"The Road Goes Ever On and
On…Down to the Door Where It Began". So wrote J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of
"The Lord Of the Rings".
My family lives in Middle-Earth;
around here it's called Asturias. Surrounded by green mountains and rolling
hills, the landscape bears strong resemblance to the descriptions found
in Tolkien's works. Located on the north coast of Spain, Asturias is known
for being fresh, temperate and green. Very green. Spaniards call it "Paraiso
Natural", a 'Natural Paradise'. Wandering around the countryside here,
I half expect to see elves, trolls, and halflings- and I must say some
folk around here do indeed resemble hobbits, or characters out of a children's
story. Very quaint and picturesque.
As I go walking around this
land, the thought of roads and ways 'going ever on' becomes reality. Every
village is connected to the surrounding fields and woods by a network of
linking cowpaths, which ultimately reach the next set of paths, and so
on. Tolkien was right, all roads are one, like a river with many branches.
That's what I love most about the walking (or running or biking or horseback
or however you choose); every time is different, because after 4 years
of exploring here I still find new ways, paths I have yet to tread, or
new connections with the old ones. This is real magic.
The environment here is
similar to that of lower Britain, to Atlantic France. But much softer in
climate, warmer and sunnier (at times). The coastal north of Spain is separated
from the rest of the peninsula by a chain of mountains, the Cantabric mountain
range. This blocks out the southern heat, and forms a southern border to
the great Maritime Arc of North-West Europe. This is about as far south
one can go and still be in Northern Europe, geographically. Culturally
is another story, because many different people have come through this
land at one time or another. The Celtic influence is strong; bagpipes and
wooden shoes are commonplace. So are castanyets (Arabic finger cymbals),
Gypsy sounds from Andalucia (South Spain), and olive oil from the Mediterranean.
Asturias is certainly part of Spain, only it lies up north, beyond a barrier
of high mountains (the tallest peak is the third-highest in Europe) that
have historically blocked out much of the rest of the country. The mountains
are hard to get over, but these days tunnels drilled through work well,
what with the freeway and all…a high speed train line is due at some point
in the future, so for now we must content ourselves with standard Eurorail.
There is an international airport as well. By car it's 4 hours to Madrid,
and about 3 hours to the border with France. Asturias is an average 50
miles (90 km) wide, and a debatable 150 miles long (depending how you mark
the climate, this is too far north for much wine-making, but apple trees
grow in abundance, so alcoholic cider is the local drink. And it is renowned
throughout Spain, now gaining popularity abroad as well. The cider is thin
and vinegary, best for clearing the digestion, although there is also a
sweet version, without alcohol. I like it after a nice run through the
hills, which brings us back to the paths. When one goes out 'trekking'
it will soon be noticed that there are many many trees, including the apple.
Chestnut, oak, sycamore, ash, beech, walnut, hazel, firs, and eucalyptus…which
is an import that took root in the last century. There are also some palms,
especially closer to the coast (another import of course). In orchards
or standing alone there are cherry, pear, apple, plum, fig, peach, besides
a multitude of berry bushes - blackberry, currant, raspberry, european
blueberry. A favorite pastime when out and about is stopping to enjoy some
of nature's gifts, a welcome refreshment on a long hike.
It bears repeating that although
this is a Northern clime, Asturias is far enough south to support a variety
of flora; in addition to the trees named above there are oranges and lemons
that do quite well, as long as they are in a good spot, and kiwis (must
have come with the eucalyptus). As with real estate, everything is 'location,
location'. A protected hill-side facing south is perfect for flora that
need the heat. Which is also a good spot for tomatoes, peppers, or melons.
There many gardens here, both floral and vegetable. Sometimes they pop
up in surprising places, far from any house, along side some path with
stone walls and thick hedges. Rows of corn, with beans climbing the stalks;
potatoes and varied greens; different vegetables and herbs; produce and
plenty in season. A careful eye will spot wild herbs when moving about
the land: mint, thyme, marjoram, rosemary…some of these have been planted,
and grown wild, others happen on their own. Watch out for stinging nettles,
but at least there is no poison ivy!
I have learned something
about grazing animals from all this. Even regular milk cows have a natural
environment (outside of feed-lots and stalls). Sometimes during a walk
a clearing in the woods will appear, and behold! Cows grazing among the
trees and in the meadows. They actually like wandering about, feeding off
the land, winding in and out among the trees, clambering up hill-sides,
getting a cool drink from the creek, relaxing in the shade…just like humans!
Deer are also found, and it is quite common to encounter these. There is
a smaller kind and a larger more standard variety (bushy white tails) and
these will graze where they find pasture, or move around the woods. Wild
boar are plentiful, and hunting for these and the deer are common. Some
areas have been designated 'hunting zones', as well as the 'fishing zones'.
This is a trout and salmon area; the coast is of course known for the variety
and abundance of marine life. In the higher mountains there are bear and
wolves, but so far I have stuck more to the 'in- between' places, away
from the coast and yet below the heights. We are here surrounded by lower
mountains, yet impressive. These provide a plethora of ways to go, from
hilly countryside to higher climbs, where the trees thin out and goats
pasture. The autochthonous breed of cow (usually for meat) is the 'Asturian
of the Mountains' which half resembles a goat in it's lanky toughness,
narrow head with goatish horns, and the ability to scramble over rocky
mountain-sides with the best of them. These days, with a declining human
population, and a vanishing tradition of cowherding, people are putting
a variety of grazing animals out to pasture, if only to keep the grass
down and maintain the fields. Sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, whatever will
eat the prairie- we know a family that keeps ostriches!
One of the best routes to
take in this particular area is called Fuensanta, which takes its name
from the famous springwater found there. This water is bottled and sold
throughout Europe, and the natural beauty and freshness of the place tells
why. Here is a gorge which rises steeply into the mountains, reaching a
series of waterfalls which are the source for all this wetness. Fill your
bottles up at the beginning of the path (there is a public fountain) and
walk the 6 mile (10 km) loop, following the rise of the land to the falls
and then descending again. Make sure you brought some empty bottles in
the car so you can fill them up for drinking at home.
Yes, we live in Middle-Earth.
I know this to be true when on an early morning the mist hangs over the
valleys and dales between hills, when the rolling fields rise to meet the
looming mountains at sunset, when the stars shine clear and bright in the
night-sky. The view from a highpoint shows the landscape dotted with houses,
fields, grazing animals, gardens, fruit trees, and the wooded slopes of
the mountains surround valleys of hills. There is land to plow and woods
to walk and waters to swim. The sea is less than an hour away from the
ski-slopes on high mountains, whose peaks are snowy most of the year and
tower in the distance. This land is indeed a Natural Paradise.