Of death and life

November 1st is Dia de Todos los Santos in Spain, a day of holiday where people dress in their Sunday best and take flowers to cemeteries to pay their respects to their ancestors. It’s a day to remember and honour the dead and we saw many gatherings and dignified processions in the towns and villages we passed through, heading out to explore the land to the south of us.

The Parque Natural de las Fuentes del Narcea, Degaña e Ibias covers a huge area of very beautiful and wild countryside, home to much wildlife including the endangered Cantabrian brown bear and our plan was to follow the ‘tourist’ route through the mountains, looking for hiking trails to follow at a later date.

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The drive was spectacular until, reaching the top of a mountain pass, a landscape of utter devastation appeared before our eyes.

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Wild fires raged here several weeks ago, their smoke – fanned by Hurricane Ophelia -travelling far to the north. It’s impossible to describe the sheer extent of the damage or capture it with a camera: mountainside after mountainside burned to a cinder, the flames having jumped across roads and travelled with lightning speed through the dry brush. The heat must have been immense if the melted road signs we saw were anything to go by and in its wake a charred, barren and eerily macabre landscape remains.

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The courage of those charged with fighting these fires is beyond compare. I felt an impossible sadness in the face of so much devastation and destruction, of the loss of habitat and life. The day really was all about death, it seemed . . .

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. . . but not quite. Nature, after all, is a great survivor and it will fight back. True, it may take a long time, but the plants will grow and green the landscape once again, the wildlife will return. Pondering death also reminds us how fragile and precious life is and how important it is to celebrate and enjoy this wonderful gift to the full each and every day. For me, that’s not through over-indulgent, selfish hedonism but in finding true pleasure in the simplest of things and the rest of our day presented so many wonderful opportunities to do just that.

Beyond the fire damage, the landscape was completely stunning. Here are some of the best ancient woodlands in Europe, the broad-leafed forests that took root once the glaciers had carved out their deep valleys. The autumn colours (ah, death again!) were at their most spectacular, setting the mountain sides alight in a blaze of golden glory. No wonder bears choose to live here, it is utterly beautiful and so wild.

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At the top of the Puerto del Connio pass (at 1315m, just 30m lower than Ben Nevis) we stood and listened to . . . nothing. There was complete and utter silence. Incredible. The view wasn’t bad either.

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Who could resist the chance of lunch in such a pretty picnic site next to the river? We ate chestnut and leek pie followed by peach and blueberry streusel cake – both homemade and kept in the freezer for just such an occasion – washed down with a flask of strong, hot coffee. Perfect autumn picnic food!

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From the interpretation centre in Muniellos, we enjoyed a 7.5 k walk through bear country, having the tracks and wild places to ourselves for much of the walk. No bears (I think we would have to be extraordinarily lucky to see one) but there were so many things of seasonal beauty to enjoy.

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For me, a day out like this sums up the benefits of the simple life we lead. For a start, it’s a treat so it’s always exciting and interesting. It cost us nothing except the price of the petrol to get there and back (and that’s relatively cheap here). We didn’t spend any money anywhere and came back with no souvenirs except photos and memories. We took nothing except our lunch and a camera. No rucksack. No expensive hiking gear. No smart picnic kit. No phone. Nothing. We enjoyed fresh air and warmth, fantastically stunning views and the beauty of nature, a good walk to stretch our bodies, peace and tranquility and each other’s company. We tend to gravitate towards wild places because that’s how we are but such simple days are equally as possible in urban places: some of the best days out we’ve had have been trailing around cities, avoiding the ‘must-do’ sights and discovering far better things in little back streets or hidden green spaces. The point is, it’s a day out that requires not money and stuff but open eyes and minds and an appreciation of simple pleasures. An affirmation of the joy of being alive. Priceless.

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