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Spain 2011 - The Picos to Bilbao

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From the Picos de Europa to Bilbao

Ribadesella seafront looked interesting but we were thwarted once again by market day and nowhere to park so we drove inland to Arriondas and along the river to Cangas de Onis, the major town on the west fringe of the Picos de Europa mountain range. After parking in the large main carpark where there are four designated motorhome places and a water tap squashed into a corner we wandered around the many gift shops and restaurants to look at the Roman arched bridge. After lunch we drove east to Las Arenas intending to visit the funicular railway through the mountain up to Bulnes but the mist had descended so we drove back to the campsite at Avin.   

Cangas de Onis Roman bridge
Cangas de Onis Roman bridge
Covadonga shrine in cave
Covadonga shrine
Covadonga basilica
Covadonga basilica
The next morning we returned to Cangas and took the winding road up to Covadonga, a place of pilgrimage with a shrine in a cave, and where King Pelayo defeated the Moors, a significant victory at the beginning of Spanish history. There is a massive basilica and coachloads of tourists arrive daily. The road climbs further into the mountains to the lakes of Enol and Ercina but again we were defeated by the low clouds and swirling mists so we retraced our route to Cangas.

There are few main roads leading to the interior of the Picos and most of the walking routes require some serious trekking, but the main road down the western flank is an impressive but slow drive through the gorge of the Desfiladero de los Bayos said to be the narrowest gorge with a road through it in Europe. Luckily we only met about a dozen cars in the 35 mile journey before the road climbed over the Peurto del Pontón (1290m) to the rebuilt town of Riaño surrounded by a large reservoir and mountain peaks where we found a pleasant picnic place by an old chapel.
Riano chapel
Riaño chapel

From there the road north east steadily climbed across open moorland up to the Peurto de son Gloria (1609m) suddenly opening out to a terrific view across the mountains and the very long descent into a deep valley and the town of Potes, the main centre for the eastern Picos. We stayed at Camping La Viorna , within walking distance of the town where there was a large tower, now the town hall, a fine church and crowds of people in the gift shops.

Potes hiker statue
Potes Pilgrim statue

The next day we drove up to the blind valley of Fuente Dé and took the cable car 750 metres up to the plateau where luckily the clouds lifted for a while and we were surprised to find horses and cattle grazing on the rough meadows. We watched a couple of local men with a dog take the zigzag path up the cliff face but eventually they were out of sight behind a rock bluff. A truly impressive place.

After a lazy afternoon and a peaceful night we drove through another narrow gorge, the Desfiladero de la Hermida to join the main coast road heading east. The small resorts and beaches were very busy and we realised that it was a bank holiday weekend and we reached a large campsite at Ruiloba, a few miles inland from the resort of Comillas. On a short stroll from the site we met a young American couple, on their honeymoon, following the Camino de Santiago. They had only set off a couple of days previously and had never done long distance walking before! We wished them well and hoped they managed to reach their destination.

Comillas is worth a visit as it has some interesting sights as well as a pleasant sandy beach. A place we wanted to see was the villa, El Capricho, designed by Gaudi which had an amazing exterior with sunflower motif tiles and superb interior with wood carvings and stained glass windows. It is open to the public on certain days and also used for private functions. Nearby there were several other large mansions and the town is overlooked by the massive Universidad Pontifica which is approached by a Gaudi designed gateway. 
   Comillas Gaudi house detail
Sunflower tiles

Gaudi house stained glass
El Capricho window

Comillas Gaudi gateway
Universidad Pontifica - Gaudi gateway

With just one night left before catching the ferry from Bilbao we set off the next morning along the main road  to Santillana del Mar which isn't actually on the coast. The town is a major tourist hotspot but wasn't too crowded when we arrived mid morning and being a Monday some of the attractions were closed. Once past the gift shops and the museum of torture, the old town centre with its golden sandstone churches and mansions is quite picturesque.

Santillana de Mar mansion
Santillana del Mar mansion 
From there we headed east to Torrelavega for our final top-up shop but ended up in a Lidl as the large supermarkets had height barriers. We took the free autopista for a short distance then a busy and narrow straight road to avoid Santander and turned off to look at Laredo, a sprawling resort of flats and hotels on a massive sandy bay with low dunes. Many roads leading to the beach had height barriers but we managed to find one that as open for a lunch stop and short stroll along the deserted prom. We rejoined the motorway which passed through pleasant hilly countryside and turned off to the small town of Islares and the campsite at Playa Arenillas, a useful night stop by a small rocky cove, for our last night in Spain.

It was an easy drive of about 25 miles along the free autopista to the ferryport at Bilbao which was well signposted, to catch the Brittany Ferries Cap Finistere and a calm 24 hour crossing to Portsmouth.

Riaño reservoir

Potes castle
Potes tower


Fuente de cablecar
Fuente Dé

View from Funte De cablecar
Fuente Dé cable car - 750 metres

  Comillas Gaudi house
    Comillas - El Capricho villa designed by Gaudi
El Capricho window detail     El Capricho tower detail
El Capricho details

    Comillas Universidad Pontifica
  Comillas - Universidad Pontifica

Comillas beach
Comillas beach

Santillina del Mar church
Santillana del Mar - Romanesque church

Playa Arenillas Islares
Islares - Playa Arenillas

 Useful links:
Picos de Europa  Covadonga    El Capricho    Santillana del Mar

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