The Fortress of The Simple Life
Updated: Feb 12
This Fortress is the Stronghold of our Earth. Ramparts and spires raise the sky, ridgeline after ridgeline. A sacred place of preservation, natural beauty and simplicity. I don’t believe that the tranquillity that surges through me when I return to the mountains, is coincidence. This is a Fortress that guards the good life, the simple life, the harsh life. Real life. Life shielded by these towers of stone from automation, virtual reality and the now infamous productivity anxiety.
Fortified in certain high-altitude spaces, life here reconnects us to ourselves and generations gone by. I believe this is why I love the mountains so. Eagles still take flight from the watch towers, weather fronts surge and retreat like notes across a stave, and light hurls beams over the summits or pours emerald over the fells. Come with me to the Picos, the Spanish Fortress of the Simple Life.
The Fortress door is always open, but you have to come with an open mind to see. Some may see a desert, a moment frozen in time. While others see opportunity, or a place to simply be. Adventurers scale its arches and race down its stairs. Artists stroke, scrape and splash its earthy pigments in oil. Photographers try to immortalise the perfection of its crumbling walls. Locals look out onto their fields, the landscape unchanging, yet never the same as the day before.
I walked and ran and walked and ran for two days, for tens of kilometres, and still only explored one valley. But this valley was the epitome of mountain life, the Simple Life. Protected from burn-out, yet burning under the audacious winter sun. A valley in which farmers still curdle milk for a living at the Quesería Ándara*. A valley which drips with artisanal honey jarred at Las Espedillas*. A valley which resonates with the orchestra of cowbells. A valley where you venture only as far as the dog’s bark. A valley of contrast, where shrubs outcrop green from the limestone grey, and lush pasture becomes ankle-deep snow. All you need in this landscape is intentional, cyclical living, and the tapestry of the Picos will continue to roll out, valley after valley.
This abundant economy of heritage and resourcefulness charges you as you walk. Leave your electronics locked away, no need to distract yourself from the fresh mountain air. Here, the land is the series, each valley a rhyme on the last. The weather is the poetry, incoherent and unpredictable. The mountain palette is the entertainment, the vision. The locals still have to drive thirty minutes down the valley to reach the nearest supermarket. Yet this is not scarcity; it is living within your means. Fuelled on Cocido Lebaniego*, they herd cattle, shear sheep, and build outhouses from sticks and terracotta tiles. Children still play football in the road, livestock still warms the front porch, people countertrade oversized bell peppers for a paper bag of Sobao pasiego*. Home security still consists of a raucous working dog tearing up the front lawn, all bark no bite. As you were.
After climbing into the snowfall of a Pico actually called Eden, I descended into Mogrovejo. This humble hamlet was included in the 2020 list of the Most Beautiful Villages of Spain*, counting only forty-four inhabitants in 2008. It prides a medieval tower dating back to the thirteenth century, and a remodelled ancestral home, all Baroque and ornate. The coat of arms of the Mogrovejo family are displayed alongside the sculpture of a Flemish Virgin from the end of the fifteenth century. At 642 metres above sea level, it is dwarfed by the Ándara massif that looms behind it. I can’t articulate the deliverance I felt the first time those limestone cliffs unveiled their mist from day one, lifting impenetrable cloud. Their now-defined summits became tremendous, a sky scrapping backdrop to another day curdling. So simple yet divine.
This valley is also home to the remains of Bishop Toribio de Astorga* and the Lignum Crucis, a worshiped remnant of the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. These artefacts can be found in the Monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana*, up-valley from Potes. The Camino Lebaniego is a pilgrimage route that first appeared in the eighth century, winding its way inland from the dramatic Cantabrian coastline to this mountain-Monastery where the Lignum Crucis is preserved. The Picos are truly an astounding Fortress of heritage. The Camino even has its own ‘Credencial’ (pilgrim passport) called La Lebaniega, which I hope to get stamped before I ferry back to the rugged mountains of the British Isles.
What I want to share with you, from walking the mudded ground below the Gods of the Earth, is the beauty in the Simple Life, for which the Picos de Europa will forever be a Fortress. Run, walk, be still, it’s all here...protected behind El Desfiladero de La Hermida, where the water runs cyan and the cliffs clamber into the sky. But we don’t always have to travel into backcountry Spain to free ourselves from the demands of modernity, if just for a day. Switch off your phone. Shut down your laptop. Stall automations and take the detour. Open some windows. Go outside and take a walk. Breathe in the countryside air. Invest in local artisanal crafts and trade. Roast your own coffee beans and grow your own vegetables. Slow down and dare to choose the Simple Life.
Quesería Ándara – Cheese making is a skill that has been handed down generationally for time immemorial. The factory is located in Lon (Camaleño) where they have their own cow, goat and sheep farms, and they also purchase milk from the farms in the Liebana region. These cheeses and products reflect the spirit of the area and the family's eagerness for a trade and a way of being.
Las Espedillas – A small shop located in Potes, dedicated to the sale of everything produced in the region lebaniega, Cantabria and Asturias, among other things, they also sell gifts and souvenirs.
Cocido Lebaniego - A traditional dish from the region of Liébana in Cantabria. This stew has some essential ingredients, which include chickpeas from the municipality of Potes, potatoes and collard greens. The rest of the elements of this recipe are known as compangu, which refers to meat such as bacon (tocino), black pudding (morcilla), chorizo and ham.
Sobao pasiego - A popular sponge cake from Cantabria made from yeasted dough, typically flavoured with lemon zest and either anise liquor or rum. Originally made from leftover bread dough, near the end of the 19th century it was modified into its present-day form. The tradition of preparing it and the simplicity of ingredients used helped it gain PGI status in 2004 (Protected Geographical Indication).
Most Beautiful Villages of Spain - The New 15 Most Beautiful Villages in Spain in 2020 | Fascinating Spain
Bishop Toribio de Astorga - Turibius held a local synod in 446. After his death at Astorga in 460 he was revered as a saint. According to tradition, his relics, along with a piece of the Lignum Crucis he had brought from Jerusalem, were transferred to the Monastery of Liébana around the middle of the eighth century.
Monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana - Monasterio de Santo Toribio de Liébana | Uno de los lugares de peregrinación cristiana más importantes del mundo (santotoribiodeliebana.es)
Photos taken from Wix as mine all came out too blurry - time for a camera upgrade!