Thursday, December 26, 2013

Hiking in El Escorial

     Early December and the weather was great for hiking, so Emir, Camille and I took a train out to El Escorial to walk some trails. El Escorial is famous for the enormous monastery Philip II had constructed during the later half od the 16th century. It's only 45 kms from Madrid but I hadn't been out there yet, and still didn't get into the monastery. Instead, we walked past it and into the hills for some nice views. 

Part of El Escorial 
     When the monastery was being constructed, Philip II would walk into the hills and sit on a seat he had ordered to be carved out of rock so he could watch it being built. You can easily hike up to it and sit there yourself, which we did. 

The seat across from Philip II's, with El Escorial in the background
     We continued to hike up into the hills and the sun made the day nice enough to go shirtless and be very comfortable. At one point I was certain I was being burned, although fortunately I narrowly escaped it. It would be a bit embarrassing to get a sunburn in December.
Emir on a rock

     Later on we found some fresh oregano and after a nice lunch of chorizo and tomato sandwiches we got lost, as usual. We tried to take a different way back down but lost the path and decided the sun was getting a bit low in the sky to keep going on so we had to double back. As soon as the sun went down the temperature dropped about 20 degrees and soon we had our winter coats and scarves on again. All in all it was a nice daytrip hike. From the hills we could see the cloud of pollution settled over Madrid and it made us glad we had escaped for the day to get some fresh air.
In King Philip II's chair

Monday, December 16, 2013

Flamenco en el Ateneo

     Last weekend I attended a packed flamenco concert at the historical Ateneo in Madrid, a long-time cultural institution. The venue is attractive, with vaulted ceilings and gold leafed images on the wall. The show was divided into two parts. First to perform were singer Eva Romo from Granada and guitarist José María Ortiz from Jaén. Eva had a beautiful voice. They played a farrucatientos tangoscolombiana and bulerías, but the most powerful song was a granaína y media granaína, which is a flamenco form originally from Granada. During this song it felt as if her voice "moved through the notes without breaking them," as Lorca described legendary singer Silverio Franconeti in Poema del cante jondo. My chest tightened, and for the first time I realized how powerful a flamenco song can be. There was something about her pure voice quivering between notes that made my eyes wet.

Eva Romo and José María Ortiz
     After their performance, Madrileño flamenco singer Jesús Chozas entered the stage and sang a moving tonás, one of the oldest and purest flamenco forms. After, Pablo San Nicasio joined him and they played a carcelero and folía. Chozas has an incredible voice—booming, crisp, gravelly yet sweet. He is one of the most enjoyable flamenco singers I have heard. Pablo's guitar work was restrained and precise, an elegant display of accompaniment that showed his deep knowledge of the art.   

José Chozas and Pablo San Nicasio
Guitarist Alberto Espejo joined Pablo for a beautiful instrumenal and then all three played a garrotín, a flamenco form that originated in Asturias (a northern province in Spain) and was "flamenco-ized" like many other forms have been over the years. They finished with a fantastic rendition of a popular Spanish bolero from the 1940s, "Piensa en mí," which was revitalized a couple of years ago by the singer Luz Casal. Chozas' version is rousing and powerful, a perfect closing song. 

     The audience was left in ecstasies and demanded an encore from all five performers. They delivered, all three guitarists accompanying Eva and Jesús, who took turns singing verses.

From left to right: Alberto Espejo, Jesús Chozas, Eva Romo, José María Ortiz, Pablo San Nicasio
     The concert was an overwhelming success, and deepened my growing relationship with flamenco. When played well, it is an art that can produce strong feeling in both performer and listener. I look forward to following the careers of these artists dedicated to the art of flamenco. 

Saturday, November 30, 2013


     Recently I went to Ukraine for the first time, to see Katie. She is teaching at a university in Cherkasy as a Fulbright Scholar. I flew into Kiev and the next night we went to Cherkasy, which is three hours by bus from Kiev and located on the Dnieper river.
     But first thing's first. We got some Ukrainian borsch (a beet-based soup) at a place in Kiev called The Black Pig. It was delicious. We also ate great Ukranian dumplings, called vereniki.

     Then we visited St. Mikhailovsky monastery. We didn't get to St. Sophia this time, because it was closed the day we were there. But next time we will certainly go. 

     We walked around the city and stopped at a place to get blini. Blini are very thin pancakes made from buckwheat flour. They are very similar to crepes and even tastier. I got one filled with mushrooms and one with apricot jam. 

Eating my blini with an elderly Ukranian lady
     After going to the Fulbright office to listen to Katie's friends give a presentation, we took the bus to Cherkasy. Katie lives with a married Russian couple who don't speak English, so it's very good practice for her. Also, her room is enormous. Another plus is that the mom makes great food! I had several servings of her borsch. I really hope Katie learns how to prepare it.

     We visited the university where Katie teaches and I sat in on a couple of her classes. She mainly teaches fourth year students, and their English is excellent. Katie cooked some buckwheat with mushrooms and chicken for dinner and I decided I really liked buckwheat—so wholesome, so diverse.
     On Saturday we went to the market, which sells clothes, food, plants, etc. It's huge and pretty cheap. We bought some fruit and spices. 

     This was not a touristy trip. It was very relaxing, we ate good food and I got to see where Katie lives and works. It's a fantastic experience for her and she is a really good teacher. There are barely any native English speakers in Cherkasy, and not very many expats, which makes communication frustrating at times. But I think in the end it is very enjoyable and beneficial—and who wants to be comfortable all the time anyway? One of the best ascpects about living abroad is the distinct absence of complacency, replaced by the constant need to improve and learn how to adapt to a different culture and succeed in a foreign country.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

"Flamenco Hoy" Award Ceremony

     Wednesday night I was in a room with over a hundred flamenco artists and aficionados at the 'Flamenco Today' award ceremony. Many of the best and most important contemporary flamenco artists were present to receive awards given by the Crítica Nacional de Flamenco, a group of influential members of the flamenco community. It is an invitation only event and my friend and I were definitely the only non-Spaniards to attend. So, why did I get to go? Long story short, I know a girl who knows a guy who I now know. Long story a little longer, I am looking for a flamenco guitar and one of my friends knows a respected flamenco guitarist. The guitarist invited the girl I know to the event, but she couldn't go and sent me the invitation. I talked with the guitarist and he said he would be happy if I attended. The flamenco guitarist, Pablo San Nicasio Ramos, happens to be on the committee who elects the winners of the awards.

     The event was supposed to start at 9pm. We showed up at 9:15 thinking we might be late. I must've forgotten what country I was in. The presenters took the stage at 10:45. In the interim, we were served drinks and several tapas, and the room filled up. We got good seats at a table near the stage, which we shared with José Anillo and company, who won an award for best singer. 
José Anillo
     The presenters would give a few awards and then the 'house band' would come on stage and play a couple of songs. The room being filled with flamenco artists, I thought the audience would  listen closely and shout timely olés. Not exactly so. They talked amongst themselves, probably wanting to enjoy the rare occurance of so many artists together in one room.

    The winner of the best solo guitar album was Juan Manuel Cañizares, which was special for me because he started my still-growing obsession with flamenco music. He was there to accept the award.

Juan Manuel Cañizares
     Another winner was La Argentina, who I am looking forward to seeing at the Auditorio Nacional this year.

La Argentina
     After the show I met Pablo for the first time, who could not have been nicer. He is a well-respected music journalist as well as flamenco guitarist and has been generous in imparting to me some of his vast knowledge of all things flamenco. I even went to his house last week to try out a guitar he had, where I received my first flamenco ¡olé! 
     Needless to say, the award show was a success and I look forward to continuing my flamenco education this year.

The winners (All of the night's winners can be found HERE. )

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sigüenza, Pelegrina, and La Ruta de Don Quijote

     After a month and a half in Madrid, it was time for some fresh air. So Emir, Camille, and I took the train to Sigüenza, a small town 130km north in Castilla-La Mancha. The priest in Cervantes' Don Quijote was from there, and it has the typical cathedral growing out of the city's center, and the typical castle rising high above. We went there as a starting point for some hiking. As I mentioned previously, I've started a 20th century Spanish poetry discussion group, and the previous week we read two poems titled Castilla, by Ramón Machado and Miguel de Unamuno. It piqued our appetite to get out of the city and see the "Tierra nervuda, enjuta, despejada..." (Sinewy, dry, spacious land). So we picked a couple poems from Antonio Machado's book Campos de Castilla and next thing we knew we were hiking in the Fields of Castilla

     The plan we decided on was to hike from Sigüenza to a very small town called Pelegrina, about 10km away. The way there happened to be part of the ruta de Don Quijote, and took us through Castilla's arid land. 

     After losing the trail for a while (appropriate for the Machado poem we were reading about there not being a trail to begin with), we came across a shepard who directed us in the right direction. We walked to the ridge to which he pointed and saw Pelegrina in the distance. 

Pelegrina in the distance
Pelegrina from the campos de Castilla
     There are 19 inhabitants in Pelegrina. At the top of the village there is a XII century castle in ruins that met its demise during the war with Napolean toward the beginning of the 19th century.

Flowers on the way to the castle
The ruins of Pelegrina's castle

     The best part of seeing the castle was probably the ascent, because there was a fig tree with low hanging fruit. It was just one of the edible wild fruits we snacked on during our hike. The others included blackberries, Italian plums, and rose hip. 

     From the town we descended into the ravine, yellow with poplars lining the river. 

The ravine
     The sun was setting as we hiked out of the ravine and looked for a place to sleep for the night. There were goats, feasting on berries. 

Dining goats
     We had lentils, rice, muffins, and delicious figs for dinner. The night passed well, though very cold. It was worth it to see the stars. The next morning we packed up and headed back to Sigüenza to catch the train. 

View of Pelegrina from the ravine
Outside Sigüenza
     The hike was a success, as was the poetry discussion, which lasted more or less the entire trip because of our proximity to the subject matter of the poems. Below is Antonio Machado's poem about "el camino." In Spanish, the word for "walker" caminante and the path he follows is the camino. The direct relation of these words is much more evident in Spanish than in English, which makes for a lackluster translation. But now that you know the meaning of caminante and camino, I will give you a half-translation of the last two lines.

"Caminante, there is no camino,
but wakes on the sea."

     Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino, y nada más;
caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante, no hay camino,
sino estelas en la mar. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Surrealism at Fundación Juan March

Hey all, I've written another article for Madrid-based magazine ¡VayaMadrid!, and you can read it here:

It's about a great surrealism exhibit the Fundación Juan March has right now. Below is my favorite painting from the exhibit, by Joan Miró.

Joan Miró's Le perroquet.  [Source]

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Reflections On My Second Bullfight

     "The superiority...of the smiling hero over the frothing monster." 

     This summer I read Ian Gibson's biography of Federico García Lorca. In it, Gibson quotes from a letter Lorca wrote to the Italian writer Giovanni Papini. Lorca considered the bullfight an ancient ceremony, a "religious mystery" and "the public and solemn enactment of the victory of human virtue over the lower instincts...the superiority of the spirit over matter, of intelligence over instinct, of the smiling hero over the frothing monster." The bullfight, Lorca thought, was not a sport at all.
     Last year I went to my first bullfight after reading Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon, in which he too upheld the bullfight as as a tragedy rather than a sport. In fact, many writers and artist-types have thought highly of bullfighting. So, is it a brutal, reprehensible sport or a religious mystery, a triumph of humanity? Could it be both?
     The first bullfight I attended was a novillada, which pits less experienced bullfighters against slightly younger and smaller bulls. This year I went to a corrida, where ordained professionals dance with mature bulls. The afternoon had ups and downs. I find the hardest part to watch is when the bull gores the horse, nearly lifting it off the ground, leaving blood stains that show through the horse's protective padding. The fact that it takes so many people to kill the bull seems to detract from any sense of triumphant victory of man over bull. First the bull is let into the ring, run around by several banderilleros with capes, then the picador on horseback gores the back of the bull's neck with a lance, after which the banderilleros stab six sharp metal sticks into its neck. Only after this does the matador face the bull alone. Granted, the bull is still extremely dangerous and with one twist of his head could gravely injure the bullfighter. But the nobility of the sacrifice somehow seems lessened.
     Then there is the "public." The fans (and tourists) who attend the bullfight do not, for the most part, seem to consider the corrida sacred or spiritual. They shout obscenities, talk amongst themselves, and sometimes seem generally disinterested. This atmosphere does not lend itself well to the observance of a religious mystery. I imagine a mostly silent audience, completely involved in and fixed on the act before them, would better fulfill Lorca's poetic rendering of the corrida. Indeed, the audience sometimes seems more akin to the frothing monster than to the smiling hero.
     And finally there is the importance of "killing well", as Hemingway puts it. I don't believe I have ever seen a bull die well in the ring. I suppose it is the most difficult thing for the bullfighter to do. I thought it might happen last time I went, because by all accounts of the aficionados around me, and the entire rapt crowd, Manuel Jesús "El Cid" was working the bull flawlessly. Each pass drew robust shouts of olé from the crowd, and as he proceeded there was an energy in the air. It came close to the end. Someone next to me mumbled that El Cid must not try to kill too soon. Another hoped the bull would 'die well'. And so Manuel drew his sword, held it high in front of him, and thrust it between the horns. The sword didn't go in. The spell was broken and he knew he had come so close to triumph. After another pass he tried again. No good. And after a third, tortuous attempt, the bull fell. He was visibly upset that he had ruined such a good bull, that it had not died well. Even so, the crowd rebounded from the disappointment and urged him to make a pass around the ring so they could throw flowers, hats, jackets his way to honor such a great performance. Reluctantly, he did, but he knew very well that the victory had been marred.
     And so, after reflecting this past week, I am of the opinion that the theory of how a bullfight should be and how in practice it is carried out are two very different things. Certainly Lorca would agree that not all bullfights are as he describes them, but in fact only on rare occasions one might have moments of likeness. This is one reason why the practice of bullfighting is often abhorred and condemned by so many, yet others continue to dream of the smiling hero and uphold the ancient tradition based on the triumphal heights it could reach. At least in Lorca's case he created something beautiful out of such tragic events.

From Lorca's Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejillas, his friend and bullfighter who fell in the ring.

...Díle a la luna que venga,          ...Tell the moon to come out,
que no quiero ver la sangre          I don't want to see the blood
de Ignacio sobre la arena...           of Ignacio on the sand...

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Writing For ¡VayaMadrid!

     I recently joined the writing staff of the Madrid-based magazine ¡VayaMadrid! It "was founded in 2012 by Anna Bitanga and covers culture, style, people, cuisine, entertainment, travel, tech and innovation in Madrid. Our mission is to offer local information, expat insights and community content to the English-speaking residents of Madrid." My first article was published last month, and is about Madrid's great concert venue, the Auditorio Nacional. Here is a link to the article: 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Rubén Darío: Two Translations

     Last week a friend and I decided to start a Spanish poetry discussion group. Three members and going strong. We had our first meeting this Sunday, at which we cooked delicious chicken tacos and talked about a couple of poems by the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío. He was very influential in 20th century Spanish poetry, and as we plan on going through the major figures of last century's Spanish language poetry, he seemed a good poet with which to start. I chose two poems; "Sinfonía en gris mayor" from his 1896 book Prosas profanas y otros poemas, and "De Otoño" from Cantos de vida y esperanza published in 1905. The two poems are strikingly different in style and subject, showing the evolution of Darío's poetics from one decade to the next. I've translated the two poems. You can read them below along with the original Spanish. What do you think?

Sinfonía en Gris Mayor
El mar como un vasto cristal azogado
refleja la lámina de un cielo de zinc;
lejanas bandadas de pájaros manchan
el fondo bruñido de pálido gris.
El sol como un vidrio redondo y opaco
con paso de enfermo camina al cenit;
el viento marino descansa en la sombra
teniendo de almohada su negro clarín.
Las ondas que mueven su vientre de plomo
debajo de muelle parecen gemir.
Sentando en un cable, fumando su pipa,
está un viejo marinero pensando en las playas
de un vago, lejano, brumoso país.
Es viejo ese lobo. Tostaron su cara
los rayos de fuego del sol del Brasil;
los recios tifones del mar de la China
le han visto bebiendo su fracaso de gin.
La espuma impregnada de yodo y salitre
ha tiempo conoce su roja nariz,
sus crespos cabellos, sus bíceps de atleta,
su gorra de lona, su blusa de dril.
En medio del humo que forma el tabaco
ve el viejo el lejano, brumoso país,
adonde una tarde caliente y dorada
tendidas las velas partío el bergantín…
La siesta del trópico. El lobo se duerme.
Ya todo lo envuelve la gama del gris.
Parece que un suave y enorme esfumino
del curvo horizonte borrara el confín.
La siesta del trópico. La vieja cigarra
ensaya su ronca guitarra senil,
y el grillo preludia un solo monótono
en la única cuerda que está en su violín.

Symphony in Gray Major
The sea like a vast quicksilver crystal
reflects the sheet of a zinc sky;
distant flocks of birds tarnish
the burnished pale gray background.
The sun like a round and opaque glass
with an ill pace walks to the zenith;
the marine wind rests in the shade
having for a pillow its black bugle.
The waves that move their belly of lead
below the jetty seem to groan.
Sitting on a cable, smoking his pipe,
is an old sailor thinking about the beaches
of a vague, distant, misty country.
This old man is a wolf. His face toasted
by the rays of fire of the Brazil sun;
the harsh typhoons of the sea of China
have seen him drinking his flask of gin.
The impregnated foam of iodine and saltpeter
has long known his red nose,
his frizzy hairs, his athlete biceps,
his canvas hat, his cotton blouse.
In the middle of the tobacco smoke
the old man sees the distant, misty country,
where one hot and golden afternoon
the brig set off with stretched sails...
The siesta of the tropic. The wolf sleeps.
All is now enveloped by the scale of gray.
It looks as if a soft and enormous stump*
of the horizon curve erases the limit.
The siesta of the tropic. The old cicada
rehearses its senile guitar snore,
and the cricket preludes a monotone solo
on the only string that is on his violin.

*The Spanish word is not confusing, just technical. A stump is an art tool, “a cylinder with conical ends made of rolled paper or other soft material, used for softening or blending marks made with a crayon or pencil.”

De otoño
Yo sé que hay quienes dicen: ¿por qué no canta ahora
con aquella locura armoniosa de antaño?
Ésos no ven la obra profunda de la hora,
la labor del minuto y el prodigio del año.
Yo, pobre árbol, produje, al amor de la brisa,
cuando empecé a crecer, un vago y dulce son.
Pasó ya el tiempo de la juvenil sonrisa:
¡Dejad al huracán mover mi corazón!

Of Autumn
I know there are those who say: Why not sing now
with that harmonious madness of long ago?
Those do not see the profound work of the hour,
the labor of the minute and the prodigy of the year.
I, poor tree, produced, for the love of the breeze,
when I began to grow, a vague and sweet sound.
The time has now passed of the youthful smile:
Leave it to the hurricane to move my heart!

Friday, August 30, 2013

Oviedo: Or, A Personal Encounter With Spain's Healthcare System

“Oviedo is a delicious, exotic, beautiful, clean, pleasant, tranquil and pedestrianised city. It is as if it did not belong to this world, as if it did not exist ... Oviedo is like a fairy-tale.” -Woody Allen

     After two days in the Picos de Europa, Katie and I went to Oviedo, the capital of Asturias. Oviedo is a nice city to visit, preserving its long history while being a modern city. Among other things, the annual Príncipe de Asturias awards are held in Oviedo, which are presided over by Prince Felipe, heir to the Spanish throne. The awards range from the sciences to the humanities, and past recipients include Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen (who gave an acceptance speech that everyone should see). Woody Allen was awarded the prize in 2002, years before he filmed part of "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" in Oviedo, but which no doubt influenced his decision to film there.

Woody Allen statue in Oviedo
     The old part of town is typical Spanish, with small cobblestone streets, several plazas, and big churches. In one plaza we happened upon a wedding with traditional Asturian music (almost like Irish music).

     We were really looking forward to seeing the two pre-Romanesque churches located on a hill outside of town. Built in the 9th century, the churches have been very well preserved and are beautifully shaped. The first one below, Santa María del Naranco, was originally a palace but was later converted into a church. 

Santa María del Naranco
Side view of Santa María del Naranco
     San Miguel de Lillo, a few minutes away from the former palace, is even more beautiful and has a few original stone carved windows (covered now by plexiglass). It is wonderfully symmetric and, aesthetically, is one of my favorite churches.
San Miguel de Lillo
Side view, San Miguel de Lillo
     Back in the city, there is an old fountain called La Fonclada, which is the only surviving "example of civic construction intended for public use dating from the High Middle Ages" (9th century). 

     A few blocks from where we were staying is the famous Hotel de la Reconquista, which we wandered into after having a chicken empanada from a bakery. It was very nice inside. So nice, in fact, that the guy in front did not want to let us inside because we weren't staying there. I told him we might have a coffee from the café, so he let us in. I wanted to see the hotel because it looked great in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." It was also the hotel where Scarlet Johansson's character in the movie was laid up for two days with food poisoning. Foreshadowing? 

     A couple hours later, as it was time for bed, Katie mentioned she felt a little sick. I concurred. The next eight hours were the worst eight hours ever. When 8am rolled around and I was still on the bathroom floor, Katie said,
We have to go to the hospital.
I called a cab and stumbled out of the building, my body so devoid of water I couldn't feel my legs. We got into the cab. Ten minutes later we stumbled into the emergency room. I put my government issued private insurance card on the counter (it was to expire the next day) and was directed to lie on a bed. Apparently Katie gave them any necessary information and sat down next to me. The doctor said I needed an IV. I said I had never had one. There's a first time for everything. Katie said she had to go to the bathroom. She didn't make it out of the door. The nurse caught her as she fell and she was put on a bed too. 
     Four hours later the doctor told me we should stay overnight. That sounded ridiculous to me. Doesn't it cost a fortune to stay overnight in a hospital? 
Maybe in the United States. This is Spain. The insurance will pay for everything. 
Okay then.
Twenty hours later, we woke up, feeling better. The doctor came in.
So we can go now?
Maybe this evening. You have to eat something.
I'm hungry. 
Katie was no longer on an IV (both because she didn't have Spanish insurance and because she is stronger than I am, probably due to her stint in Moscow). She went to get a few things at the hostel and came back. Long story put out of its misery, we left around 8pm on the second day and decided we should call the trip over, even though we had two more places to visit. 
     I learned a couple of things from this misfortune. 1) Don't eat chicken empanadas that have been sitting in bakery windows. 2) My private Spanish health insurance is great. I had private insurance (with Mapfre, a big Spanish insurance provider), given to me by my job. Only around 18% of Spaniards have private health insurance. Principally because few can afford it, but also because there is universal health care in Spain. Part of the deal of the job I have as a Language and Culture assistant is that I am given private healthcare, which in hindsight is a great thing. I was admitted to urgencias (the emergency room) without any wait, was given a plethora of IVs for 36 hours, had a private room, and everyone was really nice to me. (Factor not taken into account: Spanish hospital not wanting an American to die in its care). So, for any auxiliares de conversación out there reading this, rest assured that the insurance given to us is good, and the hospital care provided is as good as in the United States, with the added bonus that you probably will not pay a dime. 
     As for the public healthcare in Spain, I can't speak about it because I have no experience of it. Has anyone out there experienced Spain's public healthcare system? 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Los Picos de Europa and Cangas de Onís

     We left Ramales de la Victoria and took a bus to Laredo, twenty miles north on the coast. The next bus to Ribadesella was full, so we bought some cherries and spent the afternoon on beach, which is a nearly four mile half circle. At some point I had to help some kids get a shoe out of a tree.

I'm the one in the tree.
     Later, we took another bus to Ribadesella, a couple hours west on the coast. We arrived before sundown and stayed in a nice albergue on the beach.

Boats in Ribadesella


     The next morning we took two buses to a roadside motel where we would take trips to the Picos de Europa (Peaks of Europe), a mountain chain split between the regions of Cantabria Asturias, and Castilla y León. We were in Asturias, home to the most famous sites of the Picos.
     After unpacking we got a ride into the nearest town, Cangas de Onís. This is a nice little town—more on it later. From there we took a bus to Covadonga, a hilltop town (population 58) and the site of the first Christian victory over the Moors in 722AD, making it the beginning of the long Reconquista (which lasted nearly 800 years). The town has a Christian shrine built in a cave on the side of a mountain and a modern church. Finally, we took a bus from there up to the Picos, climbing several thousand feet in a huge bus on a steep, one lane road with blind turns and two lane traffic. The bus would go careening around a tight turn, honking its horn to warn any oncoming cars to get out of its way. It was an impressive feat of driving. After about 25 minutes we arrived at the trailhead to walk to the Lakes of Covadonga.

Los Picos de Europa

         The trail was easy and along the way we stopped at a visitor's center and some abandoned iron and magnesium mine shafts before arriving at the lakes. A bunch of cattle graze along the shore at the foot of the mountains, making the setting both pastoral and immense. 

Cows at Lake Ercina

Lake Ercina

Panoramic of Lake Ercina and Lake Enol

     After walking for a couple of hours we headed back down the mountains and found a ride back to Cangas de Onís. There, we bought food for dinner. Asturias is famous for its cows. It boasts the best meat, milk, and cheese (some made from goat milk), so we loaded up on Asturian products to cook for dinner. These people are really proud of their meat. We saw a large billboard that had a picture almost identical to the one above of the cows that said something to the effect of "Raised in paradise, brought to your plate." 
"I'm not like the rest. I'm Asturian beef."
      Cangas de Onís was the capital of the kingdom of Asturias until 744 (Asturias has its own language, very similar to Spanish and a minority of the population there can speak it.) It has a Roman-Medeival bridge (completely rebuilt), and the first church constructed after the start of the Reconquista, built in 737. The church has been built a few times, most recently having been destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, and only the foundation stone remains. But the ancient dolmen on which it was built can be seen inside the church.
The "Roman" bridge in Cangas de Onís.
Santa Cruz church in Cangas de Onís.

Inside Santa Cruz church, looking down. The ancient dolmen, several thousand years old. 
     The next day, we walked the two miles to Cangas de Onís and took a bus (of course) to Las Arenas, a village less than an hour east of Cangas de Onís. We were on our way to La Ruta del Cares, a famous hiking trail along the Cares river in the mountains. From the town it was several kilometers straight up to get to the trailhead, so after walking for a little while we got a ride up there. The trail is about seven miles one way through the mountains, and crosses from the region of Asturias into Castilla y León. We were visiting about a week before high season, which meant that our transportation options were limited and, in this case, nonexistent if we were to walk the whole trail. Our only option would have been to walk all the way back to Las Arenas, and we didn't have enough time. So we walked a few miles of the trail before turning back. The trail is beautiful. You are surrounded by the limestone peaks with the clear blue river below. 
     At the beginning of the trail, we saw some mountain goats on the trail. What a nice thing to see. Until they started surrounding Katie and this enormous, wild-eyed, long haired black and white goat appeared (not pictured) and we realized there was a baby for him to protect. I'd say he was about like Goya's El gran cabrón. Eventually the light-hearted situation turned into Katie screaming and I picked up a baseball-sized rock just in case and made a move toward the three goats and they scrambled off, more out of pity than fear. 

Mountain Goat on the Cares trail
     So, after a rough start we continued on, rising in elevation and looking at the mountains around. The mountain range is formed from limestone, which is the reason for its craggy appearance, having been slowly eroded over the millennia. 

On the Ruta del Cares

Looking back from where we came, you can see the winding trail, which flattens after a couple of miles.

     As you can see, the trail is really incredible, and I wish we'd had time to do the whole thing. But it was just as well that we turned back after a few hours, because it was hot and we were hungry.

The Cares river below

          Visiting the Picos was a great choice, even without a car. The buses really can get you almost anywhere, although Spanish skills are highly recommended and we caught a few rides along the way and walked a fair amount. The history of Cangas de Onís just added to the beautiful scenery we were there for, the food was good and the region is more economical than the Basque country. The two routes we picked, the Lakes of Covadonga and the Cares Route, were distinct and breathtaking. On a trip to the north of Spain, the Picos de Europa are a must see.