Lorna Siggins: An Irishwoman’s Diary on getting lost on a Spanish mountain

‘What we need, if European politicians have the courage to do it, is planned immigration and resettlement in places like this . . . That’s what the ghosts of the maquis would be whispering now’

Photograph: Getty Images

Photograph: Getty Images


When it comes to cheese, “stinky” is a complimentary adjective. In this case, the pong from our rucksack was pungent enough to terrify any passing boar or wolves. It was our one secret weapon, when temporarily disarmed by a thick mist on a Spanish mountain. No mention of the word “lost”, as navigation and patience were put to test.

Only an hour or two before, griffon vultures had been eyeing our progress up the Vega de Urriellu within the Picos de Europa mountain range. The multi-million year-old peaks extending across three provinces in northern Spain were so named by conquistadores returning from the Americas, when the snow caps provided their first glimpse of home.

At least that’s what the walk guide told us, and the spectacular Cantabrian landscape is also a national park, and, happily, home to the brown bear and other carnivores. As we contemplated the prospect of becoming a wolf snack, we knew at least that scavenging birds wouldn’t spot us in the murk.

But they might smell us! And so might others! But that might just include mountain rescue! The fact that we had already climbed, descended, and had taken a compass reading for the approach valley would be a mite awkward to explain.

However, with no phone signal, and no desire to topple a rockface, this was a case of swallowing pride, and sitting tight.

The Cabrales blue cheese sustaining us derives from sheep or goat milk, and has a distinctive scent – resembling unwashed socks, spattered in vomit. Combine it with a slice of apple or cracker, and its deliciousness transcends its smell.

It must have other super powers, too, because even as we nibbled in the thickening gloom, there was a thin tinkle in the distance. Faint at first, it became louder as it drew closer. A cacophony of cattle bells!

Devilish shapes

Devilish shapes transformed into half a dozen horned heads, emerging from the haze around us. Curious at first, they took a wise wide berth. As we followed gingerly, we came across a stone wall. The wall led to a barn. The barn lay by a track . . . the track ran down to the “missing” valley...

Back at base in the high hamlet of Sotres, we made light of our delayed return in chat with a band of Dutch hikers. They always seemed to be up and out much earlier than us, in spite of copious evening cider. And they never, ever went astray.

“Don’t be fooled . . . we use the GPS,”one half of a couple had whispered, during an earlier exchange about the appeal of the Picos – including, ironically, the absence of waymarks on many routes.

The mountains also have an impressive network of “refugio”or mountain refuges. Above the clouds close to the Pico Uriellu – also known as the Naranjo de Bulnes – we were passed by a mule en route to one such hut, loaded with fresh bread, tobacco and beer. And had we gone completely astray, there is always the option of natural shelter in a stonescape of caves.

Endangered communities

Not only do they provide a dry environment for maturing Cabrales, but they were also hideouts for the maquis or republican fighters who refused to accept Franco’s fascist rule long after he had won the civil war.

Now the spires and glaciers and cattle trails bordered by alpine flora and rare butterflies are frequented by increasing numbers of outdoor visitors. Some of the most regular visitors are members of trade union walking clubs, a local guide told us.

We caught up with one such group along the Cares gorge, a 12km walk through a ravine. It follows a canal and tunnels blown out of the mountain a century ago in a nine-year feat of engineering for a hydro-electric scheme.

“Men died here trying to make this, and now we bring our children for a hike,”one regular trade union visitor told us, adding that the young “aren’t getting jobs so easily now”. Asturias is known for its mineral wealth, but this region is experiencing a pattern of rural depopulation that is familiar across northern Europe.

Children are “educated to leave”, he observed. The skills acquired in university may help to build bridges, market cider and that aromatic cheese, but anyone hoping to rear a family needs to be very wealthy or to have secured a few different jobs, he said.

There are initiatives for farmers, such as the EU LIFE programme, which has re-introduced the endangered bearded vulture.

However, the mountain communities are “endangered” too, the union visitor told us. He has relatives down south in Malaga, where there are tensions over illegal migration from north Africa.

“What we need, if European politicians have the courage to do it, is planned immigration and resettlement in places like this,”he said. “That’s what the ghosts of the maquis would be whispering now. . .”