Springtime In Green Spain: Time To Get Out Into The Countryside, And Under It!

Green Spain
Green Spain has finally emerged from a miserable winter into a glorious if unreliable springtime, so it’s time to get out and enjoy the region’s natural beauty.

The northern coastal strip of Spain consisting of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Region has the best outdoor and underground adventures the country has to offer. Its combination of scenic hikes and extensive caves is thanks to the predominance of karst, a type of stone the weathers quickly with water. As you can see from the picture above, rain turns exposed karst into strange, picturesque shapes. When water flows underground it carves out long caves.

One of the best places to see this at work is the Parque Natural de Collados del Asón in Cantabria. Less than an hour’s drive from both Santander and Bilbao, this 11,700-acre natural park is cut through by the Asón River and several smaller streams. Those and the frequent rainfall have scoured the terrain into a series of gorges and cliffs. A network of trails provides lowland rambles past traditional farmhouses and challenging climbs up to rugged and snowy peaks. The dark mouths of several caves beckon to you from the trailside, but these aren’t places to explore without training and preparation.

The weather was glorious the day we went. When you have a fine day here in the north, you get outside. Luckily, you don’t need good weather to get some exercise. The next time I went out we were pelted with a chilly northern rain, perfect conditions to explore Green Spain’s other outdoor attractions – its caves.

Caving is big here, with several organizations and adventure travel companies ready to show you the ropes. And for many caves, ropes are what you’ll need. As water cuts through the stone, it often finds fissures and plunges downwards, gradually widening them into vertical shafts. Rappelling into Stygian darkness is one of the best thrills caving has to offer.

One cave where you don’t actually need ropes is Cotera Cave, not far from the famous prehistoric painted cave of Altamira, 20 minute’s drive outside of Santander. The entrance isn’t terribly inviting – an almost invisible trail snarled with brambles leads to a low opening where cows take shelter from the rain. Cows, being cows, have left more than their hoof prints behind.

%Gallery-186970%Picking out way past the cow patties we turned a corner and entered a large chamber. Sadly, the walls were covered with graffiti. The vandals weren’t very adventurous, though, and we soon left their ugliness behind.

Cotera is a wet cave. For much of the route we sloshed through ankle-deep water as more dripped on us from above. This action creates the formations that make caves so alluring. Cotera appears to be a fairly young cave since there aren’t many large stalactites or stalagmites. Instead, we had baby formations in the form of soda straws, which with enough water leaving mineral deposits on them will eventually grow into stalactites.

At times, the cave narrowed down into tiny crawlspaces we had to worm our way through. Often these shafts took lung-crushing right turns or plunged down at 45 degrees so that we scooted down slick clay into a welcoming puddle. In this sport a “taste of adventure” tastes like wet clay, and the grit gets stuck between your teeth.

Once the cave had covered us in grime, it decided to wash us off by making us crawl along an underground stream with a low roof. There was no choice but to get on our hands and knees and splash trough chilly water. We spotted a couple of underwater passageways leading off into the unknown.

We let them stay a mystery. Cave diving – a combination of spelunking and scuba diving – is extremely dangerous and best left for the truly crazy.

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Caving In Northern Spain

caving, Spain
After living a year in Santander in Cantabria, northern Spain, I had a problem. I was chronically, unutterably, and perhaps terminally bored. Santander is a sleepy regional town, and while weekend hikes and trips for Gadling helped ease my boredom somewhat, I was still not getting my drug of choice – a long-term, low-level adrenaline high.

There’s nothing like it. Do something captivating and somewhat perilous for a period of a few hours to a few weeks and you’ll feel more alive than any amount of booze or drugs can ever make you. My trips to Iraq and Somaliland were two of the biggest benders of my life, but they also came with a bad case of withdrawal. So, at age 43 in a town I didn’t like, I needed to find a regular adrenaline fix.

How about learning an extreme sport in a foreign language with a bunch of people half my age?

Yeah, that should work.

Cantabria is one of the best regions in Europe for caving, and luckily the Federación Cántabra de Espeleología offers annual classes. I already had some experience caving in Missouri and New Mexico, but that was 15 years ago. Plus techniques are somewhat different in Europe and technology has changed over time. So I took a beginners’ class. This is not the sort of sport where you exaggerate your ability. That could land you in serious trouble.

%Gallery-181190%The course started off with a series of lectures that provided me a long list of Spanish words I hadn’t picked up making the rounds in bars. This was followed by a practical class at an abandoned quarry. While most of my fellow students were from the local university, I was glad to see a couple of others who looked like they knew what it was like to have kids instead of just be one.

We spent all day learning to ascend and descend. Unlike rock climbing, the point isn’t to take the most challenging way up a cliff, but rather get up there as easily as possible in order to save energy for exploring the cave. You wear a harness similar to a climbing harness. For ascending, you tie into the rope with a Croll, which has a blocking device that allows you to go up the rope but stops you from moving down. Another device that locks into the rope is called a puño (fist) and has a strap with a loop that goes around your foot. The puño has a blocking device like the Croll and you move up the cliff by doing a series of one-legged deep-knee bends, worming your way up the rope like a caterpillar.

For descending you switch to an locking pulley called a Stop that allows you to safely rappel down. Switching from ascent to descent requires securing yourself with the aid of two carabiners on ropes tied to your harness and making sure you disengage and secure the equipment in the proper order.

Beginners at a sport always expend far more energy than they need to. I was no exception. Once I got to the top of the quarry wall for the first time, I started switching over from my ascending gear and securing my Stop so I could descend. Each step is safe if you do it right, because at least two devices are securing you to the rope or wall protection at any time. Despite this, my mind was still in rock climber mode and I was trying to do it all with one hand as my other hand gripped a ledge. One foot was on a good hold and the other had a halfway decent smear.

This, of course, was entirely pointless since I was properly secured through my gear. Just then one of the instructors popped his head over the cliff top.

“Why are you hanging on?” he asked.

I didn’t have an answer for him.

“Let go,” he told me.

I let go.

“Now hang there for a minute.”

OK, lesson learned. I got back to work.

“It’s easier with two hands, isn’t it?” he said.

We finished the day worn out but successful. The class all made it through the techniques without injury, even that older foreign guy who made everything more difficult for himself.

Now came the real test: Cañuela Cave in the beautiful Sierra de Cantabria. Our instructors were easy on us and picked a cave with little technical work. The entrance is like an airplane hanger, a huge hole in the hillside sloping into darkness. Not far in, the tunnel starts to narrow and the floor gives out. The only way to continue is along a rounded hump that slopes off at a steep angle to the jagged rocks below. A rope is secured along it and by tying in with the carabiners attached by short ropes to our harness we were able to traverse this pretty quickly.

Now all daylight was behind us and we started to see rock formations such as stalactites, stalagmites, curtains and more. The route opened up into echoing galleries and then narrowed down into smaller rooms. One room was nearly circular and fringed with stalactites reaching almost to the ground, making it look like a giant petrified birdcage.

A bit beyond, we had to use the Stop to descend a cliff. A second, deeper one came later. I couldn’t see the bottom from my vantage point. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m scared of heights. All through university I went rock climbing in order to conquer my fear. I never did; I only learned to ignore it and get on with what I was doing. Discovering that you can live with the source of your fear without being affected by it was the most important thing I learned in university.

I thought I may have trouble with caving, but it turned out I didn’t. At the quarry I was too busy fiddling with the new equipment to even notice. In the cave, not being able to see the bottom made going over the edge easier somehow. No, that doesn’t make any sense – phobias never do.

More wonders followed: a lone bat clinging upside down to a rock, stalactites formed at an angle because of air currents, fossils stuck into the wall. Check out the gallery for just a small selection, and stay tuned for more underground adrenaline highs. I’ll be going into more detail about the world underneath our feet and the sport that helps you explore it.

[Top photo by Sean McLachlan. Bottom photo of yours truly wearing his helmet at a rakish angle taken by Dani “that guy in the caving class whose last name I should have learned.”]

caving, Spain

Two day hikes in the mountains of Cantabria, Spain

Cantabria
As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’ve moved from Madrid to Santander, in Cantabria in northern Spain. This region is part of what’s often called Green Spain, made up of the four northern regions of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and the Basque Country. I’m loving life by the sea and I’ve been busy exploring Cantabria’s countryside, which offers some of the best hikes in Spain. Green and mountainous, northern Spain is unlike most people’s popular conception of the country.

I discovered a local hiking group via a Couchsurfing friend. We go every other Sunday and the group also acts as an intercambio, or language exchange, which are very popular all over Spain. It’s a good way to practice your Spanish, French, German, English, Italian, or Portuguese. There’s also an Irish guy who insists on speaking to me in Gaelic because of my name. If he keeps it up I’m going to start speaking to him in Amharic.

My first hike with them was through the Reserva del Saja, a reserve in the cordillera Cantábrica. This is one a popular destination for hikers from Santander and is only about 40 minutes by car. The hike starts at Bárcena Mayor, a cluster of stone houses nestled in the woods by a mountain stream.

%Gallery-140381%From there we hiked along a dirt track through woods bright with fall colors. An amateur mycologist kept heading into the woods in search of mushrooms and soon had a sackful. Like in other parts of the world, some mushrooms in Spain are toxic and you shouldn’t pick mushrooms unless you know what you’re doing. He showed us one particularly nasty variety that will give you permanent liver damage if you eat it. After a long walk we humped over a steep ridge and on the other side saw a large pool fed by a couple of waterfalls. This made a peaceful stop for lunch.

When hiking with Spaniards, be prepared for their later eating hours. Our lunch stop was at about 2PM and some people commented that we were stopping too early. Another culture shock came when I brought out my practical wilderness lunch of a sandwich, chocolate bar, fruit, and water. Many of my hiking companions busted out elaborately prepared meals, fine cheese, even bottles of wine. The Spanish know how to live well, and don’t see why they should stop doing so simply because they’re miles from the nearest paved road.

My second hike through the cordillera Cantábrica was from the town of Ampuero, about half an hour’s drive from Santander. This is in the Ason-Aguera region. Our goal was to climb Mount Yelso, also also known as Mojon Alto, to see a prehistoric menhir, or standing stone. This mysterious ancient stone stands in a prominent location from which you can see the surrounding countryside as far as the sea.

Of course getting there was half the fun. The fall colors are wonderful in Cantabria at this time of year. We tramped through a forest past a mysterious cave entrance and a sinkhole hinting at another cave. This is one of the best regions for caving in Europe and in future posts I’ll be sharing my experiences under Cantabria. Some of these caves have prehistoric paintings dating back 10,000 years or more. Others go down more than a kilometer and if you want to see the whole thing you have to pitch camp and sleep underground. Cavers from other parts of Europe have been known to move here just so they can be closer to the amazing caving opportunities.

At times the forest opened up and we passed green fields where cows, horses, sheep, and goats grazed. We enjoyed sweeping views of the mountains all around and the play of light and shadow over the landscape as the shadows of the clouds passed overhead. The weather can be unpredictable in this part of the world so Cantabrians are in the habit of enjoying the outdoors any time the weather is favorable.

The hike ended, and all hikes should, with a trip to a local tavern before the short drive home.

If you’re passing through Santander, feel free to look me up (just Google me) and with enough prior notice I’d be happy to introduce you to the group and see that you have a fun hike in the mountains of Cantabria.

Hiking in Cantabria, Spain: my first day out

Cantabria, Spain, Green SpainAs I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m no longer living in Madrid and have moved to Santander, a port in Cantabria on Spain’s northern coast. Cantabria is part of Green Spain, the area that includes the regions of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and El País Vasco.

This strip of land situated between high mountains and the sea gets plenty of rain and doesn’t look at all like the common perception of hot, dry, sunny Spain. Santander is only five hours’ drive from Madrid but feels like a different country.

The main things that attracted me to this region are the outdoor activities: the sea, hiking, and caving. It has a much lower cost of living than overpriced Madrid, which is good news for travelers as well as part-time residents such as myself. It’s also more social than a big city. Thanks to the friendly folks at Couchsurfing, I already have a couple of offers for hikes and a spelunking group I can join.

Yesterday was my first day in my new home. The friend who helped me move was still around, so after a glance at the map we headed out to the Parque Natural Collados del Asón, about 30 minutes inland and deep in the mountains. This park covers 4,020 hectares (9,934 acres) of the Cordillera Cantábrica and some of the most beautiful mountains in Spain.

The drive took us up winding mountain roads past sheer cliffs and forested hillsides. Nestled in the valleys were a few stone farmhouses and herds of cows. Tall peaks, some well over 1,000 meters (3,281 ft.), towered around us. This is one of the best regions for caves in all of Europe and I could see the entrances to several as we drove past. Some were dark holes high up on cliffs, while others lay at the bottoms of sinkholes by the side of the road. Many are open to the public and some even have Paleolithic cave art of prehistoric men hunting extinct animals 15,000 years ago.

%Gallery-134360%The village of Asón is on the edge of the park and surrounded by tall peaks. While this was the least remote part of the park, it felt truly rural. The village is only a couple of dozen buildings and the few residents we saw stared at us with open curiosity. We parked the car and chose one of the shorter hikes, an 8 km walk to a waterfall.

The path gradually climbed through thick forest and over a couple of streams. We passed only two small groups of hikers in the three hours we were out there and saw nobody else. We did have company, though, in the form of herds of cows and the biggest slugs I’ve ever seen. Check out the gallery for a photo of one of these monsters.

At the river Asón we had to hop from rock to rock using a stick to steady us. Once while doing this same stunt in Missouri my foot slipped and I fell headfirst into the water. The bottom half of me landed on a flat stone so I was only wet from the chest up. Luckily I didn’t embarrass myself this time and my camera survived to take shots of the waterfall just upstream.

As you can see from the photos, it was a stunning cascade hurtling over a sheer cliff. Vultures wheeled about overhead, riding the air currents and hoping one of us would conveniently die. The whole scene was so alien to what I’ve experienced in Madrid in the past few years–lush forest, cheer cliffs of gray rock, a mild temperature, and no people.

My friend looked around and remarked, “I think you’ve landed in the right spot.”

Yes, I think I have.

Several long-distance trails crisscross this park and I’ll be sure to explore more of them in coming months. I may not be back for some time, though, because living anywhere in Green Spain you’re really spoiled for choice. All of the mountains have trails and caves, and little villages have restaurants serving up local specialties. I’m also planning trips under Cantabria and will be writing up my reintroduction to spelunking in future posts.

Five things I’ll miss about Madrid (and four things I won’t)

MadridAfter six years of living part-time in Madrid, my family and I are moving to Santander, a port in northern Spain. Leaving a European capital of three million people for a regional city of less than 200,000 is going to be a big change.

Santander is in Cantabria, part of the rainy northern part of the country commonly called Green Spain. Stay turned for articles about this often overlooked region and its amazing mountains and coastline. I’m especially looking forward to having a beach a short walk from my house. I’ve never lived by the sea before. . .New York City doesn’t count!

Anytime I move, there’s always mixed feelings. I’m a bit tired of Madrid, but there are many advantages to living there. Besides my friends, here are five things I’ll miss:

Culture
With three major art museums, dozens of smaller ones, several Renaissance churches, and countless art galleries, Madrid is an art-lover’s dream. Film lovers will want to check out the Cine Doré, an elegant old movie theater showing art films and old classics for only 2.50 euros ($3.50). It’s a cheap and entertaining night out.

Nightlife
Madrid is one of the best places in the world for nightlife. When friend and fellow author Claudia Gray came to visit, she was blown away by the number and variety of bars, nightclubs, and late-night restaurants, and she’s lived in NYC, New Orleans, and Chicago. I can’t go out on a juerga (pub crawl) without finding at least one new place I want to visit again. Malasaña and Lavapiés are my two favorite barrios.

My mother-in-law’s cooking
I lucked out in the mother-in-law department. She’s never nosy, never bossy, and she’s an awesome cook. Foodies say that home cooking is always the best, and I have to agree. I’ll miss those Sunday lunches!

Hiking in the Sierra de Guadarrama
While the hiking in the Cantabrian Mountains with their green valleys, rugged peaks, and countless caves is going to be better than anything I’ve had in Madrid, I’ll miss hiking with the folks at Hiking in the Community of Madrid. This organization was founded by two expats who have written a guidebook to the Guadarrama mountains near Madrid and other special spots. Their mixed Spanish/expat group outings are a great way for visitors to try something different and meet some locals.

Bar Bukowski
There are places that become your own. Sadly, the economic crisis has closed most of Madrid my favorites down. My favorite literary cafe, favorite bagel shop, favorite arthouse cinema, and favorite video store all shut in the past year. This makes it easier for me to leave. Yet I will miss Bar Bukowski, with their friendly staff, their readings every Wednesday and Sunday, their micropress of poetry and short story chapbooks, and their overly generous mixed drinks. There is only one Bar Bukowski, and it ain’t in Santander.

%Gallery-132872%Not everything is rosy in the Spanish capital, however, and there are at least five things I won’t miss at all.

Pijos
The nouveau riche of any country are annoying, and Madrid has a whole lot of them. They’re the pijos and pijas, and they are ruining this country with their overspending, overbuilding, and risky speculation. Living in an ancient and rich culture, all these overly dressed idiots can talk about is perfume, handbags, manbags, and cars. And of course how much they spent on them. Growing up in the U.S. I developed a healthy disrespect for the aristocracy, but after several years in Europe I’ll take a clueless, cultured blueblood over a grasping, superficial pijo any day.

My apartment
Because of the pijos, housing prices in Madrid have skyrocketed in the past few years. Despite being a two-income family with only one child, we can only afford a two-bedroom apartment. It’s in a decent barrio, but it’s a cramped, bunkerish little place. We’ll be able to afford a much larger place in Santander. If we sold our Madrid apartment and moved to my part-time home of Columbia, Missouri, we could buy an antebellum brick house with more space than we need!

The dog shit minefield
Dogs have become trendy here in recent years, but cleaning up after them certainly hasn’t. Walking in Madrid requires constant vigilance to avoid the regular droppings scattered across the sidewalk.

Urban living
There are a lot of pluses to living in a big city, and a hell of a lot of minuses. I want open space. I like living in a place I can walk out of. I don’t want my son thinking trees grow from holes in the sidewalk. Santander is much closer to nature, with mountains and the sea in constant view. That’s how we’re meant to live.

Have you been to northern Spain? If you have any recommendations I’d love to hear about them in the comments section!

[Photo courtesy Greenwich Photography via flickr]