The Picos de Europa mountains extend to the north of the Cantabrian mountain range with an approximate surface of 500 km2, and its dimensions are more or less, 35 km east to west and, 15 km north to south.
On the 22nd of July 1918, Don Pedro Pidal, marquis of Villaviciosa, managed to give free way to the first of the Spanish laws which appeared on National Parks, approving therefore the National Park “Montaña de Covadonga”; first National Park in Spain, with a surface area of 16,925 hectares. More than seventy years had to pass so that a new law, enlarging the National Park established limits, was approved by Parliament. On the 30th of May of 1995 the National Park of “Picos de Europa” was declared; embracing an extension of 64,660 hectares, converting it not only in the largest National Park Spain, but also in Europe.
The Picos de Europa mountains were originated by the sedimentation of submarine limestones 3,000 metres thick, during the Carboniferous Period of the Primary Era, comprising from 345 million years ago up to 280 million years ago. The slates, sandstones and conglomerates, all form the valley material surrounding them. 220 million years ago, in the Hercinian folding, the first mountainous relief arised, producing an elevated horst between the depressions of Liébana and Cares, to rise definitively in the alpine folding of the tertiary Era, 65 million years ago.
The Pyrenees and the Alps were also formed this way, compressing the calcareous mass south to north, in the sea direction. Then, the limestone masses deeply fractured with such folding, and upon rising, this fragmentation formed three big blocks with enormous cracks affecting the whole group south to north, and getting wider due to the glacial erosion. Later these blocks would suffer a great fluvial type erosion, slowly developing into the majestic shape of the mountain gorges known today, communicating the valleys with the sea. Four big gorges stand out, consequence of all this great process originated along centuries in the mountainous group of Picos de Europa: The gorge of “Los Beyos”, out of the river Sella; the Cares gorge, well-known as the “Divine Throat”, furrowed by the river Cares and most visited by mountaineers and tourists; the Valley of Aliva and the gorge of “La India”, where the river Duje flows; and, finally, the famous gorge of “La Hermida”, furrowed by the river Deva, which sprouts in Fuente Dé, on the foot of the rocky circus contemplating the cable car of Fuente Dé. The Cares and Duje rivers unite near Puente Poncebos and later the Deva river will join them in Panes, finally ending in the ria of Tina Mayor in Unquera.
The current relief contemplated today in Picos de Europa is a result of all the folding, the glaciers´ action during the Quaternary period and the presence of karst formations (limestone dissolution landscape). The glacier remains (highland lakes, moraines, “llambrías”, etc.) are not as abundant as in other mountainous formations due to the break-up of limestone. This is because the glacier origin lakes tend to form chasms as water infiltrates through the limestone cracks; one could also talk about the “jous”, another peculiar characteristic in Picos de Europa; these are contiguous series of close depressions, almost circular in shape, which can reach 2 km diameter, and separated by big heights. In the “jous” the rain and melting snow can only escape through underground drains.
The folding fractures and posterior action of underground water have created multitude wells and galleries, a paradise for those people who enjoy practising potholing. They consider Picos de Europa as mountaineers consider the Himalaya, having explored chasms already more than 1,000 metres altitude gap, very close to the world record in this speciality.
Many of these underground cracks were filled up in past geological periods with mineral defiles, mainly deriving from zinc, calamine and sphalerite (the gem variety of this last one is well known among mineral and gem collectors), as well as lead and manganese.
All these factors started a flourishing mining activity during the last century that continued until some years ago when the mines in Aliva closed.
The valleys, with their characteristic U shape, are witnesses of past glaciers; the “jous”, the “llambrías”, and the polished and grooved rocks on the surface. The karst formations have their origin in the dissolution of limestone through rainfall, due to their light acidity. Limestone is quite impermeable and water can only enter through the cracks, accumulating in underground rivers, lakes and other formations inside caves and underground galleries. The underground water emerges in fountains at the foot of the mountains; then the karstic formations of limestone dissolution absorb the water and originate the chasms, “jous”, cracks, caves and galleries making up the group of Picos de Europa, unique for the practice of sports like potholing, canyon descent and, especially, the most extended practice; rock climbing up to the famous peaks (part, not only of our history, but also of some tragic moments in this marvellous mountains), like the “Naranjo de Bulnes”, also called “Pico Urriello”.
The quaternary glaciations, like those of Würm, caused that the Picos de Europa mass was one of the most important points of glacier formations in the whole of the Peninsula, covered by an ice cap reaching the 1,000 metres altitude. This way, the glaciers of Lloroza, Deva, Bulnes, etc., were formed; later leaving their print marked in the mountains.
In Picos de Europa the relief is very uneven, with big altitude differences and peaks widely surpassing 2,000 metres, like Torre Cerredo (2,648 metres) or Peña Santa de Castilla (2,596 metres). The mountainous group extends over the territory belonging to three Autonomous Communities: Cantabria, Principado de Asturias and Castilla y León, and it is divided in three massifs, whose limits are determined by the rivers: Deva, Duje, Cares and Sella. Ten are the municipalities contributing territory to the National Park.
In Cantabria: Tresviso, Cillorigo and Camaleño.
The Principado de Asturias: Peñamellera Baja, Cabrales, Amieva, Onís and Cangas of Onís.
In Castilla y León: Posada de Valdeón and Oseja de Sajambre.
As we have said previously, Picos de Europa form three important well-known massifs: Macizo Oriental (eastern massif), also called “Andara”, Macizo Central (central massif), or “Urrieles”, and Macizo Occidental (western massif), or Cornión.
Due to the proximity of Picos de Europa to the sea; little more than 20 km, and because they are north of the Cantabrian mountain range, as well as their altitude above sea level, all condition the humid air masses affecting the area. When these get to the coast, they lift cloud fronts with the following condensation, which provokes frequent rainfalls.
A weather characterised by a high humidity and little light, conditions the weather peculiarities of Picos de Europa. Both, the North and Western winds are the most dominant in the area, as well as the ones causing the presence of clouds and snow on the mountain massifs. The NW ones are those which clean back the atmosphere.
The presence of snow is specially accentuated over the winter months, specially from December, but snow patches are not rare at all, staying permanent in many places of Picos de Europa. Avalanches are also frequent in those areas where the slopes are steeper, so it is dangerous to walk in the mountains under those slopes with a combination of thick snow and sun exposure; one of those routes is the one between “La Vueltona” and “Horcados Rojos”, in the Central Massif.
Within such special weather conditions area, it is frequent to see the popular and frightful mist, making sight difficult and disorienting tourists and mountaineers, with the added danger of being in a rugged relief area. But many times this is compensated by a dense mist developing over the valley when we are at a summit and it seems as if we have an immense cloud sea at our feet. This is for sure one of the most intense contemplation moments for a mountaineer in Picos de Europa.
Asturias is a treasure, situated to the north of the Iberian peninsula, made up of numerous gems such as its scenery, its art, its history and traditions, its gastronomy and its people. Asturias´ natural beauty surprises, attracts and ensnares. Should we seek a colour to define it, this would be the green of its valleys, with their meadows, mountains and abundant forests. A colour that on sunny spring and summer days takes on an intense shine, and which in autumn is transformed into a melancholic mixture of reds, ochres and browns that both fascinates and impresses.
Another gift to the eyes is its coastline peppered with beaches; some sweeping and exposed, others small and more secluded. A postcard that no one should miss.
Asturias is a magnificient open-air museum with outstanding, diverse scenery in a territory that is always close at hand, a mix of sea and mountains, in which travellers will come across coastal ranges and fantastic valleys through which the short yet mighty Astur rivers sprightly flow.
The plant and animal worlds are also extremely varied, with copious forests of beach, oak and chestnut, inhabited by quasi-mythical animals that are extremely difficult to catch a glimpse of, such as the capercaillie, the brown bear or the chamois, which accompany the wolf, the wild boar and the deer.
Natural beauty deserves recognition, and accordingly almost a third of the region has been declared a Protected Nature Area (Biosphere Reserves, National park, Nature Parks…). However, all this nature is not only to be enjoyed by contemplating it, but also allows a host of activities to be carried out that cater for all tastes and conditions: hiking, cycling, pony trekking, canoeing down rivers, rock climbing, hunting and fishing, skiing, surfing, and all of those open-air activities that respect for nature allows.
This small an ancient kingdom of Asturias conserves a culture and traditions spanning millenniums. The region boasts a splendid history: Palaeolithic remains (the caves of Tito Bustillo, Candamo, El Pindal, El Buxu…), pre-Roman hillfort culture (with hundreds of documented fillforts), Roman remains, churches, manor houses and palaces that cover all ertistic periods, from Romanesque to the most contemporary art, not to forget of course Asturian Art, which is unique and listed as Heritage of Mankind. Art lovers may round off their tour of Asturias by visiting its museums, where they will discover fabolous local painters through which to better acquaint themselves with the past and ways of life of the Asturian people. However, all this spectacle of history and scenery that is Asturias would not be complete without all its “handsome” seafaring or mountain folk and villages; or its cities, which still conserve the charm of a medieval past.
The region may also boast of its gastronomy. The sea, fields and mountains offer up everything that one could wish for, and not only for traditional cuisine. Nowadays, new dishes are prepared that, alongside time-honoured cooking, make this place not only a natural paradise, but also a paradise of fine eating: Fabada and pote stews, seafood (crab and goose barnacles), fish (hake, anglerfish…), roxa beef, lamb, and of course a great variety of cheeses (Cabrales, Casín, Oscos…). For those with a sweet tooth, deserts such as rice pudding, walnut or hazelnut pastries, pancakes… All washed down with cider, the Asturian drink par excellence, and a full belly is guaranteed.
This land of traditions is also rich in ethnography and folklore: hórreos, quintanas, casonas de Indianos, old chapels, handicrafts, ancestral traditions, languaje, music and dances that come down to us from the remotest past…and romerías, which favour the magic of the night, just like its mythological beings, such as pucks or wood nymphs.
Asturias, the west
The west of Asturias is an extensive maritime facade formed by sweeping beaches, rocky coves and cliffs, from which endless green valleys advance deeply inland. Villages full of stony authenticity emerge there from the earth itself, as well as the fishing villages on the banks of the River Eo, with their white and slate grey countenance, adapting to the lay of the land as they climb the hillsides and hang over the sea.
This is a land of forests and surprising scenery that is rich in history and which presents itself to visitors resplendent with mists, dolmens, hillforts and ancestral traditions. It boasts an specially interesting artistic heritage an stunning scenery full of silence, peace, tranquillity and grandeur. There exists here a profound respect for nature; with which men, animals and -according to the legends- disquieting mythological creatures have coexisted sinde time immemorial.
What to see
Visit the brañas vaqueiras or mountains hamlets of itinerant herdsmen, the hillforts of San Chuis, Chao San Martín (under excavation) and Coaña, the Roman gold mines of Besuyo or Naviego, Corias Monastery, the World Biosphere Reserve of Muniellos Forest and the Sources of the river Narcea, Degaña and Ibias, the remarkable Folk Museum of Grandas de Salime, Barayo Nature Reserve, which is like a journey into the past on account of its wild, natural state, the ethnographic sites of Os Teixois, Mazonovo and Esquíos (in the borough of Taramundi), the magical territory of Los Oscos (the boroughs of Villanueva, San Martín and Santa Eulalia), the Roman mines of Campos and Salave, Luarca cemetery, the protected landscape between Capes Vidío and Busto, Selgas Palace and its grounds… and so on, an endless list of small villages and magnificent scenery to see and enjoy. The West is the still-to-be-discovered magnificent treasury of nature, ethnography and traditions of Asturias.
Asturias, the centre
In the outstanding coastal scenery, awe-inspiring cliffs, islets and beaches alternate with small fishing harbours like that of Candás and large commercial ports like those of Avilés and Gijón. Valleys and meadows follow on from one another, dotted with small villages and farmhouses, surrounded by the most important towns and cities of Asturias. To the south lies the mountain pass of Pajares, a milenary link with the plateau. But there are also the mining valleys of the Rivers Caudal and Nalón, and Somiedo Nature Park. All this in the narrow strip that goes from the see to the mountains. Central Asturias is a treasure trove of numerous prehistoric sites (such as the cave at Candamo), the pre-Romanesque art, declared Heritage of Mankind, and the Middle Ages via the historical quarters of Oviedo, Gijón and Avilés. Palaces, churches, industrial remains and cities brimming with art and culture. The central area is the domain par excellence of cider, the beverage of Asturias, which must be enjoyed in the atmosphere of its traditional chigres.
What to see
The historical quarters of Oviedo, Gijón, with its venerable fishing quarters of Cimadevilla, and Avilés. Noega Hillfort and the Roman baths in Gijón. Pre-Romanesque monuments, from Santa Cristina de Lena to Valdediós, passing through all the pre-Romanesque gems of Oviedo, its Cathedral and Sacred Chamber. Museums (diocesan, art galleries, archaelogical, folk, clog, dairy, the Water House, the Armando Palacio Valdés House-Museum, Mining and many more). Fishing ports and Gijón marina. The Protected Landscape of Cabo Peñas. The Aramo Range. Asturian mountains villages. The collection of hórreos in Cenera, Bueño, Gallegos and Insierto. Indigenous flora and fauna in Somiedo Nature Park, and innumerable natural resources in their pure state (forests, rivers, alpine valleys) to which must be added all the cultural ativities that cities like Oviedo and Gijón offer the whole year through: theatre, an opera season, zarzuela, concerts…
Asturias, the east
Eastern Asturias is a land of great contrasts that is characterised by the diversity of its scenery: the inland area of alpine mountains with their forests and valleys through which excellent salmon and trout fishing rivers flow down to the coastal strip dotted with a succesion of smooth beaches of fine sand and crystalline waters and tormented cliffs that spout sea-water through their famous bufones (blowholes). Coatal ranges, such as those of El Cuera and El Sueve, which appear like scenic vantage points overlooking the sea over which the legendary Asturcón pony runs free. Behind these arise the majestic Picos de Europa. Traces of the remotest past of humanity are present in the caves of Tito Bustillo, El Pindal or La Covaciella, although the most ancient are the ichnites or fossilised footprints of dinosaurs that can be seen along the coast from Villaviciosa to Ribadesella. All the villages of the East celebrate their patron saint´s day and keep their traditions very much alive: songs, dances, ramos (elaborated offerings of flowers and food), hogueras (similar to the maypole tradition) and the costumes bequeathed to them by their ancestors.
What to see
Eastern Asturias conserves all the riches of rural culture. The natural scenery is alive with small hamlets, with their houses and hórreos existing in perfectly harmony with the enviroment. A must on any visit to the coast are Tazones, Lastres, Ribadesella and Llanes. The Picos de Europa, the Sueve Massif, the magical River Cares, the secluded villages of Peñamellera, the Sanctuary of Covadonga, a spot suffused with mysticism and history, or Lakes Enol and Ercina are all essential destinations in the East of Asturias. Of interest also are the winding gorge of Los Beyos, the spectacular beech woods of Infiesto and scenic vantage points like those of El Fitu or Ballota. The valleys of the River Piloña, Ponga Range, the blowholes of Pría and Vidiago, or Villaviciosa Estuary are more tahn a sample of the natural riches of the area. There are numerous museums (the Eastern Folk Museum in Porrúa, the Jurassic Museum, the Cider Museum), the mysterious Peña tú stone idol, churches, palaces, manor houses, casonas, houses built by Indianos, and, of course, Pre-Romanesque art, the best example of which is Valdediós.
Texts of above are extracted from a book made by Casonas Asturianas. I strongly recommend this association of charming hotels in Asturias. http://www.casonasasturianas.com/
Asturias and all north of Spain is sometimes an overlooked part of our country, it is very different from other areas like the famous Barcelona or Andalucia region so probably you must visit Spain again!