I found this great Blog in the Guardian and borrowed it…
After 20 years of living and travelling in Spain, I like to think I have a handle on the country and its people. Every so often, however, they can still spring a surprise.
Like when Guillermo Mañana, a 70-year-old scholar, first told me about the 56km Camín Real de la Mesa. The Camín Real, said Guillermo, was an ancient trail through the mountains of northern Spain, winding spectacularly among some of the grandest yet loneliest and least-known scenery in Europe. I had never heard of it, but if I was up for it, he said, he’d show me the secrets of this magical route.
That was in May 2009. I had just met Guillermo through a friend in Oviedo, capital of the region of Asturias, where together we walked the awe-inspiring gorge of the river Cares in the Picos de Europa mountains. Since he retired from his profession as an anaesthetist, he has devoted his time and energy to his overriding passion: the mountain landscapes of his Asturian homeland.
I was already familiar with his marvellous books, a series of lavish tomes documenting these landscapes in extraordinary detail. Now, he told me, he was preparing what would perhaps be his greatest work, a definitive study of the Camín Real de la Mesa.
For centuries the Camín was one of the few points of contact between the provinces of León and Asturias. It is essentially Roman in construction, but the route has been used for trade for 5,000 years, traversing a mountain range with peaks of 2,000m, reaching into some of Spain’s most wildly beautiful and otherwise inaccessible landscapes.
While livestock and gold mining were flourishing industries, the way held a strategic importance. But with the rise of modern roads it fell into disuse, and now it is barely known except by a few local farmers and a handful of keen walkers who are happy to stay off the beaten track.
I was gripped by Guillermo’s vision of this long and winding road, its historical importance and its near-obliteration at the hands of modern life. So we arranged a two-day trek on the section of the way that is accessible only to walkers, leaving out the northerly part which has been covered with asphalt, its beauty spoilt.
Our route would take us from Torrestio, at the northern edge of the province of León, to the village of Dolia in the county of Belmonte, Asturias – a distance of some 30km. At both ends of the route there would be simple places to stay, but the Camín passes through no other villages, so the plan was to take food and a sleeping bag. In summer you can sleep under the stars or take a tent but, since it was autumn, we would bed down in one of the thatched shepherds’ huts, called teitos.
The night before our departure, my guide sent me a text: “Weather terrible. Cold front. Thick sleeping bag. Waterproof clothing.” I felt a shiver of dread.
We met up on Sunday night in the mountain town of San Emiliano, on the León side of the Cordillera Cantábrica, and dined on fried eggs and chorizo in the Hostal de Montaña, a simple mountain hostel. Before dawn next day we drove to the hamlet of Torrestio, under a dark sky as cold and clear as spring water. At 7am there was a blanket of mist over the valley, but it was the right sort of mist, said Guillermo, the sort that would burn off quickly, leaving bright skies.
We set off in the half-dark, heading up the Valle de las Partidas: the Valley of Departures. Up ahead, the first rays of sun were beautifying the squat grey peak of El Muñón.
At the top of the valley was a fence marking the border between the two regions, Castilla y León and Asturias. A concrete pillar gave the height above sea level: 1782m. To the north lay a wide stretch of pasture between mountains: the Mesa, or tableland, from which the Camín takes its name. Brown cows with wide horns stood and stared as we passed, and the quiet was blurred only by waterfalls and cowbells.
Further down the Mesa lay a scattering of stone huts, some round and low, others square, roofed with tiles or thatch. These hamlets, called brañas, are the only human settlements in these mountains. Until 10 years ago 12 or 15 families might have spent the summer up there with the cows, subsisting on rye bread and onions, potatoes and lentils. It was a life of simplicity, hardship and closeness to nature, and has now almost entirely vanished.
We stopped beside a waterfall for lunch – Asturian cheese, Serrano ham, black chocolate, and bread with olive oil. We drank fresh spring water, but also supped from a leather skin filled with Valdepeñas wine.
A shepherd came by looking for a lost foal. A pair of binoculars hung around his neck, and by his side was a dog as big as a small pony. He’d been looking for the horse all yesterday, peering up the mountain through the rain and mist. But he feared the worst: last spring four or five of his horses had been taken by wolves. Not everyone is happy that, after many years in decline, the local wolf population is on the increase, and his dog wore a chain-mail collar bristling with metal spikes to protect him.
As we walked Guillermo pointed out curious historical, natural or architectural sights along the way, ranging from a wide meadow called Xuego La Bola – where the shepherds came to play bowls – to a long trench that had been an eighth-century defensive wall during the reign of Alfonso ll, part of Catholic Spain’s protection against the Muslim hordes who had already claimed most of the peninsula.
The Camín Real is little documented except by a handful of adepts including Guillermo, who has spent years mapping it and searching for its history in the great archives of Spain. Bronze-age burial mounds can be seen along the route, but it was the Romans, or rather, their slaves, who built a proper four-metre-wide path.
By the third century AD it was the main access route between León and Asturias, used primarily by Roman civil servants and gold dealers heading south from the mines of Belmonte. It remained an important commercial corridor, with all sorts of goods – wool and cloth, wheat and wine, sheep and salt fish – travelling back and forth. Impromptu toll stations were set up, levying a tax on “brides and corpses”.
Then in the early 19th century, a trunk road was built linking León and Oviedo via the Pajares pass, and the Camín fell into disuse. Parts of it were completely destroyed, especially at the northern end near Pravia, or became abandoned and overgrown. But it remained a secret door into the stunning wilderness of the Somiedo reserve.
Roman road-building skills made the Camín a broad path with a modest gradient. The walk is never gruelling, but the views are spectacular – grey-white mountains looming over deep valleys lined with beech, and gorges with patches of pasture clinging to shelf-like plateaus along their length. On the far horizon lay a line of palest blue: the Cantabrian sea. After eight hours, we stumbled into the shadow of a strange crag, La Peña Negra (the black rock), as dark and sinister as something out of The Hobbit.
Our accommodation that night would have appealed to the Baggins family. Braña La Corra, a collection of seven roughly thatched stone teitos, were deserted but in reasonable condition, their maintenance funded by the Asturian government. Shepherds live there in summer, but walkers are free to use any left open, though they can’t be reserved. The owner of one had offered Guillermo use of it if ever he were passing, so we laid out our sleeping rolls on its hay-strewn floor.
From the terrace of our rustic lodging, 1,200m up, we could see the deep Valle de Saliencia below us and glacial lakes to the south, among a bristle of ash-grey peaks. The thick forests opposite are one of last remaining habitats of the Cantabrian bear, of which some 130 remain. Old-timers around these parts, said Guillermo as we ate our supper of sardines, bananas and almond turrón (nougat)often tell tales of bears, how they came down to the villages, destroyed beehives, and were hunted ruthlessly.
At 7pm, night fell like a stone and so did the temperature. Having no lights to read by, we cocooned ourselves in our sleeping bags, and Guillermo told me stories about the Camín Real, its history and legends, of a convoy of 45 ox-drawn carts that carried alabaster quarried in Guadalajara on a six-week journey from Torrestio to Salas, to build a mausoleum for Archbishop Valdés Salas – an important inquisitor who died in 1569. It remains the most important Renaissance monument in the principality, and on the Camín itself.
The next day we discovered the remains of a venta, a small stone shop in a wide green pasture called Piedra Jueves (Jupiter’s altar), that once sold wine, and vinegar for the feet, to shepherds who had travelled for days to bring their sheep to the spot.
We stood at the crest of the hill, surveying an Impressionist wash of grey-green broom, yellow birch, and a scarlet stipple of rowan berries. I looked in vain for a building, a road, or a human figure, but there were none. In August you might meet groups of walkers, cyclists or riders, but off-season the mountains slump back into solitude, and on the entire journey we saw only three mountain bikers, a couple of horsemen, and the occasional shepherd in a 4×4, checking on the livestock.
The floor of the valley was speckled with bleached heaps of stone which, centuries before, had been dwellings. Guillermo, who had known the Camín as a populated place 35 years ago, told me about a great livestock fair that had been held annually up here, 1,000m above sea level, where shepherd clans from Somiedo, Teverga and Belmonte had met up to party.
The road itself has fallen into rui, too, and been further damaged by occasional four-wheel drive vehicles and quad bikes.
“Do you see now what jewels we have, and what a state they’re in?” Guillermo said bitterly, pointing to a potholed and muddied section. “It should be a national monument.”
At Cueiro the Camín diverges, east towards Oviedo (the Camín Francés) or north to Llanera and Gijón. We struck north, passing a large former venta, now a barn, ripe for conversion into a simple B&B for walkers unwilling to sleep on a floor covered with hay. I peered through the window of the venta’s derelict chapel. The altar was piled with old whisky bottles.
The village of Dolia was pretty and bucolic, snoozing amid hazel woods, but the asphalt underfoot and the power lines overhead came as a shock after our three days in the wilderness. For when the tarmac begins, the spell of the Camín Real starts to wane. We had covered three-quarters of the 40km that can still be walked. The last quarter, where it pushes into the 21st century world of petrol stations and builders’ merchants, has lost its mystery. We called a taxi and took a last draught of Valdepeñas from the wineskin.