2 A peek at the Picos
Wednesday morning, still glowing from our lunch at Martin’s gaff and the warm reception for Wellington’s compatriots the night before, we rose, finished packing and went to our convenient café just round the corner from the hotel for coffee and croissants to start the day. A call to our trusty cabbie resulted in us soon being whisked through the ring road and motorway suburbs to where our hire car awaited. If ever there was a misnomer Hertz San Sebastian City Centre was it. Twenty thoroughly confusing minutes later we find ourselves in a massive Centro Comercial with the car hire offices as far from the entrance as possible. However, the car was ready, there weren’t too many blemishes to note and photograph – essential as we were doing a one-way rental – and we were soon retracing our route onto the motorway and this time passing right by San Sebastian and heading for Bilbao. As we’d been there relatively recently we decided to stay on the motorway and bypass the city this time, while noting that it would be good to go back there again on another occasion.
We also decided to carry on past Santander although people have said it’s a great city but we were drawn to the touristy attractions of Santillana del Mar once described by Jean Paul Sartre as the prettiest village in Spain.
And it did have a certain charm with ancient well-maintained buildings dating back to the 15th century, narrow cobbled streets contrasting with a massive church and many imposing palaces. We wandered happily in the sun with lots of photo opportunities, bars to sample cider and eventually a good place for lunch. Apparently there are strict building regulations and no access to cars unless they have a garage within the town which did make it a very pleasant place to while away a couple of hours. We decided against going to nearby Altamira since all you can see are replicas of the 35,000-year-old cave paintings since the originals have become too fragile to withstand the breath and sweat of visitors except a very few people each day. We later read that the waiting list is three years – almost as bad as booking at El Bulli in its prime.
Instead as big Gaudi fans we decided to head off north to Comillas where one of his first ever buildings, and one of the few outside Catalunya, still stands in its decorative glory. El Capricho was built as a summer palace for a merchant who had found wealth in the Indies – like so many nineteenth century Spaniards – and was completed in 1883 the same year as Casa Vicens in Barcelona so they are of historical interest in demonstrating how the ideas that were later to find their way into the Sagrada Familia were already present in embryonic form in his first commissioned works.
It’s a fascinating small villa with an interesting combination of materials, stone, red brick, glazed tiles and lots of wrought iron. It has a tower like a minaret and reflects Gaudi oriental interests. There are repeating motifs of sunflowers and leaves and the use of the rooms follows the path of the sun. Seeing close up the designs Gaudi chose for door furniture, the windows that play tunes when they are opened, vermillion roof trusses, beautiful wood finishes and tiles and carvings of flora and fauna was an eye-opener which helped throw his later and more famous works into context. El Capricho had a chequered history being abandoned in the civil war, then becoming a restaurant and then thanks to a Japanese corporation which presumably included a Gaudi fan it was restored and opened as a museum in 2010. We had a brief rest in the tranquil garden and then back to the car for our hotel for the next three days – the Parador at Cangas de Onis, the gateway to the Picos de Europa.
I routinely make booking requests in most places for a room with a walk-in as opposed to an over-bath shower but didn’t bother here as we’ve never been in a parador that didn’t have both bath and separate shower. However we’ve never been up north before and they only have one in the disabled room. We can use that for the first night but a guest in a wheelchair is arriving tomorrow so we’ll have to move. So we made full use of it with a shower to wash off the effects of travelling all day and enjoyed an evening cocktail in the spacious room before going for dinner. The staff kindly agreed to move our bags during the day while we went to explore the Picos de Europa. We are both fans of a good blue cheese and one of Spain more famous one cabrales is made just down the road and there’s a cave-museum that shows the process and has a tasting tour so that’s where we headed first. The cave is quite small so groups are limited to twenty people and tours set off at quarter past every hour. So we had time for a coffee before joining the 12:15 group for a fascinating visit with video clips of the cows, sheep and goats high in the Picos with herdsmen still living up with them for weeks at a time, then a look at the equipment used to make the milk into cheese and then the actual shelves where the cheeses sit to age for between four and six months.
We were surprised to learn that they make two types of cabrales – one just with cows’ milk and the other with a blend of cows’, goats’ and ewes’ milk. They are all controlled by strict Denominacion Cabrales regulations and are quite powerful blue cheeses. I marginally preferred the three-milk blend but both were highly acceptable.
The cave is on the outskirts of Las Arenas and after this little appetiser we decided it was time for lunch flowed by a drive higher into the mountains. It’s a small town but still too many restaurants to choose from but after the usual dithering we decided on La Panera which was a friendly family run place with good local food and of course a plate of cheese to finish off with. Our drive was exhilarating as we wound our way up through the breath-taking peaks often on single track roads and lots of reversing – the protocol seems to be give way to those coming down or maybe I’m just too polite. Eventually we arrived in the village of Sotres hoping to descend back to the main road via another valley but only belatedly consulted the map to find there were no other roads to Sotres than the one we had just driven.
The view does look quite different going the other way so no real complaints. They are very impressive mountains and we really enjoyed being able to get out and grab some warm, fresh mountain air. We stopped off in the town of Cangas de Onis – the parador is about three kilometres north in Villanueva de Cangas – to have an aperitif after a hard day’s tourism. Parking was a nightmare even with our blue badge translation but eventually we found a spot and headed off for a bar.
But there’s a steep Roman bridge over the river Sella so we had to walk up that and take a selfie first. We settled down in front of El Campanu with a much needed – it’s very steep that bridge – beer and a glass of rosado when our pleasant stay was disturbed by a mother with an uncontrollably sick child which vomited freely in
the street making all around most uncomfortable. The staff quickly arrived with mops and buckets but we had by then retired inside to avoid feeling nauseous ourselves. The restaurant looked very good, so despite our setback, we agreed that we’d come back tomorrow night for dinner.
After travel and tourism for two days we agreed to suspend normal Raggett holiday mode and have a quiet day around the parador and Villanueva. This started with a sunny stroll beside the river to another hostelry for breakfast and Dee was moved to sketch a prominent sandstone outcrop across the river. We returned via the colourful little village which had a number of typical Asturian granaries or hórreos.
Originally raised grain stores to prevent rats and other rodents getting at the grain, some are still used for this purpose, others as garages but they are interesting structures found all across Asturias and Galicia. The village also had one shop-cum-bar and even with gentle strolling a thirst had developed so a beer was called for. We went back to the parador for a light lunch and found elaborate preparations for a wedding in full swing. We were later able to observe the guests from the balcony of our new, perfectly adequate room. A taxi took us back into Cangas for dinner and there beside our table in El Campanu was a photo of the owner with none other than Martin Berasategui who clearly approved our choice of local restaurant. Apparently he still spends quite a lot of time travelling to sample authentic local cuisine all over the country.
The restaurant didn’t disappoint. The platter of simply grilled local fish was delicious and they had a good wine list as well as their speciality ciders which we did have to sample first or cause offence to the very attentive staff. I never fail to be impressed by how much Spaniards regard waiting as a real profession and do it with such enthusiasm and concern for their customers’ tastes and comfort. It wasn’t the bag pouffe and white gloves of Martin’s but it made our evening really pleasant and memorable. It seems that back home corporations with restaurant chains still haven’t learned that people by people not things. But then brands wouldn’t rule would they? As we are driven back to the parador through bright moonlight and with the mountains silhouetted around us, we are really glad we chose to explore a part of Spain we didn’t know.