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HOOFING IT GLORIOUSLY

In northern Spain, a spectacular hike amid the Picos piques interest. So do the local food and drink.

It's not hard to convince anyone about the astonishing variety that Spain offers tourists, whether it be sunny Mediterranean beaches in the south, the Rioja wine country, or the beautifully preserved Islamic architecture of Granada, Seville and Cordoba.

Even so, oft ignored in that mix is the Picos de Europa mountain range in northern Spain on the border between Cantabria and Asturias. The Picos are perhaps one of the country's best-kept travel secrets. Covering about 500 square miles, roughly the size of the Ocala National Forest, the mountain range is marked by jagged limestone peaks, which are often snow-capped. Tunnels and caves run underneath them.

Each summer my wife, who is from Spain, and I look for a new place to explore while visiting her relatives. There's so much to see in Spain that only this year, on my 18th trip, did we make it to the Picos. It was worth the wait.

Spain's domestic travel network has improved dramatically, so we could have taken the train or a short flight, but we opted to make the five-hour journey by car, stopping along the way for some roadside refreshment, which is one of the universal delights of Spain's tapas culture, fresh-made small dishes designed for quick snacks, washed down with a glass of wine or beer.

We drove to Comillas, a charming town on the north coast famous for its narrow streets and squares with ancestral houses, including El Capricho (the whim), designed by the eclectic architect Antoni Gaudi, famous for his works in Barcelona.

Whereas Madrid can be oppressively hot in the summer (like Florida in August, minus the humidity), the climate on the north coast is moderated by the cool Atlantic waters of the Bay of Biscay.

The green fields and cool climate are often likened to the south of England. Being a Brit, I wouldn't go as far as that, as Spain's north coast is a lot sunnier than the average summer's day at my mother's house in Devon, on England's south coast.

The variety of local seafood is the other great attraction, as well as local cider and cheeses. Asturias' famous Cabrales is an aged blue cheese similar to Stilton, only creamier.

On our first evening we drove to the nearby fishing village of San Vicente del la Barquera for fresh sardines in a simple restaurant on the waterfront. Though a stronger euro has made traveling in Spain more expensive, eating out remains highly affordable. Spaniards, like the French, consider a bottle of wine part of the table setting, along with the salt and pepper and olive oil. Except in pricier restaurants there is no big mark-up, and so a decent bottle of the local wine is only about $10.

Eye-opening stroll

There is plenty of variety for the experienced walker and the weekend stroller on the craggy limestone mountains. One popular walk of moderate difficulty is known as the Ruta de Cares, which takes you along the Cares River gorge skirting cavernous ravines and mountain peaks from the village of Poncebos to the mountain hamlet of Cain.

The 7-mile walk is best done in proper walking shoes, but the path is so well trodden that a pair of sneakers will do. Best to carry a poncho in case it rains, and something to drink if the sun is out.

The views are spectacular as the path takes you along the side of the gorge, often perched precariously on the edge of precipitous drops to the river below. If you suffer from vertigo, as I do, not to worry. The path is wide and even enough not to cause panic.

The path passes through some tunnels burrowed out of the rock by workers who built a magnificent irrigation canal that winds its way through the mountains.

The walk can just as easily be done in reverse from Cain to Poncebos, and many walkers like to make it into an all-day round trip of about seven to eight hours.

We did the one leg, taking it slow, in just under four hours, and devoured a wholesome bowl of fababas (a local white bean stew, with chorizo) at the Cuevas restaurant in Cain, which cost us 4 euros (less than $6) each.

On the way home we stopped in the town of Cangas de Onis to inspect a marvelous 12th century monastery that has been converted to a four-star hotel with 63 beautifully decorated rooms, part of Spain's state-run chain of historic buildings turned into luxury hotels, known as paradores.

In the summer a room for two with breakfast costs 160 euros ($230), but there are 30 percent discounts for guests 55 and older, as well as guests ages 20 to 35.

Head in the clouds

On the eastern edges of the Picos is the attractive town of Potes, perched on the banks of the river Deva with winding streets and bridges, as well as historic buildings and monuments.

Its stunning natural surroundings make Potes an ideal hub for outdoor activities, from hiking and mountaineering to river canoeing, mountain biking, paragliding, hunting and fishing. As always in Spain, the local cuisine is worth sampling, with dishes like cocido lebaniego (chickpea casserole) and game stews.

A few miles west of Potes in the town of Cosgaya is the Hotel del Oso, one of the best places to stay and eat in the region. We had saved up for a major blowout at the Oso but were still impressed with the cost.

Lunch for the four of us, including main courses, a cheese table, two bottles of good wine, after-dinner drinks (pacharan, a local liqueur from the nearby Basque Country made from an indigenous sloe berry, called endrina) and coffee, came to 144.13 euros with tax (roughly $50 a head).

I recommend the rabo de novilla estofado (young cows' tail stew), or the lechazo asado (tender roasted lamb), and chuletillas de lechazo (lamb cutlets).

After that meal we probably should have opted for a long walk, but instead, we headed up the valley to the cable car station at Fuente De, which offers a breathtaking view. The cable car carries passengers 2,450 feet up in three minutes, 40 seconds, to a platform overlooking the valley at 6,070 feet above sea level. With vertigo, I never imagined I would be able to make the ride. Maybe it was the drinks at lunchtime that gave me added courage. The cable car is a modern and enclosed design, so I felt (almost) perfectly safe, as long as I didn't look down.

The day we visited was cloudy, so we ended up rising through the clouds to the top, where there is also a cafe. It's a popular starting point for climbers looking to reach the summit of Torre Llambrion (8,667 feet) or Pena Vieja (8,572 feet).

A walk through the cold, thin air is exhilarating, while the vegetation - tiny, bright-colored flowers with short stems - is a curious contrast to the forests below. On the ride back I even managed to open my eyes and look at the scenery below; another wonderful memory of Spain that will endure.

David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com.

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IF YOU GO

Picos de Europa, Spain

- The Fuente De cable car runs every few minutes, no reservation necessary: $14 euros ($20) round trip.

-For information on the Hotel del Oso, in Cosgaya, Cantabria, go to hoteldeloso.com. Doubles start at about $100.

For general information about visiting Spain and traveling there, go to spain-info.com.

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