The Picos de Europa mountain range in northern Spain is incredible. On the Asturian side we recommend travelling to both Bulnes and Covadonga to see two very different places. The contrast between these two beautifully located villages is striking, but did you know that you can’t drive to the former? You have to go on a train ride quite literally through the mountains.
Let’s start with Bulnes then. This extraordinary village is located high up in the mountains but without vehicular access. That makes it a very special place indeed. First you have to drive to the bottom of a funicular railway at Poncebos. Parking is an issue as the car park was full and almost every inch of roadside space was occupied for miles around. The next stop was the ticket office which is run by the bus company Alsa. You can buy the tickets in advance but even if you do, the online vouchers still have to be exchanged on the day. The trains run every half an hour from 10am until 8pm with a short stop for lunch. A return journey will set you back €22 but you can save €5 by walking back down – a hike that will take you an hour or so apparently. Before you know it you are travelling almost a mile and a half through a concrete tunnel. It was an eerie experience but not as claustrophobic as it sounds!
At the top station you emerge into stunning scenery and, hopefully, beautiful sunshine. A track takes you up to the village of Bulnes about half a mile away. There’s not a lot in the village but there are a few choices for refreshments. This is a walkers’ paradise with many trails off into the mountains. There is a fairly easy option taking just half an hour up to a view point. Longer, more complex and difficult routes are available for the more adventurous traveller! We opted for the easy way followed by a relaxing drink by the stream. Unless you are seriously into hiking, you’ll probably need just a couple of hours at the top of the funicular.
There are some accommodation options at the top and at the bottom. You are also pretty close to the incredible Ruta del Cares, a walking path through gorges and valleys, cut into the rocks and crossing narrow bridges over the river. It’s definitely on our list for next time!
Our other stop was in Covadonga where we enjoyed a night in the Hotel El Repelao. Staying there allows you to take a short walk up to the Santuario de Covadonga, surely one of the best located cathedrals in the whole of the country. It was built to commemorate the battle of Covadonga around 718 AD and was said to have been a catalyst in the reconquest of Spain.
As you make your way back down you will find the entrance to the Holy Cave of Covadonga. Outside there are vending machines selling candles which you can leave as an offering at the altar. Signs everywhere say no photography but very few people were worried about that! It was a wonderful location for a shrine and we were lucky enough to see some wedding photos taken by the lake beneath it.
The plan had been to visit the nearby Covadonga Lakes the following day. A narrow road winds its way 12 km from the village to the lakes (a frequent stage on Spain’s La Vuelta cycle race) and during high season private vehicles are not allowed to negotiate its twists and turns. Instead you have to travel on buses at a cost of €9 return. Sadly for us there had been an incident on the road and only small vehicles could pass. Rather than allow private vehicles on the road, the only options were private minibus or taxi which we were not prepared to pay for. It’s a shame as it looks an incredible place. Maybe next time!
If you travel to the Asturian side of the Picos de Europa, don’t forget to go to the Cantabrian side too!