Bears, horses, mountains, and waves
Adventure in Asturias
Asturias, in northern Spain, has just about everything you could want. Mountains, bears, rivers, and sea. And all quite close together. Osos & Olas, or Bears and Waves, takes you on a journey of discovery through this beautiful region: from the highest peaks to the azure sea. On foot, on horseback, sailing, and surfing. Let’s go.
The gently sweltering sun is already waning, but my body needs cooling. Fortunately, a large stone drinking trough for horses and cows on the edge of the braña can serve perfectly well as a swimming pool. In my enthusiasm, I momentarily forget that this mountain water could well be freezing, and it is. Oh well, what the hell.
Moments later, I am sitting in the shallow, ice-cold water with a native pint in my hand, studying the jagged peaks of the Cantabrian Mountains in Asturias, which stand out sharply in the light of the sun bidding farewell with orange, pink, and red. His day is over.
Behind me, our bear guide Sofia González Berdasco is preparing a nutritious meal in her teitu: a stone-built cottage with a roof of dried broom. Her house, with several other identical but more dilapidated cottages, forms the Braña La Corra, a summer retreat for the Vaqueiros d’Alzada, local nomadic cattle herders.
Sofia descends from these Vaqueiros; her surname Berdasco is a typical Vaqueiro name. “I am not descended from them. I have their blood running through my veins. I am a real Vaqueira,” Sofia laughs happily as her bright green eyes twinkle proudly. “The Vaqueiros live to the rhythm of the herd, the rhythm of the seasons. We move through the mountains of western Asturias with our cattle and to north-western León, the neighboring province in northern Spain. In summer, we live on brañas like this one, high in the mountains. In winter, we have our lower-lying houses.”
Sofia is no longer a cowherd, but blood crawls where it cannot go. You could call her a modern Vaqueira: a spring and summer guide in her much-loved Asturias mountains, traveling in her motorhome the rest of the year.
“The Vaqueiros live to the rhythm of the herd”
Somiedo National Park
That night, we sleep cozily under the infinite starry sky, looking down on Braña Cuerragu, high in the mountains of Somiedo National Park. Which, by the way, was declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 2000 thanks to the Vaqueiros’ traditional cattle breeding system. Somiedo National Park is a stronghold of the rare Cantabrian brown bear. In 2009, only 30 were left. Since then, their numbers have grown to some four hundred and fifty. With a good bear guide like Sofia, who knows exactly where to find the bears, you have the best chance of seeing the brown bear in real life. And bears, we will see. After all, this trip is not called Bears and Waves for nothing.
Camín Real de la Mesa
Early the next day, an hour into the balmy dawn, we hike further along yesterday’s route, the Camín Real de la Mesa. “There was a time when the Romans had a dream: to conquer the highlands of the northern Iberian Peninsula to expand their empire,” Javier González, the organizer of Bears and Waves, tells us. “This area was important for its iron and, more importantly, gold. A commodity eagerly sought by the Romans in this part of Asturias to make the empire’s coins.
As they did throughout their empire, one of their efforts was constructing a paved road. After all, that iron and gold (and soldiers) needed further transportation quickly. Thus was born the Camín Real de la Mesa, the main route for people, cattle, and goods from Asturias to the lands of León and Castile during the Middle Ages. You could call the Camín Real de la Mesa the ancient lifeline of Asturias.”
We walk through idyllic vistas. Herds of semi-wild horses come curiously to say hello. Gusts of clouds try to creep up against the green hills. We are higher, so we look over those clouds that seem to form a white woolly lake. The air is pregnant with the scent of flowering gorse. For a moment, the world no longer matters.
“Many inhabitants have used horses to move through the mountains for generations. Horses are in our soul”
After an hour’s walk, we meet Avelino Ardura Crespo, who is ready with horses. He looks straight out of a Western with his cowboy hat, leather trousers, and spurs. But a Spanish-language one. “The cowboy culture is strong in the municipalities of Somiedo and Belmonte, through which most of the Camín Real de la Mesa runs,” says Avelino. “Many inhabitants have used horses to move through the mountains for generations. Horses are in our soul.”
And that soul is alive and well today. “Asturias has a long history of horse breeding and equestrianism,” says Avelino as we ride on horseback over narrow stone paths, densely wooded slopes, and open grassy fields. “We have several native breeds of horses, including the Asturcón, which you are sitting on now, and the Pura Raza Asturiana. These horses are small but very strong and resilient, often used for equestrian sports such as dressage, jumping, and bullfighting.”
Another important tradition in Asturias is the Romería, a religious pilgrimage on horseback, which takes place in summer. During this pilgrimage, local statues of saints are brought to the church while riders ride in traditional costumes and sing Asturian songs.
And what belongs after a day of horse riding through the beautiful surroundings of Asturias? Right. Then a lamb is slow-cooked on an espicha over a low wood fire and regularly turned until the skin is crisp and the meat juicy and tender. And you wash that down, all Asturian style, with local cider.
Javier González pours the cider into the glass from a great height. He smilingly hands me a glass. “This refreshing, slightly alcoholic apple drink is made from special cider apples such as the Raxao, Verdialona, and Regona apples that grow only in Asturias. Our cider is produced using traditional methods and undergoes a fermentation process in chesnut barrels, giving it its unique flavor and aroma. I pour it from this height into the glass to add air to the drink to enhance the aroma and add a slight bubble. This way of pouring, we call escanciado. Asturian cider is not carbonated, so it has a low alcohol content and should be drunk chilled to get the best flavor. It is an important part of the Asturian culture. There are even special cider houses called sidrerías.” It did not stop at one bottle that afternoon. Local culture should be sipped extensively.
Then a lamb is slow-cooked on an espicha over a low wood fire and regularly turned until the skin is crisp and the meat juicy and tender
“Tourism is an engine of change and progress here in the area. But it has to be done sustainably”
Up the river
With a belly full of local delicacies, sleeping at Palacio del Cardenal Cienfuegos, one of the old mansions the region is full of, a noble house where you feel like authentic Spanish gentry for an evening. Today we leave the mountains behind and head further down toward the sea in kayaks. We will paddle down a section of one of Asturias’ main rivers: the Nalón. The sun is shining, and the waters of the Nalón sparkle silvery as we launch our kayaks.
The low-hanging trees along the banks of the Nalón seem to urge us slowly and lazily to explore the river further. The occasional sleepy bird shoots out of the woods, disturbed in its afternoon nap by us crazy people in boats. We sail through light rapids and fields of water lilies. In the distance, on the banks of the Nalón, we can see the houses of the town of Pravia, capital of Spain in the times of the Asturian monarchy.
The Cantabrian coast
At last, from the highest mountain peaks, while hiking, passing through high mountain pastures on horseback, and kayaking down the Nalón, we have arrived at the Cantabrian coast in San Esteban, formerly an important seaport.
We check in at the historic Hotel Brillante. The building that housed the mythical pension “Brillante”, inaugurated in 1905, reopened its doors in 2021 as “Gran Hotel Boutique Brillante”. The hotel keeps alive the history and retains all the charm of the early twentieth century, when the seaport of San Esteban, was one of the most important seaports in Spain.
Among the innumerable guests who stayed at the Brillante during some glorious years, the famous poet Rubén Darío, the greatest representative of literary modernism in the Spanish language, stayed during a very important personal and professional stage of his life, in a room with spectacular windows of the then mythical Pensión Brillante, nowadays, our jewel Gran Suite Rubén Darío, in his honor.
San Esteban is a small fishing village. That lighthouse, which we saw earlier, is one of the main features of San Esteban. It stands proudly on a rock and offers amazing ocean and coastline views
San Esteban is a small fishing village. That lighthouse, which we saw earlier, is one of the main features of San Esteban. It stands proudly on a rock and offers amazing ocean and coastline views. “The lighthouse was built in 1865 and played an important role in monitoring the shipping lanes off the coast of Asturias,” Javier explains.
The landscape around San Esteban is also striking, with cliffs, beaches, and rugged hills overlooking the sea. We board a water taxi and sail a bit back into land on the Rio de San Esteban. The Castillo de San Juan de la Arena is about seven kilometers inland. “Would you attack this?” asks Javier as he points to the steep slopes surrounding the castle. I look out. “The Castillo de San Juan de la Arena dates back to the 16th century and was originally built to protect the coast from attacks by pirates and other enemies,” Javier knows.
Those pirates didn’t have surfboards. Chances are they would have just gone surfing instead of fighting and stealing. The gently sweltering sun is waning a bit again today, but my body can always use a cool-down. Luckily, there is a salty sea and a surfboard in front of me. The waves break and ripple. Come, come, they seem to be saying. Well. Who can refuse that?
Take the plunge into Asturias
Bears & Waves
We traveled with Bears & Waves, specializing in adventure and nature in Asturias. In the standard 6-day program, you discover the mountains, rivers, and coasts of the central region of Asturias playfully. Wildlife observation, hiking, horse riding, canoeing, surfing lessons, and stand-up paddle tours. It’s all possible. Each trip is 100% customizable. Whether you are an experienced adventurer looking for thrills in the high mountains or a family with children looking for playful activities, Osos & Olas will make sure you discover Asturias and never forget it.
Customized trips from € 990