We were awake by 7.30am. A summer mist hang low over the pueblo, promising a sun blessed day. We decided we’d treat ourselves to breakfast in the hotel. After all, this is what we termed as our first proper holiday since 2006. The first vacation we’d had on our own terms in which we could do exactly as we pleased. We opted for the ‘classic’ breakfast at 5€ which consisted of cereal, fruit cocktail, orange juice, yoghurt, toast, sweet bread and coffee. Manna from heaven.
We headed towards Cangas de Onis. We planned to go to Cavadonga. When we first moved to Spain we lived in the camper on the camp site at Cangas. We wanted to visit Cavadonga but time was spent house hunting so we never made it. We always promised that ‘one day’ we’d go to Cavadonga. This was the day.
Cavadonga was the scene of the first significant victory by Spanish forces following the Moors conquest in 711. This victory ensured the survival of a Christian stronghold in northern Spain. Today, it’s regarded as the beginning of the Reconquista. Some years later, Pelayo managed to expel a provincial governor called Munuza. He held the territory against a number of attempts to re establish Muslim control. In the late summer of 722, a Moorish general named Alqama led his men into Pelayo’s terrain and overrun much of it. Pelayo and his men retreated deep into the Asturian mountains. Rumour has it that Pelayo had as little as 300 men. When Alqama arrived in Cavadonga, his envoy met with Pelayo to convince him to surrender. Pelayo refused. Alqama ordered his best troops out to fight those of Pelayo who had been hiding in a cave. Both Munuza and Alqama fell in skirmishes at the hands of Pelayo’s troops. In their own histories, Muslims called Pelayo and his men ‘thirty infidels left; what can they do?’
However, they never again challenged the independence of the Kingdom of Asturias.
Way back in 2006 they had a park and ride scheme which we’d decided that we’d use. The scheme wasn’t evident this time.
“Too early for the tourist season,” declared Paul, but this was almost July. Maybe the financial crisis didn’t warrant the cost.
There were very few cars on the Cavadonga road. Driving seemed an easy option. The road was flanked by an army of trees attended by a myriad of shrubbery masquerading as foot soldiers. We were lucky to grab the penultimate parking space at the foot of the steps that led to Pelayo’s tomb. A car pulled up and asked if we knew of any parking higher up.
“Lo siento. No se,” and so the last space was taken.
A stone corridor led us to the plaza and the 19th century neo Romanesque Basilica. The tunnel was lined with candles lit in memory of those departed souls that live on in the hearts of those who remembered. A heady perfume of incense, candle heat and wax followed the pilgrims out into the sunlight. The cathedral beckoned and the pious struck visitors entered into the seemingly dull sanctuary of prayer. A solitary priest swathed in white robes entered the confessional, wrapping round his shoulders his purple mantle of prayer. I doubt very much her ever hears many confessions; tourist enquiries are more the fad of the day at Covadonga. Close by, a statue of Pelayo stands in all his gloryproud of his historic and mighty victory.
The icy stone of this house of prayer chilled the heat of the summer sun already heating the plaza outside. The greyness dulled the eye. Then the altar appeared like the Magi’s star. A bouquet rested at the foot of the altar cross eclipsed in brilliant sunlight; a perfect halo. The cross was reflected upwards onto the ceiling; its shadow a perfect imitation.
Our prayers said, we wandered back into the cathedral square. Time for coffee. We found a seat in the cafe tucked by the marbled wall, close to the windows. What perfect sideway to enjoy refreshment than to sit, looking high into the surrounding mountains that radiated an air of peace and tranquillity? We were wise to visit before the Spanish holiday season of July and August when this home to the shrine of Pelayo becomes one of the most visited shrines in Spain. Our last port of call was the Shrine to Our Lady along the tomb of Pelayo resting in a cave by the altar dedicated to the mother of Christ. The shrine was almost buried in bouquets of flowers. I doubted there was a poor florist within several miles of this holy place.
One doesn’t go just to Pelayo’s shrine without carrying on high into the mountains to visit the lakes of Ercina and Enol that rest on a limestone plateau Pena Santa. The narrow road becomes something of a lane and track as it snakes its way erratically to the upland. The Mirador de la Reina provided a incredible view over the surrounds; words weren’t enough. The eyes were hungry; they didn’t know where to look; where to start or finish. They gulped down the views, hungrily.
There was more to see; upwards and onwards. The way narrower with tighter bends. Mountain cows have to be moved to new grazing sometime. The time that we were there was that time! The herd of some hundred knew they were the ‘Kings of the Road’ and proved themselves just that. Calves bucked, whilst their siblings suckled on the metaphoric hoof. Cars crept and stalled as they moved slower than a nursing cow. Sheer drops certainly didn’t help. Approaching a blind rocky curve, we met a coach. Nothing behind us, Paul bowed to his bulk and gently backed as I hid my eyes. We survived, passed each other and lived to tell the story.
Airless, the lakes lay motionless. The eyes and the heart revelled in the tapestry that lay way below them. A plaque on the tourist centre boasts that people who live in cities become fed up of their walls, of the noise in the street, the artificial and urban life. They yearn to contemplate a wild and virgin nature; the more virgin and wild the better. A land where no trees have been cut and no animals have been killed nor landscape destroyed. They yearn for a place there they can wander. That’s why they say in the United States that when man returns to the national parks then a lawyer becomes a better lawyer, the engineer is a better engineer and a taylor a better taylor. If everyone could enjoy the national parks then the social problem would be solved. Oh, just so true. Never a truer word.....
Walking back to the car, we passed two elderly ladies picnicking on a rock.
“Good afternoon,” one said rather eloquently. We entered into conversation. The two ladies had come from Dorset on a three day ferry break. They were enthralled with the area. A delight to talk with.
My turn to drive. The drive down was far easier than the drive Paul had endured on the way up. The cows had gone to graze and the coaches to siesta. Driving into Soto de Onis we stopped at the cafe we’d visited before whilst staying in the camper on the campsite. We relived such fond memories over our coffee. Time to visit the adjoin gift shop; a treasure trove of souvenirs – oh for a limitless credit card. I was good and resisted even a fridge magnet. We were the only browsers; I guess everyone is feeling the crunch right now.
We remembered the way to the car park by the Alsa bus station in Cangas de Onis. Free and relatively empty. It was good to be back in Cangas. Memories were the name of the afternoon. Despite most of the shops being closed we recalled previous visits and every sentence started “Do you remember....?” We did.
Legend says that the Virgin Mary appeared to Pelayo and gave him a wooden cross which she told him to use as a standard in battle against the Moors. A church was built to venerate the cross which became known as ‘the Cross of the Victory’. Since then the cross has become the symbol of Asturias. The bridge (Puente Romano) over the river Sello is almost certainly medieval. From it hangs a copy of this cross; the original hangs in Oviedo Cathedral. The Capilla de Santa Cruz is worth a visit. This old building was actually built in 1931 on a site that has been sacred for several millennia. The first Christian church was built there in AD 437. It is said to have been rebuilt by King Favila in 727 to keep the Victory Cross. It is placed on a dolmen that is believed to originate from 3,000BC. The dolmen is in a sepulchral room hidden by an artificial mountain built with sand and river stones. Oh, yes # the stuff of memories.
A small plaza lined with cafes beckoned. We sat in the shade of a canopy with a welcome San Miguel; ‘cero cero’ of course. Close by, a shop frontage consisted of three life size plastic cows. Their colours were cleaner back in 2006. The photos were proof our memories hadn’t dimmed with the velocity of their mock fur. Time stands for no man.
What for supper? Alimerka, we remembered, was close by. A feast of sliced chorizo, cheese, bread and a plastic box of pasta salad would be supper. Of course, we didn’t forget a bottle of Torre Tallada to wash it down. Tired and hot we headed back to Pereyes. Depositing our picnic in the cool of the bath we walked to the village bar. On the way we admired the house of the Quesada Family. A heritage sign on the wall told that this affluent home was eighteenth century. It’s, we were informed, an exceptional example of rural architecture in Baroque style; a good example of local carpentry and characteristic decor on the doors, windows and balconies. It’s also claimed there are fine examples of outbuildings used for various agricultural activities such as horreos, and stables. One of the last presidents of Mexico, Don Vincente Fox Quesda, bequeathed this house to the village in memory of his mother, Dona Mercede Quesada who was born there. So to the bar and a bottle of of Mahou as we watched the end of the England – Slovenia football match. The I – O win was the perfect end to the perfect day. Back to the hotel and our room. Supper was enjoyed as was the good nights’ sleep that followed.
We woke to a warm, misty morning. Full from our picnic supper of the night before we decided we’d have breakfast ‘on the road’. One of my travel ‘musts’ is my travel kettle. I can’t function without that first cup of caffeine when I wake. I’ve not come across a Spanish hotel yet that has the hospitality tray we are so accustomed to in England. No point in hanging around. We leisurely gathered our things together and paid the bill, bidding fond farewells to our hosts. We mentioned to Julien that we intended stopping in Arriondas before heading out along the N634 to Infiesto then cross country to join the E70 A8 autopista.
“A better way,” he said, producing a street map of Arriondas from below the counter. Showing us the best place to park, he also indicated a road that would take us into the mountains and then to the autopista.
“Muy precioso,” he told us. He knows the area, we decided and so we would take that route.
We missed the turning he’d told us about for parking but found a road we could park in a couple of turnings later. God was smiling on us again as we discovered this was the start of the ‘muy precioso’ route Julien had told us about.
Arriondas, to me, was very much the Spanish Newquay; sad and dishevelled buildings in need of much rejuvenation or at the very least a dose of Tender loving care. Arriondas, the guide book leads us to believe, is much the base for activities such as quad racing, kayaking and horse trekking. I imagine that like its Cornish counterpart, the town comes alive in July and August with the influx of all the young dudes. Along the main street we came across a pastry shop that served coffee. The proprietor had endeavoured to portray some kind of quaintness with the four pink clothed tables in the otherwise dull environs. Ready for a cup of coffee, this cafe seemed as good as anywhere to benefit from our custom. We bought a pastry each. Mine was a heart shaped glazed pastry whose taste improved after being dunked in the delicious coffee. Paul’s mostly puff pastry benefitted from a spoonful of apple somewhere in the centre. For a bill of 4€ 40c we couldn’t complain. Paul attempted a conversation with the lady behind the counter. He asked her about the recent floods. It seemed that she’d been lucky as she’d not been affected. From our understanding, it seemed that others hadn’t been so fortunate. The school had been flooded and three children died. So sad.
We walked along the lacklustre main street and took a side turning to the river where we walked back along the river through the area that was marked ‘park’ on the map given us by Julien. This ‘park’ consisted of a miscellany of mismatched grey paving stones punctuated by a variety of equally sad looking bushes. A bridge led over the river. It looked as if the wooden pieces had just been botched together; in keeping with the rest of the town. We didn’t cross. It was time we left Arriondas behind us.
We followed the mountain road along a series of bends, ever upwards. We weren’t disappointed. The purity of the air engulfed us. The greens of the trees fed our eyes, beckoning us onwards. The silence was filled with the breeze catching the leaves. Through the gaps we could see the floor of the valley deep below; a jigsaw of carroty tiled roofs that slotted into pieces of jade and olive shrubbery.
“There aren’t any cows,” whispered Paul.
“We’ll see......,” I replied.
Two curves later, a solitary cream cow stood chewing the cud as his bell rang softly in the breeze. Never assume, his eyes mocked.
“Bet he’s the outrider,” I said, laughing, but he was just the lone cow teaching us never presume.
Ten kilometres along the road from Arriondes we came to the highest point called El Fitl. The views stretched for miles over the surrounding countryside. Is this what heaven is like? I would like to think so. I felt literally on top of the world.
Colunga beckoned and the road meandered downward. Twenty minutes later, we’d reached the autopista and the service station. Time for another coffee over which we pondered our short trip and the memories it’d given us. Then homeward bound.......