Travel: On the road in Cantabria

Full set of photos

After two solid days of conferencing in Bilbao, I was ready for my next adventure. I awoke relatively early and forewent my MPC workout for the day, anticipating that I’d be doing a fairly significant hike later on. It was a cheap and easy bus ride to the airport, and it wasn’t long before I was picking up my rental car, deciding on a whim to upgrade to a BMW (since I’d never driven one before). I had, however, managed to book the rental online with the wrong credit card (my other card includes rental collision insurance), so I ended up paying about as much for insurance as the original rental cost. Annoyed but undeterred, I loaded up my BMW diesel 2 series and was soon blasting along the main motorway, west along the coast. I admit it had initially been a bit of a nerve-wracking prospect to be driving on my own in a foreign country, which I had not yet ever really done (30 minutes in the Scottish highlands notwithstanding, though even there I wasn’t alone), but any concerns I might have had soon melted away. I found myself giddy with excitement, as I glimpsed picturesque views of the cliffs and sea. The roads were in extremely good condition, nary a bump or pothole to be seen. I was also helped immensely by having Google maps at my disposal, as I would definitely not want to be trying to navigate with paper maps while driving.
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I made my way to the town of San Vicente de la Barquera for a spot of lunch. It was a charming seaside town, though it was surprisingly windy and chilly. I popped into one of the many restaurants that lined the main street for a hefty portion of croquetas. I’d read that, on the right days, the town had the rather striking backdrop of the Picos de Europa. As they didn’t seem be visible from within the town, I hopped in the car and drove across a bridge to the beachside of town to see if I could get a better view. As there weren’t any obvious viewpoint spots, I ended up pulling over in rather odd places at the side of the road, and peering over farm fences with my camera (much to the amusement of a passing farmer walking up the road). I drove down to the beach itself, but as it was a sunny Saturday morning, it was packed to the brim, and I couldn’t find a parking spot. I couldn’t really see a good view of the mountains in any case, so I moved on. From there, I thought I’d stop by the nearby Playa de la Franca. It was similarly challenging to find a parking spot, as the lots were brimming with weekend beachgoers, but I eventually snagged one. I made my way across the white sand, walking along the shoreline. It was still quite windy, so I didn’t linger long—just enough time to admire the distant cliffs rising from the sea, relishing the feeling of soft white sand between my toes.
Playa de la Franca
Playa de la Franca
From there, I drove south into Cantabria and towards the Picos de Europa. The roads began to narrow and grew more winding, and it wasn’t long before I felt I was slaloming through the mountains. I certainly appreciated my little BMW’s handling and gutsiness. I was reminded of how much I love the freedom of a rental car, pulling over spontaneously upon catching sight of something interesting or picturesque. I found myself grinning goofily to myself, relishing the perfect weather and discovering new sights unseen before. Eventually, I glimpsed my accommodations for the evening. Hostal Poncebos was one of the more beautifully-situated places I’d  seen, on the bank of a small river with dramatic mountains rising behind it. I checked myself in to the modest single room–clean and comfortable–perfect for my one night stop-over.
winding roads in the Picos de Europa
winding roads in the Picos de Europa

Eager to get on my way, I changed into my hiking gear and packed my tiny backpack, heading back out on the road in search of the Lakes of Covadonga. Unfortunately, cellphone service was spotty in the mountains, so I was relying on signage for the most part to navigate. The drive was gorgeous but increasingly nerve-wracking, as the roads narrowed further to be about 1.85 cars wide, with numerous hairpin turns, winding higher and higher. There were definitely some sheer drop offs, so I soon slowed to a crawl, carefully peering around blind corners and avoiding plummeting to my death as best I could. I eventually pulled into a viewpoint, Mirador de la Reina (‘Queen’s Lookout’) and was treated to a sweeping, panoramic vista. Gorgeous hills, draped with trees and dotted with villages, fading into the blue.

view from Mirador de la Reina
view from Mirador de la Reina

It was only a short drive from there to my final destination, and I wasn’t likely to miss it, as I soon passed a fairly epic view of Lake Enol. I found a car park and was soon on my way, eager to get started on my hike. The path from the car park was cobblestoned, and it was easy walk back to Lake Enol. In addition to the gorgeous lake views, cows were in abundance, aimlessly meandering about, cow bells jangling and munching on grass. I trucked up a hill that afforded me striking views of both Lake Enol and Lake Ercina. I was tickled to be following two selfie-happy nuns on my walk down to the second lake.

Lago Enol
Lago Enol

There were slightly larger groups of people milling about, though certainly not overwhelming, and thankfully the meadow in front of the lake was large enough that it didn’t really matter. I headed down to the lake side and drank in the view (even whipping out my little GorillaPod to take an MPC planking selfie). I waffled about where to go next and headed to the little cafe on the edge of Lake Ercina’s parking lot to grab some much needed sugar in the form of a refreshing ice cream cone.

Lago Ercina
Lago Ercina

After perusing the map, I decided to follow the route along the lakeside, that would theoretically take me around the hill and back to Lake Enol. It was a quite and beautiful path, with progressively fewer people on it as I walked onwards into the shadow of the mountain. Pretty soon the well-trodden path appeared to disappear altogether, and the only way I knew I was still on route was the small sign pointing up the hill. I scampered up the rocks towards a small stone hut (which I later learned housed cows) before rounding the other side and back into the sunlight. The trail was completely deserted, and it was beautifully peaceful to be walking with nothing but clanging of cowbells to keep me company. The path would re-emerge and disappear, and I took to relying on how shiny and worn areas of the rocks were to indicate the route. It did occur to me at one point how alone I really was (as there was really no one else on the trail to my amazement), and my mind paranoidedly flitted to the notion that this might be like the beginning of a horror film–a thought I quickly pushed out of my head as I assured myself that no horror movie would set its scary scenes in bright, shining daylight.

scampering amongst rocks as the trail disappears
scampering amongst rocks as the trail disappears

I eventually came round and caught sight of the mountain that loomed over Lake Enol and was glad to know roughly where I was. I continued down through a large meadow, weaving my way through the ubiquitous cow pats. Once I reached the lake (now on the other side from where I started), I realized I’d have to go the long way round to get back, as what would be a shorter route was fenced off. It was a pleasant walk through some shady trees and past the judgmental stares of numerous cows. I stopped to  take in the stunning views, evolving in the changing sunlight, before heading back.

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I had been walking for about 2 hours at that point (the route is about 5 km in total), and it wasn’t until I descended the steep stairs into the car park that I really started to feel its toll on my body. Nothing too extreme thankfully–just achy legs and back. I was relieved to sit down in the car and make the nearly hour long drive back to my hotel. It was much less nerve-wracking driving back (largely because I was not on the cliffside of the road any longer). The setting sun made for an atmospheric drive, a beautiful end to my first day in the Picos de Europa.

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