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Emerald Treasure on the North Coast

Hiking, kayaking, eating, drinking in a jewel of a national park, Picos de Europa

July 11, 1999|AMY NEWMAN | Amy Newman is a freelance writer in New York

CANGAS de ONIS, Spain — Lush, verdant farmland, misty gray mornings, the occasional cry of a bagpipe--this is hardly your typical description of Spain. Instead of red, sun-scorched earth, you'll find cow-filled pastures, and you're more likely to drink hard cider than sangria. This is the principality of Asturias on the northwest coast. Celts lived here more than 2,000 years ago, and here their descendants resisted the Moors who occupied the rest of Spain.

On the eastern end of Asturias, on the border of Cantabria, is a small but impressive mountain range where the millennial past is almost as close as yesterday. This is where I was headed on a June day when the Bay of Biscay begins to warm and foreigners descend on its beach resort towns. I had set my sights higher: five days of hiking in the mountains of Picos de Europa Parque Nacional, the largest national park in Europe.

My first glimpse of the Picos came as I drove west along the coastal road from Bilbao, where I'd gone to see the new Guggenheim art museum. These "peaks" are not stratospheric--the highest is just 8,738 feet above sea level--but they are dramatic. The range comes within 11 miles of the sea, and the stark, limestone cliffs rise abruptly, as though waves had crashed ashore and froze.

At the seaside town of Ribadesella, I left the often aggravating highway traffic and turned south toward Cangas de Onis, gateway to the national park. As the road drew me through ever deeper valleys, the modern world vanished. I passed beret-wearing farmers cutting grass with scythes and loading it into horse-drawn carts. I wound through villages of stone houses with red-tiled roofs, past apple orchards and pastures. Before the day was done I would sample cider from the orchards and cheese from the cows, sheep and goats I'd contended with on the road.

Just outside Cangas de Onis, a Christian nobleman named Pelayo led his men in defeat of a Moorish battalion in the early 8th century. The victory inspired the rest of the Iberian Peninsula to begin driving out the conquerors. Today, this hallowed ground is an outdoor adventurer's playground, with numerous outfitters to help arrange canoeing, kayaking, mountain biking, white-water rafting, horseback riding or caving.

I found that few locals (including outfitters) spoke English, although all were warm, friendly and eager to find a way to communicate. I made do with my high school Spanish. And, as any experienced traveler knows, a smile speaks volumes.

A smile, however, was not going to get me a hotel room for more than one night in Cangas de Onis. I had unwittingly begun my trip on the eve of the June 13 feast of the town's patron saint, San Antonio, and all my first-choice hotels were booked. I wound up with a clean, simple room with a skylight (no window) for $19 at the Monteverde, a hotel with understated charm just off the main street.

Once settled, I went in search of the local specialty, fabada, a bean stew with pork sausage. It was not difficult to find because cider bars (sidrerias), which often double as restaurants, are everywhere. They provide entertainment, too, in the form of waiters deftly pouring cider from bottles held high overhead into glasses far below. Never mind if not all the cider makes it into the glass.

Sidreria Mario, just around the corner from my hotel, seemed to be a local favorite. The rustic, no-nonsense establishment was bustling with hardy looking men in the front bar and families at the tables in the back. One Spanish tradition that holds true here is the late dinner hour, 9 p.m. at the very earliest. But since the sun didn't set until 9:30, dining late felt in sync with the rhythm of the day.

In the morning the streets were filled with people dressed in a variety of regional costumes that looked half-Tyrolean, half-Spanish. At odd intervals they paraded through town accompanied by bands of drums and gaitas, the regional bagpipe. The pageantry kept me enthralled all morning.

With only the afternoon left for hiking, I decided to drive up to the Picos' glacial lakes, Enol and Ercina.

The road to the lakes goes through Covadonga, where a basilica marks the site of Pelayo's victory. As I drove past, busloads of pilgrims were queuing to visit Pelayo's tomb.

Seven miles beyond, up a snaking road, I passed Lago Enol and continued on to Lago de la Ercina, whose shallow, placid waters spread out over a green, mountain-rimmed valley that echoed with a choir of cowbells.

At the lake parking lot a trail begins for an easy-to-moderate three-hour hike up to the Vega de Ario mountain refuge. I had gone less than a mile when I was enveloped in thick white clouds.

When you hike alone, coping with sudden emergencies is one of the risks you take. But I knew that the Picos trails are well-traveled, and I had no qualms about waiting for the cloud bank to lift.

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