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!