THE first bear, or its ghostly heat signature, appears through the thermal binoculars about five minutes after we start looking. Without that expensive piece of kit – worth €6000, I’m told by field guide José García Gonzalez – we would never be able to see it in the dark before dawn, having just pulled up to the crash barrier at the edge of a high and lonely road above the Xunceras river valley. There it is, as rendered by the high-tech lenses: a brown bear showing white against the black of the opposite slope. A spirit animal moving across a near-vertical void.
As the sun comes up, the background resolves into focus. A primeval forest of oaks and chestnut trees, broken by sharp-angled patches of grass and scree, rising out of sight toward peaks cloaked and hooded by low cloud. From somewhere up there we hear a wolf howl. I respond on reflex with a little gibbering, but García holds a finger up to silence me, and then to point in the general direction of an answering howl.
Then another, and another. Five howls in quick succession, calling to each other along the invisible ridgelines. Soon after that, one of those wolves emerges from cover, just perceptible to the naked eye as grey-on-grey motion against the rocks. Using another high-cost bit of gear – a sniper-grade digital scope with x125 magnification – I watch that phantasmic figure sit, and yawn, and sniff the wind, and shake the morning drizzle off its fur much like a domestic dog.
When it vanishes behind the treeline again, García assures me that such a gorgeous sight is not common even here in the wilds of Asturias, the depths of Fuentes del Narcea Natural Park, the heights of the Cantabrian mountain range. He’s been up this way almost every day since March, in his capacity as owner-operator of the eco-tourism company Bosque Activo. Now it’s mid-October, “and that’s the first time I’ve seen a wolf this year,” he says.
In the same period he has seen many Cantabrian brown bears, who are more populous in Asturias than across the provincial border in Cantabria itself, and less elusive than the Iberian wolf who roams this same remote northwest corner of Spain. Both are endangered species, duly protected by the EU Habitats Directive and the Spanish Ministry of Ecological Transition. As apex predators, however, they present very different threat profiles.
We see two more bears this morning (females or young males, judging by their size, but García can’t quite tell at this distance) mooching around the boulders in a way I want to call “adorable”. After they withdraw, we cross the valley to find their paw-prints sunk into the mud, and the claw marks of bigger males slashed deep into tree trunks as warnings to potential rivals. Omnivorous as they are, the bears are not big meat-eaters, says García, and don’t tend to prey on other animals. They might push the occasional chamois off a mountain ledge, and clamber down to strip the carcass at leisure. The wolf, though, will frequently attack livestock.
On our way back to town we stop and chat to three flat-capped older farmers, who tell us about a calf killed the night before last, and half-joke about their nostalgia for culling wolves instead of coddling them. García knows these guys, and their grievances. He learned the lay of this land at a young age from his father, a hunter. That he would parlay his tracking skills into tourism is a telling measure of generational change on and around his home turf.
Asturias was once a medieval kingdom, a seat of power for Alfonso II, or Alfonso the Chaste, who became the first pilgrim to walk across his own domain to the tomb of Saint James in Compostela circa 814. For all the hikers who now follow his footsteps along the Camino de Santiago, and all the coal and cow milk delivered out of these mountains and pastures for nationwide consumption, the region has been somewhat marginal for a millennium or so.
Locals will tell you how cut off they felt from the rest of the country before the A-8 Transcantabrian highway was built in phases from the 1970s to the 2010s. Younger residents now tend to use that road as an escape route to better opportunities in bigger urban centres. Their choice is outlined in a rueful Spanish play on words that translates to “Asturias, or employment”. But entrepeneurs like García see the upside of that isolation: virgin forests, pristine valleys, rare and precarious wildlife, a rural culture that still exists in relative harmony with the natural world up here.
The bears are part of that equation. By the early 1990s they were almost extinct, but the last official census in 2018 counted 31 mothers with cubs among the population of this region, a comparatively healthy number that has only just bumped them off the critical list. Conservation efforts led by the Fundación Oso Pardo, or Brown Bear Foundation, have cultivated an ecological corridor so well-stocked with their favourite seasonal foods – blueberries, acorns, chestnuts etc – that they don’t always need to hibernate like they used to.
Asturias is cider country, and the bears will sometimes break into orchards for apples too. A victimless crime, you might say, though the smell of ripe fruit can draw them so close to villages that they need to be scared off with fireworks. More often, they conduct smash-and-grab raids on apiaries, stealing fistfuls of protein-rich bee larvae coated in sweet, sweet honey, then running away sharpish to evade the furious stingers.
They’ve been doing this so long that the honey farmers of Narcea started building bearproof forts called cortíns around their combs centuries ago. Later in the afternoon we go to see a few still in use within the nearby Muniellos forest reserve. Low clearings between ancient woodlands make space for orderly rows of brightly painted hive boxes, ringed by arcane-looking stone circles with high overhanging walls that bears struggle to climb over.
Lately these have been supplemented with electric fences to give any would-be Winnie the Pooh a mild shock and send him on his way. If and when an especially determined honey thief does circumvent these measures, the beekeepers are compensated immediately for their losses. The regional government doesn’t want bears becoming an enemy of agricultural business in the same way that wolves are now perceived.
Cortíns are just one of the signature structures that can make the distant past feel uncannily present in Asturias. Travelling the interior of the province over several days, my driver, fixer, nature guide and constant companion Fernando Abarquero Zorrilla proves especially attuned to those sites with a certain atavistic lure. An environmental scientist with a doctorate in the study of protected areas, he sometimes takes on a dreamy, wonderstruck aspect. He says he would wish to time-travel across the pre-Roman Iberian Peninsula, from Cádiz to the Bay of Biscay, to see how the whole landscape looked some 3000 years ago.
This part of it surely didn’t look so different, I’m thinking, as we enter the Somiedo Natural Park for a horseback ride through the Valle del Lago. And while my greedy steed (named Cuba Libre) stops again and again to eat fragrant autumn leaves, I am also thinking that this doesn’t look like Spain at all. Passing out of thick, wet riverside forest onto open meadows blurry with mist, the sounds of hooves and cowbells damped by vast surrounding silence, we could be in the Scottish Highlands, the Swiss Alps, the Dolomites, or even the Carpathians.
At the end of the trail lies a glacier lake that has been tapped for electric power and girded with a concrete containment wall. There on a grassy bluff above the water looms a much older stone hut with a thatched and sharp-angled roof, haunting the scene with its own pre-industrial energy. These are called teitos, and they used to be something like croft houses for whole families. Today they are relics, and a cluster of teitos forms a small local folk museum lower down the valley (www.somiedo.es/museos-y-patrimonio), while a few obscure specimens still stand as cattle shelters in this quiet corner of the country.
More ubiquitous all over Asturias are horreos: emblematic, geometric wooden grainstores pieced together without glue or nails, and raised on stilt-like pillars to keep their contents safely high and dry. The oldest of these have remained intact since the 16th century, reposing in as much mystic architectural genius as the region’s landmark pre-Romanesque churches, like Santa María del Naranco. We drive out of our way to see that remnant of the Dark Ages, a chapel and crypt on a hill above the capital, Oviedo. Its sinous columns frame socketlike archways that have stared out over the city for more than 1000 years.
But I’m no less impressed by the vintage horreo that leaves enough room to sit and eat beneath, outside the nearby hilltop restaurant Casa Chema. Under that granary canopy our waiter demonstrates the indigenous art of the cider pour, or escanciar, which requires the green bottle to be held high over a short glass, letting the liquid fall in a gold cascade that allows for the proper aeration. This place also specialises in the unequivocal essential of rustic Asturian cuisine: the buttery meat-and-bean stew fabada asturiana. Together they make for one of the best meals I’ve ever had in Spain.
Moving east into the Picos de Europa mountain range, we hike around the Covadonga Lakes, two mirrorlike glacial pools where visitors come to sit and stroll around the green banks as if they were ponds in an urban park. Averse to anything resembling a crowd – though there’s only a scattering of people at this time of year – Abarquero leads me off the main loop on a drover’s path through backwoods and over rolling fields.
We come to another kind of tiny farming lodge known as a cabaña del pastor, and owner Jose Miguel Larrea invites us in for a look. Almost everything inside is a functioning antique, not least the wood and iron utensils he shows us, designed for cooking subsistence foods like corn-based flatbreads over the open fireplace. Now 77, Larrea grew up in such a dwelling and spent his working life shepherding animals around it. This hut belonged to his wife’s family, and in their retirement they use it only for weekend recreation.
The landscape outside, says Abaquero, was shaped over eons. First by millions of years of slow-moving ice, then by many generations of men like Larrea, who lit fires on the mountainsides to clear grazing space for their sheep and goats. Those nimble, nibbling ruminants then “climbed and cleaned” the upper slopes in seasonal cycles that saw the livestock moved to lower grasslands in the winter, then back to high ground in summer.
Few herders work in these “transhumant” migrations any more, and the villages they built as high-altitude homesteads can no longer be sustained on livestock alone. Bulnes, a small community that could once be reached only on foot by climbing a hard mountain track, was all but abandoned by the early 1990s. A long tunnel was then blasted through the rock for a new funicular railway, which passengers have since ascended to spend money in a bucolic, touristic quasi-replica of what Bulnes used to be. From way up there we watch a distant flock of sheep flowing single-file along a narrow vein of rock, like woolly traffic through the valley.
Easy to imagine this as a process of endless circulation, but all the signals say it’s coming to a stop. Only a couple of herders still drive animals in and out of a nearby glacier basin known as Las Vegas. That name sounds ironic when you’re standing in it. The place resembles an abandoned ancient settlement of stonebuilt troughs and shelters, where sheep, goats and cows chew the grasses under karstic peaks eroded into weird shapes like alien temples. They’re guarded by a heavyset shepherd dog wearing an anti-wolf collar called a carlanca – thick leather armoured with wickedly pointy nails that make this gigantic mastiff look like a bouncer at a fetish club. His name is Tyson, we learn later from his owners Abel and Kaelia Fernández, at the village bar and grill they run to supplement their income.
“It’s just me and one other guy down there now,” says Abel, who may soon be the last in a long family line of herders. “Nobody else uses that site any more. And anyone who still keeps sheep and goats around here, it’s because they love it, not to make a profit.” To love it is to risk your life for it. He has lost several friends to the fatal slips and missteps that are an occupational hazard and a common cause of death up here. An animal gets lost or stranded against a sheer rockface, the herder is duty-bound to go after it, and the direst outcome is known by a reflexive verb that echoes through the Picos : despeñarse, or “free-falling”.
Fernández shows me an iPhone photo of a cow killed that way a few days ago, a grisly illustration that also demonstrates how bovines are not nearly as sure-hooved on this high ground as sheep or goats. At the same time, the cows are taking over. Less vulnerable both to wolves and to market forces, they are also becoming steadily more valuable in terms of EU-regulated trade prices and popular meat-eating habits. Abel and his wife maximise the value of their livestock through their hospitality business, by way of house specials like grilled free-range cabrito (goat) and cordero (lamb).
“We cut out the middleman to serve this food directly to our customers,” says Kaelia. “The meat on their plate comes from the sheep and goats they see around them and by eating it, they’re actually contributing to those flocks continuing to graze here.”
Gastronomy feeds into eco-tourism in this way, and may yet be the salvation of places like her husband’s birthplace of Sotres. The highest village in Asturias at more than 1000 metres above sea level, it’s been steadily depopulated by the decline of farming and mining – the closest spharelite mines at Aliva shut down in 1986 – but still has an abundance to offer the hiker, the nature-lover, and particularly the cheese-eater.
Cabrales, the region that encompasses Sotres and several neighbouring hamlets, also gives its name to the signature blue cheese matured in limestone caves that lie above and below. “The conditions are ideal,” says Jessica López Fernández (no relation to Abel), as she leads us through a metal door cut into the mountain and down through the cool, damp, lamplit darkness of a cave called Boca de Tejedo. “Ten degrees celsius and 90% humidity all year.”
Wheels of cheese at varying stages of ripeness fill wooden shelves in the depths, all made by Fernández, her husband, and their small team at Quesería Maín, using cow and goat milks. (Other brands of Cabrales are made with sheep milk, but Fernández doesn’t like sheep. “I think they’re foolish.”) She follows recipes inherited from her grandparents, but this cave was first used for fermentation purposes so long ago that “nobody even knows when”.
“I’m proud to be part of that tradition,” she says. “How could I not be?” As we surface again, I’m wondering if we could outlast the collapse of civilisation by locking ourselves down here to survive on drips of snowmelt and chunks of tangy blue cheese. My man Arbaquero, true to form, is thinking of the past – those prehistoric dairy farmers, those ancestral cheesemakers. “Imagine their lives,” he says. “Their routines. Their love stories.”
At close to midnight on this autumnal Saturday, I take a short walk out of Sotres, following the empty main street as it rises, bends and tapers into an unpaved trail that leads out past the last house to a limestone precipice. This makes a fine craggy balcony for viewing the Moñetas valley under a hunter’s moon so full and bright that it blanks out the stars and backlights the surrounding ridgelines. The Duje river looks like a thin silver filament far below, flanked by steep slopes in deep shadows. The dinging of goat bells sounds out of the dark – music to the ears of the wolves, no doubt. The way of life that started down there has not quite yet perished from the Earth, but for a moment I feel as if I’m floating high above its grave.