Cycling In Spain: Rasines to Cangas de Onis –190 kilometres continued even further......

The AS-114 road towards Cangas de Onis.

Further west is the Picos de Europa National Park, one of the most photographed places in Spain. Hardly surprising, it’s a Mecca for cyclists who over the summer months especially, come in droves to travel along its beautiful triangle of roads boasting 7 and 8% gradients. The pick of the crop is of course, the Lagos de Covadonga, which is one of the most often used climbs in the Vuelta a España. Not introduced to the Spanish Tour until 1983, it has appeared 18 times since, the most recent being in 2014, when Polish rider Przemysław Niemiec, became the first to reach its mythical summit.

While my ride through the Picos de Europa wasn’t anywhere near as triumphant as Przemysław Niemiec’s stage 15 victory, it was nevertheless memorable. Virtually downhill from the top of the Collada de Carmona to the village of Panes, the quiet secondary road, the CA-181, meandered effortlessly along the Río Nansa for much of the way. Not far from the end of its own journey, the river travels almost 50 kilometres from the foot of the Sierra de Pena Labra to the Bay of Biscay. Passing one of its four dams, the Pelombera Reservoir, in all its splendour, it never dawned on me that the waterway would be a cause for debate within Cantabria and wider Spain. 

Galleria along the AS-114.
For well over a decade, environmental groups have been applying pressure in relation to the problems caused by the Nansa’s four reservoirs and accompanying hydroelectric plants that divert much of the flow away from the river and its tributaries. What might be a fine, deeply flowing watercourse in some sections, has evidently become a completely dry riverbed in others. As a result, many species of fish, particularly salmon, trout and lamprey, which were once abundant in the river before the construction of the dams in the middle of the last century, have become extinct or have disappeared further upstream. 

Nevertheless, the collaborative voice of anglers and environmentalists alike, has resulted in some progress being made. Throughout the past decade, more than 50 small dams have been removed in Spain, predominantly from its northern rivers to protect its supply of salmon and to reduce the risk of flooding. Larger dams, like Pelombera were also under review as far back as 2009 but judging from the amount of water being discharged from its spillways, it seems that economic pragmatism has clearly won the day. One of four power stations operated by the company, Saltos de Nansa, it’s still supplying hydro-electric power to customers throughout the valley more than six years later.

13th Century 'Roman' Bridge over the Sella River.
While unremarkable in its own skin, Panes at least has something special about it; it’s the north-eastern gateway to the Picos de Europa National Park and, to the north-west, the Sierra de Cuera. Lying in between the two mountain ranges is 54 kilometres of breathtaking road along the AS-114. By far the most popular attraction along the route is the Garganta del Cares (Cares Gorge) trail which follows the precipitous division between the Picos’ central massif and Macizo El Cornión to the west. Two hundred metres of steady climbing from Arenas de Cabrales, the meeting point of the Cares and Casaño rivers, is a small price to pay for the dramatic views below and the 28 kilometres of gentle downhill road that lay ahead.

Situated just outside the north-western corner of the Picos de Europa is the popular tourist town of Cangas de Onis. Nestled in a deep valley between the Sella and Guena Rivers, it is a beautiful part of the Asturias that provides a doorway to an array of historic, scenic and adventure pursuits. Not 10 kilometres up the road is the valley below the Santuario de Covadonga, which was the site of the first successful Christian victory over the Moors during the first quarter of the 8th century. Historically, the Battle of Covadonga marks the beginning of the Reconquista, or re-conquest of Spain, which became an ongoing crusade of Muslim expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula over the following seven hundred years.

Statue of the Asturian migrant.

While there is an abundance of fascinating and picturesque places to visit within half an hour’s drive of Cangas de Onis, there’s enough to like about the town itself; at least for a short while. With an afternoon to spare, having earlier climbed the Lagos de Covadonga, Roz and I walked along its busy main street that runs the length of town. By far its most photographed attraction is its 13th century Puente Romano (or Roman styled bridge) that spans the Río Sella. Just as intriguing was the statue presumably depicting an Asturian migrant, with suitcase in hand, bound for the Americas. Significant numbers of Spanish immigrants entered the country in the first quarter of the 20th century, most due to rural poverty and urban congestion, and again during the decades of Franco’s Fascist dictatorship that followed the Spanish Civil War. While some succeeded in building a new life for themselves, many suffered hardships and returned home.

Another appealing feature of the town was its sidrerias, which seemed full of life, and even more significantly, customers. While there were plenty to choose from we still had more walking to do before we found one with a spare table. Served with tapas, a sizeable block of Cabrales Blue cheese, biscuits and olives, our unsparingly served local brew of sidra (cider) became a gastronomical delight. Steeped in tradition is the pouring of the home-made bottle of cider into the customer’s glass held about a metre below the bottle. A rather showy, yet costly exercise, not much of the contents reached my glass. Perhaps a little naïve, from an out-of-towner’s point of view, I couldn’t help but think how fortunate it was that our waiter was only trying to pour cider rather than an expensive bottle of Moët and Chandon champagne.

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