Spain Off-the-beaten-track

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Below Tricia tells what they did and saw in rural Spain and their observations on the lives of the people…..

We have often flown south across Spain to the Mediterranean and beyond and looked down from the plane on what seem to be largely unpopulated tracts of mountainous landscape. The numbers tell their own story. Spain is three times the size of Great Britain but has half the population, much of which is concentrated on its coasts and in its larger cities, Madrid and Barcelona, of course, but also Salamanca, Bilbao, Valladolid, Burgos, Seville, Oviedo. What does it feel like, though, to live in these isolated villages that perch on the side of mountains or hide in valleys, often without sun for parts of the year? What is it like on the high plains? How do their inhabitants make a living? Is it a sustainable life or is there a drift to the towns, especially of young people?

To tell the truth, down on the ground, it is now surprisingly easy to travel around even these remote parts of Spain quickly and efficiently, especially if, unlike, from our observations, the average Spanish driver, you are prepared to pay the tolls on the autopistas. Spain seems to have invested a large part of the money it received from the European Union during the 80s and 90s in prodigious and impressive feats of engineering. Tunnelling through mountains, flinging enormous viaducts across valleys and building mile after mile of dual-carriageways has its technical challenges, no doubt, but Spain’s empty spaces allow roads and railways to be built quickly and without the protests, which are the typical response when similar projects are planned in our crowded island.  José Zapatero, Spain’s former Prime Minister boasted that Spain had more miles of motorway than Germany had autobahns. In fact, Spain’s motorway system is now the fourth largest in the world, after those of the USA, China and Canada. Travel on these roads, though, and you could be anywhere. As an experience it certainly doesn’t provide the answers to the questions we were asking. So this summer, we decided to get out of the car, put on our boots, take up our walking sticks and spend five weeks taking a closer look at a few of Spain’s more isolated regions. What we found were troubling tales of economic decline, except in coastal areas that were able to rely on the relatively lucrative fishing industry as well as tourism and some agriculture.

Sorpe, for example, in the Lerida region of Catalonia is the gateway to Aiguestortes National Park (Parc Nacional d’Auiguestortes y Estany de Sant Maurici to give it its full Catalan title) in the Higher Pyrenees. It can be reached in a couple of hours from Toulouse airport and it takes only a little longer, although on a more difficult road, from Barcelona. The park is one of 15 National Parks (there are a larger number of Natural Parks which are often very beautiful but have fewer restrictions) and was established in 1955, incorporating and extending a smaller area which had been given protected status in the earlier part of the century. It has spectacular glaciated high mountain scenery and over 200 mountain lakes (see below).

Sunken Tree

Sunken Tree in the Aiguestortes National Park, Lerida, Spain. (Photo by Mike Tierney)

Daniel Virgili works as a walking and mountain guide in the Park, as well as offering walks along the Camino de Libertad (Freedom Route), a network of pathways through the Pyrenees that was used by people escaping from Franco’s army and, later, by refugees from Nazi occupied Europe on their way to the Mediterranean Coast (See below).  He told us, however, that the economy of the region was in decline because tourism was not growing at a rate to make up for the decline of agriculture. The Park, for example, receives about 350,000 visitors a year, mainly Spaniards since, as Daniel pointed out, its official website provides no foreign language translations. By way of context and contrast the Peak District and Lake District National Parks, which were created at around the same time receive 22 million and nearly 16 million visitors a year respectively.

Village on the Camino de Libertad

Village on the Camino de Libertad, Lerida, Spain. (Photo by Mike Tierney)

The High Pyrenees do gain, at least, from year round tourism, including skiing in the winter, even if, as we found, people were expressing fears about the changes in climate conditions and the shorter and milder winters. Further west, on the plains of Castile and León, it is even more difficult to make a living. Part of the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrim trail that dates back to the Middle Ages, skirts along the border of this region. Pilgrims, however, are not big spenders and, in any case we were able to walk for hours without meeting anyone and through villages that seemed completely deserted. Even where there is activity, it does not always imply a sustainable future. Marga runs Camarga, a lovely guesthouse in the village of Santiago de Millas (population 304 at the last count). She told us that the majority of building work, apart from the miles of abandoned road works on some of the old roads which were begun under the previous Government in an attempt to kick-start the economy, is being undertaken by families who have inherited run-down family properties. The aim in most cases is to convert these properties into holiday homes which will only be used in the summer months.

Doorway of Derelict Building in Santiago Millas

Doorway of a derelict building in Santiago de Millas, Castile y León. (Photo by Mike Tierney)

Jimena and Alfredo, who run El Cuelebre, a language school, from their home in La Peral the Somiedo Natural Park in Asturias just over the Castile Leon border are equally concerned about the area’s economic future. They also act as walking guides and often bring walkers over the border into Castile and León, through the Puerto de Somiedo, when the mists descend on the Somiedo mountains and make walking there impossible.

Break for a snack

Break for a snack whilst walking in Castile y León. Tricia on the left, Jimena guarding the chocolate in the middle and Alfredo making a cheese sandwich on the right. (Photo by Mike Tierney)

View from the Mirador above El Cuelebre, La Peral, Asturias

View from the Mirador near El Cuelebre, La Peral, Asturias. (Photo Mike Tierney)

Jimena has worked with a Foundation set up to protect the brown bear. Despite the organisation’s success in changing local attitudes-until recently bear hunting was a popular pastime-not enough has been done, she believes, to develop industries to bring people to this area of outstanding natural beauty and ecological interest, even though it is less than 2 hours from Asturias airport which has flights from many other parts of Spain, as well as France and the UK (90 minutes from Stansted). Beekeeping, for instance is a traditional activity here, (and it seems that bears really do love honey and will burrow underground to get at the hives even if they are protected by electric cables!) but attempts to set up a local bottling facility have failed because of lack of regional support. As a result of the dearth of opportunities, according to Alfredo, who has opinions on everything, young people are leaving Spain’s rural areas, apart from the campo of Andalucia, and heading to the towns, often to work in low skilled, low paid, temporary jobs within the black economy and traditional country crafts are being lost.

El Torre de Villademoros

El Torre de Villademoros, the main house on the left and the tower with its roof terrace in the background, middle. The building on the right is a traditional Asturian barn or horrio. Produce is stored upstairs and cattle are kept downstairs. (Photo by Mike Tierney)

Let’s end on a positive note, though. Despite its troubles, rural Spain has much to offer: tranquillity, simple but fresh food and friendly people and, above all, great walking through beautiful scenery. It is definitely worth a detour. And if you want more of a tourist infrastructure, but one that still respects its environment, we cannot recommend highly enough our final destination, the coastal region of Asturias, the Costa Verde or Green Coast. Stay, for example, in La Torre de Villademoros, the guest house run by Manolo and his family near Cadavedo. It is an 18th century manor house-although the four storey tower which has been converted into a two bedroom suite dates from an earlier period. The restoration has been a family affair. Manolo’s father made some of the furniture. Creative use has been made of local materials such as slate and chestnut. Eat and early breakfast, including Asturian pancakes, stop off at a nearby cafe to buy a bocadillo for lunch and set off along part of the Camino de Santiago or down to the Mar Cantábrico or Cantabrian Sea. Nothing could be better.

The Green Coast or Costa Verde

The Green Coast or Costa Verde. (Photo by Mike Tierney)

So, what did you do on your holidays?

Useful websites

Camarga :

El cuelebre : 

La Torre de Villademoros:

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