Emerald Treasure on the North Coast

Amy Newman is a freelance writer in New York

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.

Needing to find a new base and a hotel for the night, I descended from the mountain pastures and tried my luck in Arenas de Cabrales, smaller and quieter than Cangas with more the feel of a farming village. Quite a few pleasant-looking hotels line the main street, but just outside town, on the road to the hilltop village of Alles, I came upon a real find, La Tahona, a flower-speckled stone inn tucked in the woods along a trickle of a stream. It is run by a charming couple who speak English and made this single traveler feel right at home.

My second-story room had a spacious bathroom and double bed and looked out on the woods and stream in back. A beautifully carved wood desk invited putting late-night thoughts on paper. My plans, however, were less cerebral. (For guests wanting outdoor adventures, the hotel can arrange for horseback riding, mountain biking, kayaking or guided hikes.)

The next morning, for my first full day of hiking, I headed for Poncebos, a wide spot in the road with a sidreria and hotel and not much more. This is the starting point for two good hikes, one along the Cares Gorge and the other up through Bulnes, a hamlet that can't be reached by car.

The first day, I took the Cares Gorge trail. At the start there appeared to be two paths to take, but the "Cares" sign led up, and so up I went. The start was a somewhat steep rocky incline, but it soon leveled off into a perfectly groomed path laid in the 1920s for a water and power project. Although you could get by in tennis shoes, I was glad to have my hiking boots, especially toward the end of the day when I was tired and prone to tripping. I was also glad I packed a shell, as three hours out the wind picked up and the temperature dropped; not long afterward, it was hot and sunny again.

The next day I ventured up the trail to Bulnes. After crossing the Puente de la Jaya, an ancient, picturesque bridge arching over the Tejo River, it's a relentless two hours up a rocky trail frequented by goats that graze on nearly vertical slopes. That's as much wildlife as you are likely to encounter. Parts of the Picos are home to brown bears, wildcats and wolves, but their numbers are dwindling and those remaining tend to keep their distance from humans.

Chickens were my welcoming committee in Bulnes, a collection of stone houses, a couple of roofless ruins and two modest cafes that rely on supplies brought up by mules. An old man was replacing rocks in a stone wall while an even older man sat on a doorstep, a rack of fur pelts at his side. A few hikers came bounding along the trail through town and then were gone. The old trapper gave me a toothless smile as I went off to sit by the river to enjoy the chorizo sandwich that the grocer in Arenas had prepared for me. I climbed out onto some rocks and watched a goat nibble grass and drink from the clear, cold water. Chewing, I noticed that the goat was chewing at exactly the same rhythm. I felt very much a part of things.

My last day in the Picos I decided to give my legs a rest and kayak down the Deva River. Accompanied by two guides from the hotel, one Canadian the other Spanish, I put in at nearby Panes. From there, the river twists and turns on its last 10 miles to the Bay of Biscay. The current was swift but mostly gentle. Over time, the water has carved out deep pools that alternate with many shallow stretches that ripple over beds of stones, giving the illusion of rapids. The most serious hazards were the fallen branches that had strategically settled over the few sets of true rapids, and the fly fishermen's invisible lines. I could have told them where the fish were, the water was so clear.

Three hours later we paddled to the end of our course just upstream from where the Deva emptied into the sea. I stepped into the mix of salt and fresh water and turned toward the jagged peaks looming in the distance, and felt the mountains and the sea forever connected by the water flowing around my feet.

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GUIDEBOOK

Plying the Picos' Peaks and Valleys

Getting there: The most efficient way to fly from Los Angeles to Bilbao, the closest city to the Picos de Europa, is via British Airways (one change in London) or Lufthansa (change in Frankfurt); round-trip summer fares start at $1,065. All other service from Los Angeles to Spain involves two connecting flights.

A car is essential for exploring the Picos. The main highway from Bilbao is N634, which runs west along the coast about 150 miles to N625 and Cangas de Onis, the park's gateway town.

Detailed maps of the park are sold in shops on Cangas de Onis' main street. I also used the Lonely Planet "Trekking in Spain" guide.

Where to stay: Puente Romano, Cangas de Onis; 011-34-98-584-9339, fax 011-34-98-594-7284. Named for nearby photogenic bridge, this modest 19th century palace was renovated in 1994. Rooms are $46 in July, $67 in August, Europe's favorite month for vacations, when lodging in the Picos is scarce.

Hotel Monteverde, Cangas de Onis; tel. 011-34-98-584-8079, fax 011-34-98-584-8370. Doubles range from $37 in July to $46 in August.

Hotel Villa de Cabrales, Arenas de Cabrales; tel. 011-34-98-584-6719, fax 011-34-98-584-6733. Plain decor, mountain views; doubles, $46 in July, $60 in August.

Hotel Picos de Europa, Arenas de Cabrales; tel. 011-34-98-584-6491, fax 011-34-98-584-6545. Doubles are $73 in July, $90 in August. An outdoor swimming pool is a nice extra.

La Tahona, Alles; tel. and fax 011-34-98-541-5749. A charming inn tucked in the woods along a stream, with a cozy restaurant serving regional dishes and wines. Doubles are $63 from July 1 through September.

Where to eat: Sidreria Mario, Avenida Covadonga, Cangas de Onis; tel. 011-34-98-584-8105. Hang out here to watch the waiters' deft pouring of hard apple cider. Dinner for two with wine: $35.

Cafe Cares, Arenas de Cabrales; tel. 011-34-98-584-6628. Right on the main street; try their salmon cooked in cider vinegar. Dinner for two, wine: $40.

For more information: Tourist Office of Spain, 8383 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 956, Beverly Hills, CA 90211; tel. (323) 658-7188, fax (323) 658-1061, Internet http://www.okspain.org.

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