I’M NOT especially claustrophobic but we are heading deeper and deeper into the bowels of the mountain under thousands of tons of rock and my inner Chilean miner is making itself known to me.
Liliana, our chaperone, whispers furtive translations of our guide’s Spanish-only monologues but he’ll brook no interruption and barks at her until she dries up save for the occasional muttered aside. On we trek until the passage opens up into a great big cathedral of a cavern, a crossroads branching off to several different tunnels. Our guide points to a near vertical face stretching up to a chimney disappearing into darkness. He barks out a few words. Liliana whispers: “This is where Tito Bustillo and his friends entered the cave system.” We trudge onwards, sometimes on rock worn smooth by underground rivers, sometimes on loose scree, crossing trickling streams until we reach our destination. Our guide rattles on for a goodly spell, flashing torch hither and thither illuminating only more cave. He switches to an ultra-violet beam, training it on a wall close to where I stand. And there they are — horses, beautifully rendered in tones of umber, ochre and violet.
In an instant, I am overwhelmed: huge lump in throat, I well up and swallow deeply. The drawings are certainly sophisticated and, as our guide explains, technically innovative, but my response is beyond mere aesthetic appreciation — this is a wondrous living connection with human ancestors from 25,000 years ago.
North Western Spain, and the provinces of Cantabria and Asturias, will prove a revelation to those whose previous Iberian experience has been limited to sun, sea and sangria further south.
Santander is a pretty looking port town befitting further exploration but we have only time for a fleeting tour before dinner, a decent affair if not quite up to the standards of San Sebastian, the epicurean epicentre of neighbouring Basque Country, whose highly successful food tourism Asturias and Cantabria are attempting to emulate.
The next morning, we are off bright and early, first stop, Parque de la Naturaleza de Cabárceno. Anyone with reservations about enclosing wild animals will most certainly revise their thinking upon visiting this remarkable and expansive 1,900-acre park.
A geological curiosity, thanks to centuries of open pit mining dating back to Roman times, more than 100 species roam in loosely defined enclosures. Other than feeding the animals, it is pretty much wilderness business as usual including pitched battles for mating rights.
If you’ve despaired of miserable moulting bears in urban zoos, you’ll be gladdened by the sight of 60 or more Iberian bears lounging around, brown fur blending into the reddish-clay hillocks and mounds from whence they placidly observe their observers. To witness a troop of elephants walking single file, trunk to tail, alongside the lake down on their vast ‘savannah’ is to witness Africa transplanted, and a ‘raptor’ show sees a huge variety of birds of prey, including vultures, kites, kestrels, peregrine falcons and great American eagles, zooming in mere inches above spectators’ heads.
We leave Cantabria for the Asturian coast, a stunning drive, pretty little towns and pristine beaches strung out like pearls along a rugged coastline cooled by brisk Atlantic air. Another great draw for tourists or, in this case, ‘pilgrims’, is the coastal route for the Camino de Santiago de Compostela and we spot solitary souls stoutly plodding Westwards whenever walking route bisects highways, schlepping their way to salvation.
Los Picos de Europas National Park, at Covadonga, is supremely well husbanded, offering some mindboggling views for miles but the thousands of daytripping tourists crawling like ants across downy green slopes or milling around the crystal clear lakes, Enol and Ercina, storing second-hand memories through their viewfinders, rather emasculates these awe-inspiring mountains.
In one valley, a traditional shepherd’s holding, including a cheese-making dairy, is hemmed in on all sides by winding roads ferrying a steady stream of tourists and appears more akin to an enclosure than any back in Cabarceno, and though shepherd Antonio is a feistily endearing old soul, flirting cheekily with the young women, you’d wonder who’ll replace him after he’s gone.
Back down the mountain, we enjoy a splendid al fresco lunch in Molin de la Pedrera, in sleepy Cangas de Onis, the Hibernophile proprietor loading up the table with a considered rendition of the regional cuisine, blood puddings, pork stews, seafood, cheeses and the ubiquitous fabada bean. Though just a few miles inland, the afternoon sun is vigorous and we pine for the cooling balm of that earlier Atlantic coastal breeze, finding relief in a delightful riverside beer garden where we marvel at fearless urchins hurling themselves from an ancient bridge dating back to the middle ages.
If the route to Covadonga is designed to facilitate access for multitudes with minimal impact on the ecosystem, the route to the little village of Asiego, demands you sing for your supper: winding, at times, near-vertical roads that have some in our party recalling Alpine Switzerland.
Jose Antonio Bueno is the local entrepreneur: innkeeper, cider brewer and cheesemaker, and touristic mastermind behind the Ruta’l Quesu y la Sidra, a cheese and cider trail. Dusk is settling in we as pick our way through woodland scrub to the cave where Jose matures his Cabrales, a fine local blue cheese, but it has equally provided sanctuary to locals during troubled times in the past.
Back in his little cider factory, José wants to show us a short promotional film but we are more interested in his party piece, a remotely controlled stream of sidra that pours down in a thin stream from the ceiling. Sidra is traditionally poured by hand from a height to re-oxygenate the muscular dry cider and after a long day we’re keen to ‘stretch our arms’.
Back in his inn, we settle in for a simple and delicious repast of local cheese, meats, salt cod and salads, all washed down with sidra, plenty of volunteers from the ‘Irish Brigade’ willing to assay a little pouring.
The Tito Bustillo Cave with its incredible Rupestrian art is accessed through the Jurassic Museum of Asturias (MUJA), Ribadesella, and is named for the 18-year-old founder of the Torreblanca mountaineering group who discovered the cave system and its incredible artistic trove in 1968.
Tragically, Tito was killed just weeks later in a mountaineering accident but the UNESCO heritage site is a stunning memorial. Small guided tours are available between March and October and, as condensation from human breath will damage the paintings over time, it is, frankly, amazing to be allowed such access, a situation surely set to change in keeping with best practice at similar sites worldwide so visit while you can.
There is only time for a tantalising taste of the architecturally intriguing seaside town of Llanes before hightailing it for the airport but it is enough to whet the appetite for a return visit, next time with family in tow for sun, sea and sidra.
Belfast Restaurant Week returns this October (4-11) with the promise of a huge array of events that should make it a memorable week. Right now, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) is also pushing similar events in other areas of the north and details are available on 1850 230 230 or www.discovernorthernireland.com
Topflight has launched its biggest ever ski brouchure on the Irish market and predicts a market growth of 10 per cent in the coming months. The new brochure features 150 pages of destinations to include a French chalet experience with 50 properties to choose from. Tailormade holidays to the US and Canada are also available with prices from €749. Details on www.topflight.ie
J Barter Travel Group features upcoming cruises on tall ships that can be both short or longer experiences. A 10-day Treasure Islands package is available on November 26 and comes in at prices from €2,367. More follow throughout 2015 and details are available on: www.travelnet.ie/cruise/tall-ship-cruises.aspx
Children can explore the magical world of Peppa Pig in the dedicated theme park in Southampton. The Family Holiday Centre offers return flights and two nights accommodation plus entrance fees for €999 based on two adults and two children. Details on http://itaa.ie/peppa-pig-world-for-midterm/
Without breaking the bank, Travelnet.ie offers a whirlwind scarefest trip to Alton Towers to celebrate Halloween. The company has a 24-hour deal for €99 (€89 for children) with return travel on Irish Ferries (ex- North Wall, Dublin) and coach transfers on October 25. Visit: http://itaa.ie/halloween-family-special-alton-towers-scarefest/