What do you do if you are trekking through the hills and are suddenly confronted by a 200-kilo bear? The answer: nothing. The bear is likely to be far more alarmed than you and will immediately beat a retreat. That at least is what the bear experts told me on a recent trip to the Land of the Osos. We’re not talking here about grizzlies — notorious for their bad-tempered reaction to humans — but about the brown bear, otherwise known as the “oso pardo” (Ursus arctos). You won’t meet him in the sierras of Andalusia. But in northern Spain more than 200 now roam the hills. And this is a small miracle.
For only 20 years ago the bear seemed doomed to extinction in Spain, thanks to the threat from poachers and man’s encroachment on their habitat. Protective measures plus a newly awakened public conscience are helping to save the species, as I learned on my recent visit to Asturias. Indeed, the bear has become a tourist attraction.
This is a land of tumbling trout streams and dense forests, far removed from the hoary Spanish stereotypes of toros, flamenco and paella. Think cider and bagpipes — and verdant landscapes. Green is the predominant colour, thanks to the “orbayu” (all right, less picturesquely you can call it drizzle).
The excuse for my visit was to check out the latest addition to the chain of state-run hotels known as paradors. The Parador del Monasterio de Corias, which opened this summer, occupies a colossal 200-year-old structure dubbed “the Escorial of Asturias”. It stands where the Benedictines founded the monastery of San Juan Bautista in the 11th century. Five Dominican monks now administer the ancient monastery church.
Just up the road, wedged into a narrow valley is Cangas del Narcea, which as it loses importance as a mining centre is emphasizing more natural assets. One of those is the local wine, for although the Asturians are great cider drinkers the bodegas of the Cangas area blend four grape varieties to produce a potent red: Penderuyos, 14.5 per cent alcohol. It has won prizes for Antón Chicote, who needs the agility of a mountain goat to work his vineyard, two hectares of mountainside.
Climb up from Cangas and you come across examples of ancient crafts. In one hamlet Raul Martínez and his father turn out “madreñas”. These clogs, carved from birch wood, are still worn by many country folk because, as Raul points out: “They keep your feet warm and out of the mud.” Not far away, at Llamas del Mouro, the Rodríguez family, Manuel, daughter Veronica and his brother Marcelino, are engaged in another age-old tradition. They produce ceramic bowls, wine jars, and other utensils, all a distinctive black in colour. Smoke trapped inside the oven penetrates the clay, turning it black and extra resistant.
If you journey south, up the Narcea river valley and over a lofty pass, you reach the land of two endangered species, the “cunqueiros” and the “osos”. In Tablado, a remote hamlet with only 20 or so inhabitants, the García family carve such utensils as cachos del vino (wine bowls), barbeiras (for shaving) and cibreiras (for keeping food warm) from ash, birch and chestnut. The “cunqueiros” (makers of wooden bowls, in Spanish “cuencos”) continue using traditional tools and a foot-operated lathe.
This is bear country. You can see them in the Ibias river valley between Cangas del Narcea and Degaña. In spring, with luck, you may see females gambolling with their newly born offspring. Local guide Chema Diaz, who specialises in nature tourism, notes: “Until the 1970s there was a lot of poaching. Miners would go hunting in their free time. But now attitudes have changed dramatically.” Chema takes visitors into the Nature Park of las Fuentes del Narcea, Degaña e Ibias. Covering close to 600 square kilometres, it includes the Muniellos Biosphere Reserve, with Spain’s largest oak forest. Only 20 visitors a day are allowed to enter the reserve, the habitat of everything from wolves and wild boar to more than 100 bird species. And, of course, the bears.
That’s why bee hives need special protection here. They are encircled by high stone walls and live electric wires. Timid creatures, bears are only likely to challenge humans if they get between a mother and her offspring. Or maybe if you block their way to that delicious honey.
David Baird is a foreign correspondent, editor and photographer. After working on newspapers and magazines around the world — from London and Ottawa to Sydney and Hong Kong — he now makes his home in southern Spain.
His books have been published in English, Spanish and German. They include novels such as Typhoon Season and Don’t Miss The Fiesta!, a critically acclaimed investigation of recent history (Between Two Fires) and travel books. He has twice won Spain’s national travel-writing prize for foreign writers and journalists.