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! 🙂

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 little taste of Luarca

Luarca: la Villa Blanca de la Costa Verde

Despite our resolve to stay at home for as much of August as we possibly can, there comes a point when even we have to admit it’s time to venture out to take care of business matters or stock up on food. In order to reduce journeys, we tend to leave things to mount up as long as possible then head off to Luarca, some 16 miles (26km) away, to get everything done at once. With a population of 4,800, Luarca is our nearest ‘proper’ town and the principal settlement in the municipality of Valdés . . . and we are seriously guilty of not giving it anywhere near enough attention. We go there to visit the bank or post office, do things at the town hall, have new tyres put on the car, whizz round the supermarket, see a doctor or dentist; it was there in the National Police station we were issued our residency permits and in the hospital we had medicals for our Spanish driving licences. We’ve been to the carnival and run in the annual 5K race – but when do we ever take the time to simply wander and wonder around those pretty streets?

It’s not that we aren’t interested; part of our problem is that we’ve never been town mice, so wilder, quieter spaces will always beckon first. When our car was due a service recently, we dropped it off at the garage and walked for several hours, not round the town but exploring the dramatically stunning coastline instead.

One of the places we visited was Playa de Portizuelo, a favourite haunt of Luarca’s most famous son, Severo Ochoa, who won a Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1959. Spending time on that beach, experiencing the raw wild beauty of it and marvelling at the wealth and diversity of life contained in the simplest of rock pools, inspired his lifelong passion for science. I can understand that sentiment completely.

So, back to civilisation and this week, with a trip to Luarca necessary once again, we decided to allow ourselves time to explore a few parts – and views – of the town we have never seen. There is something quite lovely about those clusters of buildings layered on the hillside above the harbour; for me, they always bring to mind a sumptuous sugar-crusted, many-tiered wedding cake. No wonder it is known as the Villa Blanca. It’s as pretty as a picture.

Starting the climb up the steep hill to the view point of El Chano, we were afforded another wonderful view, this time looking inland. The mountains make a gorgeous backdrop in dusky greens and blues, and if you look beyond that vivid magenta bougainvillea, you can see the viaduct carrying the railway across the valley. That north coast line follows a spectacular route, and riding a small section of it is something we would like to do one day.

Higher still and the panorama opened into a wide sweep . . .

. . . and a most incredible bird’s eye view of the town. The building on the right is the ayuntamiento (town hall), standing elegantly in the recently refurbished Plaza Alfonso X el Sabio, now resplendent in pink! Those eucalyptus trees on the left dwarf everything around them; they are unbelievably tall.

There is formal tree planting throughout the town but what struck us on this wander was the sheer amount of wilder places, spaces large and small that are left to nature and are abundant in native plants and wildlife. It’s a perfect balance. Look closely at the photo below and you will see an entire stretch of stone wall (and most of a lampost!) draped in the rich indigo trumpets of morning glory. Is it a weed? Not in my book, and I’d have it over a formal bed of salvias or begonias any day.

I’ve never been a huge fan of towns set out on grid systems, all straight lines, square corners and military precision so I love the way the roads and lines of buildings follow the sinuous, serpentine curves of the río Negro (Black River) as it winds its way to the sea. In full spate after torrential rains, it’s a terrifying sight hurtling through the town but in its summer colours, it’s almost languid. Nearly there, the sea is just around the next corner . . . there’s really no need to rush.

When we reached El Chano, the view in every direction was breathtaking. Far, far below us people were setting up for the day on the beach and testing the water, some quite tentatively, others just plunging straight in. The sea may have been a bit on the chilly side but it was beautifully clear, rippling gently like a gorgeous bolt of shot silk.

There are in fact two beaches here; they aren’t the most picturesque in the area but are hugely popular and serve the town well. The harbour walls help to keep that famed Asturian surf at bay and the bright beach huts wheeled out for the summer season bring a cheerful splash of colour to the neighbourhood.

Turning to our right, there was a good view of the promontory of La Atalaya, setting for one of the most famous and most visited cemeteries in Spain. There is nothing morbid about that; the cemetery, cut from the rock by pickaxe in the 1800s and overlooked by the charming Atalaya chapel, is a place of perfect peace and tranquility where the interplay of pure white stone against the vivid blues of sea and sky is quite dazzling.

Luarca is a friendly, welcoming sort of place; it strikes me as a town that’s totally at ease with itself, completely comfortable in its own skin. Naturally, it’s a popular holiday destination and at this time of year it buzzes with tourist activity, whilst being on the Camino, there are footsore pilgrims drifting through much of the time, sticks in hand and iconic scallop shells dangling from their backpacks. What I’ve always liked, though, is the feeling that this is a town that is there for its inhabitants, not a seasonal place but one which has a healthy buzz all year round. The port is decidedly pretty but it’s still a commercial, working one; the fishermen may no longer live in the historic cobbled Barrio de la Pescadería through which we wound our way down from El Chano, but they are still upholding the proud seafaring tradition on which the town was built. The streets are packed with thriving independent businesses, their colour and quirkiness a refreshing change from the predictable monotony of chain stores, and the weekly outdoor market is a hive of activity.

Having walked back almost to our starting point, we crossed the river using the Kissing Bridge. You’d have thought there was a lovely story to accompany a name like that, but sadly it’s quite the opposite. Legend has it that a local lord, catching his daughter in the act of absconding with her pirate lover, decapitated the unfortunate pair on the spot; the bridge was built to remember the place where their final tragic kiss was exchanged. Happily, today it is a much-used crossing, a pretty setting for holiday snaps and a good place to watch the shoals of silvery fish busy in the shallows below.

A quick wander around the harbour brought our little excursion to an end; the nutty smell of freshly-ground coffee drifting out from beneath the café awnings was a tantalising temptation to linger a while longer but we still had several errands to attend to. What I know for certain is that we will go back: there is still so much to discover in this gem of a town . . . and who knows, maybe we’ll even stay for coffee next time? 🙂

Summer’s end

Summer ends, and Autumn comes, and he who would have it otherwise would have high tide always and a full moon every night.’ Hals Borland

They say that change is the only constant in life and goodness me, have we been dealing with it over the last couple of days! I love the circle of the year, the way seasons slide from one to another bringing all their associated joy and beauty (and chaos and woe at times, too) but I do prefer the change to be gradual, to give me time to adjust gently.

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We are so lucky here that summer stretches lazily away into the autumn months. Was it only last weekend we were paddling in the sea off Portugal? Was it only two evenings ago we were sitting outside in the evening sunshine in shorts and sandals, enjoying the light and warmth so much we didn’t want to go inside and make dinner? What a transformation, then, to wake to something so different yesterday: the valley hung with sullen clouds and threaded with mist, the garden soaked in rain.

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There was the true smell of autumn in the air – that heady, spicy, leafy scent – and a crisp freshness to the air that had me pulling on long-redundant layers. I love sunshine, the light and warmth and colour it bestows on everything, the comfort it brings to life, but I have to admit there is something special about the garden after rain. Everything looks different in a changed light, there is a new slant to the old and familiar – leaves hung with diamond raindrops and petals washed to translucence.

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The landscape, too, changes its coat as it shrugs off those bright blues and greens for something more muted. I have to confess, there is a certain delight in seeing smoke curling from the chimney once again and catching the sweet scent of wood smoke on the rain-spangled air.

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Nature it seemed had only just started with us, though: cue a night of thunderstorms and violent hail showers that left the garden looking ragged and the mountaintops white over in the sluggish morning light. From summer to winter in one fell swoop? It certainly felt that way!

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Still, life is not all summer and nature and the season are simply reminding us there is a balance in all things. It would be easy to feel a shiver of melancholy blowing with the chilly wind but this change brings good things into our lives, too. There is a shift in our daily tasks, the most obvious one being keeping the log bucket filled. Our woodstove (aka The Beast) is back in business and it has a pretty hearty appetite; this is what all those days spent hauling, chopping and stacking logs have been in aid of. We have to switch our cooking activities to the other end of the room as here are hob and oven ready primed for action; the kettle sings away merrily, giving us a plentiful supply of hot water for drinks and washing up. It’s a strange thing, but our fuel bills drop drastically in the cooler months! What lovelier way to pass a miserably wet afternoon than making peach marmalade with our very last bag of frozen fruit, the sweet, citrussy smell of summer remembered wafting through the house on a wave of toasty warmth?

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Actually, this first dose of cabin fever sent Roger into a wonderful kitchen overdrive. Just to add to the tantalising smell of peaches and lemons, two gorgeously crusty sourdough loaves emerged from the oven. We were given a sourdough starter in July by Sam and Adrienne; it is fondly know as The Yeasty Beastie and lives happily in the fridge until feeding time ahead of a baking session. We honestly couldn’t imagine making bread any other way now. On a serious cooking roll, Chef then set himself the challenge of doing something with figs. What to do with a glut of fresh figs has become a bit of an annual conundrum for us; I love them straight from the tree or with yogurt and walnuts for breakfast or chopped into a salad of bitter leaves. Fig recipes don’t tend to be very inspiring and often exude a sense of desperation. What do you do with them? (I appreciate we could dry them but I have to confess that dried figs are one of those foods I really don’t like, there’s something about the seeds that literally puts my teeth on edge.) Well, how about a dark chocolate torte with figs poached in Calvados? Mmm, now you’re talking! Gosh, we hardly ever have puddings but this one was to die for.

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More comfort food required: steak and kidney casserole (boosted with borlotti beans), creamy mash, spiced roasted squash and cheesy leeks. Oh my word. There’s another change, though; when was the last time fetching veg from the garden required wellies and a garden fork to rummage about in the mud? Well worth it, I’d say.

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It was a bit of a shock to be back in long trousers and socks . . . but a timely reminder that I have a pair of socks to finish knitting and there should be time to get the second one done before we leave if I get my skates on.

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Something I have finished, though, is my chunky woolly stuff bag and I’m so thrilled with it. It was just the right thing to curl up with and potter away at in front of the stove while the rain battered against the windows. I have loved every minute of this project, it has been a dream working with chunky yarn and I’m delighted with the zippy cheerfulness of those colour stripes.

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Even better, there is enough yarn left for another bag project; I’ve wound it into balls and they’re already snuggled in there, packed for the journey along with some sock yarn. My new mittens are in there, too, and there’s room for a hat, a book, my specs . . . everything I will need on the boat and more. Forget the Bag of Doom: here’s to the Bag of Room.

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It will be a long time now before I write another post; we have many thousands of miles to travel in failing light and dubious weather, and much work to be do in the coming weeks. There will be the pleasure of catching up with friends and family, too, and enjoying good food and happy moments together. In the meantime, autumn will walk on here in our absence and things will have changed once again by the time we return . . . but that’s what makes life interesting, isn’t it? 🙂

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Wandering and wondering

We go shopping as infrequently as possible; it’s not something either of us ever particularly enjoys but at this time of year I come to detest it as the inexorable Christmas bombardment greets us at the shop door. What is that all about? Christmas is two months away . . . are we the only people left in modern society who are actually still enjoying October? Are we unusual in not wanting to spend at least a sixth of the year focusing on one day in December? Walking into a DIY shop out of bright, warm, Spanish sunshine to be greeted by a forest of plastic Christmas trees, snowflakes and illuminated glitter-sprinkled nativity scenes was just downright weird; who wants to look at Father Christmas wrapped up in all his red, beardy finery when we are still in shorts and sandals? One of the loveliest things about our simple life is the fact that we can practise true mindfulness in the sense of enjoying all the small, special things that are happening in the present rather than waiting for the present (at Christmas or whenever). When Roger went out one evening this week to shut the sheds as it went dark, he came back with a handful of rosebuds he had picked for me; small loving gestures like that – little surprises that are totally unexpected – are more precious to me than anything he could buy and wrap and stick under a tree.

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So, how lovely to escape the Christmas consumerist madness and retreat to our little haven in the mountains once again. There has been so much to celebrate this week, not least the continued gorgeous weather that keeps us wrapped in sunshine and toasty warmth. We have been harvesting figs from both trees – one with white-fleshed fruits, the other pink – in an attempt to beat the blackbirds and blackcaps to them. They are so delicious, sweet and succulent and I love them best of all sun-warmed straight from the tree.

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Although the walnut harvest didn’t look too promising, we’ve been nicely surprised by the amount we have collected so far and there are still plenty left in their green cases on the trees; no problems with the birds there, it’s the wild boar we have to keep at bay!

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Look closely at this walnut tree and you can see there’s rather more than nuts to be picked. Yes, that is a Russian Pink Fairy squash climbing through the branches! I lifted the parent plant a few weeks ago but the stem had sent down roots in several places and this one has just kept on growing and has produced a couple of extra fruits. Madness!

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Having nurtured our little lemon tree through far too many winter storms, how exciting to find a single baby fruit on it. There is another flush of blossom, too, and still plenty of pollinators around to do the business so maybe there will be more fruits to come. In the meantime, I am keeping my eye on this brave little beauty. Picking our own lemons . . . now that’s a rather special treat to look forward to. 🙂

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I know I have said it many times, but wandering around the garden picking bits and pieces for our dinner always brings me a huge amount of pleasure and I feel enormously grateful that we can enjoy such a wealth of fresh, wholesome food every day. Although things like cucumbers and French beans are over, we are still harvesting huge amounts of peppers both outdoors and in the polytunnel, along with aubergines, Florence fennel, carrots, chard, courgettes, several types of kale, cabbage and lettuce. We treated ourselves to the first parsnip and leek this week, we don’t have a big crop of either but they are huge so we can stretch them a long way and they were truly delicious.

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The tunnel will really come into its own now, taking us through the winter with a good variety of salad leaves including red and green mizuna, mustard, rocket, wild rocket and coriander. Oh, the sheer joy of picking the freshest, greenest, zingiest salad bowl of baby leaves this week!

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As spaces open up in the garden, I have been turning the soil to clear it of weeds, preparing to spread a good mulch of manure as an autumn feed. It’s such hard work on the slopes, every forkful has to be thrown uphill to stop it all rolling down the mountainside and where the ground is slippery I tend to do a strange backwards moonwalk in my wellies! It hasn’t been helped by the fact that the moles have had a field day along the bottom of the garden (their furtive tunnelling conveniently hidden in the squash jungle) so the path is falling away; a terrace wall along there is definitely on the to-do list for next year. Little velvet-coated annoyances aside, I love turning the soil like this; it is dark and deep and there is something wonderful about that rich, earthy smell. A good rest over winter to let the worms and weather do their work then all will be set for seedtime once again.

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Autumn is very slow to arrive here, it tiptoes in so quietly and gently that we barely notice it is here. There has been a subtle shift in the light and colours playing across the landscape this week, some gentle hints of golds and browns although everything is still predominantly green.

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The fungi have popped up overnight like – well – mushrooms, marching across the meadow in perfect formation.

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I found theses in the wood; no idea what type they are but they reminded me of drop spindles!

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Between the fungi, there is a wide and wild sweep of autumn crocus with their delicate mauve petals and saffron centres. So beautiful.

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I wandered through the woods to my Contemplation Stool and my favourite leafy glade bathed in golden afternoon sunlight. There weren’t as many signs of autumn as I’d imagined although the chestnut and birch trees caught against the blue sky were doing their bit. I sat for a few moments listening to the birds and reflected on how far from all that plastic Christmas madness the moment was.

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I love this little patch of paradise and the fact that we are both so content to spend most of our time here; it’s nothing for the car to stay parked for a fortnight or more without going anywhere. That said, we enjoy travelling and visiting new places and the mind-broadening stimulation and enrichment that can bring. Now the house renovation is almost done, we have more time to look outwards so a charity race in Vigo last weekend gave us the perfect excuse to pack our running shoes and head off to somewhere different. We travelled down through Galicia into a landscape very different to this one; instead of mountains there were gently rolling hills with large arable farms set amongst great swathes of forest, reminding me very much of parts of France (although the palm trees were a bit of  giveaway!). We stopped at Santiago de Compostela, the final destination for the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who follow the network of Jacobean routes across France, Spain and Portugal every year. We live close to the Camino del Norte and were interested to see where the footsore pilgrims we see walking throughout the summer end up. As well as a magnificent cathedral, the city is also home to one of the oldest universities in Europe and many of the historic campus buildings are very beautiful. We wandered through the ancient streets and enjoyed the quiet courtyards full of flowers.

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Every other building seemed to be a hostel or restaurant and little wonder – if I had walked all those miles then food, drink and sleep would definitely be top of my list! We passed through an archway where a busker was squeezing a jaunty tune out of traditional bagpipes and emerged into the sunlit Praza do Obradoiro in front of the cathedral. It is certainly a spectacular building but it was the pilgrims who caught my eye and attention: people from all over the world drawn to this place that to them is so very special. There were groups laughing and chatting, already sharing stories and memories; couples and individuals wandered around the square drinking in the sights and sounds or simply sat in quiet contemplation; others lay with heads cushioned on their backpacks, faces turned to the sun. Someone played a guitar. I watched a group of ladies well into their seventies clinging to one another as they took the final steps into the square, melting into tears and laughter. How far had they walked to get there, I wondered? What obstacles had they overcome, what memories would they treasure? There is a lively buzz to Santiago but in that square I felt so much more, a powerful wave of human emotions – joy, exhilaration, exhaustion, achievement, wonder, relief, completeness. Every one of those people had set themselves a huge personal challenge and I suspected that the journey had changed them in a profound way. I don’t share the pilgrims’ faith and I have no desire to follow the Camino myself but I felt very touched by being a part of their journey’s end: I salute every single one of them.

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From Santiago we headed south to Vigo. To be fair to the place, our hotel was at the not-so-pretty end (close to the race start) and we didn’t see the historic bits so I don’t want to sound too negative but honestly, the traffic was beyond crazy. Roger decided it was the worst place he had ever driven through in his life (which is saying something) and he ended up using satnav for the first time ever (which is really saying something). Our hotel was comfy and the food was great but we are not naturally city people and were happy to head out of the chaos and explore further afield. We followed our noses down the coast road south with no precise plan. I love wandering about like that, just doing our own thing off the beaten track; we have always found the prettiest and best of places more by accident than design.

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We turned inland and wound our way through miles of vineyards, the vines clambering high over supports and starting to flaunt their autumn fire. A bridge carried us across the Minho river and into Portugal, where we decided to carry on down the coast. Well, why not?  We loved the pretty cobbled seaside town of Caminha where the wild Atlantic waves crashed against rocks that looked like the remnants of an ancient lava flow.

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We wandered barefoot along a wide expanse of beach, the silver sand sparkling with silica stars. Everything was so blue, it was truly beautiful and delightfully hot!

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Onwards to Viana do Castelo where we climbed up to the Santuário de Santa Luzia, an iconic mountaintop church, to enjoy the spectacular views down to the city and the coast beyond. We even ended up being part of a wedding celebration there which brought an added and unexpected moment to our day!

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On Sunday morning we both ran in the Vigo Contra el Cáncer race and what an event it was with the best part of 5 000 people taking part in a 10k run and 5k walk / run. The streets were turned into a tidal wave of pink as people from all walks of life turned out to support the local charity. Like Santiago, the atmosphere tingled with emotion, many walkers and runners sporting photos of loved ones on their t-shirts. I have run in a couple of Race For Life events but this was on a totally different scale and it felt good to be part of such an incredible thing and to give something back to this lovely country that has made us so welcome.

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Home once more and now we have turned our thoughts to our next journey, the long trek north through France to the UK next week. Oh my goodness, I think we are going to find it a little chilly and it does feel strange digging out long trousers and warm jumpers while I’m still pootling about in shorts and sockless crocs! On the bright side, I might just get to try out my new mittens, all finished and ready to go. I so enjoyed this little project, creating something from nothing; now I’m pondering the other skein of purple Merino waiting in the wings – some snuggly slipper socks, perhaps?

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I’m still very much in creative energy mode so I’ve decided to capitalise by launching into something I’ve been thinking about making for several years: a designated bag for carrying my woolly projects when we go a-travelling. At home, I keep everything close to hand in a couple of wicker baskets but they aren’t practical for packing or lugging about on a plane or ferry. I usually end up stuffing a bit of sock knitting into the top of  a rucksack or – heaven forbid – my (hand)Bag of Doom, which is far from perfect. I’ve tumbled vague ideas around my mind about spinning a heap of chunky yarn, dyeing it in a range of colours then knitting a tapestry-style tote bag . . . but it hasn’t happened; hardly surprising when you consider it has taken me over six months to spin 100g of fleece this year. (It’s finished and skeined but hasn’t made it to the dyepot yet; can’t rush these things.) In fact I could probably walk every route of the Camino in the time it would take to accomplish. So, at the risk of taking an easy way out, I’ve bought commercial yarn and opted for crochet instead.

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Not surprisingly, Attic 24 gave me the exact starting point I was looking for with Lucy’s Jolly Chunky Bag It’s possible to buy a kit but I wasn’t over fussed on the colour combinations (I used ‘Lipstick’ and ‘Fondant’ last year and I’m not a fan) so chose a different palette of colours for the yarn and buttons that are far more ‘me.’ I’ve decided to make the bag bigger than the stated pattern, hopefully roomy enough to cart blanket projects round in and I’ve also bought a couple of magnetic clasps as I think being able to close the bag is a good idea. This is the first time I’ve used chunky yarn in a crochet project and it whizzes up like a dream; in no time at all, the circular base was done . . .

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. . . and as I work round and round the sides, it’s starting to look more like a bag every minute. I am enjoying this activity so much, it’s the perfect simple, therapeutic wool messing for enjoying outside in the evening sunshine and with any luck will be finished in time to stuff with travel projects next week. Well, if I’m going to be a bag lady I might as well do it in style! 🙂

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