‘Slow travel’ is part-and-parcel of how Fer plans his Picos de Europa trips. It’s about taking it in, enjoying, not rushing. It’s in perfect sync with how I arrived in Spain, on a 33-hour, two-night Brittany ferry from Portsmouth into Santander, lulled to sleep by the sea and waking to big ocean views from my cabin. No airport anxiety, stop-start queuing and bag-emptying. There’s something seductive about taking a longer time to arrive somewhere relatively close: You feel the distance you’ve travelled.
A landscape of history and heritage
After a picnic lunch in the valley, Fer took us to a cheese factory run by a local family. The Picos’ vertical landscape suits goats, so goat’s cheese is particularly popular. “"Cheese helps you to survive,” said factory co-owner Juanjo Fernández Torrontegui. Turns out he’s not referring to me specifically and my cheese addiction, but that cheese has long been shepherds’ energy food and the stone cottages scattered about the Picos were used for storage. This is a landscape full of history and heritage. Later, en route to our forest bathing spot, Fer told us that 50 years ago, some hundreds of shepherds and their families would settle in mountain refuges for five months of the year – now, just seven or eight families do this.
Back at the Parador Cangas de Ongís in Asturias where I stayed on the River Sella with views of the Picos, I sipped wine in the courtyard in what was the former eighth-century palace of the second king of Asturias, then a Benedictine monastery until the nineteenth century. Spain’s state-run Paradores are a real treat. Mostly heritage buildings transformed into hotels and usually just slightly off the main tourist route (but close enough), their USP is their historical significance, location and restaurant, in their aim to promote local culture, food and heritage. The brainchild of King Alfonso VIII in 1928, the Parador network has a dual purpose of preserving historically interesting buildings and providing accommodation in areas without much of it. This particular one is an exceptionally beautiful restoration; original stone and wood features still intact, the chapel and monastery perfectly preserved, and an atmospheric courtyard. During the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939, many Paradores were damaged or used as hospitals, taking the number from 83 to 40. The 1960s saw the greatest expansion, alongside a surge in Spanish tourism; today, there are 97 Paradores.