Los Ancares, a very special reserve (Lugo)
In the 1970’s and 80’s the people of
Galicia discovered Os Ancares.
They were fascinated by reports in the media that there were still villages there without electricity or roads, cut off by the winter snows, where people and animals lived together in prehistoric huts, farming with agricultural implements last used in Europe 200 years ago.
All this and the mountains, the untouched woodland with its indigenous species, deep valleys and inaccessible peaks, and the varied flora and fauna unique to Galicia: deer, ibex and even bears. The myth of Os Ancares was born. A place for a day out but which makes you want to stay for a weekend at least. A riot of nature and anthropology made accessible by roads and signposts and with a growing hotel trade.
The ever-active environmental groups in Galicia have proposed that 60,000 hectares of this fold in the ranges of the Cordillera Cantábrica, which lies half in Leon and half in Galicia, be declared a Parque Natural. Today, protection only goes as far as a National Game Reserve, which has done nothing to prevent the sharp decline in the bear population in the mountains. In the last two or three years the odd pair has been seen, having made the short journey from the nearby Muniellos Natural Park in Asturias. The Ministry of Agriculture now owns a 150-hectare estate set aside for a programme to help the brown bear population recover.
But Cervantes, this municipality of 130 villages in the Galician part of Os Ancares, in the province of Lugo, owes its name to the deer (ciervos) who populate it and not the bears. According to the 1991 census, it has, in total, little more than 2,300 inhabitants; only a third of the population immediately after the Spanish Civil War. In the 1960’s, when people began emigrate, young people left the backwardness and misery en masse for the industrial belt of Barcelona in particular.
The departure point for Os Ancares is Becerreá - a village located on kilometre 459 of the N-VI, Madrid to La Coruña road - exiting at the Pedrafita do Cebreiro pass if coming from Central Spain, or 42 kilometres from Lugo if coming from the north.
To really enjoy Os Ancares, we highly recommended you spend a night or two in the albergue (mountain refuge) or in the two hostales (inns) in San Román and in Piornedo.
Wherever you stay, the trip suggested here, dominated by the peace and quiet of the valleys and mountains, can easily be done in a day, as it is a round journey of around about 130 kilometres from Becerreá, although you should fill up with petrol before leaving Becerreá as there is no petrol station until Navia (about 100 kilometres away).
9 km along the road from Becerreá to Navia de Suarna you arrive in Liber, where the road forks off to the right. The two roads go deep into the valleys and foothills of the sierra (mountain range) before joining up again in the village of Degrada. The first road, a low-lying route, is a journey of 40 Km via Doiras and Cela.
The second is journey of 33 Km, which passes by a beautiful fishing lodge before leading on to the capital of the municipality, San Román de Cervantes, (where there is a hostal and restaurant) before climbing up to become the highest road in Galicia.
The absolute calm of the valleys and mountains reigns supreme; nature in its purest state, and where, every once in a while, a vehicle may pass through. Villages in the depths of the mountains, nestling on the slopes, can be reached by minor roads, which are sometimes little more than country tracks.
The local people live mainly from livestock, and there is extensive pasture land, amid large areas of scrubland, known as matorral, with varieties of heather, broom, bilberries, gorse, and indigenous ‘hedgehog’ shrubs.
There are many woods, some of which are forested with centuries-old oaks and which have their own names. The traveller will also come across woodland comprising chestnut, yew, ash, birch, hazelnut, pine plantations and holly, and alder, willow and poplar in the valleys.
The number of deer in the reserve has declined markedly, as have those of ibex, although in smaller numbers. It is, however, home to a thriving community of roebuck and a stable population of wolves and foxes. Mammals also abound in numbers such as genets, mountain cats, otters, wild boar, martens and perhaps the last remaining pine martens in Galicia.
Binoculars are essential in a place like Os Ancares if you want to see, for example, the eagles, falcons, goshawks and sparrowhawks soaring majestically in the air. With a little luck it might be possible to catch a glimpse of a capercaillie; a protected species and the mascot of the reserve.
This arrogant bird, larger than the cockerel, has a peculiar way of attracting the female, putting on an unusual show by dancing around her, always at daybreak, and of course, always before mating with her.
Let’s return to the route. If you take the lower road via Doiras and Cela, you come across one of the few monuments on the journey, the Torre de Doiras. Set atop a rocky crag, this typically Galician fortress, dating from the fifteenth century and part of the domain of Diego Osorio, is privately owned and is not open to the public at the moment. It dominates the area and makes this part of the sierra unique.
According to the legend, the maiden Aldara once lived here until she mysteriously disappeared. Years passed until one day her brother, Egas, shot a magnificent deer whilst he was out hunting. As he was unable to carry it, he cut off a hoof, put it in his bag and went off to get help. When he showed his father the size of the prize, the hoof had turned into a hand which bore one of Aldara’s rings. Both father and son rushed off in haste and found to their horror that the animal brought down by Egas’ arrow to the heart had now taken on the figure of the maiden. A spell had turned her into deer.
Close to Doiras lies the tiny village of Vilarello
da Igrexia, where scholars have located the origins of the family
of Don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. The second surname of the
brilliant author of Don Quijote de la Mancha originates from here
and the thirty ninth chapter of the novel – considered to
be autobiographical – begins with these words: “My
family had its origin in a village among the mountains of Leon…”.
By Sete Carballos
If you come to Degrada by the upper route, you pass the hill of Sete Carballos, an ideal spot to view, on the horizon, the jagged outline the most important peaks of Os Ancares: Pena Rubia, Tres Bispos, Crono Maldito, Mustellar, Cuiña (the highest at 1,987 m) and Miravalles.
The two roads come together in Degrada and immediately afterwards lies Campa de Braña, a crossroads 1,178 metres above sea level, and with two restaurants standing guard on either side of the road it is an essential place to stop to rest and have something to eat. The road climbs from here to Piornedo, a kilometre away, where there is a reasonably priced mountain refuge, offering meals and a bed. This is the perfect place to set off on some routes and it is highly recommended to have suitable maps. Some of them will be available in the mountain refuge.
The journey by car from Campa da Braña to Piornedo (18 kms long) is as beautiful as it is twisting. The road runs on both sides of the small valley of the Ortegal River. Two and a half kilometres into the journey there is a path to the right which leads up to the nearby Campa de Barreiro, the site of the Fonte dos Namorados (Lover’s Fountain) and where a fiesta is held on the third Sunday of July. The road continues on the same side of the Ortegal Valley and reaches the banks of the river after passing through Abesedo de Donís, a place which offers the best chance to catch sight of a mountain cock (capercaillie). You cross the river at the Ponte de Vales, set amid beautiful woods, and climb back up the other side in search of Donis and Piornedo.
No worthwhile guide fails to mention the day, in
1873, when the village of Donís took its place in the history
books. Fed up of the humiliation of having to pay taxes whilst
living in extreme poverty, the people locked the tax collector
in a stable and then declared the Independent Republic of Donís.
Their defiance lasted for as long as it took the police to free
the civil servant and restore the unity of the state. On leaving
the village, a sharp curve to the right and a steep climb leads
the traveller to Piornedo.
Piornedo is not the only village in which there are still pallozas (pre-Romanesque, thatched, stone huts), but it is the most famous. Humans and animals lived side by side in these primitive constructions as recently as ten years ago.
The poverty and simple way of life of only a few years ago can now be visited for a token fee as some pallozas have been turned into ethnographic museums and others have been opened up by local people. They remain untouched, displaying the kitchen utensils which for the outsider date back to the time of their grandparents but for the people of Os Ancares were important tools in their everyday life until very recently.
Pallozas were circular or oval structures designed in such a way as to retain heat to face the terrible winters in the mountains. They didn’t even have fireplaces, as it was thought that the smoke was good for the health, and in any case, it escaped through the thatched roof. Only parents had their own room. Now Piornedo has a modern hostal and restaurant with turismo rural (rural tourism) category accommodation.
From Piornedo you can either return by the same route or take the circular route suggested at the beginning, which goes into Leon and through the villages of Suábol and Balouta – which boast their own pallozas. Afterwards, following a beautiful road through the gorge of the Balouta River, come off at Rao and Navia de Suarna, a new municipality in Galicia of 2,000 inhabitants that, for some decades now, has lived under the threat of a project to build a reservoir, which would mean the end for the village. Any photo of Navia would have to include its medieval bridge with its thick walls, standing at the foot of what was once the castle of the Altamira family.
A twisting road links the village with Becerreá (29 kms away) and runs alongside the Navia River and its many fishing reserves and trails, if that is, you still have some energy left after such an intensive day.