The breathtaking majesty of Spain's Picos de Europa inspires Cliff Taylor.
You can easily distinguish the pilgrims from ordinary tourists in northern Spain. I'd seen plenty of them on my journey from Santander on the Cantabrian coast, towards the mountains of the Picos de Europa. Pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago usually carry long sticks and wear scallop shells on their packs. They often limp and they seldom seem in a hurry, as if they have a long journey behind them, and another long one ahead.
I've been on many pilgrimages - some of them spiritual, none of them religious - which have led me into high places: to the source of the Ganges, across airless mountain passes in Nepal, to the summits of burning volcanoes in Mexico and Indonesia. And finally, this year, to that compact citadel of jagged spires in Spain, straddling Asturias, Cantabria and Leon, known as the Picos de Europa.
I'd heard the trails could get crowded, so I was there in spring, well before the trekking season had started. After a night camped beside the cold torrent of the Deva river, sipping Spanish brandy and watching bats swooping over the white water, I hitchhike early next morning up to the village of Espinama. The guy who gives me a lift is clearly unimpressed with my plan to camp in the mountains.
"Hace frio," he mutters.
The camino climbs steeply, past stone cottages traditionally used by farmers tending their herds of cattle and goats. When it eventually levels out the walking is very pleasant; the only sounds are the wind, snow-fed streams rushing over stones and the clink-clank of cow bells, a sound which will become a constant companion over the next week. Later in the day I hear the shouts of rock climbers, tiny insect figures clinging to a vast wall across the valley as huge griffon vultures pirouette on thermals against the sky.
The tranquillity of the day leaves me unprepared for my night in Sotres. Camping is not allowed, so I pay €15 (NZ$25.80) for a bed in an alburgue, a basic bunkhouse for hikers. Initially I have the place to myself, until the other inmates return from their day in the mountains. Beers are drunk, an accordion comes out, hearty singing bursts forth and soon there is an outbreak of hombre a hombre dancing. It quickly becomes obvious that these campers are very camp indeed. Thus, my first night in the Picos is spent with 15 gay Spanish hikers and a talking parrot.
I resume the trail early, a Sunday stroll along a meandering road ascending through meadows of poppies. Improbably picturesque derelict stone cottages inspire wistful daydreams. But the track grows steeper and rougher as the hours slip by, until it becomes a dusty, rocky scramble on a heart-breaking series of switchbacks.
I arrive, exhausted and parched, at the refugio which squats at the foot of the gigantic stump of rock known as the Naranjo de Bulnes. This 2519m peak, which looks as if it has been flung from outer space, appears utterly impregnable, but is a magnet for rock climbers, some of whom are camped on the field in its shadow.
Unpredictable weather is one of the characteristic features of the Picos. A torrential rain storm floods some of the tent sites, then the sun re-emerges, inflaming the rock face. Soon afterwards we are enveloped by an impenetrable rising niebla, or mist, the most silent and deadly of the Picos' perils.
After a freezing night in the tent I start climbing again, conscious of reports of more bad weather coming. But the sun shines, black choughs wheel in the blue sky and I catch sight of various rebeccos, sort of a half goat half antelope, effortlessly scaling the surrounding rock faces. The silence of the Hou sin Tierre, a vast amphitheatre surrounded by snow-clad peaks, is slightly miraculous. I am surrounded by utter beauty and solitude. This, right here, is my Catedral de Santiago de Compostela.
The route ahead involves a steep climb 200m up a broken rock slope, aided by fixed cables, then a nerve-jangling traverse of a snow field which drops sickeningly away into a gorge. Once safely across I can relax, eating chocolate in the sunshine, looking back at my own footprints in the snow. Yet, within minutes, the niebla sweeps in again, obliterating everything. I tentatively follow a series of rock cairns towards where I suspect is the refugio Cabana Veronica, but the track is quite indistinguishable in the mist.
I eventually locate the refugio, about the size and shape of a space capsule, bolted onto the rocks. It is not a place I wish to spend the entire afternoon and night so, after sharing a beer and a conversation with the grizzled host, I head out again into the white-out. After two more hours of descending virtually blind I find a patch of grass flat enough to pitch my tent.
After a meal of sardines and fried bread I retreat inside and fall asleep to the sound of distant cow bells in the mist, and muddled thoughts of bears, which still inhabit isolated pockets of these mountains.
The next day dawns brightly and I discover I've camped five minutes from a cable car station. Its silent wires disappear into the clouds below. I wait, alone apart from a few curious rebeccos, for two hours until the cable car suddenly awakens. Soon after, I descend through the clouds to Fuente De. After drying in the sun I return to the mountains, climbing a long switchback trail to the Vega de Liordes, an idyllic mountain meadow where horses and cows graze among streams and pools.
A long descent through gorges swirling with niebla brings me eventually to the village of Los Llanos, where an old lady hands me the key to a rambling, three-storey, 40-bunk albergue. There I enjoy a peaceful, if slightly spooky, night, entirely alone amid the rows of empty bunks. Such are the curious joys of an off-season pilgrimage in the Picos de Europa.
Cliff Taylor paid his own way to Spain.