Zerky in La Liébana

The Village of Potes in La Liebana, Northern Spain photo

The Village of Potes in La Liebana, Northern Spain

The best way to approach La Liebana is from the South via the mountain pass at the head of the Valley of the Cherry Trees between the Gates of San Glorio and the Star of Liebana. The Liebana is a system of weather-protected valleys in northern Spain lying in the shadows of the Picos de Europa, the highest mountains in the Cantabrian range. Because they are protected from cold winter storms blowing in off the North Atlantic, and icy winds off the central Iberian plateau, La Liebana enjoys a moderate climate such as one might order up for Adam and Eve. Here we are in a fairy tale land out of the Bible, its jewel being La Valle de la Cereceda (The Valley of the Cherry Trees). I like to call it heaven because it looks like an artist’s rendering of the Garden of Eden. All lush and green, and sprinkled with multicolored flowers and red-roofed houses, this particular valley is an artist’s vision. Cows, goats and sheep wander everywhere, in the green meadows, the mountain passes, and in the valleys, roads and highways. We don’t drive at night because animals have the right of way.

The Peaks of Europe are among the most spectacular mountains in Europe, on par with the Pyrenees and the Alps. Their more southern latitude and lower elevation, however, gives them a special lushness that invites Garden of Eden comparisons. For over eight hundred years, Spain was the most glorious part of the far-flung Moorish Empire. Cantabria marked the northern limit of Moorish expansion into Western Europe. The Peaks of Europe were also the last stronghold of Christianity on the Iberian Peninsula. Throughout Spain’s eight-hundred year occupation by Moslems, the Christians were never driven from these mountains. At Covadonga, Zerky, you visited a shrine honoring Pelayo, a near-mythical hero who handed the Moors their first battlefield defeat. Thus began the Reconquista, ending with the fall of Granada in 1492, the year Columbus discovered our “New World.” You have seen history all around you in this little-known pocket of northern Spain: mini-cathedrals dating back to the sixth century, stone bridges built by the Romans, the prehistoric caves of Altamira, and you even visited Guernica, the site of one of the most famous paintings in the world. Alas, you were asleep in your pack on my back at the time. Oh well, it was only a reproduction anyway. Perhaps someday you will come back here and see the original in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

—Excerpted from Letters to Zerky

Village of Mogrovejo in the Liebana photo

Village of Mogrovejo in the Liebana

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