Armed with bike, camera, and plenty of curiosity Werka Szalas set out for a month on the road in Northern Spain. The main focus of her trip was to visit the Picos de Europa National Park in the province of Asturias but she couldn’t help spending time detouring through Leon and Cantabria, too. Read on and check out her gallery for a closer look at a few of the lesser-known corners of Spain.
Hey! I’m Werka. I ride my bike a lot, usually with camera strapped to my back. For the last few years, I’ve been working remotely from Tenerife, Canary Islands during the colder half of the year and bikepacking through European mountains during the warmer part.
This season I decided to start my adventure in the north of Spain. The inspiration came from coming across Picos de Europa National Park somewhere online a couple of years ago and I’ve been wanting to explore it since. I initially had the province of Asturias in mind, where the park is located, which then led me to travel through Leon and Cantabria, too.
But like all good travel stories, the beginning of mine had a twist to it. I arrived by plane to Oviedo in the late evening and it was well past midnight until I finished assembling my bike and I found a camp spot in the dark at a nearby beach. It was a short night. The next morning I woke up quite tired and, in my grogginess, didn’t notice losing my tent poles somewhere during the first 15 km. I must have attached them incorrectly… sheesh. I went back and forth few times but no luck.
I found a Warmshower host (it’s an app where people offer accomodation to bike travelers) in Oviedo and decided to wait couple days for the new tent that I ordered on Amazon prime as, naturally, it was not possible to replace only the poles. Fortunately my host, Jesus, turned out to be a fun and caring human being. “Have you tried some cider yet?” he asked one evening. Drinking cider is a big tradition in Asturias. We went to one of many cidrerias in Oviedo. I thought you just order a pint of it, like a beer. Instead, the only option is a 750 ml bottle. A waiter comes to pour it for you by holding the bottle really high and glass really low so the liquid looses acidity on its way. Then you are supposed to drink it straight away and all at once. The waiter comes for another round in few minutes. I’ll admit: it’s very tasty and it works very quickly. After couple days of drinking large quantities of very good coffee (Jesus was a barista), having many chats and exploring local area, the new tent arrived and I was ready to go.
I set off in the direction of two natural parks: Las Ubiñas-La Mesa and Somiedo before heading to Picos de Europa. I came across those places while spending some of my evenings scrolling through the maps online and checking out satellites mode. The idea was just to pass by… The weather wasn’t exactly on my side with many rainy days and temperatures reaching max 8 degrees Celsius during the day and around zero during the night but somehow I enjoyed the moody clouds; they seemed to fit into this landscape. It was a quite unusual May in the north of Spain.
As soon as I cycled into Somiedo Natural Park, I was endeared by the area. Good gravel paths, flowers in full bloom, barely any people outside villages as the summer season hadn’t kicked off yet, meeting locals mostly in the bars… I spent a couple days around there. One of the highlights was meeting Cristina in Lago del Valle. She took me and two French girls I met at the campsite for bear spotting. There is a population of 300 bears that inhabit the Cantabrian mountains. This, as well as the presence of wolves and nutrias in the area made it feel special (there as not as many places in Spain, or Europe in general, where you can find them).
This time of the year, female bears (sows) move to caves, usually above 2000 m, with their little ones (cubs) in order to hide away from males bears. That means you can watch them safely from the valley through the telescope without disturbing their natural behaviors. Male bears in that time look for the sows with cubs and kill the little ones to be able to mate with females again… The brutal rules of nature.
As I was leaving this area I cycled up Puerto de Somiedo where I spotted a gravel path that took me into Babia y Luna Natural Park and then Parque Natural Las Ubiñas – La Mesa. I kept mixing up those parks and provinces as I was usually crossing their borders off road and they were not obvious, neither had signs. One time I felt quite embarrassed when I said in the grocery store “Asturias is so beautiful!” and the lady looked at me mercifully and answered: “You’re in Leon, darling”… People living in Asturias, Cantabria and Leon are very proud of their regions, apologies if I confused them sometimes!
The scenery was full of beauty and tranquility, the temperatures were uncharacteristically chilly for May though. With high humidity and wind I was struggling to keep warm for some days. I bought extra woolen socks and gloves in a local (and only) supermarket in the area. While cooking outside my coffee would get cold before I started to drink it and I felt on edge of getting ill. I realized how much energy being constantly in the cold takes up, much more than cycling itself.
I found an albergue in Torrebarrio as I wanted to rest and feel warm again. I saw that Katerin, who was running it, was a photographer too. When I looked at her photos I had a feeling that we would connect well. And as we very quickly did, my stay extended into eight nights of which we spent two venturing together into the mountains and spending a night there. The days were passing and I kept exploring the area without my bike bags which was a blessing as all the paths had great surface but very steep gradients. Even the road climbs were usually two digits steep.
One day Katerin loaned me her warm fleece and as I was standing in front of her wearing it we both had a laugh because it felt like I was gonna move in there soon.
It was a truly peculiar start to the summer: wearing woolen socks, fleece and sitting by a fireplace, but that mood was serving me well at that point of my journey and after an intense winter in Canarias. Although the thought of staying there forever was tempting, I decided to leave and continue towards Asturias.
A couple days later, I finally reached Picos de Europa. I got a smile of my face as I saw big rocky mountains on my way: the range is small but stands out from the landscape around. I cycled down the steep dead-end road through the canyon into Cain de Valdeon and then back up. I stayed at a campground that night and met a French couple in their 60’s who invited me to join them for a glass wine. They’ve been expats for 30 years living mostly in Ivory Coast in Africa and old Turkey. They expressed their disappointment as both of their children recently bought flats which meant they are settling down instead of traveling. Ha, first time I saw it like this rather than the other way around! We exchanged contacts for the future as they invited me to their house in France if I pass by.
The next couple of days were the most spectacular on my route. Steep yet very beautiful off road into the heart of Picos de Europa; the tranquility of the morning with the light slowly making it’s way into the valley, perfect weather, the contrast of green grass, blue sky and light gray of the mountains…perfection. I kept stopping during the descent to take photos before going through another spectacular valley into Sotres. I cycled up Jitu de Escarandi for the night with a lot of cow and horse traffic crossing my road. That place really stole my heart! I met two guys in the camper van on the top and they invited me to join for a drink. They said they were policemen and somehow I thought they were joking until the next morning when six Guardia Civil cars pulled up and 30 people in military uniforms set off into the mountains at 8 AM. The safest camping spot I could have imagined… Not sure whether it was that, wine or the cowbells but I slept like a baby that night.
The next morning I cycled my way up to Refugio Caseton de Andara. Many refugios in Picos, like Andara, are run by a single guard who comes to open them on request. He can cook a dinner for you if given prior notice, too. The places are very basic, without showers or electricity. In some of them, the bedroom is always open as an emergency shelter. The access roads was in very good condition but I had to often push because when I ran out of easier gears. I continued into the province of Cantabria and got blown away one more time with the off-road riding and the landscape. I don’t think it was as much the views itself but rather the fact that I’ve never seen photos from this area before so I didn’t know what to expect and I kept getting surprised over and over again.
After some extra planning to figure out how to leave my bike in a safe spot, I hiked to Vega de Uriellu and through Ruta del Cares in the following days. Both were spectacular and I recommend them if you are in the area!
I was saving Lagos de Covadonga for my last day as this is the most popular road climb in Picos and the one I was recommended the most. I cycled from Arenas del Cabrales towards Covadonga on Sunday and the traffic struck me. Probably a mix of good weather, the season picking up as June approached, and the fact that I’ve been mostly cycling off road and on secondary lanes since I entered Picos… I went up Lagos on Monday at 8 AM hoping for less crowds. Well, maybe it was quieter than on the weekend but then I wouldn’t want to be there on Sunday. The Lagos itself and last few kilometers of the climb are beautiful but the many taxis, vans and cars that passed on the climb took away a lot of charm of that place for me. At least the legendary Vuelta España climb got ticked off!
I’d made plans to visit my friends Ana and Diego near Bilbao the following day and cycled the lesser-known but very charming Alto del Torno then descended back to the Asturian coast. I had been detating whether to take a bus or a train and as I made it to the station the train was on the platform—closing its door in front of me.
I made my way to a nearby, quiet beach and immediately had no regrets about getting left by the train. White sand, crystal clear water, lush green cliffs with grazing cows—It looked like a place out of the fairytale.
There was no one on the beach and I got tempted for a skinny dip. Skinny dips always feel so liberating! I then pushed my bike through a path to the cliff that had a lot of flat green grass and was free of cows. I sat there on the top watching the sun disappear into the sea and the sky turn red, then pink, purple before finally settling into navy as the stars began to appear. I lied down my mattress and sleeping bag on the grass, finally deciding to put up the mesh from the tent too as there were big bugs around that kept flying into my face. That night the lullaby was cicadas and waves crushing into the rocks. More times than not I find that my quality of sleep is so much better when sleeping outdoors. With only the sound of nature, being warm inside a sleeping bag and fresh air outside of it… When I don’t put an alarm clock on, I often sleep up to 10 hours, something that never happens indoors.
The next morning the sun was fully out as I prepared coffee and breakfast; I just felt so light and happy inside. I chilled on the grass for couple hours. There was no one around, all cliffs and sea to myself. I don’t want to sound antisocial but I love waking up in beautiful places with no people around – something that it’s not so common in Europe!
It was when lying on that grass I realized I had been on the road for a month, on the coast again less than 100 km from where I started. On this last Asturian morning I felt simple happiness, a feeling I would like to keep in a little jar and be able to share and release when needed. I went for another dip before making my way to the bus for Bilbao. I was leaving with a slight hunger for more, but that’s how I like it, to leave these places with good memories and the hope to come back one day…
By the end of this trip my friend Louise asked me if I would like to join her for a week of bikepacking in Iceland after she rode the ultra cycling race the Westfjords Way Challenge. I thought a week was too short to travel to a new country so I decided to take part in the race, too. That’s how the idea for the next chapter of my travel – to Iceland – was born. It has many stories and I can’t wait to tell you about it soon.