There (was) gold in them there hills

West of Astorga, near Ponferrada, there’s the remains of Roman mining activity – for gold. North-West Spain was one of their main sources, so they weren’t afraid to throw some engineering and muscle power at the excavations.

It’s difficult to know exactly how much gold was brought from this area, but the estimate seems to be that somewhere around a million tons of earth and rock were shifted…

The little village of Las Medulas is now sitting on another kind of gold mine as a result – tourism. Who’d have thought people would flock to see the remains of mining, and that it’d be a UN heritage protected site? But when the Romans used hydraulic pressure to chisel away the mountain, they left an astonishing moonscape behind. Our guidebook reckons the landscape’s Arizona-like. Yep, I can see that. But it reminded us more of Australia. Except for all the greenery.

From the village itself, there’s various footpaths that wind through the rocks themselves – we did a circular walk that took us to a couple of echoing caves, in which the remains of the channels and chambers, dug and tunnelled by tens of thousands of workers over the decades the mines were active, and through which high volumes of water, built up in dammed reservoirs on top of the mountains, were allowed to flow, causing rapid pressure increases to literally blow the mountain apart. Just water. No dynamite, no machinery, no gigantic JCBs or trucks – none of the modern quarry’s armoury.


Then off on another footpath, to a lake formed by the overflowed water from the workings. Ellie’s Swedish mother would have had a little huff and mutter at the somewhat optimistic use of the word “lake” – it wasn’t exactly huge – but the range of wildlife present made the wander worthwhile. Dozens of small, vivid green frogs leapt and dived for cover at our approach, whilst huge and equally vivid (but blue and yellow) dragonflies battled amongst themselves – the sound as their wings clashed into each other was surprisingly loud. A heron stood proudly on the opposite bank, before flying off in a slow looping arc over our heads.

We headed off westwards again, leaving the trail of the Camino, towards the medieval walled town of Lugo, but our intended campsite deep into the mountains was still closed for the winter. Ooops.

That left us a dilemma. Back at Bilbao, we’d bought a book listing and mapping every single Iberian campsite. But it didn’t always agree with the locations marked on our Michelin atlas. Which to trust…? They all agreed on a site some way North East, but the atlas showed one more on the logical route. Except the roads towards it didn’t seem to be very major. Hey-ho. We’ll give it a crack. The roads narrowed, twisted, turned, climbed, dropped, climbed some more. The few sign posts only showed places that the atlas denied all knowledge of. Then we arrived at a hairpin bend with another road heading straight – and no signs at all.

We tried straight on. It narrowed rapidly. The road filled with sheep and goats – but no shepherd. The sheepdog didn’t seem particularly helpful, then we spotted a few people in a field. They were setting up for a village Fiesta that evening. Yes, they knew the direction we wanted – and it was the other way from the hairpin. We were more than welcome to stay for the Fiesta, though…

We had a serious think about it – and just as we were leaning towards staying, the shepherd himself lurched towards us, keen to give us directions and suggestions. Trouble is, his accent was so thick that I don’t think we’d have stood a chance of understanding him even if he’d been stone-cold sober. Which he wasn’t. By a very long chalk. After about ten minutes of this, we were starting to lean away from an evening of being objects of curiosity, so ploughed on. At least we (thought we) now knew the right direction, and that it wasn’t too much further. Horizontally, at least. Fortunately, it was towards the top of the very last climb that the van started to cough, splutter and lose power. The fuel gauge was saying that we were just about in the red – on the level. Climbing that sharply, the remaining fuel was running to the back of the tank, and we were running out.

We got to the top, and started the descent. As we rolled into Samos, the wall of a huge and ancient monastery unrolled in front of us. With – I kid you not – a tiny petrol station nestled against it. A tiny black-clad monk was quickly joined by the pump attendant – who’d been sat with some mates and a beer outside the café opposite, and we relaxed. Briefly, since it turned out that the map was wrong and the camping guide right. There was no campsite here. The helpful passerby Ellie had asked promptly swept her off whilst my back was turned – to show her a spot around the corner where we’d be more than welcome to park up for the night, just outside a tiny and ancient chapel with a thousand-year old Cypress tree next to it. And some public loos.

That was it. We didn’t need to think about it. We moved the van to park up, and found that we’d got no brakes… The hot smell that had enveloped the van whilst filling up wasn’t just hot pads – descending all those mountain passes, especially driving a bit more aggressively downhill in an attempt to keep momentum up to minimise fuel use on the following climbs, had generated enough heat that the brief pause had caused it to soak into the fluid and boil it. Ooops… again.

Definitely time to leave the van stationary for the night and relax in the bar. The food we’d planned to cook stayed in the van’s fridge, and we partook of the Menu del Dia. Caldo Gallego – thick veg soup – followed by Salmon in a thin batter and griddled. A restful and relaxed night followed.

The following day, we headed up to Lugo. The medieval walls are completely intact, enclosing the city centre. A quick peak into the Cathedral showed that it was in use for Mass, and whilst there were some interesting bits of the rest of the walled city amongst the cold, grey post-Civil War drab concrete, the desire to wait for the service to finish before looking around was overwhelmed by the desire to get out of the equally cold, grey rain…

So we headed up towards the north coast. Least said, soonest mended just about sums up the rest of the day (Can I refer you to our catching up post?) which finished in a campsite near Ferrol – the glorious sunset on a small and lovely beach was quickly overshadowed once we went to bed by high-pitched whining… The night of a squillion flying-biting things had begun. Finding that the showers in the morning were icy-cold only sealed our mood. We ummed and ahhed about whether to head straight for Santiago, but decided we weren’t in the right frame of mind to do it justice, so headed round the coast some more, intending to head in the next day. By mid-afternoon, our moods hadn’t been helped by the continuing failure of Galicia to provide anything much for the tourist, nor by the continuingly grey and miserable weather. A look at the camping map confirmed that our morning decision had been the wrong one, so we relented and headed straight for Santiago.

This entry was posted in By Country - Spain, Personal stuff, Travel stuff, Van stuff. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to There (was) gold in them there hills

  1. Ro says:

    “Who’d have thought people would flock to see the remains of mining..” – what, you’ve never been to the big pit in Blaenavon? Also a world heritage site though admittedly coal is a bit less interesting than gold.

    • AdrianC says:

      A bit more recent, and I’m not quite sure the end result’s quite so scenic…?

      But you’re right, I forgot about that – and there’s another (albeit non-UNESCO) heritage pit museum north of Sheffield, isn’t there?

  2. Pingback: Just Roman around | Wherever the road goes…

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