After more than an hour of ascending up a mountain along winding roads, seemingly too narrow to fit both our car and oncoming traffic, JP, stressed from the driving conditions and acknowledging fully his responsibility for both of our lives, looked at me and sighed, “Lauren, this better be worth it”.
Months earlier, while planning a one month jaunt to Europe, we decided to add a week and a half in Spain to explore a region of the country we had overlooked on previous visits. While we were already quite familiar with the much beloved southwest stretch, from Catalunya to Andalucia, we decided that this time we would use Madrid as a starting point and travel north. We planned on hitting up the Basque region, for its diverse cultural history and current reign as ultimate foodie region, but had a few extra days to fill out. So began my personal challenge to find the best place to spend those days. My criteria? No tourists, nature, and great food.
I should preface this by explaining that I am an extreme planner in all facets of my life which has inevitably transcended into my traveling. I scoured the internet for weeks trying to find a place that was off the beaten path, stumbling eventually upon a small town called Cucayo nestled deep within the Picos de Europa, a mountain range and national park located near the northern coast of Spain.
Rather than simply describe our journey to you, I thought it best to share a set of photographs we took alongside a few of the highlights that made the small town of Cucayo one of our favourite spots in Spain.
We picked up our rental car in Bilbao and began the 200km trip to the Picos de Europa mountains. Driving along the A8 (a major highway spanning the northern coast of the country) was a breeze, leading us to falsely assume that the entire journey would be as easy. Once we hit the base of the Picos de Europa around Unquera, however, the remaining 50km was a vastly different experience.
Sharing the road with aggressive Spanish drivers, confident and comfortable with the snaking roads from years of experience, we cautiously and gradually made our way up, holding our breath along the razor-sharp turns, many without a guard rail – just a steep decline down the mountain. The tension inside our little red Hyundai was palpable and considerable periods of time would elapse without any exchange of words.
The final stretch between Barago and Cucayo, only 7.5km, was the stress-climax as a thick fog began to roll in during the most intense twists and turns of the drive – see for yourself on this close up on Google Maps.
Finally, we pulled into the town and found our B&B right away, just off of the main road. As soon as the ignition was turned off, all of the stress accumulated during our ascension evaporated instantaneously.
La Posada de Cucayo, the only place to stay in the village, is an unbelievably charming guesthouse run by two sisters, Anna and Tina, and their brother, Alberto, directly beside the town’s former local bar built by their father a half century earlier.
Anna greeted us warmly when we arrived. Through her limited English and my broken Spanish, we checked in and were shown to our room, at the end of long, dim hallway. The room was quaint and comfortable, with a balcony that overlooked the valley in which Cucayo lies. The stunning view extinguished any lingering memories of our commute in getting to that point.
We spent some time before dinner exploring the village, which we managed to stretch out over an hour as there are only a few houses, a church, a farm and our guesthouse in the vicinity. The setting sun and few lampposts cast a surreal glow on the stone and brick houses, many of which were built between the 16th and 18th centuries.
Upon returning to La Posada de Cucayo, we encountered some of the town’s residents watching Spanish game shows in the bar, on what may be one of the only television in the vicinity. We met Tina, who spoke more than enough English to give us a detailed background of the town, her previous life working in Madrid’s hospitality sector, and her eventual return to her hometown to open up the guesthouse with her siblings.
La Posada de Cucayo has the only restaurant in the village and everything on the menu is from the family’s farm adjacent to the guesthouse or scavenged nearby. The food is traditional, simple, and fresh – from the hens you can hear clucking through the open windows to wild mushrooms picked by Tina on her hike earlier that morning.
The next day, after watching the fog dissipate from our balcony, Tina suggested a few hiking routes ranging from three to seven hours. Opting for the shorter route, we set out with our fully charged cameras and, according to Tina, impractical hiking shoes. The landscape was stunning, and, at least in this part of the Picos, strangely akin to the lush rolling green hills of Ireland. We only encountered two other people during our hike, however, we did come across some enclosed bulls and a few horses meandering along the trail.
On our last night, we wanted to experience more of the area so we made the call, with some reluctance on JP’s part, to get back in the car and drive to Potes, the closest city with a restaurant, which is about 20km away. The drive there was relatively stress free as we were one of the only vehicles on the road between the two towns. Potes is a considerably larger town relative to Cucayo, and one in which the tourism industry is significantly more pronounced. Walking through the city, there were several shops and restaurants buzzing with a mixture of Spanish and English. On Tina’s recommendation, we picked a restaurant on the main road called Asador Llorente.
Showcasing the traditional local foods of Liébana, the region Potes resides in, Asador Llorente was, without a doubt, a fantastic recommendation. While the menu is lengthy, offering a plethora of regional meat and fish dishes, our experience seems to suggest that anything on it would be exquisite. We ate Chiperones (baby squid) fried in oil which were so fresh they melted in your mouth, Ensalada Mixta with shredded lettuce, roasted peppers, and local goat cheese in a sweet balsamic glaze, and the Dorada a la Plancha, baked in three segments au gratin.
Fog is a factor of life here in the Picos de Europa, a result of the damp climate and high altitude. On our last morning, we spent a few extra hours at La Posada de Cucayo to wait it out as we could not fathom driving back down the mountain with the impaired visibility brought on by the fog. When we mentioned this to Tina, she casually laughed and gave a little shrug exclaiming “Oh, that’s no problem at all for driving.” After the difficulty we had on our way up, we respectfully disagree.
On our way back down the mountain, it’s silent again in the car; and not only because of the potentially perilous route. In fact, JP is now turning the corners with a level of confidence almost befitting a Spaniard and, at times, is actually driving the speed limit. It’s just really hitting us as we descend further and further just how phenomenal an experience that was, and one that was so unbelievably unique. Don’t get me wrong, I will always call a big city home, but it’s these ultra local, hard to reach, undisturbed natural settings that really make me excited to travel.
Photos by Lauren Barth and JP Bervoets