A Sunny Weekend in Los Valles del Oso

Finally, last week, spring decided it was time to be properly sprung and then rapidly proceeded to catapult us full pelt into summer. With temperatures forecast to be in the high 20s over the weekend there was only one thing for it: load up the autocaravana and hit the road.

As time was short (and our van painfully slow-moving) we decided on a brief trundle just as far as the valleys of Quirós and Teverga, south of Oviedo city. The ‘Valles del Oso’ or valleys of the bear as they are known. (And yes, they do actually have some bears there.) It’s a great spot for family days out, has some world class sports climbing and some great places for overnight van camping. So that’s all our boxes ticked then. Who needs to travel further afield when you have all this on your doorstep?


Clear blue skies, with one rather odd shaped cloud, above a high snowy peak in Quirós last weekend


The carpark at Entrago, Teverga as the sun came up on Sunday morning. Very popular with climbers and families from Oviedo and Gijón there are always plenty of children to play with at weekends here. It´s a great spot for free van camping with newly built toilet and shower block, water and waste facilities, a football pitch, and kiddies’ climbing wall as well as being alongside the Senda del Oso path and in the heart of the Teverga valley. Oh, and there´s a couple of bars and restaurants just round the corner too. Perfect.

Saturday we spent at the very family-friendly crag of Quirós, at sector La Selva. With plenty of trees providing shade at the foot of the crag this was the perfect place for a very hot day. As well as preventing the many children there from burning the trees also provided some unroped climbing opportunities for them.

This year we have finally abandoned the baby back pack and Jack is managing the approach to crags (mostly) under his own steam. I can´t tell you what a liberation this is! The last couple of years it has mainly fallen to Richie to carry the backpack with Jack, an increasingly heavy, and oftentimes wriggling, load. Meanwhile I have been playing my part by carrying up ALL the climbing gear. So that´s a 70 metre rope, a couple of harnesses, 20 or so metal quick draws, shoes etc. Oh, and probably some food and water too. Not to mention a few toys and perhaps some sun cream. I think what I´m trying to say is it´s been HEAVY. Especially on the steeper approaches, where I have on occasion found myself huffing and puffing and bent forward like an old crone. Now that my load has been lightened after such a long time it feels almost like I can breezily levitate uphill. Winner.

Of course walking with a  toddler does mean taking things at a rather more leisurely pace. Jack, Dogly and I made the (usually 20 minute) descent to the car from La Selva in a sedately fascinating hour or so. There were flowers to be sniffed, sticks to be collected, water to be drunk from fuentes and cows and goats to be inspected.


The ministry of silly walks.




Eventually we made it down to the carpark by 6pm. At which point Jack insisted on taking out his balance bike for some off-roading action. Only when he was covered top to bottom in muddy splashes, true mountain biker style, after some daring stream traversing was he finally content to return to the camper for tea. Meanwhile his poor mother was exhausted from chasing him up and down the bumpy paths as he gleefully chucked himself downhill at speed. Still, my payoff came the next morning when he slept in until 9 am.


Climbing at Eléctricos, Teverga

Sunday was spent climbing with more friends at Electricós in Teverga while Jack mainly played with his diggers in the dirt, made letters from twigs and sneaked in a little siesta in a shady cave. That evening we happily trundled home again, all contentedly exhausted from a weekend spent playing outdoors.


Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall



I was just sorting through memory cards full of photos that I have yet to organize or do anything with, when I came across this one. I took it on the 8th March at 8 am (The wonders of modern digital photography triumph over my innate forgetfulness.) That means I was on my way to the school bus stop with my son. The simply stunning morning light made me forget the usual morning scurry and sent me dashing back indoors for my camera. (Child abandoned on the street, swinging his rucksack in the air.) Sometimes the beauty of nature really does just stop you in your tracks.


Just as I was wondering how to catalogue this snap and musing on how I might use or share it somewhere, the daily prompt from WordPress popped up in my reader. Idyllic. It seemed perfectly in step with my response to this photo. I clicked through and discovered that the prompt related more specifically to what your ideal community looks like. How it is organized and how community life is structured. What values does the community share?

Then it struck me, this photo shows exactly what my ideal community looks like. It’s a  community based in nature and shaped by nature. A small community but with strong ties. On the horizon you can see the small cluster of houses perched atop the hillside, mirroring our own hamlet, dwarfed by the scale of the mountains behind and the expanse of green stretching between tiny, scattered villages. It could feel lonely but it promotes a depth and strength of connection between neighbours that doesn’t naturally occur in places, such as cities, where you can maintain a lofty self-reliance and independence.

The Spanish refrain goes: ¿Quién es tu hermano? El vecino más cercano’ meaning, your closest family is your nearest neighbour. This is never truer than when you live in a small community in the country. We rely on each other in a myriad of ways, both practically and socially. From borrowing a pint of milk rather than making a 20 minute trip to buy one, to sharing a cup of coffee and a chat on an otherwise solitary day.

Even our water supply (the very staff of life!) is community managed. This means periodic village meetings, the occasional Saturday morning spent clearing brambles on the hillside where the pump-house is or, in times of emergency, days spent chasing and fixing leaks in the pipework. I’ll be honest, sometimes it’s a worry and sometimes it’s a drag but it teaches me a darn sight more about personal and environmental responsibility than paying a quarterly water bill ever did!

So there you have it. My country idyll. Just right for me right now. But what about you? What’s your idea of an idyllic community? And are you lucky enough to already live there?

The local water board in action last summer. That'll be all of us then!

The local water board in action last summer. That’ll be all of us then!

The Perfect Snow Storm

By the time the month of March comes around spring is well and truly on the way in Asturias. Winter is behind us and while we can still spy snow on the high mountain tops we have long since had our one annual day of snow cover here in the hills close to the sea.

So you can imagine everyone’s surprise when, last Wednesday, we woke to this:


And it wasn’t just a light dusting of snow that had fallen overnight. It was this deep:

Don't think anyone will be sitting on that chair anytime soon

Don’t think anyone will be sitting on that chair anytime soon

Or hanging out washing on that line...

Or hanging out washing on that line…

The morning air was subdued and still and not a soul stirred in the village. Well, until the little boy from next door caught Jack’s attention window-to-window.


Then it was time to dig out our snow gear and head out for some fun.

A snowboarding helmet is obviously a vital piece of equipment for the day that's in it.

A snowboarding helmet is obviously a vital piece of equipment for the day that’s in it.

With no power and no chance of the internet repair man making it for his designated appointment (after a week of waiting for him!) it was destined to be a day of play for everyone. Kudos to our electricity suppliers however as somehow, despite the treacherous weather conditions and our remote location, they managed to restore supply before nightfall.


Thrills ‘n’ Spills and Hot Aches

Until today Jack had only ever seen snow either on the far-distant mountain tops or on Caillou (a Canadian kids cartoon that airs on Spanish tv.) Today the snow line was forecast to dip to 300m above sea level (we live at a little over 400 metres). And dip it did. We woke to this.


In retrospect it was just as well that the ferry we were planning on taking to Portsmouth today had been cancelled due to gales in the Bay of Biscay. It could have been a stressful drive to the ferry port, assuming we were able to exit the village in the first place. As it was, instead of rushing to Santander for 12.00pm we had plenty of time to indulge Jack’s wonder at the white stuff.

When we ventured outside there was some initial whingeing surprise at just how cold it was. That’s the crucial aspect that you miss when you’re just looking at snow, whether it be on the horizon, the silver screen or just through the window. Still, once friends from next door had been drafted in for a snowball fight the cold was forgotten about. At least until the hot aches kicked in. By then it was time to retreat, dry off and warm up in front of the fire.

By the time the hot aches had subsided more friends arrived – this time with sledges. They live just 5 kilometres down the road from us but a crucial 150 metres nearer sea level. No snow at all had settled there and so they headed up the hill to ours in search of some sledging action.


We’re going on a snow hunt….

And find it they did. There were thrills…..

IMG_7202 IMG_7239

And spills…..

IMG_7206And finally, more hot aches. Which signalled time to retire indoors once more. By this stage the snow was rapidly melting anyway. Tomorrow the snow line is forecast to be at 500 metres. With a steep uphill walk we should be able to find some more sledgeable hillsides. And then on Wednesday, storms at sea permitting, we shall be on our way to the UK, where more snow may well await us.

The Early Bird


The morning light snapped on the way back from the bus stop. Totally unenhanced. The whole, enormous sky really was this colour.

With Jack starting school last September one of the biggest adjustments we have had to make has been getting up at 7.30 every morning, Monday to Friday. (And, of course, weekends too as Jack’s highly trainable body clock doesn’t switch off just because it’s a Saturday. Dammit.)

It might not sound that harsh’ I know lots of people have much earlier starts, but before this I had carefully structured my life so that I never had to be consistently up before the sun was. I have been self-employed virtually all of my working life and thus had the luxury of managing my own diary. Never taking appointments before 10am and living within walking distance of my work place made for a nicely relaxed start to the working day when I lived in the UK.

A big part of the motivation for moving to Spain for both of us was to leap even further out of the ‘rat race’ and off the hamster wheel of racing to maintain our modern life. We came here to work less, earn less and live a little more. So naturally getting up before the sun didn’t really feature heavily in our plans.

The last few years have thus seen us taking our morning tea anywhere south of 8 a.m. A perfectly civilized time, I’m sure you’ll agree. The sun is also more consistently civilized in its own waking times here in northern Spain – we have none of that summertime 4.30am sunrise nonsense. The earliest sun up, even in the height of summer, is around 7a.m.

Having a baby did of course muck about somewhat with our sleep patterns. Or completely destroy them for a while, if I’m honest. But at least having the luxury of not having to get up and out the door first thing meant that a certain amount of morning time lounging compensated a lot for the night-time tortures.

Truth be told our favourite time of the day since Jack arrived has been the first hour or two, when we would have the luxury of a family lie-in. Cuddles and stories and cups of tea. A delicious, cozy, gentle sliding start into the day.

Alas, the family lie-in is no more. With school came enslavement to the beep of the alarm. Up and at it, there is not a moment to spare in wrestling a small child into readiness for his walk to the bus stop.

There are some compensations for our newly manic mornings however. (Apart from the obvious one of having subsequent child-free hours to get on with stuff.) For example the light can often be outstandingly beautiful at this time of the morning. There’s something special about being outside in it, fully immersed in its glory. It’s definitely good for the soul.

And then last Friday morning, as we slipped out the door into almost total darkness, a very special thing happened. The barn owl that I have long suspected to be lodging in our loft chose that very moment to swoop across our patio (and heads) and demonstrate his clever trick of folding his giant wings in and squeezing through the small hole in our eaves.

After several months of trying to catch him in the act or to discover his bolthole in the attic I finally had my proof that those nightly ‘toowhit-toowoos’ weren’t just in my head, they really were coming from just above it.

The hole in question. Our pussy cat stands guard.

The hole in question. Our pussy cat stands guard, back in the autumn.

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Reflections on New Year’s Day

It’s been a lovely Christmas holiday here in Asturias. The sun has shone and shone and we have climbed and climbed. Today is cooler and wet – a good day to catch up on a little writing and reflecting in front of the wood burner. As I type my body is aching from this unaccustomed barrage of consecutive climbing days. My head is aching a little too, but that’s a different story 😉

Villa de Sub

Our friend David in mid-flight. Villa de Sub, December 23rd.

Santa Claus visited last week and scored top marks with his gift. The instructions to him had been nice and specific and easy to follow: ‘a Fireman Sam fire engine with lots of buttons and flashing lights and a nee-naw’. The house has echoed to wailing sirens ever since.

The jolly red fellow also delivered gifts from grandparents and relatives in the UK, including Jack’s first camera. He’s already building an impressive photography portfolio. Some of the photos are at rather an artistic angle and some of the close-up portraits of his parents are less than flattering, taken as they are from his viewpoint, looking up. Great for capturing double chins and nasal hairs. Luckily Mum gets veto over any publication.


The beach on Christmas Day, at a rather jaunty angle. Copyright Jack.


A cheeky self-portrait of the photographer

Now we just have to sit it out and wait for the Reyes Magos (the three Kings) who pay their visit on 6th January (the feast of the Epiphany.) Traditionally it is the Reyes who bring children their gifts in Spain and so it is that we find ourselves rather awkwardly caught between two Christmas cultures. I would have been tempted to traitorously ditch the Santa Claus tradition entirely in favour of the Reyes if it were not for their timing. Presents that arrive the day before the new school term starts can’t be played with in the Christmas holidays. And that would suck. For everybody. So Santa had to visit but so do the Reyes so that Jack isn’t the only child in the village to wake up to an empty stocking on the 6th. Because that would suck even more.


Jack delivers his letter to Prince Aliatar, the messenger to the Kings, at the school Christmas show. Note: I am not the only one confused by the surfeit of present-giving traditions, all the children were wearing Santa Claus hats!

Happy New Year everyone! May 2013 bring you all that you wish for (via whichever wish delivery system you choose to believe in 😉 )

Getting in the Festive Spirit

Picos-View-1It can be a little difficult to believe that it’s Christmas when the temperatures are in the twenties and you’re climbing at height in the mountains in shorts and a t-shirt. Equally fantastically our local town has only just put up their Christmas lights so we have totally bypassed that commercial build-up to a frenzied festive season. Just the way I like it.

Last Friday we had our son’s first ever Christmas play to attend, however, and even though the ‘after-party’ (buffet) was held outside in the sunshine it was still enough of a seasonal spur to launch us into the festive mood. (I’ll admit I even shed a soppy proud maternal tear.)

Yesterday I surfed for the first time in an AGE, in lovely, small, clean waves with the sun shining down on my head. That’s also the plan for tomorrow, Christmas Day. A dog walk on the beach with friends, a picnic and hopefully some perfect waves to ride.

As the sun set on another glorious day today I dashed out the door and up the hill to take this photo of the evening sun drenching the snow-capped Picos in ethereal light. My Christmas card to all the lovely readers of this blog who have accompanied me through 2012.


And So the Season Turns

Autumn is slowly dwindling into winter here in Asturias. A last few stubborn leaves cling to branches but at the base of the trees their fallen brethren pile higher and higher. Where, a couple of weeks ago, my dog walks inspired me to stuff my pockets full of chestnuts, now they send me scurrying off for my wheelbarrow to collect this bounty of leaves for mulching.

I’m a great advocate of anything that’s natural, free and ultimately makes less work for me. Leaf mulch, nature’s own design for over-wintering trees, ticks all of these boxes. My much neglected fruit trees will this winter benefit from a leaf-mould compost feed that will at the same time be suppressing weed and grass growth around their bases.

The garden overall has been looking increasingly sad and bedraggled – enough to encourage me into some ruthless pruning and cutting back. As I’ve found my rhythm with the clippers I’ve enjoyed the process more and more and I’ve taken the opportunity to cast a critical eye around the beds and do a little planning.

And so it is that the onset of winter provides a necessary pause in the growing cycle. A beat in which to take a step back and look around. The growing season here is so long and so productive that most of the year it’s all I can do to just try and stay on top of things. It’s a battle to stop the grass (and weeds!) from growing to waist height as soon as I turn my back. There is no time for grander plans or designs.

Now I barrow the compost that I (or rather, time) has made from our kitchen and garden waste and cover large areas of ground to rest and recuperate, to imbibe nutrients ready for planting next year and to make it effortless to dig and prepare for fresh planting. Hard experience has taught me the importance of this. It has also taught me that no effort in the garden is ever wasted. A little work and forethought now will pay me back in spades in the future (pun intended 😉 ).

This is also a pleasant time for physical work in the garden. The cooler temperatures are great for days spent digging and hoeing and barrowing. As, yet again, I strip down to short sleeves I wonder how I ever got anything at all done in the heat of summer. Now that this year’s drought has finally ended it’s also easier to catch the soil at its most malleable – not so wet that it is clumpy and sticky but moist enough so that you can slide a spade into it and turn it over with ease.

With the cutting and pruning also comes the natural opportunity to propagate. Last winter was really the first time where I took several cuttings of various bushes and potted them up over winter. The results were amazing. A simple snip and a shove into a pot of compost and come spring and summer I had a load of new lavender, rosemary, succulents, rose and margarita bushes and many more gorgeous plants nicked from neighbours. Simply magical.

So this year I’m naturally keen to do the same – but more and better. I have a lot of ground to cover (both literally and figuratively) in the garden so I’ve taken a LOT of cuttings and been splitting a lot of plants. If they all take I should have a happy surplus on my hands – so lots of nice presents for friends. But we have a while to wait yet.

Last week was when winter started to really bite. The temperatures finally, and suddenly dipped sharply. We had 5 full days of rain, with one daylong electrical storm accompanied by hailstones. A week to spend indoors with the woodburner on. When last weekend came around and the rain finally stopped the clouds lifted to reveal this:

First snow

The view from our house to the Cordillera Cantábrica, south of Oviedo. Note: we’re at 450m (1500ft) above sea level but no snow here, not even so much as a hard frost. The beauty of living close to the sea in a mild, oceanic climate.

And so this weekend (a long, holiday weekend here in Spain) sees the timely opening of the ski stations. Winter is upon us.

Driving Over Chestnuts

I may have mentioned before, but it is Autumn in Asturias. The leaves have turned. The cider lorries collect the roadside sacks of apples daily. And round every bend on every winding back road huddles of people clutching baskets, carrier bags and, of course, sticks hunch to their task of collecting chestnuts.

As do we. It’s quite impossible to resist. The proliferation of the sweet chestnut tree is such that the roads are carpeted in their fruit at this time of year. In fact, I regularly suffer pangs of conscience as the car bumps over yet another prodigious patch of them, plastering them pointlessly to the tarmac. Such waste.

So, quite apart from dedicated foraging trips to the woods or chestnut groves, and much to the annoyance of our energetic greyhound, our daily roadside walks have become grossly extended in time but not distance, as I cannot resist stopping to stuff my pockets to bursting every few paces. As I roll yet another spiky chestnut casing underfoot to reveal its shiny bounty within, the hound prances about impatiently, occasionally resorting to a gentle nip on my sleeve to remind me where my focus ought to be.

Luckily, in addition to bones, meat and all things stolen, our greyhound is also partial to a roasted nut or two, so his payoff comes in the evenings, as he lolls in front of the woodburner which currently doubles up as a perpetual chestnut roaster.

We heart chestnuts 😉

The history of the chestnut in the culture of Asturias is as rich as the velvety flesh of the nut itself.  Introduced by the Romans, the chestnut was the staple food of northern Spain for many centuries, providing the main source of nutrition and being consumed in many forms, including flour. Knowing this, the nutty autumnal abundance falls neatly into place.

And so it is that the Asturian version of harvest festival, ‘amagüestu’,  is a celebration of both the apple and, primarily, the chestnut. And where better to learn about the traditions of a harvest festival than in a school?

Our little country school celebrates amaguestu in fine style, involving people from across the community and the generations. The children and teachers wear full traditional dress and there is gaita music (the Asturian pipes) to accompany their dramatization of chestnut picking throughout the ages. Chestnuts are roasted and the first (non-alcoholic!) pressing of the apples (sidra dulce) is drunk. Families provide the food, with an emphasis on local and seasonal specialties (and cake, because that’s always appropriate!)

All in all it’s a wonderful event and we feel privileged to be part of such a strong community that is still so clearly attached to nature and the traditions that spring forth from that. Mind you, you don’t actually need to go to any school to realise that – you just need to drive down an Asturian country road in Autumn and see all the chestnut collectors in action.