Asturias’s tagline is “Paraíso Natural,” or Natural Paradise, because despite its small size, it has both the mountains and the ocean. In the past few weeks, I have experienced just how beautiful Asturias really is. We are lucky to have weekend excursions organized for us by our program coordinator, so we don’t miss out on all of the gems the northernmost province of Spain has to offer. Two weeks ago, the day before my birthday, we went to Los Lagos en Los Picos de Europa and Covadonga. As I said in my last post, this was without a doubt the most beautiful place I have ever seen. And just this past weekend, we visited Ribadesella, and not only did we 15,000-year-old cave paintings, we also went up to a cliff on the sea that is one of the most peaceful places I have ever been. They each deserve their own post, but for now I am rolling them into one. Remember, all of my pictures are available on my flickr. You can access the individual albums for these two excursions here and here.
Los Lagos and Covadonga
On Sunday, September 17th, the six of us and our coordinator Ana, piled into a rented van to drive to Los Picos de Europa. This is the mountain range that separates Asturias from the rest of Spain. I knew they were going to be beautiful, but I wasn’t totally sure what to expect. We stopped on the way to see El Puente Romano, which is an ancient bridge. (The sky looks washed out here, but it was just cloud coverage.) After about an hour of driving, we began our ascent up the mountain (in the van, thankfully). The driver started to look worried, and after about twenty minutes he pulled over to let the engine cool down before we continued up. We got out and walked around while we waited. This is what we saw:
I was awestruck. The colors, the staggering heights, and the lack of buildings, as far as the eye can see. I had never seen anything like it in my life. After a few minutes of letting the van cool down, we continued our ascent to Los Lagos. I had already seen enough to make my day, but the lakes took it to a different level.
I feel like I say this every time, but the pictures really do not do this justice. Standing here, I was surrounded by these gorgeous mountains on all sides, with two lakes. It felt like I was in another world, and like some sort of fictional creature was going to come around the bend. It literally took my breath away, and that was only partly because I was walking uphill in high altitude. Looking at the pictures, I hope you understand why I feel like this was the most beautiful place I have ever been, but you have to take my word for it. It was absolutely other worldly. I could have spent all day here. There was even snow on the mountain top!
As we walked down to meet the van, we were greeted by a herd of goats! They were absolutely adorable. Here is a video of them. So cute! If you don’t hear from me, I have probably moved to the mountains to become a goat herder.
Like I said, my mind had already been totally blown by what I had seen. I actually said out loud that my brain was having a hard time comprehending what I was seeing. It did not feel real. But we were not done! We still had to visit Covadonga, which is an unassuming little pueblo which became famous about a century ago. La Virgen de Covadonga (so, Mother Mary) appeared there 99 years ago, and there is a shrine in the side of a cave there dedicated to her. There is also an absolutely staggering cathedral. This is all just down the mountain where Los Lagos is. We walked into the shrine, and tourists and pilgrims were participating in a rosary, led by a man with a microphone. Looking around the natural cave, feeling the warmth of the wall of votive candles, and reading the prayers hung on the walls, all while hearing the Hail Mary said over and over again in Spanish was rather emotional for me. I don’t know if a place can be extra reverent, but this one was. This is the view from inside the cave.
You can see the cathedral in that picture, and that’s where we were headed next. This is one of my favorite pictures from my entire time in Spain so far (thanks for taking it, Catey!). I posted it on instagram with the caption ” i feel small.” And I really, really did. Dedication to Mother Mary always makes me emotional, but this cathedral was really something else. I have already seen so many amazing cathedrals, churches, and chapels since I’ve been here, but something about this church on this day really hit me. While the art and the architecture were beautiful, it’s not that they were significantly more beautiful than the other gorgeous churches here. It was just everything combined that made this cathedral strike me in a special way. I knelt in front of the tabernacle in the cathedral and was overwhelmed by the beauty of God’s mountains and the lakes, and the conviction and faith of the people who built the cathedral and the shrine. I got teary eyed from trying to comprehend the amazing beauty I had seen, and from realizing how even though it was the best thing I had ever witnessed, it pales unimaginably against the true beauty of heaven. (Is anyone counting how many times I’ve said beauty/beautiful?) I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around how gorgeous things can be on earth, and I am simultaneously overwhelmed by the realization of how much more there is than this. That’s not a bad problem to have, I suppose! This is an ongoing spiritual theme with me since I’ve been here, and I’m sure I will make some sort of breakthrough with it before I’m home. I will try to write about it more coherently and cohesively at some point.
So, long story short, it was an amazing day. It was one of those days where you feel like a better person at the end of it- and it wasn’t even because of anything I did, but because of things I’d seen. People told me that when I went abroad I would see things that would change me, and I’m not sure I understood what they meant until today.
Honestly, that felt like a good place to stop, but these two trips fit together thematically so I’m going to keep them in one post! Just this past weekend, we went to go see cave painting in Ribadesella. In the cave Tito Bustillo, the oldest cave paintings are over 30,000 years old. The oldest ones open to the public are a 15,000 years old. Again, my brain just can’t comprehend that. I has no way of visualizing that amount of time because I have nothing to compare it to. So, to imagine people living and painting in the dark cave you are walking around in an unfathomably long time ago is pretty cool. The 5-to-7-year-old Mary inside me, who wanted to be archaeologist, was freaking out a little. We had a great tour guide, who spoke very clear Spanish, and made it feel like she was telling a story. (Also, she’s our van driver’s wife! Asturias is very small.) The cave paintings were amazing, and included reindeer, which no longer live in Asturias, and a giant purple horse. We weren’t allowed to take pictures in the cave, but they have some photos on Asturias’s tourism website. It was a very cool experience.
After lunch, we took a walk up to a cliff, where there is a chapel dedicated to La Virgen de La Guia, which the Virgin Mary dedicated to mariners. (Mary is everywhere here- one of my favorite things about Spain.) I didn’t take a picture of the chapel because I couldn’t get far enough back from it to take a decent one. It was also closed so we couldn’t go inside. But oh my goodness-this cliff was one of the most peaceful places I have ever been. (Here for more pictures.) Water, the Cantabrian Sea, surrounds the point on both sides. On my left, I could see the town of Ribadesella, and on my right there was nothing but ocean. You would think I would be used to seeing the water, considering I have lived in Florida my entire life, but this was different. When you are higher up, the ocean seems to stretch even further into the distance, and from where we were it seemed to go on forever in every direction. I sat on the stone wall and watched with a sense of complete calm, and I was mesmerized by the water breaking over the sharp rocks at the bottom of the cliffs. I took a video to try and capture the ~vibe~ of this amazing place. I’m so happy I have it to look back at. The thick green grass, the persistent wind, the stark black cliffs, and the complete immensity and relentlessness of the ocean created such a peacefulness in me that I didn’t want to leave. There is a very particular feeling I get when I am completely relaxed, and it washed over me as soon as I stepped foot onto the point. It is one of the places I know I cannot see only once in my life.
As I said when talking about Covadonga, I felt small standing in front of the cathedral. I felt small standing among the giant mountains. I felt small looking at paintings created by people who lived 150 centuries ago. I felt small facing the enormity of the Atlantic Ocean in a way I had never done before. And I love feeling small. I love being reminded that there are things much greater and grander than me, and I am blessed to live in the same world as them, and to have the chance to witness them. I get the same feeling looking up at a very starry sky. It makes me feel insignificant and important all at once. If you have seen any great work of nature or man, I think you know what I mean. It would take a more talented writer than me to precisely define it. But to feel small is to know that the world is big, and that even the most evil and hateful people in the world are also small. And in times like these, that is a very comforting thought.