It’s Spain, it’s June but somebody forgot to tell the weather. We’ve had a decidedly dodgy start to spring and summer – average temperatures in May were 3 degrees colder than in the last three decades and average rainfall was up by 50 litres per square metre!
As a result my garden is in a sorry state. I have planted very little; with so much rain finding the right time to dig has been difficult, and what I have planted is not doing so well. With so little sun nothing is really flourishing as you would expect at this time of year.
Climbing too has been curtailed and our usual escape clause in times of bad weather of jumping in the van and heading off for a few days has not been an option as the bad weather hasn’t just been confined to our mountainous corner of northern Spain but has, most unusually, squatted over vast swathes of the country.
It’s also slowly dawned on me that we have become so accustomed to the (normal) Spanish weather that we have lost some of our capacity to cope in bad weather. Now we see bad weather as a reason to withdraw inside, batten down the hatches and sit it out. Plus our barometer for what is ‘bad’ weather has been reset to a considerably lower baseline. Drizzle that might be termed a ‘soft day, thank God’ in the west of Ireland is now enough to stop us dead in our tracks. We wrap ourselves in fleeces on days that would be worthy of bikinis back in the UK. I think we may have gone a little soft.
As we wait for normal service to resume with the weather it is time to revert to hardier, northern European ways and to remind ourselves that there is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing. So when last week there were storms forecast for Thursday, the day I had arranged for my ‘gardening club’ (we’re a club of two friends, helping each other out with manpower and motivation on a weekly basis) we decided to pack some waterproofs and head off for a hike up the nearby Sueve mountain. (I know, the gardening link is somewhat tenuous here but the statutes of the club are flexible enough to allow motivation to come in various guises 😉 )
We set off from Alto de la Llama in a dank, dismal mist. With the Sueve being so close to the sea the views from here as you gain height are usually spectacular, with panoramas along the coastline as well as to the higher mountains of the Picos de Europa to the east and the Cordillera Cantábrica to the west. On Thursday as we set off we could barely see the path ahead. Luckily it’s a very clear wide track so even in the mist there was no risk of getting lost and wandering off a cliff edge. We did almost stumble across a few wild horses in the mist however.
The Sueve is home to a large population of the native wild pony, the asturcón and, whatever the weather, you will always be guaranteed sightings of herds of these sturdy animals on its hillsides. As we headed onwards and upwards we were rewarded with a few breaks in the cloud that allowed us to see just how many of these ponies there were around us. A lovely sight, especially given the fact that they have historically been threatened by extinction.
Now we were able to sight several roe deer, another plentiful inhabitant of this sierra but considerably harder to photograph as these skittish creatures don’t tend to hang around long enough for the slow-reacting photographer to extract her camera from its bag and remove the lens cap. Here are a pair I managed to snap in the distance as they skittered away from us up a rockface.
We didn’t make it all the way to the top; it was a school day and I had to be home by 1pm so we had to conclude the ‘gardening meeting’ early. Which was lucky as we made it back just before the promised thunder storm broke and it really was time to retreat indoors and batten down the hatches.
Last weekend we nipped across the mountains of the Cordillera Cantábrica to León. At the top of the mountain pass, just over the border from Asturias, we stopped at San Isidro ski station to have a little play in the snow. (And to give the poor old motor-home’s engine a chance to cool down after the long slog up the windy pass.)
The ski station had long since closed for the season and the contrast between the hot, sunny Saturday in May and the deep blanket of snow that still enveloped the mountain tops provided the perfect physical illustration of the bipolar weather patterns of the last couple of months, as we have flipped back and forwards between spring and winter. Even this high in the mountains, at over 1500 metres above sea level, it is very unusual to see so much snow so late in the year.
As we mucked about and laughed in the sunshine and snow I also couldn’t help but contrast the day with the last time I had been here. 20th December 2008, I ended the day in the first aid centre, with the ski-station’s doctor attempting, unsuccessfully, to re-place my dislocated elbow and putting a provisional cast on to protect my shattered ulna before sending me on my way to hospital. I eventually made it home on Christmas Eve, with a titanium plate and 7 screws in my forearm and a LOT of very strong painkillers in my bloodstream. It’s really no surprise that I hadn’t been back to San Isidro since.
Despite the involuntary shudder that passed through me when I saw the dreaded
torture chamber first aid station and as I spied the exact point on the slope where I had been taken out by a snowboarder, it felt good to be back at the scene of the accident, whole and healthy and happy.
Indeed here I am, some 4 and a half years later, in an entirely different phase of my life but a phase that I may never have reached if it hadn’t been for that disastrous day on the slopes. With an enforced stop to all plans and activities for several months (no surfing, no climbing, no diy, no gardening, no writing, no trips) came an enforced pause for reflection and, with that, some life-changing decisions.
And that’s the thing. Even in our bleakest moments there always exists the seed of as yet unknown joys.
Here’s a truism for you: emigrate and they will come.
One of the things about being an expat is the number of visitors you receive in your new home. Be it family or friends or some vague acquaintance who quite fancies a cheap holiday abroad, emigrate and the visitors will come.
Now most of the time this is lovely and can be a fine excuse to pretend to be on holiday yourself. But after a time you realise that you can no longer uphold the pretense of being on an extended holiday and you have to acknowledge that you are in fact living in the place and have a life there and all the inescapable daily drudgery that that entails. You cannot always be at the beck and call of every visitor.
The most useful tool we have found to defuse this situation and bridge the possible mismatch of expectations between holiday- and home- maker is our annotated map. We are currently on our fifth (and already increasingly tattered) copy of the Michelin road map of Asturias, on which we have labelled up an array of attractions across the region, complete with driving times from home and other useful information. Visitors with children? Why not check out the dinosaur museum, 30 minutes drive, free on Wednesdays, with a great playpark, cafe and a lovely beach alongside. Culture vulture? The Niemeyer Centre in Avilés is a must visit – the building alone is spectacular and their arts programming is vibrant and internationally relevant.
All our favourite beaches are marked, from tiny coves to exposed surf breaks. For walkers, bikers and climbers we highlight some great itineraries. For anyone on their first visit to the region we recommend a trip to Covadonga and the Lakes to take in the magnificent, quintessentially Asturian views from the mountains to the sea.
Thus our visitors can pick and choose what most appeals to them and can self-direct their own sightseeing. But that´s not to say that we leave them entirely to their own devices. Depending on schedules (and quality of relationship!) we, of course, do our fair share of hanging out together. With some guests in fact it´s all about the hanging out and very little about the sightseeing. When grandparents come, for example, all they really want is some time with their darling boy. In which instance we consult the annotated map ourselves to remind us of where some good local restaurants are and we dash out the door to leave them to their bonding.
In all honesty, the most telling sightseeing we share with visitors is often the simplest and the closest to home. The views from our garden as we share a meal and a glass of wine. Sharing a dog walk up the lane is a lovely opportunity for a chin-wag as well as to spy the profusion of wild flowers that fill the hedgerows and to gasp at the views from the top of the hill, with the jagged, snow-capped Picos mountains in one direction and the wide Atlantic ocean in the other.
These are the views that mark my everyday. They are the views that still cause me to catch my breath despite having lived with them for over seven years. Changing light and weather can always throw up a new vision that has me running back inside for my camera. They are the sights that tell, in a large part, the story of why I live where I do and why I love where I live.
Just as one swallow does not a summer make, one sunny weekend away in the campervan doesn’t necessarily mean that our springtime has really sprung. But two weekends on the bounce? Well, now you’re talking.
Being the unpredictable, adventurous souls that we are, this weekend we packed the van and headed off to……drum roll please…..Teverga! Ah, but there is more to this valley than may have met the eye of my blog readers thus far. Saturday we headed straight to the Puerto de Marabio, a high mountain pass with stunning views, a little hermitage, great walking and biking tracks and, you guessed it, some great rock climbing too.
Further irrefutable confirmation of the arrival of spring lay all around us, despite the presence of snowy caps on the very high mountains in the background. Spring flowers carpeted the meadows and poked their heads joyously out of every available nook and cranny.
The hillsides were speckled with blossom laden trees and the stark nakedness of their wintry branches was softened as nature began to dress them once more. Here’s a picture of a tree I photographed in its autumn finery at the end of November now displaying the latest spring-summer greens.
I guess in reality winter has been relatively short-lived here, the harshest of the weather only really kicking in in mid-January, but it has felt long enough and we are all glad to be returning to a life spent more outdoors.
Happy Springtime everybody, and happy Earth Day too!
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