Sweet liberty

Having been locked down here so tightly for so long, the freedom which comes with each tentative Spanish step back towards some kind of normality leaves me feeling slightly giddy with delight. How wonderful to be able to walk and cycle from home once again and catch up with all that has happened in our beautiful neighbourhood in recent weeks. Mountain roads, country lanes, forest tracks . . . what a treat to be striding out or pedalling leisurely together, drinking in stunning views in these lush green mountains under wide blue skies.

Having moved into a new phase which granted us permission to travel further afield within Asturias, we decided to celebrate with a walk along the local coastpath from Puerto de Vega to Playa de Frejulfe. This is one of my very favourite jaunts; it’s not far (roughly 3 kilometres / 2 miles) nor is it difficult, but it is wild and atmospheric and very, very beautiful – and realising I hadn’t seen the sea for nearly twelve weeks, I was bubbling with excitement and anticipation. What’s more, the sun was shining and the swallow- daubed air blissfully warm; summer seemingly, if not technically, has arrived with us in all its balmy glory this week.

We started our walk at the Capilla de Nuestra Señora de la Atalaya which stands alone on a pretty promontory and is built on the site of a 13th century hermitage; it is the kind of ancient mariners’ chapel that is so traditional along the weather-beaten Atlantic coasts of northern Spain and western France. The weather vane design and unusual altar situated in a ship’s bowsprit serve to remind the faithful how inextricably linked their history and community are with the sea; Puerto de Vega may be a relatively small harbour but it is still a commercial fishing port nonetheless.

Heading in a westerly direction, the path does what most coastal trails do: winds along craggy clifftops and skirts patchworks of small fields and windswept woodlands, here dipping down into wave-beaten coves, there climbing to the top of rocky bluffs. Early in May, the flowers along this route are completely stunning; in previous years, I have described it as walking in nature’s garden, the sheer abundance of species and colour and form rendering it almost impossible to know where to look first.

This year, however, the clifftop garden has bloomed in rare tranquil solitude with only the wheeling seabirds privy to its spring spectacular. Arriving too late, we had missed the best of it.

Not that I felt downhearted: how could I? Following the confines of lockdown, it felt as if I was walking this path again for the very first time, there was such a freshness to it, a sense of things new and unexplored. Somehow in this landscape I always feel a curious mix of peaceful timelessness juxtaposed with fretful change as the restless sea hurls itself against the land’s edge, sculpting and shaping and shifting the rocky limits. There is nothing willingly yielded, no quarter given; the rock is dark and glowering, standing sharp and stubborn against the tidal onslaught and yet all is mellowed and soothed by that infinite canvas of blue on blue beyond.

We might have missed the best of the flowers but there was still plenty there to catch the eye . . . and the nose, too. Long stretches of the path are flanked with honeysuckle which scrambles in a chaotic profusion along the ground rather than twining upwards. Such heady perfume! I realised what an unexpected mingling of scents honeysuckle and salt air is, slightly shocking but so very tantalising like the fire of chilli in chocolate or the crunch of salt in caramel.

There were other beauties, too, in a beguiling mix of simple and startling, native and incomer.

It’s interesting how the eucalyptus – that ubiquitous weed tree – struggles on these coastal fringes, ragged leaves tortured and scorched by the salt-laden wind. The pines look far more comfortable, scenting the air with their resinous warmth and striking animated poses against the cinematic backdrop.

I have loved Frejulfe beach since the first time I set foot there four years ago. There is an enduring enchantment to that crescent of shining sand, curving in a perfect arc between green woods and wild waves: it is breathtaking in all seasons. Descending the steps from coastpath to beach, I was delighted to find our usual ‘table’ had been reserved for lunch!

Coming from this direction means that in order to walk along the beach, we first have to cross a river that is too deep for shoes, so there is nothing for it but to dump the footwear and start paddling. The sea here is cold (the Mar Cantábrico is no Mediterranean!) and it’s usually September before I’m brave enough to wade in for a dip; in the meantime, I do love a bit of a splash along the shoreline, feeling the pulse of the lace-edged waves beneath my sandy toes.

The far end of the beach always strikes me as a place of mystery and fascination, a spot that just has to be explored. The tide pulls back to reveal a wealth of rock pools unusually accessible for the Asturian coastline (we normally have to scramble a fair bit!), each a mini-world in itself, brimming with an abundant complexity of wondrous life forms.

The brooding cliffs open into caves of penetrating black, the hunkered rocks squeezed and split into tight tunnels and tilted chasms that draw inquisite footprints into hidden places. I never fail to be astonished by such geology, these citadels of tortured texture the result of unimaginable energetic tumult eons ago. Was it destruction or creation, that violent process? I’m never quite sure, but the tactile calligraphy scored into those ancient stones draws my fingers like a magnet every time.

Not to be outdone, the sea reminded me that it, too, is an accomplished artist, etching sinuous meanders and branching dendrites into the wet sand.

The idea of a classic beach holiday – you know, the kind where you lie about with crowds of other people toasting under sweltering skies – fills me with abject horror . . . but give me a short spell in a peaceful seaside spot like this and I am as happy as a happy thing. Peaceful it was, too; late May, fabulous weather and the children not in school – who can believe a beach could be so empty? We are thoroughly spoilt, I think!

Climbing back to the coastpath, we noticed that the cliffs were larded with thick clumps of rock samphire or sea fennel, as it is also known. It is perfectly edible but in culinary terms, it has traditionally been considered a poor cousin to the more fashionable marsh samphire, albeit botanically they are not related. However, trendy chefs are apparently now serving rock samphire instead of marsh samphire because the latter is deemed to be too ‘ordinary’ these days; given its habit of growing in inaccessible places, daring foragers supplying restaurants can command a high price for their labours. Now, I love a bit of wild food foraging and this was very accessible indeed but, tempted though I was by those succulent aromatic little branches packed with vitamin C, I left well alone. This is a plant that has been a protected species in the UK for most of my lifetime and is endangered in certain parts of Spain; it needs all the help it can get and it’s not as if we are short of green stuff on our plates! Once again, I was reminded of the fragility of life, the delicate knife edge on which so many precious and extraordinary species and ecosystems balance, and what a blessing it is that I have the opportunity to witness, experience and reflect upon so much that is wonderful in nature.

Interestingly (or not, depending on your perspective – sorry, but I’m a hopeless word nerd 😉 ), the origin of ‘samphire’ is thought to be a corruption of the French Saint Pierre, sailors of old having cast the plant, which they valued highly in the prevention of scurvy, under the protective cloak of the patron saint of all things maritime. I thought there was a rather pleasing circularity at play here, given how our walk had started at a seafarers’ chapel. So, setting the compass of my somewhat pagan spirit to the east, I stepped out once again, relishing the salty tang of the fresh sea breeze, the benevolent caress of the sun on my face and this new-found liberty that is oh so sweet! 🙂

A-roamin’ with the Romans

For the third year in a row, we are promising ourselves a trip south to the Sierra Nevada to spend a few days doing some serious walking in the mountains in late spring when the alpine flowers are at their best. Maybe this year we will finally get there, but in the meantime we have been enjoying roaming about much nearer to home; in fact, none of the walks we have done over the last couple of weeks has been further than 20 kilometres from home. Much as we both love the challenge of a long, all-day hike with that wonderful freedom of being out and about and self-sufficient on two feet, there’s a lot to be said for shorter walks, too, especially ones that have allowed us to explore local places at our leisure.

Our first wander took us to the top of Pico Paradiella, a mountain that is literally a stone’s throw away; Roger has run up it from home but to my shame, after being here for almost four years, I had never walked up it. Isn’t that often the way? It was what Winnie the Pooh would almost certainly have described as a Very Blustery Day – the wind on the way up was the kind you can lean on – but it was well worth the buffeting for the spectacular views we enjoyed once at the top. The close proximity of the coast still surprises me at times, we spend so much time in the green fastness of our valley that I tend to forget the sea is just over the mountain, and there it was, all turquoise and white and sparkling in the sunshine. The coastal strip is far more populated than our inland area but seen from above there is something joyfully Asturian about the spread of those brightly coloured houses under their terracotta roofs.

Another day, another peak. This time, Pico La Espina, a mountain which is hugely familiar as it dominates our view down the valley from home; unless the cloud is down, we see it every time we go in and out of the house . . . but yet again, it was a mountain I’d never climbed. Time to put that to rights! At 793 metres above sea level, it offers a stunning 360 degrees panoramic view; to the north, the sea lay brooding under a thick bank of cloud, long white fingers of which were creeping steadily towards the coastline; to the south and east, much higher soaring peaks made dramatic, snow-clad statements against the bluest of skies. Geography was one of my very favourite subjects at school and I love an opportunity like this to study the landforms, the sweeps and dips and plains, the curve of rivers and sprawl of forests, the patterns of geology and settlement, climate and altitude that make and shape this unique landscape. Looking from above brings a different and sometimes startling perspective and it was fascinating for once to be looking from this mountain top to home – albeit still shrouded in morning shade apart from the tiniest corner of our meadow.

It never fails to amaze me how we can wind up and up, sometimes passing through the wildest of country to the highest of places, and still find farms, settlements and lush green fields of grazing cattle. Like the closeness of the sea, it is taking me a long time to accept that here height doesn’t necessarily mean bald mountain tops, bleak rocky outcrops or barren, windswept moorlands of tough grasses and even tougher sheep. There is a peace and gentleness to this place and, turning my face to the sun and listening to the exuberant melody of a spiralling lark, I was happy to wrap it around myself .

Of course, it’s not all beauty and wonder; forestry is a big industry here and an elevated position highlights the ugly scars and emptiness left in the wake of clear felling activity. Eucalyptus has been a boon tree for many countries tackling deforestation as it grows so quickly, but in Spain and Portugal it has been too successful, becoming an invasive species that seriously degrades the soil in which it grows. It seems pretty ubiquitous and yet from our lofty perch, as on other recent walks, we could see areas that have been given over to replanting with native species; in fact, there is a wealth of EU-funded programmes and projects devoted to the regeneration of native mixed woodland where the likes of oak, willow, birch, cherry and holly flourish above an understorey of gorse and Spanish heath. Over the next few decades, the Asturian landscape is set to change once again, I feel.

From Pico La Espina we wound our way down to Navelgas to pick up and follow a short stretch of the Ruta de Oro (Gold Route). This is an area where, like so many far-flung places, the Romans left an indelible mark on the landscape and society as they sought gold to fund their ever-expanding empire. The Astures, who had previously lived in small, self-sufficient communities behind the defensive walls of their fortified castros now had to pay tributes for the privilege of being occupied and provide labour for the gold mines as well as food, tools and other necessities. The gold, which they had traditionally collected by panning the river, became a focus of large-scale industry as the Romans introduced technology, including systems of vast canals, which allowed them to shift some two million cubic metres of soil and rock in order to mine two seams of gold. (This would seem like an almost unbelievable statistic if it weren’t for the fact that on our visit to the gold mines at Las Médulas near Ponferrada we saw how the Romans had washed an entire mountain away; nothing, it seems, got between them and the shiny ore they craved). This walk, though, was more about green than gold, winding its way as it does through a beautiful area of broadleaf woodland where birdsong resounded and echoed as if in some cavernous cathedral.

The soft haze of budburst, the carpets of shaggy mosses, the texture and form of gnarled and twisted trunks and the bright explosion of ferns made it feel quite magical. I know at least one small person who would have declared it the undisputed haunt of unicorns and goblins and in truth, the air of enchantment was palpable. I have never seen such an array or profusion of woodland ferns, from the glossy, graceful hart’s tongue to frondier types that grew taller than us; everywhere was green on green, like an incredible lush temperate jungle.

It’s no coincidence that a proliferation of chestnut trees is a feature of the local gold-mining areas; although it is believed the sweet chestnut was already a native here before the legions marched in, the Romans valued them highly and many ancient chestnut woodlands and orchards date back to that time. The trees yielded good timber for building and industry and the nuts provided a nutritious alternative food source to cereals. Chestnuts are without doubt a significant part of the Asturian landscape, culture and cuisine (there are 58,000 hectares of chestnut forest and orchard here) and it was interesting to find the remains of several traditional cuerrias in the woods. These were circular stores with stone walls up to one and a half metres – tall enough to thwart the best efforts of even the most gymnastically-minded wild boar – where chestnuts were stored whole and covered with woodland ferns; once matured, they could then be easily separated from their spiny covers.

There are beech trees, here, too, one of my favourites with their smooth grey trunks and long cigar-shaped buds bursting into the freshest and brightest of greens. They are a native species; indeed, we chose Spanish beech for the worktops and floor when we renovated our kitchen. What is unusual, however, is the way they have evolved to thrive here at altitudes above 300 metres. This is a relatively short walk but the further we went, the more there was to discover and ponder, including the arched entrance to a mine, now flooded with water, and various formations of land and rock that hinted at much ancient human activity. Now, though, nature has reclaimed the space in a way that has brought tranquility and a tremendous thriving biodiversity. Having recently read Isabella Tree’s Wilding, I found the wise words of Ted Green the tree expert reflected in the plethora of dead wood and stumps that have been left in situ, so essential for wildlife, the ecosystem and the planet.

We returned home via the Valle de Paredes, one of my favourite haunts on account of the incomparable beauty of the Esva river and its gorge. San Pedro de Paredes is a charming and friendly village, which according to tales from the Middle Ages was once part of the Camino de Santiago. The valley boasts evidence of much older civilisations, too, in the form of a dolmen and menhir, but it is perhaps the romanesque architecture and, in particular, the sweeping double-arched bridge in San Pedro that really capture the imagination; those Romans were a busy bunch for sure!

Our coastal walk from the village of Oviñana to the Cabo Vidio lighthouse and the Playa de Vallina provided a complete contrast to the mountains and woodlands we had visited, almost like a little tapas meal of Asturian delights. We are running in a 10k race here later in the month and I was interested to get a feel for the route and to explore a new stretch of coastline. The scenery, as ever, was stunning.

We wandered along the clifftop path where in places the drop below us was almost vertical. Here there is a treasure trove of fascinating wildlife, but perhaps some of the most interesting species are those we were unable to see. Out to sea, there is a system of submarine canyons dropping to 1200 metres and scientists have made some astonishing discoveries in these secret depths, including cold water coral reefs and turtles that have made the epic journey from South America. Most intriguing of all is the giant squid. Unlike its smaller cousins, it is not fished for as it is inedible due to the large amount of ammonia in its body – probably no bad thing since it grows to 14 metres long and weighs in at an incredible 250 kilos. What a creature!

Walking a kilometre or so down a winding, woodland path we emerged onto the Playa de Vallina and, as on so many of our other beach trips, we had the vast sweep of it to ourselves. Like the Ruta de Oro, here too there was evidence of human activity and industry from earlier times with a couple of old mills bearing testament to the power of the stream that disappears underground on reaching the beach.

The beach itself is quite unusual in being mostly composed of small stones rather than the sand we tend to find elsewhere but the rock formations with their tilted, tortured angles and deep splashes of mineral colour were very familiar.

What a wonderfully wild spot, with the surge and suck of the waves making the pebbles jump like peas on a drum and the plaintive cries of seabirds wheeling overhead. Not for the first time – and I am certain not for the last, either – I found myself experiencing a profound sense of gratitude for being able to enjoy this most beautiful of places. ¡Gracias, Asturias!

One of the things I love most about days out like this is the picnic and I’d like to sing out in support of this humble little meal. Picnics surely must be one of the simplest pleasures in life, a joyful celebration of food, nature and the great outdoors all rolled into one. I think it’s a shame to consign them to good weather only; like a barbecue, get your clothes and the food right and a picnic in the snow can be an amazing, life-affirming experience.

Redes Natural Park, the perfect spot for a picnic in the snow. A flask of piping hot squash and chilli soup really hit the spot. (I always carry a bin bag in my rucksack so there’s never a need for a wet backside wherever we stop to eat!)
Picnic places should always be interesting and a bit of shade is a bonus in the heat of summer.

There’s a lot to be said for a picnic breakfast, too! I also believe it’s well worth making a bit of effort over the food rather than defaulting to the ubiquitous sandwich, crisps and chocolate bar, for several reasons. First, there are far healthier, tastier and more interesting options. Second, knowing that your cool box, hamper, rucksack or whatever is full of delicious things to eat brings a wonderful sense of anticipation – especially important if you are hiking any distance first to earn it. Third, there is such a wealth of portable culinary possibilities to be explored and preparing tasty, wholesome food with love and attention, even in tiny quantities, is a lot of fun. Making full use of the freezer or drying and preserving our fresh produce means that even the most spontaneous of picnic decisions can be furnished with some yummy pre-prepared treats.

Dried slices of kiwi and shelled walnuts make perfect picnic treats from the garden.

Sam and Adrienne introduced us to the delights of spinach and goat’s cheese pasties on our rambles with them across the South Downs; they are fabulous finger food and we have enjoyed putting our own spin on that idea, using an Asturian sheep’s cheese and baby chard from the garden. Roger – who I swear has gone totally native – has taken to making bollos preñaos asturianos, hearty bread rolls with a lump of chorizo baked into the middle. I’m not a vegetarian but I do prefer my bread to be free of resident pig bits so for me, homemade hummus is the perfect picnic food. Hummus is the easiest thing on earth to make: for a basic recipe, simply take the vegetable of your choice and blitz it in a blender with a good dollop of tahini, garlic cloves, a glug of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Traditionally, of course, it’s based on chickpeas but really, let your imagination go wild with this one! We use white beans a lot because, unlike chickpeas, we grow them in the garden; I love carrot or beetroot, cooked or raw, whizzed up with coriander, cumin, walnuts and orange zest and juice, rather than lemon; peas and broad beans with mint, basil or dill make a sublime summer version. Mixes of leftover roast vegetables are fantastic. Honestly, if you can blitz it, you can hummus it! At this time of year, squash is on our to-use list every day; we still have a pile of them stored in the horreo and we know they won’t keep beyond May.

Just some of the squash we grew last year . . .

With the stove lit every evening, it’s no bother to throw together a tray of chopped squash (skin-on unless it’s a toughie), garlic cloves, chopped chillies (wowzer, my frozen Scotch bonnets from last year are really something else!) and whatever spices or herbs come to hand, then drizzle the lot in olive oil and roast until soft. This makes the perfect base for a soup – great in a thermos flask for picnics on cold days – but scraped into a blender and whizzed up into hummus, it is the stuff of dreams.

Homemade crispbreads, squash hummus and a lentil salad – perfect for lunch at home and equally good on the move.

All that’s missing now is a salad and what goes into that will depend very much on the season. If we are short of plentiful candidates from the garden, then something based on lentils or bulgar wheat makes a good, hearty base; otherwise, it’s a case of wandering about last-minute and picking a pot of fresh, tasty, colourful gorgeousness to complement the starchier elements. Salads hold up amazingly well on picnics; they even survive long walks in hot weather as long as they’re packed properly. Believe me, here is no excuse for soggy slices of cucumber and tomato. Ever. ¡Buen provecho! 🙂

This week’s salad from the garden: red mustard, red and green mizuna, shungiku, rocket (two types), landcress, komatsuna, pak choi, baby beetroot leaves, broccoli, peas, spring onions, mint, chives, coriander flowers and calendula petals. The only bought additions were olives and capers. Delicious eaten in the fresh sea air at Cabo Vidio!

Nature’s garden

Walking between Puerto de Vega and Playa de Frejulfe, we were treated to a breathtakingly sumptuous array of wild flowers.

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Blankets of pastel pink thrift and snowy sea campion drifted across the clifftops and stitched between them were skeins and spots of so many other plants, creating a rich embroidery where even the mundane shone to full effect. What a wonderful floral fabric of colour and scent, texture and form and all set against that stunning blue-drenched backdrop of sky and sea.

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This is coastal Asturias it its best; we might not have the scope for a sweeping flower garden at home but who needs one when we have such natural beauty on our doorstep? 🙂

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