Day 8 : Portilla de la Reina enroute to Fuente De and back
We’re going on a bear hunt.
We’re going to catch a big one.
What a beautiful day!
We’re not scared.
We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
We’ve got to go through it!
I never told Gerry why this thought jumped into my head as we set off today; I saved that news until we’d made it safely back to the car. Thankfully we never saw the bears that live in these mountains and we never had to go through the mountain either.
Today we’re tackling half of the Queen Stage of the Camino Vadiniense. We’ve had to break the stage into two because there’s no way we could walk over 40km up and down the mountain in one day. So we’ll do half today and half tomorrow. Fuente De to Portilla de la Riena is called is the Queen Stage because we’re crossing the Cantabrian Mountains reaching the height of 1,794 meters at Horcada de Valcavao. This is the highest point of any camino; although our altimeter made it a even higher! This stage is majestic and beautiful and isolated. In winter it’s impassable but in summer its simply stunning. It was this video of this stage that convinced me that this was the camino for us!
We set the alarm for early o’clock. Everything was ready for us to get up and go. We knew it was going to be hot and we knew it would take an hour and a half to get to Portilla. We knew we wanted to be done and on our way back to the car by midday.
Everything looked misty as we left Potes and we wondered if we’d end up having a day like the one we had crossing Hopitals and see nothing at all? But we needn’t have worried. The higher we drove the clearer it became. Up and up on the same mountain road that we took yesterday; a veritable mountain highway between Santandar and Leon although there’s very little traffic. This morning we were almost alone on the road apart from maintenance vans which drive along clearing up the frequent rock falls along the road; I kid you not, we drove through several today that weren’t there yesterday!
As we drove higher we passed an old couple, easily in their 80’s. She had a walking pole and he had a crutch and they were both wearing their high-viz jackets. They were sauntering up this mountain road as if they’d done this everyday of their lives. We’ve seen a number of old folks wandering these hills and we reckon it must be the secret to long life; if you’ve spent your life breathing mountain air and walking up and down these paths you’re going to have a heart of iron.
On and on we drove. Out of the blue Gerry started breathing heavily and muttered… Luke I am your Father. I looked across with disbelief? What? He pointed the village sign as we were leaving… VADA. We turned a corner and drove into a second village called BORES.. I looked at him and smiled and said nothing. He feigned surprise but I didn’t have to explain myself. Are we the only ones that behave like children when there are no other grown-ups around?
Up and up we drive until we reached a viewing point that yesterday we’d saved for today. We jumped out of the car and soaked in the views. I don’t know where we are. The road leads away from Fuente De but we’re still in the Picos and it’s still pretty spectacular. We jump back in the car. I feel happier now as the worst of the z-bends are over; I hate driving up and around z-bends and switchbacks when all there is between you and the side of the mountain is a little barrier.
Onwards and onwards, along roads where the fresh rocks have fallen overnight leaving small rocks strewn across our lane. Onwards and onwards and the sun is rising and we finally reach Portilla. We turned off and headed towards the mountain. This road is the camino and we plan to drive until we find a suitable place to park and we’ll walk from there. The road is narrow with steep sides; finding a parking space in these mountains is never easy. As we turn one bend Gerry hit the brakes. A young cow had got himself on the wrong side of the crash barrier and his mother and a few other cows were looking across at him from the right side. He was startled by us and almost ran into the car. He stopped in the middle of the road and just looked at us, unsure what to do. Thankfully he decided to move and we could drive around him… I hope he found a way back to mum!
Finally we come to a wide stretch of road with parking. This is our stop.
From Portilla it’s pretty much up all the way. We started walking but of course there were cows! There are always cows! They were spread across the road where were had to walk and in my mini panic coupled with the loss of GPS signal we made a wrong turn. We started going down but I knew that there was no down today. Gerry walked on a little and returned saying it was only down from here so we turned around and headed back up the hill. The cows have moved on and I manage to get a signal and thankfully we find the right path and start again. This time it’s definitely going up. We rise sharply at first and then the trail levels out to a more sedate hill. Up and up we go, switching back at times, walking along a path that seems to have been cut out of the side of the mountain. We’re in the heart of the Picos and as we walk up higher we see the great peaks all around us.
We paused for a cup of tea beside a water station and just soak in the views. I love our little flasks and cup of tea breaks! Gerry took a photo and sent it to our son; they’re both great fans of Game of Thrones (I’m one of the few people on the planet who never watched it). Apparently there’s a place in the series called the Wall and we’re walking towards Feunte De, also called the wall. Matt was suitably impressed.
Onwards and onwards, up and up, the mountain getting closer as we approach. Around every bend we see more details and a little more of this majestic path is revealed. We pass a mountain shelter… Gerry called it Jaba. He likes to name things. We explored the hut before moving on but before we started Gerry told me it was time to make notes… oh lord!
Today was a march in the hills
But the advice in my head was Bill’s
As we sat on a knoll
Eating a roll
With queso and altitude pills
I wanted to say so much, for a start this is no hill! But he looked so pleased I simply smiled and said it was fabulous. I do so love walking with this man.
We were making really good time. I wanted to reach the highest point today. This was our goal. But we had agreed that no matter what we would turn around at midday to avoid the worst of the heat. However we reached the pinnacle with time to spare so we continue onwards towards the mountain. We could make out a pilgrim walking on the other side of the valley. We could see the cows grazing on the very high pastures. We could see the snow line where the green vegetation ended and bare rock was exposed. We could even see the last traces of winter snow, still not melted. And we could see again the great vultures flying around the rocky crevices, no doubt looking for lunch.
It was midday. Time to turn around. We sat and paused and just took in the splendour of our surroundings.
My friend died yesterday. She was a fabulous, crazy, talented, welsh songbird who’d fallen in love with a French guitarist when she was 18 and followed him to France. Almost a year ago to the date we started our camino another very dear friend of mine died. They were both fabulous and both far to young to die. Nicky and her husband’s band recorded this song as a tribute for Dolores O’riordan, last night Nicky’s facebook page was covered with posts sharing her singing this beautiful song. We sat in this most glorious of places and played her song. I played it on full volume and sat on the side of the path and cried. I’ve lost three friends far too soon.
I told Gerry as we walked away that I imagined our lives together as we get older. I form pictures in my head of our children happy and settled in life. I imagine us with grandchildren, white hair and wrinkled skin. I told him that I do this so that it will come true. Life is fragile. Our world is fragile. We shouldn’t die in our 50’s. We walked on in silence, lost in our thoughts and silent tears rolled down my cheeks for the friends I’ve loved and lost.
Down and down and down and down we wandered. Retracing our steps back to the car. We stopped partway for a picnic lunch. Has there ever been a more beautiful place to eat a sandwich? We watched again birds of prey hover and dive and hunt. Walking in these mountains is a gift. Being so close to nature, surrounded by wild flowers and colour and life is a gift. Once we’d eaten our fill there was nothing for it but continue but it was hard to leave. I think I left a little part of me on that mountain. Down and down and down and down until finally we reached the car and air conditioning! Thank heaven for our UV brollies… the sun is really fierce in these mountains.
We drove back to Portilla and stopped for cold drinks and ice-cream. Gerry even managed to munch away a slice of freebie cake. Music was playing as we arrived… Janis Joplin – A Little Piece of my Heart (Nicky was a Janis fan and could belt out a tune like Janis too) … followed by Elton John – Candle in the Wind… Followed by Tears in Heaven by Eric Clapton. I smiled to myself and wondered if Nicky had chosen the playlist.
If we had walked our camino proper we would have stayed here in this little hotel; instead we enjoyed our drinks and returned to the car. Homewards.
What a glorious day to remind ourselves that life is to be lived.