Days 18 & 19: The Cliffs of Asturias

Llanes/Po > Cuerres > La Isla
September 24 – 25, 2017

The morning started out with a frenzy, well a slow frenzy, as they searched for a sock of mine that went missing when they brought back my laundry. In the normal world a lost sock wouldn’t be the end of the world but as a hiker with only 2 pairs of appropriate SmartWool pairs losing 1 would be a tragedy. Luckily it was found eventually though I think they had to go back to the other property that had a dryer.

Late as it was, however, our Dutch friends never showed and we wondered if they had skipped breakfast. But supposedly we were both booked at the same small albergue for that night so we would see them again.

Vanessa gazes longingly at the mountains.
Mysterious coastal ruins.
My hair has gotten long enough for a weird topknot pony. Photo by Vanessa Friedman.
The winding its way into the sea. Photo by Vanessa Friedman.

The morning was chilly but bright and the crisp sea air felt great pumping through our lungs. It was our first morning on the Asturian coast. We took a couple small detours towards the sea when the trail turned away and saw some really interesting looking cliffside ruins. We also had to navigate our way through a herd of cows on their own journey across our path. Cows are gentle but large and I was just a bit trepidatious of the moms as we passed close to their calves.

When the Camino is on the beach itself.
Church. Photo by Vanessa Friedman.

Then the trail descended to actually be on the beach itself. The walking was difficult but the views worth it. It was still early morning so the sun cast an eerie glow onto the beach and a stranger took a surprisingly nice picture of us. We walked by a campground and vowed to return here to sleep outside some day.

I love derelict old buildings even if they are creepy.
I even love whole abandoned ancient towns.
But I love even more when we leave the scary woods following the river to emerge into the wide expanse of a sparsely populated oceanside. Photo by Vanessa Friedman.

We followed a stream that took us through some prettily haunting woods until it spilled out into the ocean through a glorious and unspoilt beach. We sat on the sidewalk behind the stone railing high above and ate our lunch, realizing only afterward that there was a bench nearby.

At the next town we debated the potability of a public fountain water source and briefly chatted with a trio from Germany. When we passed by them again on the trail 1 of the 2 women offered us a beer. When I accepted she got very excited. Apparently no one had taken Nadine up on her beer offer over the several days and numerous people.

I had discovered at this point that a glass of wine at lunch could perk me up through an otherwise tough afternoon slog. I figured beer could do the same, even if Spanish beer left a lot to be desired. Riojan red white, Galician white, Asturian cider, Catalonian vermouth…Spain produces all these delicious drinks with aplomb. They are distinct and delicious, a one of a kind treat. Their beer, however, leaves a lot to be desired. I’m certainly not above a High Life or a Pabst on a hot day at home though Portland’s many microbreweries do make it easy to be a beer snob here. But Spain’s ubuquitous San Miguel was much worse than even these cheap hometown brews. Sure, they cost 80 cents, and you can taste every penny. But besides hoping the barely flavored bubble water might give me an afternoon boost (even though it was probably before 11am at this point) accepting Nadine’s offer was even more about making friends.

For all the ease that everyone expressed about the Camino’s ability to bring people together we had only met 1 or 2 folks we really wanted to keep in touch with. I’m sure this is due in large part to skipping around to different sections of the trail, and now a different trail altogether, and to some extent our pickiness in terms of friend selection but I was attracted to this group’s wild energy. Nadine and Andy had a sort of comedic schtick where they each made fun of each other, called each other stupid. It was kinda funny coming from Nadine but grating from the tall blonde Andy. I still liked him all right but found Nadine more interesting despite (or maybe because) her English wasn’t as good. She thought she should be better after studying it for 6 years but I was embarrassed enough that my own 3-4 years of Spanish are as poor as they were so I sympathized. And we communicated just fine. Andy’s English was impeccable so when he insulted the more Latin American Spanish I did have I kind of stopped paying attention to him. Nadine was carrying the beer anyway.

Nadine and I cheers with her terrible San Miguel cerveza. Photo by Vanessa Friedman.

We walked with them for quite awhile, EDM and other inscrutable German music piping from their little portable music player until the batteries ran out. Drinking and dancing our way through the trail was just the push I needed but I wouldn’t have wanted it to be our whole day. Still it was nice to have walking companions for once. But it was good to have some alone time too, and when we found ourselves on a wooded ridge we stole a few forest kisses. Then the trail turned up a grassy, muddy hill toward a church and the weather kept shifting from sunny to gray, a weather pattern I find very familiar. We got our flimsy trail runners stuck in several mud holes as we squished up the knoll without a clear path and at the top I cleaned one shoe off in the fountain. I’m still not sure if that was the right decision but by the next day I would be glad my sneaker wasn’t totally encrusted.

It wasn’t too long after we reached the Reposo del Andyon, a fancy retreat space that was newly built and also included a building to serve as a pilgrim albergue. The proprietress was out but a couple of Russian pilgrims told us she would be home soon to let us in so we all sat on the back porch together looking back at the beautiful mountain range to the south again. But this place had a very different vibe than the hippie commune of the day before. Perfectly placed adirondack chairs faced a babbling stream and the wraparound back deck held brand new wood and wicker furnishings that looked straight out of a West Elm catalog. It was all so nice none of us wanted to sit our dirty bodies on any of the brightly colored cushions that had not yet been at all faded by the sun.

We met a woman named Sophia sitting staring into the sky as it slowly turned pink with the beginnings of nightfall. She was from Hungary but had spent the last 4 years working in Barcelona. She was very familiar with the current political climate there and we chatted for quite awhile about their push for independence. Ultimately, though, she still felt like a foreigner and therefore didn’t want to offer too much of an opinion. Also, after she finished the Camino she was headed back home, excited to be able to speak her native language on a regular basis though she switched from English to Spanish with ease. As we sat back to watch the sky again and pet the friendly dog we were uneasy about our upcoming trip which would be right after the controversial “election” in which Catalans would decide their fate, but not if Madrid had anything to do with it.

On approach to the fanciest albergue we had ever seen. Photo courtesy Reposo del Andayon.
A deck with a view. What is this Martha Stewart Living España? Photo courtesy Reposo del Andayon.
The sleeping quarters we shared. Photo courtesy Reposo del Andayon.

When the owner, Katrine, returned she confirmed that the building was brand new. The attached ecolodge (which cost a pretty penny to stay in) had only been open a few months and it was her first season hosting pilgrims in the albergue. All the wood was imported from Finland due to its incredible hardness and beauty. It was some sort of carbon neutral passive house that maintained a consistent temperature and the windows never needed to be opened. It truly was magnificent. And as each of the pilgrims wandered in to check in, put their dirty things in bug trapping garbage bags and their phones in tiny individual locking wooden cabinets each with a charging station, they stared wide eyed with wonder. This truly was the fanciest albergue any of us had ever stayed in.

But it was also a little precious.

Katrine’s brand of wealthy white lady woo was not without its merits but neither did it feel completely altruistic. She was the empress of her own little fiefdom and even if that kingdom’s principles were honoring the earth, loving beauty, and finding peace, the path to these enlightenments was strictly prescribed. The internet went on at 6pm and, in theory, stayed on until 10, but dinner was served at 8:30 and we were kept with ceremonies and games followed by a near mandatory singalong on the back porch which lasted past 11:30.

Our Dutch friends had arrived, along with some other friends they had met along the trail, and it was a fun hangout time but by late many of us needed just a bit of solitude. I found myself able to catch a few moments on the windy balcony on the other side of the house sitting on a tiny stool staring at the stars.

I slept that night in the most perfect wooden platform bed in a balcony room with my 12 companions overlooking the most perfect feng shui living room while I died of heat too afraid to open a window.

The Andayon crew from back left: Jakobien, Evelien, Willemijn, Lana, Katrine. On the ground: me and the German guy whose name I can’t remember but I know he had a breakdown while working in insurance and that was his Camino. Photo by Vanessa Friedman.

In the morning I could hear the Russian couple stirring first. Mornings on the Camino are an interesting exercise in antitheses. The culture of Spain generally calls for late rising, but a pilgrim rises early. Either way, Katrine had demanded that we leave our cell phones off and charging in their bays and would wake us with a surprise at 7am. But as 8am came and went and the entire albergue was up and milling about we really started to worry. I’m not sure if someone eventually went to find her but finally she came scurrying down in her bedclothes babbling that she had overslept and begging that people still stay for breakfast. Sophia, go getter that she was and nervous that the next albergue would fill up before she arrived had to go but the rest of us stayed anxious for a delicious breakfast, even if it would set us back several hours. (Later, Sophia would wonder if it was a ruse to get us to relax more but Lana’s theory was more bizarre. She had heard moaning in the early morning so wondered if Katrine had been in pain…or not… Either way we’ll never know). Indeed breakfast was small but very good and even though this was the latest we ever set out for the day, nearly 10am, it was also the only day we got to set out with a crew and that felt really good.

We were a cute little team all the way to Ribadesella and we had especially good conversations about family, politics, and global issues with our new German friend Lana. Born in Russia, she moved to a conservative area of Bavaria when she was very young and most recently had been living in Bordeaux. She was sweet, funny, and I was particularly excited that she was also a cyclist. But I think really she and Vanessa hit it off.

So many of these other young people were such travelers, still searching for themselves throughout the world and Vanessa lamented that she might not be the vagabond she once was and that her life was too normal or boring. Jakobien was another Dutch woman that we met at the Reposo and and she agreed that we seemed quite settled and happy in where we were living but that didn’t mean we were boring. It was exactly how I was feeling. Sure, I may work 9-5 and live in a small city on the American west coast but I doubt most people in the world would think queer Portland was just like any other suburban bedroom community in the world. Traveling made me appreciate my home. Jakobien too, was a professional, but in that capacity let workshops and Ted Talks about psychedelics. Normal and routine for us could be anything but.

As close as we would get to the caves at Tito Bustillo Ribadesella itself turned out to be a little sad.

She walked with us through Ribadesella when the rest of the group split off to run some grocery errands. This town has some really amazing prehistoric cave paintings, the Tito Bustillio, I had been excited to see, especially the Chamber of Vulvas, which sounded like some Hermione Granger fan fiction I really wanted to read. Unfortunately, the museum was closed on Mondays and that meant that the caves, outside as they may be, were also off limits. I understand the need for preservation but it was disappointing that a natural wonder would have to be so closed off.

But Ribadesella was also the town I had seen in that Camino del Norte book at Powell’s what now seemed so long ago that had achieved nearly mythic status in my mind. As we walked along the beach the overcast day threatened to rain and it was not at all the picture in the book, my phone, my head. But it was a long luscious sandy stretch that would certainly be stunning on a sunny day, and as we sat on a bench and watched the workers repaint the cute railings of alternating oars and ring buoys I tried to imagine that and be happy. I caught a glimpse of Nadine at a nearby cafe but here Jakobien took her leave and Vanessa and I continued on alone.

By the time we got to the little town of Vega with its many Asturian hórreos (a small structure used to store crops raised off the ground to protect from water and animals) it was well past our lunchtime and tempting to want to stop there at the one tiny albergue. It looked pretty cute too when we passed it, even if the hospitalera was sporting cornrows. But we had a reservation at a hotel in La Isla and we needed to move on. But we did stop at a little bar further on by the beach where we ran into Sophia and Jakobien and I nearly spilled my wine over a very fat little sausage dog who would not stop begging at our table.

Typical Asturian hórreo with corn drying in the doorway.
The Vega landscape looks like the surface of the moon. Photo by Vanessa Friedman.

Late as it is I make us traverse the beach looking for dinosaur tracks I had read could be found here. In fact, this whole area of was dubbed the “dinosaur coast” but this would be the only place directly on the Camino. Just as I was finally getting discouraged that I would never find them, V spotted them high up on the rocks and we happily embarked on an epic photoshoot, though you can barely tell what they are. But we got a lot of cute shots of us by the sea and that’s all we really wanted anyway.

On our way out we pass by Nadine and Andy, who have decided to stay in that little albergue with the woman in cornrows and we shout a greeting to them a little jealous as they sit with their beers on the windy beach and try to get us to stay. Instead we trudge up a muddy hill with grass covered in dew that looks a fairy or leprechaun could jump out at you at any moment.

That thrill carried us pretty far and when we reached an alternate that would take us over some stunning green hills high above the water Vanessa was keen to take it. I was getting pretty tired but I too love a good view. It was amazing, but I’m not quite sure it was worth it. As we wandered near the slippery precipice it would climb and climb until finally darting abruptly back down a sheer and slick drop with nary a switchback or handhold to be found. But terrified as we were we eventually made it back down and only had a couple more miles to go.

Was this view worth the treacherousness of the terrain, y/n?

In my exhausted state I chose a thicket in which to take a quick pee and I think that may have been a poor decision. By the time we finally made it to La Isla I noticed these weird little lumps of fluid along my legs. Clearly I was highly allergic to some plant I have stomped through and it was making itself known all the way up to my ass. I was getting really tired of Spain trying to beat my down and it wouldn’t be the last time I felt that way.

When we got to the Hotel La Isla the concierge really didn’t know what to make of us. It was low season so the town was nearly empty and the hotel along with it, the main reason we had gotten such a cheapo deal. We were glad enough to have a room to ourselves, sharing with dozens of strangers really does get old after awhile, but he said he could give us an even bigger room, a 2 room suite really with a double in one room and 2 singles in the other. It was completely unnecessary, of course, but sir clearly wanted to hedge his bets with whether we were friends or a couple.

Wounded as I was, at least I had one of the most amazing sunsets I had ever seen to take my mind off my legs and my throbbing, blistered feet that I stepped so carefully with as my Tevas made their way across the sand. There was no restaurant on the lonely beautiful beach but the hotel concierge had told us there was a single bar/cafeteria down the road. It appeared to be nothing special at first and the very spare menu seemed a little pricey but it was our only option. When the food arrived we realized how wrong we were. The tortilla was 8 euros because it was the entire pan, not just a slice, and we had ordered a giant mixte salad as well. We also had our first real Asturian cider performance wherein the bartender held the bottle high up in the air over a trough called a porron (thank you so much Frida for that bit of culinary knowledge). It’s supposed to get more air into the cider which improves the taste and apparently Asturias takes its cider pouring very seriously even having competitions.

Despite our tired, scraped and blistered extremities we went to bed full and happy curled up naked next to each other, the door to our adjoining room open, twin beds untouched.

The church at La Isla.
Palm tree cove at Playa La Isla.
Gingerly walking on bare feet on the beach at sunset. Photo by Vanessa Friedman.

1 thought on “Days 18 & 19: The Cliffs of Asturias

  1. Wow, this section looks really gorgeous. I love all the paths winding down by the sea and high on the hills above. (Also, ha, yes, the mild discomfort of accommodation staff who aren’t sure if you and your companion are a couple – I know it well!)

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