Thursday, October 14, 2010

Amongst the peaks...Part 2

After a spectacular first day with gorgeous sweeping views from the lookout point and the feeling of rushing down the ice cold mountain river, Joseba and I headed off towards the mountain to do some hiking - what Picos de Europa is famous for.  Divided into three areas, we were staying in a town called Cangas de Onis, which is on the west side of the mountain range, so we looked into doing hikes in that area and in the central region.

Our first hike took us up a winding road to the town of Covadonga.  If you remember from the last blog, the entire Picos de Europa National Park started as the Montaña de Covadonga park!  This small town was where we parked and took a bus up a twisting road to the Lakes of Covadonga - Lakes Enol and Ercina.  Known simply as 'The Lakes' in this area, we caught a glimpse of the first (Ercina) from the window as the bus wrapped around 180º corners and slowed down for cows crossing the street.  We were dropped off at the second lake but in the end made our way back to Lago Ercina because we had a gorgeous hike in mind from there.  As we stepped onto the dewey grass, the fog was lowset and we were worried we wouldn't even be able to find the path, let alone follow it.  Quickly though, the fog lifted and we snapped a quick photo of us in our adorable hiking outfits and with the stunning lake background and then headed up the grassy slope towards La Vega de Ario. 
Along the way we passed countless cows with large rectangular bells around thier necks, that eat time they ate rang loudly.  With huge herds of tan-colored cows eating at the same time, while hiking it sounded as if windchimes were echoing through the mountains.  Along with cows, there are also some long-lost herds of sheep and shephards that still roam the Picos, some of the last of thier trade in Spain.  We didn't have the opportunity to meet Mary and her lambs or Little Boy Blue, but did come face-to-face with a bull.  Luckily, sporting purple/black and blue/black, Joseba and I managed not to flash any red in the bull's face and gingerly walked through the pasture, dodging at the same time huge piles of cow poop with scattered rabbit poop in between. 
About an hour into the hike, it started to sprinkle, which didn't bother us one bit.  We threw on the raincoats (and Joseba a poncho so he could carry the backback under it) and kept on trekking.  But, the rain got harder and harder and after taking cover under a large tree for a granola-bar break, we decided it would be smartest if we turned back so our shoes wouldn't get too wet we couldn't use them the next day.  When we were maybe 30 minutes from the starting point, the rain suddenly stopped and the sun decided to grace us with its prescence.  Torn between turning around again or just heading back to Covadonga, we took advantage of the sun with a bunch of photos, and left the Vega de Ario for a different trip.  Looking online at photos now, I see we didn't miss too much and I think we made the right decision to bask in the sun rays while we had them - giving us time to admire the fog creep across the mountain tops, making the lone house that stood there disappear. 
While the rain had stopped and we made it back to the bus stop safely, the fog had quickly rolled in.  While on the bus on the way down, the fog made it almost impossible to see 20 feet in front of the bus.  Luckily, the drivers do this trip a million times a day and know the curves like the backs of thier hands.  Although we only hiked for 2 hours, we took the short bus trip as an excuse to have a little siesta. 

In Covadonga, before going back to the car, we just HAD to see the main attractions - the massive church atop a hill and a small chapel built into a cave hanging mid-air.  This town not only houses two beautiful worshipping places, but also a lot of Spanish history.  In 722, the Christians of Iberia beat the Moors that controlled the area - which started the Reconquista of expeling the Moors from the Iberian pennisula.  A Marian shrine (a shrine to Mary), named Our Lady of Covadonga was said to be hidden in the caves of the mountain, which helped the Christians with thier success.  The story goes that the leader, Pelayo (the first King of Spain), prayed to the shrine to help win the battle and miraculously the Moorish leader fell and his soldiers fleed from the Christian army, standing at the Caves of Covadonga.  Years later in 1877, the Basilica to Saint Mary of Covadonga began to be built to honor this shrine.  With pink limestone, the neo-romantic church stood majestically against the changing-color trees in the background.  With such a breath-taking view, we couldn't believe our luck that as we reached the top of the hill and were almost ready to enter the church, the chimes struck 4 o'clock and not only did we get to awe at the massivness of the place but also were treated to a couple of minutes of bells ringing amongst the peaks.
From the church we could also see the famous Caves that this place is famous for.  In a wall of pure rock, a small cave tunnel leads from one side of the wall to the center, where a huge hole opens up and lets you gaze out at the world below.  This is where Pelayo had the Marian shrine and where his troops held off the Moors.  Set 131 feet above ground, in 718 it is said that the Virgin Mary appeared.  Since this it has been considered sacred and now houses a small chapel and has been named the Sacred Cave.  Below the cave sits a large grotto whose water runs down the hill and makes for a pretty waterfall a few steps below. 
Finally, we headed back to our wooden hotel to warm up and change to street clothes and then headed out to Cangas de Onis for dinner and a walk around town.  Like responsible young adults we didn't stay out late, knowing full well that since we didn't hike too much today that tomorrow we would need to be full force for our next hike - La Ruta de Cares.  More on that to come in the next blog!


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