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Walks in the Bear Park

We take two walks in the Somiedo Natural Park, in the footsteps of bears, wolves, lynx and wild boar

First impressions of Somiedo Natural Park reveal densely wooded landscapes, small clusters of chalet like dwellings, red clay roof tiles and dark timber balustrades adorning small houses, with the smell of woodsmoke in the moist air. Everywhere small black timber barns raised on stone or timber legs on a stone platform accompany the houses. The roads and pathways into the mountains are narrow and several times we leave the van in a lay-by and continue on foot scouting out a more permanent parking place. Villages are tiny and unchanged in appearance as though they have been that way for hundreds of years, We are sure that in some cases they have. Cattle farming rules here. Healthy looking, tan cows are gathered in small herds in meadows, often led by a herdsman or woman who moves the group on from eating to resting to watering places all day. Eventually the cattle are corralled for the night. The sound of the bells around their necks chimes constantly and almost has a rhythm to it when the entire herd is grazing, the bells donging in synchronicity as they pull up the grass. All the cattle have long horns but even the bulls, which are frequently with the herds of cows, seem to be gentle and unconcerned at the sight of us. That’s what we hope anyway.

In the village of Sanemiliano a very large bull of swaying gait, huge neck and deep, thunderous grunts, took himself off to bed. He wandered freely along the main street to the farmyard quarter of a mile away. Our eyes were on stalks as we watched from the security of the van. He returned to his favourite pasture the same way at 8 am the next morning, making his presence known with frequent bellowing, snorts and grunts.

The local family run shop featured the usual Spanish love affair with tins of fish, beautiful cheeses, dried meats, sausages and beans and a whole wall of slippers in boxes and archaic wooden clogs, similar but with a higher heel, to the Dutch version. We found out later the link between the slippers and the clogs.

It comes as no surprise to find this is one of the key locations for the Iberian bear. This region has the last remaining populations of wild bears anywhere in Europe with the biggest group in Somiedo, the rest are in Reddes Parque and a few in the Pyrenees. There are also lynx and wolves. We were very lucky to see the tracks of several bears on the first of our walks and to catch a glimpse of a lynx as it sped away. The deep bands of deciduous forest are out of bounds to walkers to ensure the bears have undisturbed habitat. There are plenty of paths adjacent to the woodland and opportunities to join tourist bear spotting groups.

Under a sunny sky, ruck sacks packed with mini crampons, ice axes and waterproofs we left El Puerto de Somiedo, strolling out across meadows of cows. The path gradually steepened and we met several other walkers. A friendly local dog, who we named Al, adopted us and ran along ahead of us merrily showing us which way to go and pausing occasionally to jump around us with vertical leaps. We got talking to some walkers who told us they had seen bears here only yesterday and that yes there was snow further up. They also remarked on our lovely dog but when we revealed he was not ours but a village dog, they offered to take him back to the village for us. This was a good thing as we may have ended up carrying him or leaving him at the bottom of the mountain. We were sad to leave him and gave the rescuer biscuits to feed him on the way back.

As we moved higher and deeper into the rocky areas we came across bear tracks in the deep snow. There had been several bears using the human paths as routes but we were struck by the clear footprints of a mother and baby travelling together the baby stepping into the mothers larger prints, much like we do when trail breaking. The claw marks where clearly to be seen and we thought they had only passed this way at most a half hour before. Another set of prints on rising ground showed that a bear had chased a hare around in circles. The hare twisting and turning to keep ahead. No sign of blood in the snow revealed that the hare lived to see another day.

On our right we could now see deep dark rock formations towering against the sky and some impressive overhanging black chasms. We tried to take photographs but its hopeless to capture the scale of the distant scenes with a camera. Miles of summits and rocky peaks glowered under the sky appearing as though no human would have any reason to go to that place. The rock was black cold and foreboding.

We were now in heavy snow and mist and nearing the aim of the walk; Conion mountain, the biggest one in Somiedo at 2166 m but tricky in the snow and mist as the paths are obliterated and the way up steep and slippery. At the top I eyed in the distance what looked like some of the darkest Skys I had ever Seen. The mist lifted for a few moments to allow us to view the summits of the other peaks below us. A few rays of sun warmed us as we made a quick ascent back down the valley to the van. Despite the weather we had managed to get strangely sunburnt faces, the sun reflecting back up onto us from the snow and creeping around the edge of the sunglasses we wore, burning our eye lids.

Ruta de Valle de Lago

We could not help but pause to gaze in amazement at the path of destruction a recent heavy rockfall had created. Streams of new scree spewed down deep channels gouged in the hillside. The cavernous gash in the mountain side, pink and raw. We were on the road in the valley below but large boulders had blocked the road, destroyed the dry stone walls and made craters in the earth, eventually coming to rest in the streams below us. A few hundred metres of road were effected like this. A local farmer had put a sign up pinned to the wall; Danger, Run Like Hell!

A tough uphill walk brought us eventually to wide open plateaus of green, The gently sloping ground with rivulets snaking across like a huge natural drain, told us there were surely caves under the plateau. John went to investigate one cave entrance and came back with the large femur of a cow bleached to chalk with age. I had a look at another and spotted the ragged hole at the bottom with animal bones gathered at the entrance. We walked on and over two peaks, seeing chamois darting amongst the rocks and disturbing a lynx from his siesta, before making the long trek back down the screes. We somehow missed the path and ended up making a tortuous descent down thinly vegetated slopes studded with rockfall, scree and spiky plants, just where you might want to put a hand down to steady your way.

In the valley a damned lake created some natural water gardens, the plants exotic and lush to our eyes after the miles of parched grey limestone. We watched a bright Wall Creeper bird darting up and down the rock face.

The sunshine green valley was abundant with wild flowers, the meadows not yet grazed or possibly never grazed, were full of spurge, orchids of several varieties, saxifrage, buttercups, pansies, primroses, cow parsley, cowslips and many more. Every now and again we came across small former dwellings of a bygone age, tiny rubble houses with roofs of dried broom steeply rising up and gathered at the top into a top knot bound with wooden staves. The whole valley, rimmed with deep forest on one side and meadows, streams and mountain caves on the other had the feeling of human occupation in one way or another for thousands of years. Our old companions the bears, wolves, lynx and wild boar are thankfully still here.

We climbed nearby at Luna de Rabanel. On our way out of Somiedo we visited the enchanting, busy little village of Pola de Somiedo. There we found a helpful tourist information centre housed in the local library. Local shopkeepers advertise trips to visit the best wildlife spots. The tiny ironmongers doubles as a popular cafe where good coffee is served. The image of the bear is everywhere.

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