Tiny purple autumn crocus are the only flowers this high up, colouring an otherwise harsh terrain. Choughs, the crow of the mountains, call to each other overhead. The wind whips through the valley. There are ridges piled upon ridges and the remains of the moon. Somewhere beyond the mist is the Pico de Cornón, over 2,000m high. I sit on a cold rock and train my binoculars on the steep slope on the other side of a rushing river. I’m waiting for a bear.
We had left our hotel by starlight and driven up winding, almost vertical roads, to the tiny village of La Peral. Snowed in in winter, only four people live here all year round, and two of them used to live in Galway. Jimena Serna teaches Spanish to foreigners seeking immersion in language and nature. She calls her school El Cuélebre after a mythological Asturian animal that lives in a cave. But large wild animals are not myths here. On the edge of the world, between man and mountain, bears have found a home.
“Here people can be immersed,” says Serna. “Immersed in language, immersed in nature. This is a very special place.”
In the principality of Asturias more than half the land is protected, as are the bears. There are thought to be around 300 in the entire cordillera, stretching across northwest Spain. It's a big improvement on 30 years ago, when they were on the brink of extinction.
My feet and hands grow cold as we wait for the sun to reach our part of the mountain. Still no bears. I drop the binoculars and focus for a moment on the bigger picture, a dramatic landscape of wooded slopes, steep escarpments and bare peaks. Juan, our guide, disappears into the mist and comes back with a handful of freshly picked tart blueberries. This is the bear’s preferred food along with apples, blackberries, acorns and hazelnuts.
I spot something golden brown moving and feel a rush of adrenaline. I realise I don’t really know what an Iberian brown bear looks like. But on closer inspection, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t wear a cowbell, so this sighting can be discounted right now.
We move to a different area, driving up another steep gradient to reach the Mirador De Gua overlooking Somiedo. Juan points skywards and trains his telescope on a spot close to the top of the mountain. I’m looking at the entrances to two caves, which the bears use as dens in winter. The baby bears are born in spring and I’m amazed to discover that they weigh only around 300g. Soaring overhead are two Leonardo vultures looking for prey. But the sun and its accompanying light have now reached even the deepest recesses of the valley and the time to spot bears has passed.
Where bears and humans co-exist
I bump into the mayor of Somiedo in a bar as we try some local specialities; queso de cabrales – a cheese made with cow, sheep and goats milk and matured in caves, cecina (air-dried beef), lomo (pork loin), and of course, jamón. He’s enthusiastic about bears which have put Somiedo on the map and become the symbol of the area.
“The bear isn’t dangerous,” he says. “It’s a joy. They attract tourists, and that has stabilised the economy. It’s only really a problem for people with beehives, and we compensate them for the damage.”
But all the talk in the bar is of a bear that was killed on the road yesterday. Locals show me the distressing video on their phones. A passing tourist found the injured animal but it died soon afterwards. For this is not a wilderness like Yellowstone, or even the forests of Poland. Here bears and humans must co-exist, and generally it’s the bears that come off worst.
Next morning we leave our parador in Cangas de Narcea while it’s still dark and early and drive through a 2km tunnel cut through the mountains. We stop at a small lookout point overlooking a river and watch the sun enter the valley. I sweep the slopes opposite with my binoculars, backwards and forwards, looking for gaps in the cover where I might spot a bear.
But it’s a chamois, picking its way delicately up the steep slopes on the other side of the river, which catches my eye. She turns and looks across the valley. She can probably hear me from there. Then I see another, and another, working their way up and across the scree on long ballerina legs, stopping occasionally to eat fresh heather. Antelopes, with some of the characteristics of goats, they are superbly adapted to this rugged terrain.
Do not disturb
Victor opens a flask of coffee and passes me a cup, topped with a liqueur made of honey to warm us up. When I return to the telescope the first chamois and its larger shadow have gone out of frame, and I’ve lost her again to the mountain. This is her habitat; this is her home. I could not survive the coming winter here, but she can.
Another inky morning, with a sky full of stars. I don’t have to worry about whether I see a bear or not, because there aren’t any in this part of Asturias. After the disappointment about the bears, the guides want me to see and hear something special. We are in Aller and this time we’re using our ears, not our eyes, to find our prey.
There’s the constantly flowing water of the nearby river. From far away I can hear the tinkling cowbells. There’s a plane overhead and somewhere a dog is barking. We’re inside the fold of a valley, its slopes dense with beech, waiting.
Then from somewhere deep in the forest we hear a bellow, followed closely by another. Then a louder response. This is la berrea – the bellowing of the deer. Our guide Manolo puts his finger to his lips. Do not disturb.
This is deep need and raw lust, a discordant symphony of sound. There is a pattern of sorts, but no harmony. The stags are not in chorus, but competition. Our guide Manolo estimates that we are listening to a least 10 males competing for the attention of the females, the sound amplified by the mountain amphitheatre, which provides perfect acoustics. On a different slope we spot two males bellowing quite close to one another. They will lock horns later for the prize. In these mountains nature is at its rawest, and the only imperatives are eat, sleep, reproduce and survive. I may not have seen a bear, but being in these mountains, and staying still long enough to look and listen is a privilege in itself.
Margaret Ward was a guest of Asturias Tourism and the Spanish Tourist Office
Fly to Santander with Ryanair or Santiago de Compostela with Aer Lingus. It's about a three-hour drive into the mountains from either airport, with stunning scenery en route.
The parador at the converted Monasterio de Corias outside Cangas de Narcea is one of the finest in Spain and is very reasonably priced – from €75 for a double room: www.parador.es/english.
Rural hotels are charming and good value, serving local food, such as the Castilo del Alba in Somiedo (www.castillodelalba.com) and the El Fundil in Aller (www.elfundil.com).
General information: www.turismoasturias.es/en.
Mountain guides: Somiedo www.somiedoexperience.com
Cangas de Narcea Victor Garcia: www.queivitorino.com
OTHER WAYS TO GO WILD IN EUROPE
Doñana National Park, southern Spain
A stones throw from the Costa de la Luz lies one of Europe’s great wetland wildernesses: a land of water and sky, a stopping point on the great migrations, as well as a breeding ground for millions of birds.
Doñana National Park, in the delta of the Guadalquivir on the southern coast of Spain, is home to one of Europe’s most impressive colonies of flamingo, and one of its most endangered species, the Iberian lynx.
The park is about an hour and 20 minutes drive from Seville. There are five visitor centres with boardwalk trails and bird hides. Discovering Doñana offers tours. discoveringdonana.com
Skomer Island, Wales
Skomer Island off the coast of Pembrokeshire in Wales is a breeding ground for hundreds of thousands of Manx shearwaters. It also hosts tens of thousands of puffins, who nest in burrows and can be seen fishing at sea to feed their chicks. During the boat crossing you’re likely to spot them with a beak full of sand eels. Seals and dolphins are also a common sight around the island, which is run by a wildlife trust.
Boat trips cross regularly from Martin's Haven between April and September. Check on Twitter @skomer_boatinfo. You can also stay overnight by prior arrangement, @skomer_island.
Bialowieza is what the earth might have looked like millions of years ago.
It is probably Europe's most pristine wilderness area, containing areas of primeval forest, thousands of species, and 58 different mammals including bears. Poland's only Unesco world heritage site, it is also under threat from logging.
Bialowieza, which straddles the border with Belarus, is home to elk, wolf, lynx, eagles and a reintroduced herd of European Bison (the last wild bison was shot in Poland in 1919). wildpoland.com runs trips into the forest.
Tarcu Mountains, Romania
For something really off-piste, go tracking bison in the Tarcu Mountains, south of Transylvania, in Romania. Here, Rewilding Europe and WWF Romania have re-introduced the European bison to the area, which is also home to bears, lynx, wild boars and deer. rewildingeurope.com.
The European Safari Company can package trips with guides and out of the way rustic accommodation. www.europeansafaricompany.com. The nearest airport is Timisoara with good connections via Frankfurt with Lufthansa.