The sun is coming up and has risen high enough to spear a shaft of honey light from right to left, tinting the ridge across the valley along its length like a hot blade, and giving us some idea of the compass points in this mess of mountains.
Three valleys, in fact, are visible from our high vantage point: to our left all three converge on the little town of La Vega, far below us. The ridge is called El Angliru – a long mountain that fills our field of vision. Its upper reaches, the knife’s edge, are stony and serrated – wild highlands. The slopes below, as in the other valleys, are green and cultivated – forested here and there, and elsewhere divided by hedgerows and fences into small fields, some of them on almost sheer gradients.
We watch the moving sunlight play with shadows. It’s silent here except for the bells – down in one of the valleys an unhurried and beguiling melody is chiming out from a church, behind us the closer tinkle of cowbells as some of the locals – butter coloured bovines with big brown eyes – graze.
Tiny little towns are visible on some of the higher slopes. It all looks so picturesque – old houses or barns occupy many of the fields we can see, pocking the ripples of mountainside like crumbs in the folds of a sheet, but what a pain it must be, I think to myself, to live there. Half the places you’d want to get to are hard to get to; the other half are hard to get back from.
Travelling just a few kilometres in this neck of the woods is an undertaking even with the modern roads below, as we will find out in the few days we spend here. For now though, early on our second morning, we can just sit back and watch.
We’re staying in a little complex of restored farm buildings that bills itself as a spa resort. It has an incredible pool overlooking the valley, a spa upslope which we don’t use, a horrendously overpriced restaurant which we also don’t use, a little kitchenette in our room which we most certainly do use, going as far as to borrow a pot from the restaurant, and, by way of a final approach to the front gate, the scariest hundred meters of road we have ever experienced.
A pretty much vertical series of closely packed twists and spirals involving precipitous, unsighted drops into the abyss as well as the nerve racking navigation of a miniscule mountain hamlet with streets as narrow as our very small car, K has done well to face it a second time today as we left for a drive, and a third as we returned.
I like to think of myself as a calming influence when things get stressful but it’s difficult to keep up the act when you’re having your own little panic attack. I grip the door handle and hold on to the thought that there’s a fucking hotel up here, which I haven’t seen any news reports about, so guests must be surviving, by and large.
The guest themselves are a uniform bunch. Couples we take to be well-to-do young professionals from nearby Oviedo, up here for a dirty weekend. We are constantly surprised by how little use is made of the pool and patio, how little they seem to appreciate the sublime country all around.
“A venue for people who want to watch TV and have sex,” is K’s description.
It’s not that we can see what they’re up to in the privacy of their rooms, obviously, but we can certainly hear it – the TV and the sex. Doesn’t seem to matter what time of day it is. I feel the slow, worrying creep of inferiority complex, and age.
Partly to explore Asturias, and partly to get away from the noises, we head towards Somiedo Natural Park and the Valle del Lago, a twelve kilometer hike that takes in some astonishing country and culminates at a glacial lake where K cools her tired and rather cranky feet. She’s not a particularly enthusiastic hiker. We wonder at a multitude of tiny black froglets hopping across the sandy shore. This is bear country too, but they are rarely seen.
On the return leg we begin to appreciate how much more sensible it would have been to do this in the early morning. It’s high noon and hot, and we have no water. Uncharacteristically, K walks ahead and sets the pace, her only words a loving paean to the cold drink she’s going to have in the bar where we parked. You’d think we were sixty kilometres from the nearest Saharan oasis, the way she talks about that drink.
Post drink we face a dilemma. Yesterday we hiked the Ruta de las Xanas on a path that wound its way through tunnels and along narrow paths, ascending a deep gorge to a high valley up top where a famous restaurant serves the legendary fabada asturiana. Along with the bears, this regional stew is the holy grail of my Asturian quest and no, the restaurant doesn’t open on Wednesdays and yes, K was displeased.
So today with limited time I am forced to make a Solomon-like decision. To actually see bears in this part of the world most people head for the town of Proaza, outside which there’s a large compound where two rescued orphan bears live in semi-liberty. They are fed at a regular time each day and a sighting is near-guaranteed. We drove past it, actually, on our way here, taking note of the heavy mesh fence, and will again on the way home, but visiting will mean we’ll miss lunch, and tomorrow we head for the coast and Galicia. Bears and bean stew has become bears or bean stew.
“Fuck it,” I say. “Take me to a half-decent restaurant.”
On our last day in Asturias I finally get my fabada. This stuff is popular all over Spain and available in tins from any supermarket but the contents bear very little resemblance to the homemade Asturian version. White beans are slow cooked in a broth along with morcilla, the Spanish blood sausage, chorizo and mammoth chunks of lacón, or the cured front leg of an ex-pig.
Fabada Asturiana is not suitable for vegetarians.
They bring me an empty bowl and then they bring me another bowl, not empty. It’s a stainless steel monster of a thing with a ladle in it and enough fabada to feed a family of five. People always say that kind of thing, don’t they? – Oh, you should have seen the portion they brought me. It could have fed a family of five! – but I want to be perfectly clear about this; it really could feed a family of five.
I eat all the meat and over half of the beans. I must admit I don’t feel too good for a little while afterwards. I say a little while – it takes a couple of days to feel human again.
But a whole week to wipe the stupid grin off my face.
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