The Picos de Europa is a breathtaking geological explosion of high snow-covered jagged peaks and deep narrow gorges carved by icy rivers full of salmon and trout. While not the highest mountains in Spain, they are arguably the most beautiful. The whole range is tiny by mountain standards - only 312 sq. miles - but of such awesome beauty that they almost defy accurate description. They form part of the powerful Cordillera Cantabrica mountain range that extends across northern Spain. The Picos de Europa, just 15 miles from the Cantabrian coast, converge at the borders of 3 provinces -Cantabria, Asturias and León.
It was in the Picos de Europa that the remains of ancient man have been discovered in many of its caves - Altamira,of course, being the most famous. Thousands of years later, the Romans invaded and left their inevitable roads and bridges. Most importantly though for most Spaniards, during the 8thC Christian Spain began its reconquest from the Moors under the leadership of the Visigoth king, Pelayo. It's no wonder then that the region remains one steeped in legends and miracles.
Most of our cycling will be through the stunning gorges that dissect the Picos. While fairly easy riding throughout, there will be only one long climb of 20km/12.5m. However, the van will be ready and waiting for those wanting a lift either partially or all the way to the top. On both of our layover days we will take advantage of the superb hiking trails to enjoy the Picos from another perspective - our feet!
The cuisine of the Picos is typical hardy mountain fare. The specialties are a wonderful bean stew called fabada, trout and salmon from the rivers, smoked meats and heavenly cheeses such as smoked Aliva and a blue cheese of almost mythical fame, Cabrales. There are no typical wines of the Picos - most natives drink the regional sidra (hard apple cider) - but the wonderful wines of other parts of Spain, such as, Rioja, Valdepeñas, Duero etc., are readily available everywhere.
Day One — Comillas
After a 10:00am meeting in Bilbao at the Barcelo Bilbao Nervion, we’ll visit the very beautiful Guggenheim Museum. Designed by the American architect, Frank O. Gehry, it has been called “the greatest building of our time”. Housing 20thC art, it has permanent collections that revolve between the foundations other museums in New York and Venice, of virtually every great name in modern and contemporary art plus many temporary exhibits. The building itself, however, is what steals the show. Built in a cubist style of lofty titanium curves that glimmer and shine, the building both astounds and delights you when you come upon it. The main entrance is home to Puppy, Jeff Koons enormous flower sculpture that was intended to be a temporary exhibit for the opening but so endeared itself to the Bilbainos that they pleaded for it to be a permanent part of the museum. It’s now inseparable from the building itself and provides a wonderful juxtaposition of sophisticated modern and corny kitsch. Inside, the building has a light-filled atrium that the galleries and walkways lead off from. The Fish Gallery is the largest in the world and intended to hold exhibits of enormous sculptures. We’ll have a audio-guided tour in English at 11:00am.
After a quick lunch, we’ll transfer by bus 104k/65m away to the charming hotel, Marina de Campios, set in the center of the charming seaside resort town of Comillas. This is primarily dairy country but is becoming more popular as a tourist destination because of its stunning unspoiled beaches on the Cantabrian Sea. Once we get to our hotel, you’ll have the afternoon free to relax and/or enjoy a walk to the beach before your bike fitting. One of the most striking buildings in Comillas is El Capricho de Gaudi (across the street from our hotel). This is one of only 3 buildings by the famous Catalán modernista architect, Antoní Gaudi, outside of Catalunya. It was designed for the daughter of a close friend of his and is now open to visitors. You can also visit the gardens where there's a startling little statue of Gaudi sitting on a garden bench!
Tonight's accommodation: Hotel Marina de Campios – A lovely boutique hotel in the center of town.
Day Two — Comillas to Potes (Liebana) (52.4 km)
This morning, we will get our first taste of one of the Picos spectacular gorges - the Hermida Gorge. This gorge (desfiladera, in Spanish) is the narrowest in the Picos - so steep that during the winter sunlight rarely gets through in many places. It eventually opens out into the Liébana Valley. On the way, we suggest a little detour to visit the tiny Mozarabic church of Stª Maria Lebeña built in the 10thC. This beautiful little church is considered by many to be the finest example of Moorish influenced Christian architecture in Europe and highly unusual considering that the Moors barely penetrated this area of Spain. The floral motifs on its columns are Visigothic, while below the main 18th-century altarpiece stands a Celtic stone engraving. The yew tree outside (reduced to a sad stump by a storm in 2007) was planted a thousand years ago. Santa María de Lebeña is undoubtedly an unspoiled little architectural jewel and one of our favourite places.
Our destination for the night is the beautiful Posada el Corcal de Liebana with stunning views we enjoy two nights in this traditional mountain inn. Just 2km from our inn is the lively little mountain town Potes - gateway to the Picos. Potes has heaps of mountaineering shops plus the usual tourist shops.
Two night’s accommodation: Posada El Corcal de Liebana
Day Three — Loop ride from Potes (58.7 km)
Today is a ride to the source of the Río Deva in Fuente Dé. Or, you can opt for a transfer by van to and from Fuenté Dé where you take a terrifying cable car up 960mts/3,146ft to one of the highest spots in the Picos at 1.964mt/6,440ft and then walk to the Refugio de Aliva (4.5k/2.8m) for some delicious lunch with spectacular views before hiking back to the cable car and your bikes or van. This is one of the most spectacular "musts" of the Picos - you're whisked suddenly from the lush green of the Liébana Valley floor to the lunarscape of the mountain-top, still dotted with pockets of snow.
Day Four — Potes to Riano (67.2 km)
This is the day of the dreaded 20 km climb, with a difference in height of 1.142mt/3,746ft!! Once at the top of the San Glorio Pass the views are exhilarating and the air bracing - be sure to bring a warm jacket, as well as, a dry shirt to change into for the long downhill. A good lunch stop is Llanaves de la Reina or Portilla de la Reina(still going downhill) at the head of the Yuso River Gorge, famous for its spectacular rock coloring. Your destination is the little town of Riaño on the banks of the immense Riaño Reservoir in the province of León. The vegetation will have given way to the arid scrub and moorland so typical of the areas of northern León. This reservoir was the subject of much controversy. In 1966 the Franco regime claimed eminent domain over the valley when they decided to turn it into a reservoir. Compensation of sorts was paid to the people of the many villages involved but then the plans were shelved until the 1980s when the Socialist party then decided to move forward with it. The inhabitants, children of the people who were originally compensated, were forcibly evicted with no further compensation. There were protests all over Spain about it but to no avail. In 1987, the dam was sealed and flooding commenced and that was that. Tonight's accommodation: Hotel Presa – In the centere of the town, it’s an easy stroll to the reservoir.
Day Five — Riano to Cangas de Onis (13.6 km and/or hike)
This is the day we do my very favorite ride through the most beautiful gorge in Europe - the Desfiladero de los Beyos. There’s a gentle climb of 3k/2m and then a gentle downhill from here on for 35k/21.7m!! In the pretty village of Oseja de Sajambre you can pick up fruit and bread for a picnic - lots of spots along the way. Riding on through the heavenly gorge, will eventually bring us to the original capital of Christian Spain - Cangas de Onis. Two night's accommodation: The lovely Parador de Cangas de Onis is one of the newest in the famous Spanish Parador chain and our home for the next 2 nights. It’s set in the ancient 12thC Monastery of San Pedro de Villanueva along the banks of the Río Sella. When the monastery was restored and turned into a hotel many of the excavated floors were left as they were with Plexiglas over the top so you can see the foundations below.
Day Six — Walk along the Cares Gorge (48.3 km)
A day off the bikes to take a hike along the most famous of the Picos gorges - the Desfiladero del Cares. This is one of Spain's premier walks - 12km following the Cares River along a path that's nothing short of an engineering miracle carved right out of the stone face of the gorge. It winds along high above the river through tunnels and under waterfalls following the irrigation canal before it finally opens out into the valley and ending in the little hamlet of Caín. (See N.B. below) We will have to take a taxi to Poncebos (36km/22.5m) to the start of the walk. Here you’ll cut through the mountains and wind up in the heart of the Picos, from where we’ll take taxis back to the Parador (58km/36m). The café at the start of the walk can supply us with delicious sandwiches and drinks (remember to bring plenty of water). There'll be a stand (MAYBE) set up about ½ way along the walk with drinks and snacks but no sandwiches. The walk will take about 3-4hrs depending on how long you stop for lunch.
Day Seven — Cangas de Onis to Alles (24.7 km)
The first stop today is Covadonga, the birthplace of Christian Spain. Here, in 718, the Visigoth King Pelayo and a small group of followers repulsed the Moorish armies at odds (according to Christian chronicles) of 31 to 400,000! Not surprisingly, this started the ball rolling for the Christian Reconquest, which then went on for 770 years until the fall of Granada in 1492. The focus of our visit is the cave used as a base by Pelayo, now a chapel containing the hero's sarcophagus and the statue of the Virgen of Covadonga who aided Asturians in the fight against the Moors. This shrine is of tremendous importance to the Spanish and is at the heart of Spanish national history. Because of Covadonga, Asturias is considered a principality as opposed to a province – the heir to the Spanish throne is called the Principe de Asturias (rather like the Prince of Wales in England).
Riding east from Covadonga along several lovely rivers brings us to Arenas de Cabrales, the production center for the fabulous blue cabrales cheese - smelly but delicious! Let the guides know if you’re interested in visiting the caves where this famous cheese is cured. Visit to Cabrales cheese caves in Arenas de Cabrales. Heading on we’ll eventually arrive at your home for the night, La Tahona de Besnes, a charming hotel on the banks of a little burbling brook in the most bucolic of settings. Tonight's accommodation: La Tahona de Besnes.
Day Eight — Alles to Santillana del Mar (25km / 15.5m)
Your last day (snif!) takes you out of the hills and back on to the coast. Your first & last main stop is the little village of Unquera on the Deva River, you'll leave your bikes and transfer to the village of Buelles where you’ll be fitted out for a canoe trip up the Deva River back to Unquera. After the canoe trip, there is a further 44km ride to Santillana del Mar. Jean Paul Satre made Santillana famous by pronouncing it “the most beautiful village in Spain”. Tonight's accommodation: Parador Santillana del Mar in the historic part of town.
Day Nine — Farewell
From Santillana we offer shuttles to Santander and Bilbao.
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