Monday, 23 September 2013

Farming settlements in the Picos de Europa

The majada or mountain pasture of Vega Ceñal in the Western Massif of the Picos de Europa
Much of the scenery, tracks and pathways within the Picos de Europa are due to the pastoral livelihoods of the local people - a way of life that still exists but is in decline. 

A farmer moves his cows from a lower valley settlement to the high mountain pasture near the majada de Juentes
Typically farming in the Picos de Europa involved  the local people moving their cattle, sheep, goats and horses from their low-altitude winter quarters in the valleys, to the mid-altitude pastures ("invernales"), then to the high mountain pastures ("majadas"), a practice which may have begun during Neolithic times, and can involve up to 1000m of altitude gain. 

Cows grazing in the high pastures way above the Lakes of Covadonga

Many people never left the majadas from spring through to winter, remaining high in the mountains with their animals for 6 or 7 months of the year, living in clusters of small stone huts. However today very few farmers spend the summer months in the mountain settlements, most just visit their animals a couple of times each week.

The stunning setting of the abadoned high pastures of the Beyugal where farners would have lived for up to six months of the year
A stone pig stye in the pastures of Mohandi

The evocative settlement of El Hascal about to be engulfed in mist
Many such evocative settlements dot the area, testament to a hard life, and some are still used, but most are falling into disrepair. It is the western massif of the Picos de Europa where there are most of these settlements and coming across them can be a highlight to a walk in the area.

Farmers hut near Vega Ario on one of the classic walks in the Westen Massif of the Picos de Europa

Goats in Los Bobias
It was in these majadas that the region's renowned cheeses came into being - Cabrales from the area around Sotres and Bulnes, Gamoneu from the northern slopes of the Western Massif, and Picón from Tresviso in the Eastern Massif, to name just three.

Traditional Gamoneu cheese making in the high mountains pasture of Vega Maor

Goats being milked for cheese in the early morning sun. Los Bobias

A difficult pass; Paso El Picayo originally used by farmers now used by brave walkers.
Networks of well-built routes join the majadas to the invernales, villages and homesteads, across cols and ridges and "sedus" (difficult passes), often achieving traverses which appear to be unlikely, verging on the impossible. It is feats such as these that remind us how wise and in tune with the nature of the mountains people have been, and can be. These routes and settlements, built with local natural materials and human hands, give a feeling of awe.

A farmers stone hut in El Hascal

Sheep grazing above Los Bobias

The people of the Picos de Europa co-evolved with the landscape during millennia, grazing their livestock, cutting wood for building and burning, coppicing chestnuts and hazels, harnessing the power of water to grind their grain, and leaving their mark on the landscape in many ways, as it left its mark on them. It is this symbiosis of people and landscape that lends the area its inspirational quality.

Man co-evolving with the landscape Vega La Piedra


Hotel Posada del Valle is a small hotel in Asturias Northern Spain surrounded by its own organic farm and where we are passionate about organic farming, food, and sustainable livelihoods. In this Blog those of us who live and work at Hotel Posada del Valle open a door to share with all of you who are interested in what we are doing.