I’ve heard it said that we live a life of permanent holiday and I suppose I can see how folks might think that. Freed from the shackles of paid employment, our time is our own and that is a very wonderful thing; I certainly don’t miss the tyranny of an early morning alarm dragging me from my dreams and booting me out into the inevitable clockwork routine of a working day. There is something very lovely about having time to enjoy all that is good around us.
That said, we work hard: we have spent nearly two years renovating a hovel into a home and, apart from the new roof, we have done all the work ourselves. The garden, too, has been a challenge, the topography of the land alone making it difficult – not to mention dealing with the mess that was left behind. It’s all the sort of work we enjoy but the problem is, we don’t stop: we just keep going, day after day, and forget to have a weekend. Our farmer friend Jairo says for him it’s always Monday, never Saturday, and we’re beginning to understand that sentiment. Time for a holiday!
The Iberian Peninsula offers such a wide and rich diversity of landscape and culture that’s it’s a job to know where to start exploring first. We opted for the city of Ponferrada in the province of León, roughly a four-hour drive south west from home, and booked a couple of nights in a hotel close to the castle. The first part of our trip was familiar as we’d already travelled some of the road through southern Asturias, but that didn’t make us complacent: who couldn’t be charmed by such beautiful scenes as this?
We were soon climbing high into the mountains, each hairpin opening new vistas of the green valleys below and taking us ever closer to those snow-capped peaks. This is bear country; we lingered for a while at an official observation site but there was no sign of oso pardo – no surprise, really, given how rare they are.
It’s bare country, too, for more than one reason. We passed through a valley ravaged by the horrendous forest fires of last year, the scorched and blackened landscape standing testament to the ferocity and scale of the heat and flames; here there was no spring. Higher still, and the trees were several weeks behind ours at home, the willows pushing out little tentative furry paws, the birch still tightly coiled. We ate our picnic lunch sitting in patches of snow above a typical village, the houses scattered down the mountainside like dice tumbled from a cup. Some were in excellent condition, others rather tumbledown but something didn’t seem quite right. Listen. Listen to the soughing of the wind in the branches, the carolling of the birds, the rush of meltwater . . . No cowbells or cockerels, no dogs or donkeys. No smoke in the chimneys, no washing blowing on the lines, no chopping of wood, no digging of gardens. A tabby cat nonchalantly mooching between the buildings was the only sign of life in this silent, empty place. An ageing population and migration to the cities are changing the face of this rural landscape where the land is unforgivably steep, the soil thin and the grass, newly emerged from under deep snow, is grey and bleached. No question, life here is tough.
A couple of kilometres further up and we reached the top of the pass close to a village where at least one house was buried under several metres of snow; no surprise to find a ski station there! As we crossed into León and dropped down the other side of the mountain, the landscape changed quite dramatically. I always think of Asturias as being like a quilt of intense greens and blues, boldly embroidered with brightly painted houses and cheerful terracotta roofs; it bursts shamelessly with colour, even when the weather is wet and grey. Here, the country was darker, more sombre, brooding. The rocks were black, the roofs grey slate, the mountainsides clothed in dusty evergreen oaks and a moody scrub of Spanish heath and broom. No sunlit green meadows to be seen. Where forests of eucalyptus march across Asturias, here it was something heavier and more industrial; we travelled down a long, long valley bristling with quarries and mines, pylons and pipelines, slag heaps and dams.
It wasn’t all gloomy, though. In places, the river – gorged with glacial blue meltwater – was spectacular and in one town, I just had to stop and applaud the colourful handiwork of the local yarnbombers!
As we neared Ponferrada, the landscape opened out into a wide bowl rimmed with snow-topped mountains. The rocks and soil changed, too, to a bright rusty red. Ferrous. Ponferrada. Iron bridge. It shares the same root word with the name of our village and I like that, that sense of a shared geology and history. Around the city were vast swathes of poplar woods and vineyards studded with vines like cloves in a Christmas orange; hard to believe anything currently so black and gnarled could produce leaves and fruit.
We headed south from the city, fancying a walk in the mountains. The village of Valdefrancos teemed with swallows skimming the river and martins jostling for space under the eaves. The storks had already established their nesting site and no-one was set to argue with them perched up there.
An incredibly steep and sinuous mountain road followed, spiralling us up and up to the village of Peñalba de Santiago. A National Monument, this is officially one of the prettiest villages in Spain and we would drink to that; it is a beautifully restored and preserved confection of stone and slate, wood and water.
Even the beehives were in keeping!
We could happily hide ourselves away here for a week and walk out into these beautiful mountains every day. As it was, we settled for a single looped walk of a few kilometres, following an undulating path that crisscrossed the river and led to the Cueva de San Geniado.
The air was heavily scented with primroses – there were literally carpets of them alongside the path – and full of butterflies, little shards of blue, orange and yellow.
Here, too, huge clumps of the green hellebore I have been searching for nearer to home.
The last stretch of path before the cave was slightly vertiginous but the cave itself was lofty and wax-scented. Saint Geniado was a ninth century monk, hermit and bishop who founded several local monasteries. I loved the fact that on the altar, there was a large carved madreña, the traditional wooden clogs our neighbours wear in wet weather. Even saints, it seems, need to be practical.
For our next adventure, we swapped mountains for mines and headed to Las Médulas, the largest open-pit goldmine in the Roman empire. We opted for another walk here but the first thing to capture our interest wasn’t so much the rock formations as the trees: hundreds and hundreds of chestnuts, planted in neat grid formation like a vineyard writ large. So many of them were ancient specimens, with enormous boles and branches and bark contorted, gnarled, almost molten; add a little atmospheric mist and we could have walked straight into a Tolkien fantasy. The Romans came here for gold; they also introduced the sweet chestnut to Britain. Could we detect the faintest ghost of the empire in the precise no-nonsense military planting of these trees?
The mighty hand of Rome was certainly responsible for the astonishing landscape we were about to encounter. No quirk of geology or effect of erosion: this – like the long valley we drove through yesterday – was purely the result of industrial activity.
The stratum of alluvial rock which contained the gold the Romans sought lay some hundred metres or more below the top of the mountain. In order to reach it, they dug deep vertical shafts with blind horizontal tunnels like fishbones; using a complex system of canals and sluice gates on the top of the mountain, they then flooded the tunnels and literally washed the mountain away. The spectacular rock formations here today are the bits of mountain left standing.
This is a stunning place. Not only can you wander and wonder among the pillars and spires, but there are caves, too, and places where you can walk along high tunnels and capture a higher view. The colour of the rock is astonishing, especially set against a brilliant blue sky. What a truly awesome place.
We decided to climb with our picnic to the viewpoint above and suddenly the true scale of the operation unfolded before us. I wondered if in two thousand years’ time, tourists of the future will be wandering in awe around the modern quarry in the distance?
From one UNESCO World Heritage site to another, this time the Camino de Santiago (French Route) in Ponferrada, guarded by the spectacular castle. Originally a hillfort, then Roman (they were a busy bunch), the castle was extended by the Knights Templar during the twelfth century and helped to protect the pilgrims walking the Camino. Care of the pilgrims was important; the name Ponferrada refers to the iron reinforcement of an ancient bridge commissioned by Bishop Osmundo of Astorga in the eleventh century to facilitate their river crossing. We breakfasted with a group of modern German pilgrims, footsore but cheerful, just 200 kilometres left to walk. Viel Glück!
This is the kind of castle where you can wander at liberty and explore every nook and cranny. We walked along the walls, climbed towers, peered over turrets and through arrow slits, looked into the depths of wells and down to the Río Sil so far below. The views of the old town, the wider city and surrounding countryside were spectacular.
In the Templars’ Library I was mesmerised by the beauty of the medieval books, the workmanship of the monks reflecting their immense skill (and eyesight). Italics and illuminations, so neat and tidy, so tiny! The colours were rich, the fine detail picked out in gold so striking. Treasure indeed. In a complete contrast of scale and medium, in the Sala de Noruega we wandered through an exhibition of huge photos of the Norwegian landscape. Looking at the pictures of Senja, I thought of Sam and Adrienne (who took their own stunning photos there last summer) and wondered how they were enjoying their trip to Oslo this week. How was their city break going, three thousand kilometres north of ours? It will be fun to compare notes when we catch up with them next weekend; that is what I love about travel, the chance to share new experiences, to tell new stories.
Time to head home and I reflected on what a privilege it is to be able to travel; whether twenty miles or two thousand, what a wonderful opportunity to broaden my horizons and open my mind, to feel and experience new things, to look at life through others’ eyes. It isn’t always beautiful – but then real life isn’t a tourist attraction. It isn’t always comfortable, but I think a nudge out of my comfort zone now and again is a good thing; if I don’t have the right language or cultural knowledge to deal with a situation then I have to dig deep as a human being and find a way of coping. A big smile is a good start! Whatever else, it is always an enriching experience and I love that.
Three days. Two UNESCO World Heritage sites, a National Monument and plenty of other things besides. It’s amazing how much we packed into a short time; also unbelievable that we didn’t pay for parking or an entry fee anywhere (the castle is free on Wednesdays, although we would happily have paid given the fascinating time we had there), neither were we corralled through gift shops at the exit. Everywhere had colourful and comprehensive information boards, nowhere had litter. Even more incredible, everywhere was so quiet; I suspect in the summer it will be heaving but we were so lucky to more or less have everywhere to ourselves. What a truly fantastic place this is. I think we might go back, although there is still so much of Spain to discover, not to mention Portugal . . .
Home again, and how could things have changed so much in our short time away? Tightly furled buds had burst open in explosions of colour, the grass had grown ridiculously long; in the asparagus bed, a sudden surge of spears like serpents’ heads suggested dinner!
In our field, no cows but four horses down from the mountain and enjoying the luxury of lush grass. These are Asturcón, a local rare breed of working horse which is one of the oldest and purest strains in the world. They have teetered on the brink of extinction but thanks to people like Jairo, they are being carefully and lovingly preserved for the future. How wonderful then, just a few hours after arriving home, to see this new little chap being born. His bloodline stretches back to the time when the Romans were moving mountains. How very precious he is. What a lovely homecoming!