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.

Low Line may become New York’s first underground park

The High Line park in New York City has received widespread acclaim for its excellent reuse of old, elevated rail. Formerly a freight line that ran along part of the west side of Manhattan, a slice of track was recently seeded with plant and parklife to create a stretch of elevated public space running through the city, and the High Line is now a must-see for many visitors to the city.

So how else can old space be repurposed for the public good? By creating underground parks, of course. New York Magazine released renderings of a proposed Delancey Underground or “Low Line” this weekend that shows a potential plan to turn an abandoned trolley station in the lower east side into a public park, complete with piped in light from the surface above.

The community is set to start discussing the project later this month, and depending on their outcome, the park could begin development soon thereafter.

Check out the full spectrum of renderings over at the NY Mag website.

Hiking in a natural park near Madrid

Madrid, Spain, hiking, Peñalera
While Green Spain, the rainy north of the country, is Spain’s popular place for hiking, there are lots of good hikes near the capital Madrid. The Comunidad de Madrid encompasses not only the city, but also several large parks, rivers, and mountains crisscrossed by numerous trails.

Yesterday I headed to one of the most beautiful spots in the region, El Parque Natural de Peñalara, an hour’s bus ride from Moncloa, one of the major bus stations in Madrid. I went with the group Hiking in the Community of Madrid, run by two American expats who have the only English-language hiking group in Spain’s capital. They’ve also written an English language hiking guide to the Community of Madrid that I’ll be reviewing once the publisher sends me a review copy.

The group leads weekly hikes from Madrid except in summer (when many people leave) and the depths of winter. It’s very popular and international. On this trip there were hikers from Spain, the USA, Canada, England, Wales, Colombia, Venezuela, the Philippines, Switzerland, and two tourists from Hong Kong who are spending a week in Spain. They told us that hiking is hugely popular in Hong Kong and their hiking group has 6,000 members! The Madrid group has “only” 1,600 fans for their Facebook page, so they have some catching up to do.

%Gallery-125381%The bus left us at Puerto de los Cotos and immediately we felt the difference from Madrid. At 1,795 meters (5,889 ft.) the air is cooler and much fresher, and we spotted patches of snow on some of the surrounding peaks. From there our trail led us downhill 8.7 miles to town of Rascafría, a drop of about 600 meters (1,968 ft.).

The path took us through thick woodland and over a fast-flowing mountain stream. This caused a bit of trouble because the path went right up to one of the widest parts, impassable except for a pole vaulter, and innocently continued on the other side as if there was no obstacle. Everyone spread out to look for a way across. I hopped a series of rocks, grabbed a tree, and swung over to the opposite bank. Other people found better or worse ways to get across. Luckily there was only one set of wet feet.

Shortly after this we came upon a pond overgrown with plants and scum. We heard it long before we saw it because it was alive with frogs croaking merrily away. I managed to get a shot of one of the little guys. See if you can find him in the photo gallery. Another hiker caught a lizard.

From there we continued on through pine forest to the Monasterio de Santa María de El Paular, founded in 1390. The grounds are worth a half an hour of wandering to see the quiet cloisters and fine stonework. There’s also a black Madonna in a chapel by the gate. Some of the monastery is closed to visitors because monks still live there, while another part has been turned into a Sheraton hotel!

From there it was a short riverside stroll to Rascafría and the traditional post-hike beer in a lovely outdoor cafe. These hikes cost 12 euros per person and include lunch, snacks, and the first round after the hike. Bus fare isn’t included and came out to nine euros. All in all, a cheap and fun way to explore some of the Spanish countryside and meet Spaniards and internationals.

Alternatively, this hike is easy to follow on your own. Once you get to Cotos, however, it’s wise to stop by the information center within sight of the bus stop and pick up a map. They have some interesting displays that are worth seeing if you can read Spanish. Did you know lichen can live up to 200 years?

Photo of the day – monastery in the mountains

Photo of the day

It’s appropriate that this cable car in Montserrat, Spain leads to a monastery, because I’d be praying the whole ride that we made it safely. Perhaps other visitors are less height-adverse because this is one of the most important religious sites in Spain, with many people making the trek each year up the mountain to pray at the sanctuary. It’s not just for pilgrims: Santa Maria de Montserrat is home to one of the oldest printing presses in the world, a museum with such art biggies as Picasso and Dali, and a nature park with some stunning views of Catalonia. Want to visit? It’s about an hour from Barcelona, more visiting details here. Thanks to Flickr user othernel for making the climb.

Want to share your favorite travel photos with us? Add them to the Gadling Flickr pool and we may just use it for a future Photo of the Day.

Bronx Zoo cobra on the loose takes Manhattan…and Twitter

Bronx Zoo cobraOn Friday, an adolescent Egyptian cobra escaped from New York’s Bronx Zoo.

The reptile house closed immediately after her escape, and zookeepers are saying she could take weeks to come out of hiding. While we can’t vouch for the authenticity of the snake taking Manhattan, you can follow her adventures on Twitter, where @bronxzooscobra has been chronicling the travels of the errant snake with over 25,000 followers and counting. So where does a young snakess on the town go?

She first mused over a Broadway show, then taunted followers with her location in front of “the original” Ray’s Pizza (good luck checking all 46 locations claiming to be the first). After taking in the other wildlife at American Museum of Natural His(s)tory, she went downtown for a workout at Equinox Gym and a slither atop the High Line park. The Bronx Zoo cobra then tweeted about getting tickets for Jimmy Fallon before spotting Tina Fey at Rockefeller Center and heading back downtown to Wall Street. Despite asking for a vegan restaurant near Union Square, she ended up way uptown at Tom’s Restaurant from Seinfeld, where she may have found a hiding spot for the night in an unsuspecting apartment. Where will she go today?

Any New York travel tips for the cobress? Have you spotted any snakes, tweeting or just taking in the sights? While she is just 20 inches long, she is venomous, so watch your ankles!