No sooner had we returned home from our first trip to the UK in almost two years than our thoughts turned to continuing southwards to Asturias; not because we felt the desire for an easing-of-Covid- restrictions travelfest (far from it, in fact) but because we needed to check the state of house and land before hunkering down in Mayenne again and tackling some major projects in the coming months. I hadn’t been back to Asturias since February and I must admit it felt like a slightly surreal home from home, waking in our old bed to the sound of village cockerels once more, almost as if we’d never left. Mind you, there was so much I had forgotten in the intervening months: how even on the gloomiest, wettest, cloud-shrouded day the air remains blissfully warm; how steep the mountain roads are, giddy with hairpins; how the air is pungent with the smell of eucalyptus and rings with the music of cowbells; what a luxury it is to pluck fresh figs from the tree for breakfast; what a pest mosquitoes are in the night; that forgetting to carry a brolly is downright daft; how mesmerising the skyscapes and sunsets can be; how everything grows so ridiculously quickly and how it is all so verdantly, lusciously, eye-wateringly green. I was slightly perturbed to find I had lost far too much Spanish, although in truth my grasp of the language had only ever been tenuous at best and obviously I’ve been operating in French for the last nine months (my excuse!). Even worse, my mountain legs had gone, too, so that walking about seemed far more difficult than it used to be. That said, the sight of a heavy moon hanging over the morning valley was enough to set me climbing the steep lane to wander through the woods in the same way it always used to. Ah, Asturias. Still special.
I’m not naïve enough to expect the garden to have benefited from neglect but it was still bittersweet to see the jungle it had become and the sad lack of vegetables in what previously had been such a productive patch. No need to feel too downhearted, though, as there was still plenty of colour to enjoy with roses, geraniums, Californian poppies, calendula, cerinthe, pansies, dahlias, verbena bonariensis, hydrangeas, hibiscus, hollyhocks and nasturtiums still giving it their all. We had taken a huge box of fresh veggies from our French garden but there were a few little edible surprises in the jungle, too: some self-set parsnips (how ironic, given they were a nightmare to grow when we lived there), rocket, landcress, oca, New Zealand spinach and, judging by the row of bright sunburst flowers on the terrace, a good crop of Jerusalem artichokes.
I was surprised that no squash had emerged from the compost heap (there’s a first time for everything, I suppose) but there is one in the polytunnel and the less said about that, the better – just don’t try opening the door! The kiwi, ever the thug, was dripping with unripe fruit beneath its dense canopy and both fig trees were loaded with huge crops of soft, sweet fruit, sending the blackbirds and blackcaps into a frenzy of clacking and fighting. I’d forgotten how numerous and aggressive they are in fruit season but can’t say I blame them, those figs are fabulous.
Having spent so many of our final months in Asturias living in virtual isolation, it was lovely to have a brief chance to catch up with friends and neighbours and make up a little bit for the lack of ‘normal’ socialising during that difficult time. Beyond that, we’d expected to have a fair bit of work to do but had hoped to grab something of a mini holiday, too, perhaps doing a couple of long hikes to stretch our travel-weary legs. No such luck; it quickly became very obvious that there was more to be done than we had bargained for so much of the week felt just like the good old days, working hard up and down those merciless slopes – no wonder we were so fit when we lived there! – then collapsing with a glass of Rioja on the terrace, enjoying the evening warmth, the sweet scent of honeysuckle and Japanese quince and revelling again in that beautiful view. Mmm, it could be worse . . . we didn’t really need a holiday, anyway, did we?
We had at least made sure of a brief respite from work by booking a night away in the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela and there is a rather lovely story behind that little excursion. Several weeks ago, I was contacted out of the blue by Emma, a former primary school pupil of mine, who was walking the Camino del Norte and wondered if I fancied meeting her for a coffee as she passed through Luarca. I felt very sorry to say we no longer lived there and definitely wouldn’t be around when she trekked though the area. However . . . we were planning to be in Asturias a couple of weeks later so maybe we could catch up with her somewhere else? In the end, we decided to head to Santiago and be there in the Praza do Obradoiro when she arrived at the end of her incredible solo walk of almost 500 miles. I’ve written about visiting Santiago before and how the atmosphere in that huge square literally crackles with emotion as sore-footed pilgrims finally reach their destination and stop in front of the magnificent cathedral.
The reasons for walking the Camino are as diverse as the people doing it and their responses to arriving in the plaza make for some fascinating people-watching. Some sink to their knees in prayer or sit cross-legged in quiet contemplation; some throw their arms into the air and cheer while others collapse in a heap on top of their rucksacks; some rush in to be greeted by family or friends or other pilgrims, others wander around in stunned silence. There is so much chatter, a babel of different languages joined together in celebration, so much laughter, singing and tears; it is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. Emma and I hadn’t met for twenty years yet we recognised each other instantly and it felt like a complete privilege to be with her once again and helping to celebrate her wonderful achievement (actually, walking the Camino had been peanuts compared to some of the things she has done since I last saw her, I am in utter awe of the interesting and adventurous life she leads!).
I love continental cafe culture, so it was no hardship sitting over coffees for a couple of hours and catching up on news as the world bustled by, a joyful carnival of colour and life moving through the beautiful streets of the old city. We agreed to meet later for dinner and left Emma to grab some well-earned rest while we checked in to our hotel, several kilometres out of town. By a complete coincidence, we discovered it was on the Camino so decided to walk back into the city that evening, following the iconic blue and yellow signs and brass scallop shells set into the pavements. Compared to the pilgrims, we only did a fraction of the walk but it felt right somehow to be following in their footsteps and I could only imagine the range of emotions they must feel winding through the cobbled streets past ancient buildings (there is a wealth of history here!), drawn by the sight of the cathedral’s spires to journey’s end. I still don’t feel any desire to walk the Camino myself but it was lovely to be in Santiago once again and share another tiny chapter in the story of this fascinating city . . . and spend time with a very inspirational young lady, too!
On arriving home, we did a quick review of all the tasks that still needed to be done ahead of our impending return to France and then had one of our famous ‘soddit’ moments: did we really want to spend the afternoon beavering away at jobs when the sun was shining and the great Asturian outdoors beckoned? It didn’t take long to answer that one! As a brief nod to us both doing at least something useful, I stuffed a load of laundry into the washing machine while Roger promised to go walnut hunting before we got to boar o’ clock later. (On our recent UK trip, I spent several hours playing a complicated game invented by our little grandsons, part of which involved escaping from imaginary sneaky creatures called Pigsnozzles. Trust me, that is the perfect name to describe a family of wild boar discovering a carpet of fallen walnuts at dusk, they hoover up the lot in a trice. We know from experience that the even sneakier two-legged Snozzles need to head out early with a collecting bucket and outwit the pigs if any kind of walnut harvest is going to be enjoyed!).
We brewed a flask of strong Spanish coffee, packed a modest picnic of bread, local cheese, olives marinated in lemon, garlic and rosemary (which I’d made for our Galician trip and promptly forgot to pack) and a decadent slice of caramel-crusted homemade tarte tatin, then set out on our favourite local walk of all time: Las Hoces del Esva.
I’ve written about this walk many, many times not only because we’ve done it many, many times, but because it simply never fails to delight; as Roger remarked, you just can’t help but smile along the route. The first couple of miles are pretty enough, passing through apple orchards, a small village and long tract of mixed woodland but then you arrive at the head of a stunning gorge and the real adventure begins. From there on in, it is challenging enough to keep me on my toes – literally, at times – but not so unrelenting that I can’t lift my eyes from the path and drink in the incredible landscape.
It’s not just the natural beauty of the surroundings or the incredible peace of the place that I love (the vast majority of times we’ve walked this route, we’ve never seen another soul) but also the sense I always have of it being somehow a showcase for the elements. Earth is the ancient mineral solidity of the fascinating rock formations and the path beneath my feet; air, the soft breezes soughing through green branches, spiced with heady scents of woodland and sun-kissed heather; the fire of sunlight breaks through the clouds and sends down bright long fingers to set the river sparkling; water, water everywhere – dripping from the leafy canopy, oozing and trickling from mossy rocks and the crystalline waters of the beautiful Esva itself, babbling and chattering through the deep gorge, rushing ever onwards to the sea. It is completely magical.
We’ve never seen the otters that are known to live there, but there is no shortage of wildlife to enjoy: bright green lizards basking on rocks and scurrying along the boardwalk handrails, clouds of butterflies of every size and hue, damsel flies decked out in electrifying blue, so dainty compared to the huge stiff-winged dragonflies coursing the river’s surface for prey. We stopped to watch a busy dipper, bobbing on a rock mid-stream then diving into the water and reappearing elsewhere, its underwater activity leaving a stream of silver ripples on the surface. As we ate our picnic beneath the spreading branches of a chestnut tree, a robin serenaded us with its sweet autumn song and I felt a deep sense of contentment and peace suffuse my entire body. Santiago was fascinating with all its buzz and bustle but I will always be a child of the wilds; to quote a favourite line from W.H Davies’s poem ‘The Kingfisher’, “I also love a quiet place that’s green, away from all mankind.” Enough said.
I don’t have a single regret about leaving Asturias, for us it was absolutely the right decision and I am deliriously happy to be living in Mayenne once again. The year so far has been full of the kind of busyness I love as we settle into our new home and start to create an outdoor environment to sustain ourselves and the rich biodiversity of life with which we share this precious patch. We will hang up our travelling trews for a while now and let the car sit and collect cobwebs; I shall press my trusty bike back into service, wander up the lane to check on the coppice now and again and get busy once more in the garden. I’m happy to be a homebird – always! – and rarely feel the desire to go anywhere unless I really have to. However, we will need to return to Asturias at some point so instead of digging in my heels and looking for excuses not to go, I shall try and remember that when all is said and done, it’s only a case of going home. I am so very lucky.