My head reeled backwards, tears welled up in my eyes and I winced in surprise. The last thing I wanted to do was cause offence. The Asturians, after all, take their cuisine very seriously. I needn't have worried, the waiter was smiling.
"Esta fuerte, verdad!"
It certainly was strong. I'd just taken a large mouthful of Cabrales, the legendary blue cheese. Made with a blend of cow, sheep and goat's milk, it's left to mature in caves for months until a mould completely covers it; it is not a cheese for the timid palate. Authentic Cabrales is only made in Arenas de Cabrales, a small, busy town in the Picos de Europa Mountains.
The Picos de Europa is a compact range of mountains, no more than 30 miles long and 15 miles wide, not far from Spain's northern coast. Within this manageable area you find all the drama and beauty that geological industry produces as well as lush, verdant vegetation, engaging traditions and a proud, friendly people who know how to feed you well.
The charms of the Picos are no secret to the Spanish, but until recently the only Brits who knew about them were the determined seafarers who took the Brittany ferry from Plymouth to Santander, and the climbing fraternity. Those in search of Iberian alpine pleasures often think first of the Pyrenees or the Sierra Nevada but with several low-cost flights now operating to northern Spain, accessibility is no longer an issue.
In strict mountaineering terms the Picos is a modest range, with the highest peak, Torre de Cerredo, clocking in at 8,685ft, but that is still double the height of the UK's highest mountain, Ben Nevis. It is Europe's only true maritime range. With summits of more than 6,560ft not much more than 10 miles from Atlantic breakers, "surf and snow" are very real possibilities in the same day. Their name is said to hail from mariners returning across the Bay of Biscay, whose first sight of land would be these peaks.
The mountains themselves are made up of the largest mass of mountainous limestone found on the Continent and it is this limestone that has given the area such a violent topography. In a process known as karstification, naturally acidic rainwater has dissolved the rock over millennia, cutting great chasms through it and subdividing the range into three distinct massifs: Western, Central and Eastern. The greatest of these canyons is the Garganta de Cares, the Cares gorge, a mighty cleavage, well over a mile deep at points and more than 10 miles long. A walk along the dramatic path that follows its length makes for a memorable day's exercise. The same geological process is responsible for creating both the sierra's signature peak, Naranja de Bulnes, the great incisor-tooth of rock jutting out of the Central massif, and the caves where the Cabrales cheese matures.
Three autonomous regions meet in the Picos: Asturias, Cantabria and Castilla-Leon, and until the recent arrival of tourism the principal way of life in the mountains was shepherding. Consequently, walkers are often amazed when, breathless from a hard climb through dramatic rocky corridors they stumble upon an unexpected landscape of gentle green pastures. For the Asturians, the mountains gave them not only their identity but, some claim, Spain's very existence. It was in the Asturian Picos that Pelayo, a local chief, sought refuge from the advancing Moorish armies in the 8th century. From his mountain base he rallied his men and in 722 defeated a Moorish force. Time and national pride have since marked this as the first victory against the Moors and the beginning of the "Reconquest", a process that would finally come to an end more than 750 years later. A grateful nation has titled the heir to the Spanish throne as Principe de Asturias in recognition.
Despite involvement in this seminal event of national destiny, the people and the mountains have remained distant to the affairs and movements of the country. The hamlet of Bulnes, population 16, was accessed only by a tortuous climb on foot or by mule until 2001 when a funicular railway opened; built through the mountain to connect Bulnes to the world and more pointedly the world to Bulnes. The cost was allegedly more than €10m. Locals travel free but for the rest of us a return ticket for the seven-minute ride is €17 (£12).
Almost every village (including Bulnes) now has accommodation options. Casas rurales or aldeas are often charming traditional lodgings offering a self-catering option; alternatively there are small, family run hotels. In the higher mountains there are a number of refuges or you can camp. At the other end of the scale there is a choice of two different luxury paradores, one in a modern building at Fuente De and the other in a 12th-century monastery at Cangas de Onis.
With their relative isolation and diverse microclimates the Picos boast an impressive range of flora and fauna, the most exciting of which are the dwindling populations of the European brown bear and wolf. You would do well to ignore the photos on hotel walls which suggest you'll be bumping into these hairy mammals before you've tightened your backpack straps. Wild boars inhabit the mountains too, but again they are far from social, staying where humans are not. However, if you spend any time in the mountains, you would be unlucky not to come across rebeccos, a species of mountain deer. Thanks to a strict hunting ban there are now several thousand making apparent death-defying leaps from hoof-hold to hoof-hold. You've also got a good chance of seeing magnificent eagles and griffon vultures soaring high above.
No matter what your walking level, you will be able to find something that suits, from full mountaineering ascents to gentle valley strolls. You can go to the Picos at any time of year but the first snows usually fall in October and can continue through to April making the higher mountains off-limits for all but the specialists during these months. August can be uncomfortably hot and unbearably crowded with Spanish and French holiday-makers. Fatalities in the Spanish mountains this year have highlighted that if you are planning an independent trip you should be well prepared: check weather forecasts, seek local knowledge, pack suitable clothing and make sure you have at least basic navigation skills.
The food is hearty. I defy anyone to find tastier replenishment after a hard day's activity than fabada asturiana, the robust local speciality of Asturias; with a base of butterbeans, chorizo and morcilla (black pudding). The rivers are the source of brown trout and with the sea so close it is not the only fresh fish on the menu. While the Cantabrians and Castillian-Leonese provide excellent value wines to lubricate the palate, the Asturians are fond of sidra, the local cider, poured from a height into the glass to give it some fizz. And of course, if you like to live life at the culinary extreme, there is always the Cabrales cheese.
The nearest airports to the Picos de Europa are Santander, Asturias (Oviedo) and Bilbao. Easyjet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) flies to Asturias and Ryanair (0906 270 5656; www.ryanair.com) to Santander; Bilbao is served by easyJet and Iberia (0870 60 90 500; www.iberia.com). To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Bilbao, in economy class, is £1.50. The money is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects. Alternatively, Brittany Ferries (08703 665 333; www.brittanyferries.co.uk) plies the route between Plymouth and Santander.
Several tour operators offer guided and self-drive itineraries in the Picos de Europa. These include High Places (0845 257 7500; www.highplaces.co.uk), Pico Verde (0161 773 5335; www.picoverde.com), Pura Aventura (0845 225 5058; www.pura-aventura.com) and Iberian Wildlife Tours (00 34 94 273 5154; www.iberianwildlife.com). Pura Aventura is also involved in running The Big Stretch, ( www.thebigstretch.com), a week of life-coaching in the Picos.
Self-catering accommodation in the region can be found on www.casasdealdea.com.
Parador de Fuente de and Parador de Cangas de Onis (00 34 91 516 6666; www.parador.es/english).
Picos de Europa (Black Bee Walking Guides, £9.99; www.blackbeewalking.co.uk).
Picos De Europa National Park: www.picoseuropa.net (Spanish only).
Picos De Europa tourist information: 00 34 98 584 1157; www.asturiaspicosdeeuropa.com/english
Spanish Tourist Office: 08459 400180; www.tourspain.co.ukReuse content