Rolling through the hills of Asturias is like a magical mystery tour – taking you way back into the past as if the 20th century never happened, let alone the 21st. It’s not all like that of course, but up in the mountains, the Picos de Europa, it seems `modern life` passed them by completely.
Above is the stunning Lago Eñol, about 1000m above sea-level up a tortuous, winding road from a tiny little town called Cangas de Onis. The latter is all about hiking and canoeing, as well as a highly symbolic `Roman` bridge (in fact not Roman at all, but certainly picturesque).
The suspended cross on the bridge is a sign of high Catholicism in this area, because just up the hill is the symbolic Covadonga where, allegedly, the first victory over the invading Moors took place, in AD722. Today the spot is marked by a neo-Gothic church and a monumental statue of the Asturian hero-warrior, Pelayo, whose sarcophagus is in a neighbouring cave – the Santa Cueva. Coaches laden with pilgrims line up for the rounds of these sights – not the most thrilling in Asturias if you’re not Catholic or a nationalist!
Asturians are big cider-drinkers, certainly the most enthusiastic consumers in Spain and one small coastal town, Gijon, can actually claim 300 cider-bars. Take your pick. There is a fine local technique too of pouring the tipple from a height, so bringing fizz and oxygen to your glass which should be downed in one gulp. The cider seems to go perfectly with the rustic interiors of wood, barrels, beams and stone – so typical of northern Spain.
But in Cangas, above all they have a dazzling choice of 40 types of cheeses, from the intensive blue Cabrales (a more pungent, sharper version of Roquefort or Stilton sometimes matured in caves) to Gamoneu, a crumbly mix of sheep and cow`s milk made high in the mountains. There are plenty of others —- and a lot of shops let you taste beforehand, perfect for the picky punter. Read more about them in cheesy my article for the Financial Times magazine, How to Spend It.
The cows lead a contented existence, spending blissful summers in verdant high pastures before trundling slowly down the mountain to shelter from the bitter winters in the valleys. Heidi and the edelweiss-studded slopes of the Alps are not alone.
Elsewhere, idyllic Asturian valleys like this one, Os Teixois, sometimes conceal something special – in this case an ancient water-mill which ingeniously uses hydro-energy for grinding. Not just that, it`s picture postcard pretty – and they chill their cider in the stream.
But I think it`s the cows I envy most. What a spot, perfect for an unperturbed existence, only their clonking bells and a few carloads of visitors to interrupt the peace, and a bit of Cabrales on the horizon.