It is difficult, almost impossible, to either see or capture them on camera, but they are there. In the south-west of Asturias, Somiedo’s Valley and Nature Reserve is home to the largest Cantabrian brown bear population in western Europe.
SPAIN is the second most popular tourist destination in the world after the USA. The majority of visitors come in search of sun, sea, sand and the unrivalled Mediterranean lifestyle. But there is another side to Spain that is largely unknown to the holidaymaker, a world away from sought-after sunny beaches and closer to the rolling green pastures of Europe.
For those who are interested in less popular destinations it is a pleasant surprise to visit a Spain that is lush, green and fertile. A place where the sun puts in an appearance at times but is not as relentless as further south. A place where the food is richer and more abundant and mass tourism is a distant memory of other, far-flung parts of the country.
Asturias is possibly one of the least-known autonomous communities among foreign tourists and is, without a doubt, the most beautiful and ideal for those seeking nature at its purest. In Asturias, you will find wide-open spaces impeccably preserved. Among these, Fuentes del Narcea nature reserve, Degaña e Ibias, the Picos de Europa national park, the nature reserves of Redes, the Peña Ubiña-La Mesa, the Ponga and, bear’s paradise, the Somiedo nature reserve.
How do you get to Somiedo?
Somiedo nature reserve is situated in the south of Asturias, bordered to the north by the town of Belmonte de Miranda; to the east by Teverga; to the west by Cangas de Narcea and Tineo, and to the south is the border of Castilla y León.
There are two main routes into Somiedo – from the north, starting from Oviedo and taking the N-634 towards A Coruña, then heading for Belmonte de Miranda from which you cannot miss Somiedo.
From the south, head towards Madrid then take the A-6 towards Benavente and from there, the N-630 in the direction of León. Just before you get there, turn off towards the A-6, direction Oviedo, and continue until the reservoir of Barrios de Luna. Here, take the Villablino sliproad and, without leaving the highway, continue on to Piedrafita de Babia where you should follow the signposts towards Puerto de Somiedo. The journey to Somiedo from the south is spectacular.
After crossing the district, or comarca, of La Babia in the province of León, the visitor will begin to see a vast change in the landscape. This is where you begin to enter the Spain of the eternal Scotch mist, where the climate and conditions have shaped both the mountains’and the inhabitants’ evolution. Continuing through a rocky, grassy landscape scattered with small villages, you eventually reach, the Puerto de Somiedo. There is not a nature-lover on earth who would be able to resist the temptation of stopping the car and getting out to admire the view.
The panoramic view is spectacular. A landscape of majestic, imposing mountains and dry-stone walls crossed by gentle streams, bathed in a crisp, clean mountain air. Standing at a giddy 1,480 metres above sea-level, the Puertu, as the people of Somiedo call it, is a privileged location for the walker, bird-watcher or incidental tourist. On the other hand, living there is tough, an arduous experience, particularly during the winter months. In the past, the area was only inhabited in the summer when the vaqueiros de alzada (migrating livestock farmers) brought their charges to higher pastures. Nowadays, people live there all year round and it is a popular area for mountainwalking trips, such as climbing the Cornón, the highest peak in the district.
Taking a trip to the Cornón cannot and should not be missed. If you are planning to stay a few days, at the very least you should take a walk along the footpath leading to the Cornón. This route takes you directly into the towering mountain range, one of the nature reserve’s main ecosystems, a rich landscape of great biological and environmental value. From here, continue alongthe lane towards Pola de Somiedo, the capital of the district or comarca and main town where most of the Somiedo population lives.
Bends in the road leap out at you, and can catch the driver unawares, so be on the lookout. Additionally, grazing livestock tends to roam freely and it is quite common to suddenly come across cows or horses in the middle of the road. As you wind your way down towards the valley, you can take in the stunning countryside of this beautiful part of the world. Mountains and woodlands crossed by chattering brooks, are interspersed with tiny, quaint villages.
A journey of around 13 kilometres takes you to Pola de Somiedo, where you will findthe nature reserve’s information offices (Tel. 98 576 37 58). Pay a visit to find out all you need to know before visiting the park.
Pola is a small town with all the basic facilities and is ideal to visit in the evening after a hard day’s walking. While there, pop into the Hotel El Meirel, near the river, and enjoy their succulent cheese-based tapas (Tel. 98 576 39 93). For those who enjoy a tasty cut of meat, a great place to recuperate and recharge your batteries is the Sidrería Carión at the village’s entrance (Tel. 98 576 34 41). Here, enjoy a vaca roxa steak, named after Somiedo’s native cattle breed, a species that has adapted to tough, local mountainous conditions.
Accommodation choices are numerous and in almost any town or village you will find casas rurales (country houses adapted as hotels) and apartments of the highest quality.
It is strongly recommended to spend the night in the valley that you wish to explore on foot, since this will save you time and hassle trying to find the route by car. One suggestion is to go back a few kilometres over where you have walked and spend the night in Caunedo, a hamlet of just 73 inhabitants.
Despite its diminutive proportions Caunedo provides a number of places to stay. If you are travelling with children and need several rooms, contact the Núcleo de Turismo Rural Caunedo (Tel. and fax: 98 576 36 19) where you will be meticulously looked after by the efficient and friendly Agapito and Vanesa. They have first-hand information about any practical issue that may be bothering you.
If, on the other hand, you are travelling as a couple or with friends, you will love La Casona de Lolo (Tel. 98 576 34 70). Its apartments are excellent and every detail is taken care of – they also have a terrace and restaurant. La Casona de Lolo’s restaurant is like an oasis, its dishes exquisite and customer service second to none.
Within its nearly 30,000 hectares, the Somiedo landscape is incredibly abrupt – its altitudes vary from 395 metres above sea-level in Aguamestas to 2,194 metres at the peak of the Cornón. In fact, the name ‘Somiedo’ comes from the Latin word summetum, meaning ‘country of high mountains’. Its intricate rock formations are sliced apart by the valleys of Pigüeña, Somiedo, Valle and Saliencia.
The climate is cool in the summer, with relatively mild winters but with frequent snows above 1,200 metres and abundant, well-distributed rainfall throughout the year, the maximum rainfall being in winter.
Differences in altitude and the fact that Somiedo is situated on the border between two climate zones means the area’s wildlife is vast and varied. With more than 1,125 different flora and fauna species, this is where almost half of the total number of Asturian species exists.
One particular species of shrub worth a mention is the Colutea Hispana, a type of senna known in Spanish as the piorno. This is the basic construction material for the brañas rooftops, typical rural houses built in the valley.
The flora maintains and provides food and shelter for at least 170 species of vertebrates, of which the mostseen group are birds. With more than a hundred bird species in the area, it has been declared a ZEPA (special protection zone for birds), mainly due to the presence of rare species such as the Cantabrian capercaillie tetrao, the grey partridge and the black woodpecker.
Yet anyone visiting Somiedo for the first time generally goes in search of its most illustrious inhabitant – the brown bear. The reserve is home to the main population of brown bears in western Europe. It is this fact alone that gives an idea of the state of conservation of the area’s woodlands and mountains.
Other mammals found in the area are wolves, mountain cats, deer – including roe deer, wild boar, otter, chamois (a goat-like creature native to European mountains) and plenty of others.
Let’s not forget that many of these endangered species are very sensitive to disturbance by humans. To protect their habitat and maintain current numbers, you will find the park is cordoned off in places and parts of it restricted to the public. In main woodland areas walking is not permitted and the main rambling routes follow lanes that, for centuries, inhabitants of the valley have used for grazing livestock.
An excursion that comes highly recommended is the Braña de Mumián route, which is about a three-hour round trip. The highest point of the walk is the Mumián Brañas, or rural houses which are beautifully preserved. The route from Llamardal goes uphill, but gently so and you will cross meadows, beech copses and dramatic rock formations. Once you have reached the brañas the view is spectacular and this is where the piornal hare’s habitat can be found.
If you get up very early there are plenty of opportunities for catching sight of chamois wandering loose, or catching the occasional roe deer unawares in the watermeadows.
Somiedo valley has 37 villages in total, although some are completely uninhabited in winter. We have already described the most interesting ones, but it is highly probable that if you are there for several days you will not want to go walking all the time. So, take the car out and lose yourself in some of the most remote corners of Asturias.
Also recommended is a visit to La Peral. This is a village of vaqueiros de alzada, or livestock farmers, although these days in winter it is almost totally uninhabited. This said, the views are impressive and the village retains a traditional flavour.
For the more adventurous, there is a short route from Pola de Somiedo towards Aguino and Perlunes. These small villages are practically uninhabited and show how people used to live here just a short time ago. Some residents continue to live off the land and livestock. The road is very narrow and although just eight kilometres from Pola de Somiedo, where there are phone connections and the internet, it is a truly primitive part of the world where
the villages blend in completely with their natural surroundings.
This is bear country, say residents. When you enter Perlunes you have the impression that this is where nature imposes its own rules. Looking carefully at the rocky cliff faces you will easily see chamois, which often come quite close to the village.
It is in these villages where you can see, more intensely than ever before, the reality of life in Somiedo, which appears to be stuck in a timewarp and where nature at its most aggressive rules the roost.
Most visitors’ favourite village is La Bustariega, at 20 kilometres from Pola de Somiedo. This is one of the best -preserved, with its stone houses and paneras (wooden buildings for storing foodstuffs and tools) which form some of the popular architecture of the area. If you take a stroll through its streets – some unsurfaced, be warned – you will see hens roaming loose, small fruit orchards and, depending on the time of year, the odd field of potato or escanda, a locally-grown type of wheat that the popular Asturian escanda bread is made from.
At this point on your trip it is likely you have found yourself drawn towards this effortless blend of human and natural life, which is never more evident than with the brañas. These rural houses have their roots in Celtic culture and are wood and stone constructions with the roof made from bits of locallygrown shrub. They have been used for centuries as homes for farmers who brought their charges to higher grounds to seek out the best pastures.
You can see these brañas in more than 50 places in the Somiedo nature reserve. Some of the best-preserved are the Pornacal, Mumián, Sousas, Murias Llongas, Morteras de Saliencia and Endrogas. The brañas continue to be used in some cases and there is always a pathway leading to them. In fact, many of the signposted walking routes in the reserve lead to them oruse these lanes to get to other parts of the valleys.
Scaling Dizzy Heights
For rambling fans, Somiedo is an unrivalled destination. The walking routes are not as challenging as in the Pyrénées and the Alps, its mountains are less steep and yet, once again, you will see nature at its most exposed.
This means there are also many routes in the Somiedo mountain ranges that are unmarked, that only experts with extensive local knowledge are aware of and which are not recommended for the uninitiated.
But if you want to aim high, there is no better way than to visit the Puerto de Somiedo and the Lagos de Saliencia areas. Way up the mountain, the climate changes rapidly, so you need to take every precaution. Snow can remain at the summit until as late as May, particularly in shaded areas.
The five-hour Los Lagos route is one of the most visited in the summer and is best explored in the morning to avoid mists that tend to fall during the afternoons and evenings.
While planning your walk, bear in mind that if you are energetic enough you can get as far as the Carabazosa lake and catch a glimpse of the Del Valle lake. It is these lakes that give the route its name.
The mountain fauna tends to remain hidden and isoften difficult to observe, but this area is the kingdom of the golden eagle and the chamois, both relatively easy to see in the lake area with the help of a good pair of binoculars.
In Somiedo, some animals can be seen easily, though others may only be glimpsed in passing. With a keen eye, it is possible to spot a path along which a wolf has recently passed, plus you may well come face to face with a small roe deer by the stream as you turn the corner.
They are all there, even if you can’t see them, and the fleeting chance of coming across one of these unique inhabitants is very real and highly exciting.
Somiedo Valley and its bears on the internet
www.somiedo.es (English version)
www.fapas.es (Information about the brown bear)
www.fundacionosopardo.org (More information about the brown bear)
www.osodeasturias.es (Asturian bears)
www.naturetrek.co.uk (Wildlife holidays)