Vamos, amigos! This was a different class of language trip
Fed up with the school trips on offer, Catherine Mack seeks out a Spanish learning holiday with a difference for her son
Picos de Europa Mountains.
“Vamos, amigos!” Andres said, as I looked down at the gushing waters of the Deva River in La Hermida Gorge, roughly 100m below the cliff where I am hanging, and wondered what the Spanish for “me and my big ideas” was. A few months previously I had taken agin a somewhat banale school trip offer for my 15-year-old son to go to Madrid, annoyed not only by the fact that it was astronomically expensive, but also that its itinerary was utterly uninspiring.
Four days of the Prado Museum, Bernabéu Stadium and a walking tour of Madrid, oh and a big treat of an authentic tapas restaurant, were being sold as an “invaluable language trip”. And so my “big idea” was to find an alternative that I considered to be not only truly invaluable linguistically but also of better value all round. Which is what led me to hanging off this cliff.
When I told my son, Hugo, that I had signed us both up for a week of Spanish lessons in the Asturias region of northern Spain, he was not totally sold on the notion of us going to school together. And then I showed him the list of extracurricular activities on offer – Prado or paddle boarding on a mountain lake? Football stadium or Via Ferrata mountain climbing? Walking around Madrid or snowshoeing in the Picos de Europa peaks? The deal was done. Yes, he would have a mother in tow, but I had always wanted to learn Spanish and, as I was a beginner and he was Junior Cert level, we would be in different classes anyway. A definite win win all round.
This brilliant idea of a family learning and adventure holiday is Ana Rodríguez García’s baby, a mother herself, language teacher and wholly committed to sustaining her home village of Panes by running this too cool for school, Peak Me Languages (peakme.es). Not surprisingly as this tiny rural idyll is gateway to the Picos de Europa Mountains and eponymous national park.
It must be how Spanish students feel when they head off to the heart of Donegal to learn English. Every morning, Ana and her colleague, Celina, taught a small group of us in the heart of the village and, in the afternoons, organised various adventures with local outdoor guides. I had no idea this mountain range even existed until recently, never mind that it is so accessible and relatively tourist free compared with the Alps or Pyrenees. The majority of visitors here are hikers in fact, as Panes and its environs are on the Camino de Santiago pilgrims’ route.
Hiking into the mountains was also our first adventure, well second one really, my first day of school being pretty scary too, I must admit. But I had no reason for concerns. Hugo was in his element with Celina and his group of more advanced students, and I was instantly put at ease by Ana’s friendly teaching skills and enthusiasm for learning.
One of our first lessons was at the local bar cum shop to order some food supplies, and a cafe con leche of course, the owner chatting merrily as he stripped the kernels off dried maize in order to make flour.
I have done my fair share of outdoorsy holidays and am always in awe of these group leaders whose passion for adventure and landscape is so strong, it feels as if they sprinkle you with a dust of this innate enthusiasm. Carlos, our hiking guide, sprinkled that dust by the sack loads, in both English and Spanish, as we took the 2km tunnel funicular up to the mountain hamlet of Bulnes, where mist enshrouded the higher peaks all around.
From that point we descended back down through the valley for a few hours, along narrow mountain paths where goats clung to cliffs and the River Tejo’s icy waters created waterfalls and soothing soundscape all around us. It was breathtakingly beautiful.
Equally breathtaking was the price of a round of drinks at the end of our hike, something that became a daily tradition at one of the village bars where you could buy a few vinos for the same price as a large Rioja back home. And if you wanted to know what authentic tapas was all about, you would be well advised to head for these hills. Asturias’ food is a feast of local produce, with cheeses oozing from every mountain village and seafood sourced just 20km away on the north coast of Spain. Close enough for one of the outdoor adventures to be surfing in summer.
Our trip took place when the weather was still doing that two-for-the-price-of-one thing. It was warm enough to go paddle boarding on Embalse de Palombera Lake one afternoon, a gorgeous spot at the confluence of the Nansa and Tanea Rivers. I was a newbie to this too and loved the fact that first, I could actually stand up and, second, really enjoyed this calming way to navigate such beautiful waterscapes.
The next day, conditions allowed us to take the Fuente Dé cable car up to a snow-blanketed elevation of 1,823m for some snow shoeing. I love that feeling of going from luscious meadows to misty, white peaks in minutes, with hardly another soul in sight. There is no ski resort in the Picos de Europa mountains so, at this time of year, you meet only snowshoers, a handful of cross-country skiers or people just going up to take in the view.
At the end of the week, Hugo and I both had slightly filled-up farewells as we had really been made to feel part of the Panes family. Ana’s approach to learning was a bit like a Spanish teacher who arrives into class every day with a piñata full of treats, and the Picos de Europa Mountains are certainly bursting with them.
The final treat was the aforementioned cliffhanger. Literally. Otherwise known as the Via Ferrata, it is a steel cable system which you clip onto with carabiner clips and then negotiate a series of steel ladders, bridges and footholes in order to negotiate this vertiginous terrain. Hugo adored this one most of all, looking all gazelle like as he soared to the heights, ever encouraging his far from gazelle like old ma to keep going. Which I did, joining my amigos at the top of the gorge, legs a wobbling but face a grinning. The pretty contents of this piñata were spread out all around us at the end of a week when we had both bashed a few fears or anxieties by taking on these new challenges together. Now that is what I would call an “invaluable language trip”. And some.
Catherine and her son travelled with Peak Me, www.peakme.es on their family activity holiday.
Cost: From €472.50 per person for an intensive Spanish course (20 hours total) and five outdoor activities. Activities to choose from include hiking, canoeing, canyoning, caving, ‘via ferrata’, snowshoeing, surfing, horse riding and more. Minimum recommended age is 11 years old, and all under-18s must be accompanied by an adult. Price includes lessons, activities, transport, guides and equipment.
There are various accommodations available in Panes, which Peak Me will organise for you.
Getting there: The closest airport is Santander, just 45 minutes’ drive from Panes. Bilbao and Asturias airports are two hours’ drive. Transfers available. Or travel by ferry on the new route from Cork to Santander with Brittany Ferries, brittanyferries.ie
Catherine and Hugo also enjoyed one night of R&R at a blissful eco spa hotel overlooking the Picos de Europa before heading home. Check out Pueblo Astur for more details, puebloastur.comFor more information on Picos de Europa, see turismoasturias.es
Five other family learning holidays
1. If you want to get ahead of the gap year and experience a learning holiday with your teenagers, then volunteering on a wildlife conservation holiday is a wonderful way to do it. Volunteering with sea turtles in Costa Rica is a brilliant one for families, if patrolling beaches at night, protecting freshly laid eggs or hatchlings and doing data collection with an ongoing research company appeals. You can do the Costa Rica tourism thing afterwards, but staying in a beach cabin on remote shores for a week and immersing yourself in conservation, is one cool learning experience. See responsibletravel.com. Responsible Travel also has an online travel guide to many other family volunteering trips.
2. If your children are over 13 and you are dog lovers, learning to be mushers or husky dog handlers in the Finnmark region of northern Norway is a learning experience you will love. Go on an expedition from between five to eight days, staying in wilderness camps and learning all the “mushing” or dog sledding skills you need before heading off into the wilds. You will also learn about the indigenous Sami people’s lifestyles while getting a chance, hopefully, to glimpse the Northern Lights. This is one way to shake off the winter exam year blues, or perhaps a transition year learning treat. See naturetravels.co.uk
3. If you are nervous of going on a family horse riding holiday together because you are all beginners, or it has been years since you’ve been on a horse, I recommend two wonderful places. At home, take a weekend family horse riding break at Slieve Aughty in Co Galway, for a totally family friendly and eco friendly equestrian retreat (slieveaughtycentre.com). Or explore South Africa from a saddle on a family riding holiday, with plenty of other wildlife experiences thrown in. See responsibletravel.com
4. Go off piste with your French learning by heading to the Alpine town of Morzine during the summer months. Here your kids can learn French in the mornings leaving you to have some chill out or exploring time, then swapping in the afternoons. That’s when the kids go canyoning, rock-climbing, summer sledging or mountain biking and you knuckle down with your vocab book. Then at the end of the week, you can head off to do the Alpine Von Trapp family thing together. See alpinefrenchschool.com
5. Combine yoga and surfing in a calming family holiday, Portuguese style, staying in and around the outskirts of Sintra Cascais Natural Park and choosing from a variety of accommodations to suit your family’s needs. This region is a stunning part of Portugal where you can also learn to sail, sea kayak, go mountain biking or climbing when you aren’t doing yoga by the pool or surfing the Atlantic waves. See karmasurfretreat.com