliffs to to see dinosaur footprints that had been fossilised in the rocks below. These had been on my list of things to see on this trip but I underestimated quite how it felt to see and touch evidence of such huge creatures that roamed the earth so long ago.
It also felt odd, almost irreverent, to be able to walk in the depressions in the flat stones although as they have been there for 154 million years I don’t suppose they are going to wear out anytime soon.
We decided to continue following the coastal footpath along a designated hiking route which took us up and down through forests and along the top of the cliffs until we came to a fork in the road. It was decision time. We could walk another 3kms to a view of some islands or 300 metres to a tapas bar.
You didn’t really think that we would head for the islands did you? 😉
Our final stop of the day was the seaside town of Llastres. With steep cobbled streets and a stone harbour wall sheltering the boats it again reminded us of a Cornish fishing town. It was very pretty but full of tourists and with prices to match so we picnicked on the sea wall and we chatted to a pilgrim who was walking the Camino who had also stopped to rest.
Day 9: Asturias beaches
We still had another night booked with our AirBnB hostess so we set off to explore the coastline to the west of Gijon.
The route was quite beautiful with old stone viaducts crossing the valleys that cut deep paths through the trees to the sea. We parked up on one very windy headland which boasted a lighthouse (Cabo Penas) and again we commented on how like the Cornish coastline this whole area was with craggy cliffs soaring above the raging surf crashing onto rocks below.
Then it was on towards another couple of fishing villages – they were all beginning to look very similar now – but we had time on this trip and both myself and Debbie were happy to have a couple of slower days.
If you want to replicate this trip then you will also want to know that we stopped and wandered around the coastal villages of Cudillero and Lluarca – both sprawl up steep hillsides and have pretty narrow streets and harbours and are great for people watching although I think that they might be unbearably busy in the summer.
After a day exploring this coastline we headed back to Gijon along a high swooping stretch of motorway and treated ourselves to a half a metre of pizza and sampled yet more sidre in a restaurant close to our temporary home!
Day 10: Somiedo National Park and the Cantabrian brown bear.
Now things were getting a little more exciting because we were heading inland again and to another National Park – Parque Nacional de Somiedo, or the Somiedo Nature Park – and where nearly two hundred and fifty BEARS live.
The road in to the next mountain village where we were to stay for a couple of nights was as usual, amazing. For the last part of our trip it followed a steep sided gorge where the road was undercut through cliffs that were overhanging the road and waterfalls that splashed down over our car.
I am always aware of the environmental impact of my travels but this was a road trip and many of the highlights were the driving routes that we chose. Whether here, in the Picos or along the coast the roads that we took were generally through awe-inspiring scenery and mostly with very little traffic so they were a pleasure to drive and we had many opportunities to stop and take photos or have a picnic.
In Spain there is a standard road sign that warns of wild animals on the road – but here, as we entered the mountains of the Somiedo National Park, the deer were replaced by bears on the sign which was really very exciting!
Our accommodation for the next few nights was in the village of Pola de Somiedo that nestled in a bowl surrounded by high pastures and peaks and with small roads that headed out from the village like spokes from a wheel in different directions and deep into the national park.
After checking into our lovely roadside inn we went for a walk to get our bearings and stopped off at the visitor centre to educate ourselves about the bears in Spain and to pick up some maps for some of the many hiking trails that were round and about.
After learning about the bears the weather turned damp, cold and grey so instead of setting off up the mountain we stumbled into a noisy warm bar which was full of locals and joined them with several glasses of excellent house red wine and a huge tureen of a mountain style soup which warmed us up.
Brown bears in Spain
The bears were traditionally hunted almost to extinction in Spain until 1953 when hunting of them was banned. They do occasionally take calves and lambs that graze away from the villages but the farmers are compensated. There have been very few incidents of human attacks – and these have all been when the bears have been surprised or when they have cubs with them.
The information centre has a lovely display with information about the bears and everything else in this region – food, the agriculture, the lifestyle and the birds – and is well worth a visit. There are now approximately 250 bears within the Somiedo Natural Park and small groups over in parts of the Picos de Europa also.
During the autumn and the winter the bears are usually deep in the forests stocking up on nuts and berries, so you are more likely to see them in the spring when they are looking for food with their cubs.
If you go hiking it is recommended that you don’t creep around quietly. Whilst you might want to spot a bear you do want the bear to spot you first. If you are lucky enough to see one, do not run! Stay quiet and watch and hope that the bear will wander off first. Do not turn your back for a selfie!
We were up and out early for the first of our planned hikes to some of the many glacial lakes that are high up in the mountains here in this natural park. We drove along yet another spectacular valley, climbing higher and higher along a well maintained but narrow road with plenty of hairpins.
We were beginning to understand the topography now – there are access points into the mountains from key towns and the roads usually follow steep gorges and ravines. There are very few points where you can cross completely – both here and in the Picos – but that all adds to the charm of the place.
We parked our car at the furthermost point allowed for the general public (farmers here have much deeper access along small tracks) and we set off on our hike which was a steady uphill route. On our left, craggy peaks rose steeply out of green pastures with the occasional traditional hairy-roofed stone refuge dotted about, and to our right was thick forest where we imagined the bears were hiding and stuffing themselves silly on the autumn fruit and nuts.
The trees were beginning to change to the most vibrant, orange, reds and yellows and although in the sun we were getting temperatures of 20 degrees, the moment we stepped into the shade it was decidedly chilly.
Our destination lake wasn’t the most spectacular – in part because it was reflecting the heavy grey sky but it was well worth the walk. For much of it we were followed by inquisitive cattle and we also saw a herd of goats. In this region there are often no human shepherds taking care of the animals but dogs! These shepherd dogs are massive – like some sort of a mastiff. I wouldn’t dare go near their flock whilst they were working but we did see quite a few retired dogs in the villages and they are certainly gentle giants. I just find it incredible that these animals operate without humans overseeing them.
Day 12: The Saliencia Lakes/Lagos de Saliencia
After a relatively quiet night in the village we set off the following day along a different valley – this time to a high pass between the mountains and to a cluster of more glacial lakes.
Today’s climb was a lot tougher with some steep uphill sections but once again we were rewarded with some great views. The route between the lakes involved quite a bit of scrambling across boulders, through deep bracken and dodging some rather intimidating bulls.
We joined a few other hikers at a bottleneck in a narrow pass through the mountains – what was this – a traffic jam in the middle of nowhere? The farmers were beginning to round up their cattle and transport them down to the lower pastures before the winter snows (which arrived just a week after we left the region). We were all very happy to hang around and chill while the men battled to get 9 enormous beasts plus some calves into a truck. It was certainly a test of willpower and strength and the cows were not going to give in gracefully.
We followed a hiking path around three different lakes that were surrounded by green pastures, craggy peaks and yet more cows. We ate a picnic lunch sat on a rock in the sun gazing down a valley from a high mountain pass before taking our time on the drive back and stopping off to explore several other mountain villages and their bars.
Can you see a pattern forming here on our road trip? Food and drink played a huge part (we were always careful never to drink and drive), but we felt virtuous because of all the walking that we were doing.
Day 13 of our road trip to Asturias
Debbie and I were quite reluctant to leave Pola de Somiedo but we had to continue our road trip so the following day we set off in horrible weather, crossing through the national park and heading first south and then west and back towards the southern side of the Picos and Boca de Huergano.
Before we had set off on our road trip some friends had recommended that we pay our money and drive a remote toll road. They had told us that it was a long route that swept down past the Picos but we didn’t think that we would be far enough west to see it.
However on our route south today we accidentally got onto one of the two entry points of the toll road….had a spectacular fail at the (unusually) unmanned toll booth because we didn’t pick up a ticket – and then got off the toll road at one of the two exit points where the guy in the office waved us through after we explained that we thought that the ticket machine had been broken.
To cut a long story short, it seemed that completely by accident we had driven the middle section of the route that our friends had recommended and exited alongside the enormous Riano reservoir with six or seven drowned villages underneath.
The strange little village of Boca de Huergano didn’t have much going for it but it was to prove to be a fantastic base for our planned expedition the following day. We stayed in an inn which at first seemed a little strange but by the end of our stay was ingrained on our memories as such a cute, friendly place.
After checking in we went for a walk through the forest behind the village, following the small river. We went as far as the next-but-one village which was so traditional that many of the villages till slept in the stone houses that were built above their farm animals. Just about every house had one of the peculiar wooden storage barns raised high up on wooden stones and which were traditionally made without nails.
On our way back we found a modern hotel with a huge log burner and big squashy sofas. After a large glass of wine both myself and Debs nodded off to sleep – in our defence we had done an awful lot of hiking and driving over the previous few days, and we returned later that night for an evening meal with tablecloths!!
Day 14 and the Ruta de Cares
The next day was an early start with a long drive up an incredibly high mountain pass to the place that was top of my ‘must see and do in the Picos de Europa’ list. We drove for more than an hour in freezing cold, thick fog, rewarded every so often with snatched views of the sharp peaks towering above the road.
Betty the Belingo was proving to be a real star as she motored solidly uphill for nearly an hour with Debs nursing her to keep the temperature needle in the green and then she had to be nursed down the other side to ensure that the brakes didn’t overheat! The last part of the road into the village at the end of the path was hairy with overhanging rocks and stones tumbling down that had been dislodged by the earlier rains, but the sun was breaking through and the mist was lifting.
I had been advised by numerous people that if I attempted nothing else, that I should hike the Ruta de Cares and Debs and I were told by our forest ranger a few days earlier that if we were to only do half of it we should start at the south.
The hiking path was wonderful. It followed a steep sided gorge, crossing several bridges hanging across the raging water below and across a section of decking that was suspended over a horrifying drop where a rock fall had swept away the path several years before. I lost count of the number of tunnels that we had to duck through that had been cut through the cliffs and waterfalls that we had to dodge as they tumbled past us.
As we got to the halfway point the gorge began to widen but it was no less spectacular – and for those engineering geeks of you out there, I should point out that a canal was cut separately along the route – the building of which must have been even greater than preparing the path.
This hiking path is the only continuous route north to south across the Picos and it’s easy to see why when you see the steep mountains. Goats were bouncing around on the rocks opposite, seemingly oblivious to their imminent death if they were to miss their footing and plunge to the bottom of the gorge.
Back at the village of Cain which is either the start or the end point of your hike, and which had a decidedly alpine feel, Debs and I treated ourselves to a well earned coffee while we watched buzzards ride the thermals high above us.
After we had rested, we braved the very slow route out of the valley, past the old wolf trap where in medieval times the entire village had to turn out and help to catch and kill wolves, then onwards and back to our lovely little inn for the night where some of the elderly men from the village sat and chatted to us and shared glasses of wine and cognac with us.
Day 15 – The east side of the Picos de Europa
Our road trip around Asturias was beginning to wind down now and we drove on to explore the eastern side of the Picos mountain range. Once again, the drive was spectacular and on our drive into Potes both Debbie and myself agreed that this entire region was indeed a true paradise. It had ticked so many boxes for both of us on so many levels – the nature, great hiking, spectacular scenery, tasty food and drink and it had also touched us both on a spiritual level.
We didn’t see any bears of wolves but as we discovered when we visited another bear information place – this time in Potes – the spring is the best time for sightings although there was great excitement on the local television news one evening because a bear had wandered into a village. The bears are now fiercely protected after being hunted to the point of extinction in the past and farmers are now compensated for any livestock that they might take.
We arrived in Potes on a dreary wet and very cold day but we had struck gold with yet another cute inn. The best bit about a road trip outside of the high tourist season is the flexibility that it affords so we checked the weather forecast and adjusted our plans once again.
Our accommodation was a twenty minute walk from Potes town centre but we decided to leave Betty rest and we trekked in and out each time. As I have already said, we visited the bear information place and we ambled around the tiny cobbled streets that twisted themselves between stone cottages and intriguing little alleyways.
The shops contained every souvenir that you might possibly want so we stocked up on goodies and continued on our quest to test all of the red wine and sidre that we possibly could.
That evening, in true traveller style we got chatting to a couple of Spanish guys at the next table in the bar and we spent a lovely evening swapping stories and learning some more about the amazing hiking in this region.
Day 16 – Exploring Potes
We woke to sunshine but cloud was forecast so today was to be spent in and around Potes. We set off to follow a hike that a lady in the tourist office had assured us was ‘easy’ but after an hour of steep uphill and with more to follow, plus a huge confusion on which path to follow at one point, we were certainly cursing her.
We didn’t see another soul on the entire route until we found, totally by accident, a hermita (a hermitage) nestling in the trees. Our route had taken us high above the town, around the back of a mountain and back down again through forests along a very steep track. At one point I fancied that I had found a bear print in the wet mud in the road. In reality, the track was probably a bit too close to the town for bears but I am not totally sure that we weren’t being watched from the dark trees at some points.
More exploring of the town and more sidre testing followed our hike before a relatively early night as we had a long day ahead of us the following morning.
Day 17: the Picos de Europa cable car at Fuente De
We rose early because the weather forecast promised that today would be the best of all the days – sunny and with no cloud until later in the day. We were heading off to Fuente De – and as it was a sunny Sunday we wanted to beat the crowds. We were going to take a cable car up into the Picos. We joined the queue with many day trippers like us and groups of serious mountain bikers and hikers to be whisked up the mountain. The cable cars were quite small, holding just twenty people each and had a very steep incline covering 753 metres in less than three and a half minutes. Emerging from the top the air was certainly fresher and bingo, there was no cloud.
As we had a long drive ahead of us later that day having adjusted our plans so that we could take advantage of the better weather, we just spent a couple of hours at the top, walking around the moonlike landscape which was in a crater and watching golden eagles, vultures and alpine choughs play. A cup of tea and a nerve inducing photo on a metal grid suspended over the mountain completed our visit and we headed back down again in the car.
We had initially been tempted to hike down but our two Spanish friends had put us off with tales of long drops and slippery paths, so we used our return ticket and took the easy way down.
We were off to Logrono which had been our starting point for the whole trip and we were looking forward to revisiting the tapas bars and eating and drinking our body weight in pinxos and rioja wines.
As we headed south east the landscape became much more arid up on the high plains and then dropping down to the river and the city of Burgos, far more industrial. The highway followed the Camino de Santiago for miles (although we were obviously heading in the other direction to any pilgrims), and then, with just an hour of daylight left, Betty started to wobble.
A scary sort of ‘maybe the wheel is going to fall off’ wobble followed by a loss of power coincided with a petrol station with a large forecourt. Some of the massive articulated lorries were already parked up and there were plenty of people around so Debs and I weren’t too concerned about what to do, although this was Sunday evening in Spain!
We did the usual – we checked under the bonnet and kicked the tyres before googling our problem – and made the decision that we had to call out the emergency rescue team.
Wow, how impressive were they! A trailer appeared within 20 minutes for Betty and a taxi was laid on for our 5 hour drive back to our home. The taxi driver had been settling down in the town’s stadium and preparing to watch his local team play football when the call came through to take two ‘elderly’ ladies back home.
Elderly! Well I guess we might have been elderly to the twenty-something operator at the end of the phone but when the taxi was offered rather than faffing around with a hotel for the night, we decided it would be wise not to complain and certainly not point out that we were probably fit enough to walk all the way home!
So our trip didn’t end quite as we had planned and we missed out on our tapas, but we did spend a nice journey chatting to our very pleasant cab driver.
And Betty? Well she followed us a few days later but sadly the trip had proved too much for her twenty year old bones and she had to be retired to the great scrap yard in the sky.
I hope that you have enjoyed this journey with Debs and I. I have nearly one thousand photos and it was very hard to choose which ones to leave out so watch out for an article and a photo tour of northern Spain in the future.
If you would like to replicate our road trip to Asturias you can get further information below or drop me a line.
When I travel I usually prefer to not book my accommodation in advance and not to plan my trips too strictly. I like to be flexible and to be able to change direction or extend my stay on a whim.
On this trip to Asturias however, budget accommodation was being snapped up fast – due to the weather and the long holiday weekend – so my friend Debbie and I tended to look just one destination ahead and reserve a place.
Some of our trip was on the routes of the Camino de Santiago where there are numerous hostels and albergues but many were fully booked or cost a lot more for non-pilgrims.
There were hotels and guesthouses EVERYWHERE but we were travelling on a budget; although in a real emergency we had a tent and sleeping bags (it got very cold at night) and a credit card to pay for a more expensive hotel if necessary.
Debbie and I used a variety of means to find our accomodation. We walked in, we asked at the Tourist Information Offices and we used the following booking websites:
- AirBnB – you can get a discount voucher here if you are a new AirBnB customer
- Agoda.com – for hotels and guesthouses
- Hostelworld.com for backpacker hostels
I will shortly be publishing a list of the places that we stayed to take even more of the hassle out of the trip for you, so bookmark this page or drop me an email.
If you want to replicate this trip, you will find details in this section, but you can of course choose any starting and finishing point. If you would like any specific information about any of the places that I visited do drop me a line as I would love to help you explore.
Our trip details at a glance.
Day 1: Arrival in Logrono
- Wander the old town and the narrow streets and riverside
- El Cubo artillero del Revellin
- The Science Museum
- Iron and stone bridges across the river
- Pinxos for supper
Day 2 Logrono to Reinosa
- Pancorbo with its unusual houses and amazing mountains behind
- Lake – the Embalso del Ebro
- Arrive in Reinosa
- Old civic buildings in the town
- The nearby lake
- Source of the River Ebro
Day 3: Reinosa to Llanes
- Source of the Ebro
- Santillana del Mar (prettiest village in Spain)
- Corillas (Gaudi type stuff)
- San Vicente de la Barquera
- Destination Llanes
- Cliff walk & blowhole
Day 4: Around Llanes
- Bufones de Pria
Day 5: Llanes to Arenas de Cabreles
- Poncebos (start or end point of the Ruta de Cares)
- Funicular to Bulnes
- Cueva del Questo de Cabreles – the cheese cave
Day 6: Day trip from Arenas de Cabrales
- Cangas de Onis
- Lago de Enol
- Lago de la Ercina
Day 7: Arenas de Cabrales to Gijon
- Cangas de Onis – shopping and lunch
- walk in the evening in Gijon into the old town
Day 8: East of Gijon
- Dinosaur footprints and cliff hike at La Griega beach
- Seaside town of Llastres
Day 9: West of Gijon
- Lighthouse at Cabo Penas
Day 10: Gijon to Pola de Somiedo
- National Park of Somiedo – information centre in Pola
Day 11: in the Somiedo National Park
- Drive to Valle del Lago and hike to a lake
Day 12: in the Somiedo National Park
- Drive to the viewpoint at Alto de la Farrapona and hike around the 3 lakes of Saliencia
Day 13: Pola de Somiedo to Boca de Huergano via the Riano reservoir
Day 14: Cain and hiking the Ruta de Cares
Day 15: Boca de Huergano to Potes
Day 16: Potes
- Exploring the town of Potes
- Hiking the mountain behind Potes
- Casa del Oso (the Bear House)
Day 17: Potes to Logrono (well we almost made it!)
- Fuente De cable car
- headed for Logrono – broke down and home in a taxi!!
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