Not long after leaving Burgos and as we travelled north the landscape began to change. Only gradually at first and then more rapidly as we approached the snow capped Cantabrian Mountains.
The endless brown prairies of Castilla y León started to slowly give way to enclosed green fields of Cantabria and now there were ridges and escarpments each one playing host to a clutch of wind turbines. There was livestock in the fields as we began to climb, gently at first and then more dramatically into the mountains.
After an hour or so we left the main road and took a minor route into the mountains where the fields became smaller, the grass became greener and the sky seemed a great deal closer as we drove past verges of wild flowers sheltering under the dry stone walls, soaring buzzards and occasional herds of the horses of Cantabria. We climbed high into the clouds, way above the snow line with strips of ice clinging defiantly to the crevices where the sun doesn’t reach and stopping frequently to enjoy the stunning views stretching away in all directions as we reached the highest point of our drive at one thousand two hundred and sixty metres.
There was a price to pay for these grand views and that was the temperature which dropped so dangerously close to zero that Kim made a change of clothes into something much warmer and more appropriate for the prevailing conditions.
At the very top the grey clouds were crawling like a contagion over the mountain tops and then as quickly as we had started to climb we started to descend through a succession of sweeping theatrical bends where bubbling waterfalls twisted and roared down every narrow gorge and overhead there was a canopy of swaying emerald which parted just now and again to let the sunlight through and allow views of the mountain peaks wearing their lace bonnets of cloud.
The road kept dropping in a dramatic fall, through hairpin bends, alongside vertiginous drops to certain death in the river valley below and adjacent to soaring grey mountains and constant warnings of rock falls and debris in the road and this wasn’t the only danger because, although there was an absence of traffic we frequently found ourselves competing for road space with local farm livestock which thankfully announced their presence with a loud clanging cow bell.
Eventually the road began to level out and we followed the route of a river valley, the Valle de Cabuérniga with the River Argoza carving its relentless way through the hills as we made for our first stop of the day, the Cantabrian mountain village of Bárcena Mayor which is a village nestled in the mountains and the only residential community within the beech wood nature reserve of Saja.
It is said to be the oldest town in Cantabria and was declared a historic-artistic site in 1979. Because of this designation it is now one of the most visited places in Cantabria as tour buses fill the road and the edge of town car park but it was quiet enough today and we walked through the pretty medieval stone streets and houses with wooden balconies and washing lines in a hanging mist which added to the character and the charm of the place.
We left Bárcena Mayor just as the intrusive tour buses started to arrive and spill their passengers into the narrow streets and then carried on to our second village visit at Carmona sitting in an impossibly attractive natural fold in the landscape surrounded by lush green fields and with a stunning backdrop of the Pico de Europa.
Carmona was rather similar to Bárcena Mayor except there was a bit more activity in the tiny cobbled streets with wild flower verges and where sunlight spilled into the dark corners of the workshops where traditional wood carvers were busy making customary products of cattle yokes, sandals, clogs, canes, and cutlery which, I am told, are distinctive to rural Cantabria and I say that in a slightly cynical way because I got the impression that there isn’t really a great deal of tradition here and that whilst a man was busy whittling wood in an open barn for the benefit of the tourists there was probably a factory somewhere full of drills and lathes where the products for sale were being produced as the villagers were taking advantage of the new roads that brought the visitors to the once isolated communities.
I liked these little stone villages but not that much that I wanted to stay all afternoon and after we had walked through the streets, admired the wooden merchandise and dodged the free roaming dogs we returned to the car and made our way to our final overnight stop at the town of Santillana del Mar.