Spotlight on Ponga #2

Having recovered from our Grand Adventure on the Tiatordos walk, we decided the only thing for it was to go back to Ponga for more, opting to start with the somewhat gentler Ruta de Arcenorio. For us, this turned out to be weirdly civilised: it was signposted from several kilometres away, started from a large and organised car park (completely free of charge as they all are here) and the entire trail was a wide, gravelled forestry track. Now that might sound a bit tame following some of our recent jaunts but sometimes it’s good to do things the easy way for a change!

The walk goes through the Bosque de Peloño which is a Partial Nature Reserve and at the start, it’s possible to see a conservation project in action where the landscape is being regenerated to help protect the endangered orugallo or Cantabrian capercaillie. From there, the path winds through several meadows full of wild flowers and scattered stone buildings; those curved terracotta roof tiles are a feature of eastern Asturias and were traditionally shaped by folding clay around a thigh.

A short distance further and we entered the forest. Some 37% of Ponga is covered in mature native woodland and the extensive Bosque de Peloño is a stunning example which is of huge ecological importance. It’s a good job the path was kind under foot because I spent the next few hours with my eyes lifted to the canopy, revelling in the astonishing variety and proliferation of species.

Oak, ash, birch, cherry, elder, alder, rowan, maple, holly, willow, hazel, walnut and more in a rich carnival of growth and verdancy . . . but the undisputed king of this greenwood was the beech. There were thousands upon thousands of them, many growing ramrod straight from the steep mountainside to seemingly impossible heights, others more sprawling, their thick knotted trunks and contorted branches plush with dark mosses and dripping silvery lichen.

Together with birch, beech is my absolute favourite tree, so lovely in all seasons. I could imagine what a joyful walk this must be in spring when the tightly-rolled cigar buds unfurl into silken bursts of the freshest green or in the fire of autumn through burnished coppery leaf fall and spiky mast crunching beneath my boots. Now the trees were in their full summer glory of green, branches swept skywards so that even in the most crowded of places, the fretted canopy was rippled and stippled with puddles of sunlight. They offered us other visual delights, too.

It felt a complete privilege to be walking through such a huge and vibrant broadleaf forest, especially considering we were over 1200 metres above sea level ~ somewhere roughly between the summits of Snowdon and Ben Nevis. What a difference latitude makes to the botanical world! Actually, deep in the trees it was easy to forget exactly where we were until spaces opened out and the mountains reasserted themselves in the view.

Magnificent though the beech trees were, they weren’t to have the last word in all things arboreal. Several kilometres into our walk, we peeled off the track to follow a path down to the Roblón de Bustiellos and, discovering a wealth of convenient beech logs to sit on in the clearing, we decided this was the perfect spot for our picnic lunch. The Roblón de Bustiellos is a single sessile oak tree growing in the middle of a beech grove, towering high above its companions and commanding complete attention. At its base, the girth measures eight metres in circumference and it stands 27 metres high ~ that’s sixteen of me! There was no chance of capturing the entire tree in a photo.

There is something very precious and humbling about spending time in the presence of a tree like this, so ancient and venerable. What stories it could tell!

Leaving the clearing somewhat reluctantly, we climbed back to the path and continued on our way. Although much of our walk was through trees, in places the landscape opened out to sweeping meadows full of contented cows. Well, how could they not be with a view like that to enjoy?

The walk in its entirety was 24 kilometres long but we opted to shorten it to sixteen as we were staying in Ponga that night and planning a more arduous hike the following day somewhere in the mountains rising out of that blue haze. Ah, but that’s another story and another walk . . .

. . . and one that starts back in the village of Taranes, the Ruta Valle de Muro. Taranes is a pretty village boasting a wealth of ancient houses and horreos, perched precipitously on a mountainside and completely surrounded by forest. It was the ideal place for an overnight stop which allowed us to set off on our walk reasonably early in the morning (as an aside, one of the cultural differences we’ve never quite got the hang of is the late, late breakfasts in Spain!).

It was a beautiful morning and, given how quickly the cloud cover was dissolving and the fact that we weren’t expecting to be grubbing about in undergrowth, we decided it was definitely a day for shorts.

Knowing that this was going to be a steep one, I also opted to take my stick which in the end turned out to be the wrong decision. We had expected the concrete track to peter out pretty quickly into an uneven rocky path but unbelievably, the concrete continued for miles and miles and miles. The amount of time, effort and money it must have taken to build, as well as the sheer logistics, beggar belief. Still, it did make things a bit easier for us underfoot but left me encumbered with a redundant stick!

Now, we live up a very steep concrete track but honestly, this one made ours look like child’s play. I won’t go quite as far as calling it a vertical ascent but the truth is, it felt that way as we wound round tight hairpins, climbing ever upwards. I was very glad of the shade beneath the trees at this point as the temperature was climbing much faster than I was. Note I’d already stopped (any excuse for a breather) to tie my hair up off the back of my neck. Phew, this was going to be a warm one.

Finally, after what seemed like an interminable climb, the path levelled out and the landscape opened dramatically into wide sweeping vistas of the mountains.

Although much of our path was now in open country, the extent of the forests in this area was clear to see, great swathes of mature woodland blanketing the mountains right to their peaks. It was totally stunning.

It’s written into our family lore that if there is a rock, summit, peak, overhang, crumbling cliff edge or other dubious geological feature to hand, then Roger has to stand on it. This one was a very mild event (even I could have climbed it) but what struck me looking at the photos afterwards are the contrails . . . it seems there’s a lot of the ‘old’ creeping into the so-called new normal.

The benefit of less demanding stretches of walking is that it gives us time to really appreciate our surroundings; on tough hikes, I sometimes find my eyes having to spend too much time focusing on where I’m putting my feet rather than the enjoying the beauty around me. The scenery was completely amazing, but there were smaller things to be admired, too.

One of the (many) problems we’d encountered on our nine-hour trek a couple of weeks earlier was that the two springs marked on the map as places to refill our water bottles had run completely dry; luckily, we had carried plenty of water with us but even so, it meant having to eke out the last drops carefully. No such dramas here, the spring was flowing with blissfully cold, sweet water so it was the perfect spot to top up and grab a quick rest, too.

In fact, we decided this would be a good place to turn round and head back down the mountain, not wanting to do the whole 24 kilometres of the official trail. Given this is a well-marked and popular walk, we only met four other people, all when we were on our way back down. Mind you, there were plenty of others on the path going about their important business.

Time to leave them in peace and turn our faces homeward. What a truly incredible time we have had exploring this most beautiful corner of Asturias. ¡Gracias, Ponga! 🙂

Spotlight on Ponga #1

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.

John Muir

A third of the Asturian landscape has protection status of one kind or another and the province has the most Biosphere Reserves in Spain: seven. I totally understand why well-known areas such as The Picos de Europa National Park and the Somiedo Natural Park are such people magnets, both for locals and visitors as they are completely stunning and special places. However, I’ve always had a soft spot for Ponga Natural Park because it is very beautiful, very wild and very, very quiet and the chance to spend some time there exploring new corners and walking routes as part of our summer ‘staycation’ was one definitely not to be missed.

Covering an area of 255 km2 and rising to a maximum elevation of 2,142 metres, Ponga offers a wealth of fabulous possibilities when it comes to walking. Our first adventure started at the mountain village of Taranes from which we decided to follow the circular route of Foz de la Escalada-Tiatordos; this was in fact something like Plan D that day ~ certainly not what we’d been expecting to do when we left home ~ but at roughly 20k / 12 miles with a climb of 1000-1300m / 3300 – 4300ft it looked like our kind of challenge. We set off up the cobbled path, so typical of many we have walked in Asturias; whether an ancient route between villages, a drovers’ road or medieval pilgrims’ way, the work that went into constructing them in such difficult places never fails to amaze me.

We hadn’t gone very far before I decided to trot back to the car and fetch my stick. I usually prefer to walk without it but when a local council here feels the need to post a warning that you are embarking up a ruta muy peligrosa (very dangerous path) then you can be confident we are talking extremes and for me, that means my trusty walking stick is essential. An old lady sitting on a bench and cracking walnuts with a stone in the shade of a huge ash tree nodded her approval when she saw what I was back at the car for, telling me it would give me ‘great strength.’ Mmm, she had probably already skipped round the entire walk like a spring lamb that morning. I kid you not; the Asturian mayores are something else! So, stick retrieved, we started to climb the path, quickly leaving the village far below.

The path rose steeply up through a spectacular gorge; it was warm work and I was very grateful for the cloud cover as we wound our way forever upwards. Mighty rock formations towered above us, the river splashed and crashed over boulders and down waterfalls, there was an abundance of green at every turn and the wildflowers were breathtaking. What a magical place!

We paused to share a flask of coffee and drink in the natural beauty around us, watched over by a pair of choughs who bounced their rubbery croaks at us from a great height. Continuing to the top of the gorge, the path turned into a vast swathe of broadleaf forest, still constantly climbing but now through a tunnel of green.

Any hopes of the path becoming easier in this stretch were completely dashed as we found we had exchanged slippery cobbles for gullies of mud where trying to find a foothold was almost impossible in places. I have to admit that my progress was also severely hampered by the fact that I was so enchanted by my surroundings, I kept taking my eye off the path.

After much mud-surfing (and a little yoga) we eventually emerged from the trees into a sunlit meadow, so high now that we were above the clouds. My goodness, it was breathtaking!

The wild iris were incredible, growing in carpets of the most gorgeous shade of blue. Surrounded by the sound of bees and birdsong, we decided this was the perfect spot for our picnic lunch; quite honestly, we could have sat there all day.

The next section of our walk was without doubt the easiest, following a well-defined path through meadows, still climbing but at a far gentler pace now. The landscape was alight with the bright yellow of Spanish broom, underplanted with iris and mountain thyme and the air was full of butterflies.

We came to the ruins of an abandoned village, the sort of place that always make me feel slightly wistful. Most probably, it had been a summer lodging for the vaqueros who drove their cattle up to the higher pastures to graze; the cows are still there but all that is left of the humans are their tumbledown buildings and the whisper of a way of life that has long since gone from that place.

Nature, as it does, had filled the vacuum with sprays of delicate wild roses growing out of the ruins.

Onward, and upwards more steeply again as we climbed towards the highest point of our walk. Note that at this point I was still smiling . . . it’s important to remember that later.

At the top of the pass, we decided it was time to sit for a while again and enjoy the views; well, it would have been rude not to ~ they were simply stunning. We exchanged greetings with a Spanish couple who were walking in the opposite direction; they were the only other human beings we saw on the entire walk. When I said Ponga is quiet, I wasn’t joking.

Every map we have seen of this walk since doing it has shown it as an out-and-back, stopping at this point or taking a while longer to climb right to the summit before following the same path back down to the start.

If only we’d had a crystal ball, then that is exactly what we would have chosen to do because even scrambling up that rocky peak and slithering back down the forest mud gullies would have been a stroll in the park compared to what was to come . . .

I should say that up until now, the route had been fairly well marked with occasional wooden fingerposts and regular enough way markers ~ two horizontal paint lines, one white, one yellow, usually daubed on rocks ~ to keep us on the right track. The problem from this point was that those all but disappeared: we literally lost the path and much of our descent over the next few hours became pure guesswork.

We found ourselves following what we hoped was the right path, only to have to backtrack many times. It was impossible to tell whether we were on the right path or some random cow trail; a few faint footprints amongst the hoofmarks in the dust suggested we were right but in truth, it was others who had been forging their own path, too. In places we had to push through undergrowth in the absence of anything even remotely looking like a path; although by this point I was feeling the heat, I was glad I’d opted to wear my super lightweight summer walking trews rather than shorts.

Eventually, we found a waymarker and hoped we’d picked up the right trail again but trying to find the subsequent ones was like following a will-o’-the -wisp. Once again, we had to retrace our steps and try to find some sort of clue. Luckily, we both have a good sense of direction and knew we had to keep bearing left to get back to our starting point; there are so few roads in Ponga that taking the wrong path down could easily mean ending up many, many miles from the car which wasn’t an idea that really appealed. I was starting to feel slightly disconcerted by the vultures wheeling overhead as if they sensed the possibility of dinner!

I have to admit that I was also starting to feel tired and more than a bit fed up, my sense of humour waning rapidly, so I knew it was time to have a word with myself. This is where those core values are so important! What right did I have to be grumbling when I was so privileged to be out having this incredible adventure in such a wild and beautiful place? Time to ditch the Muttley mutterings and start feeling a sense of gratitude, vitality and wonder once again. Come on, keep going . . . and please smile!

Slowly ~ very slowly ~ we wound our way in more or less the right direction, constantly on the lookout for another marker. The scenery was as beautiful as ever but the shadows were growing longer and we still had miles and miles to go.

When we reached a clearly marked (yippee!) path leading down through woodland, we hoped that from then on things would get better but in fact, the worst was yet to come. Eventually emerging from the shady canopy, we found ourselves high up on the flank of a steep-sided mountain; the path across it was the faintest of lines completely overgrown with vegetation which in places, was higher than my head. Underfoot, it was alarmingly uneven with prutruding rocks here and drops into muddy bogs there, criss-crossed with thick fibrous gorse roots and totally hidden under all that green growth. I literally moved along it one step at a time, constantly feeling in front with my stick to get an idea what was coming ~ like punting without the boat. I lost count of the times I stumbled to my left into gorse bushes but it was preferable to stumbling to my right and falling down the mountainside!

Our progress had now dropped to snail’s pace and there was a collective sinking of hearts as several times we reached what had seemed like the end only to find yet another long stretch ahead of us. I’m not sure it helped that we could now see the village of Taranes again; there was still so obviously a long, long way to go.

In Roger, I have the best of walking companions. He is strong, athletic and sure-footed and rarely fazed by anything. He steps in to help me when he knows I’m struggling (at this point he insisted on carrying my rucksack for a while, walking ahead of me and trying to forge some sort of path through the tick-infested undergrowth), otherwise he lets me get on with things without fussing over me. He stays positive and optimistic long after I’ve lost the will to be either. In short, he makes me braver than I really am and there is no way I would have managed this walk without him. I was so glad he was there!

The rest of the walk is something of a blur. I know we scrambled down an impossibly steep gully to a meadow where a herd of horses was grazing and still had two hours of walking to go. We picked up a track which was blisfully grassy and reasonably flat for a while before deteriorating into a steep and slippery stream bed that made for a difficult downhill of several kilometres. By this stage, for the first time since running a half-marathon nearly three years ago, I was so tired that I was literally having to tell my feet what to do. Thankfully, there were still some beautiful distractions to enjoy.

Now at least we were seeing fairly regular markers along the way but none at the numerous junctions we came to so we just had to make an educated guess each time as to which fork was the right one. I could have turned several cartwheels when we finally met the road back up to Taranes (another climb of two kilometres to the car, but hey, who cares?) except that I was just too pooped to even think about it. The entire walk had taken us almost nine hours and has to be one of the most physically demanding I’ve ever done. Of course, the old lady was no longer sitting on the bench by our car which was a shame because I would have loved to have told her how right she’d been about my stick. As we wearily peeled off our mud-encrusted boots and topped up on food and water before the two-hour drive home, the setting sun silvered the mountains in a majestic light and we smiled to think we’d climbed all the way up there. Tired? Exhausted (bitten, scratched and blistered, too)! Happy? Ecstatic! Going back to Ponga? You bet! 🙂