The endangered sublime of Covadonga, Asturias

Heralded as the cradle of Spanish Christendom, for centuries the alpine sanctuary of Covadonga has been a site of miracles for the faithful, a haven for the pilgrim. But today, Covadonga’s spiritual significance becomes universal, as a sacred site for the biosphere during the age of the anthropocene.

For the patriotic, Covadonga holds the tomb of the warrior king, Pelayo (or Pelagius), whose 722 victory here against the powerful Umayyad Caliphate marked the beginning of the Christian Reconquista. From the natural palisade of the Picos de Europa, according to the nationalist narrative, the rolling conquest of Spanish Islam marched forward through the centuries, the heirs of the Visigoth Kingdom pushing south from Asturias in a holy war against the Moors, consolidating in their wake the embryonic states of modern Spain – Castile, Navarre, Leon, and Aragon.

For the non-believes in Dios and Patria, Covadonga still remains sacred, its springs and streams the holy water blessing these alpine peaks with everlasting life. Filled with the melting snow from the peaks, the alpine lakes of Ercina and Enol soak the valleys below through a network of subterranean flows. In the Holy Cave of Covadonga, where the Christian hero Pelayo is said to have taken shelter from the Moors and inspiration from the Virgen, the Rio las Mestas emerges after a 300-metre descent through the bowels of the earth.

An ancient tree ent of the Palomberu beech forest in Picos de Europa

Towering above the pilgrim’s destination at Covadonga sanctuary stands Monte Auseva, an 800-metre peak thick with ancient forests of beech, alder, oak and chestnut growing on its slopes. Climbing the sides, you reach the high meadows growing in the sunken basins formed by dissolving limestone. In one of these meadows, Vega de Orandi, an alpine river (Rio las Mestas) deposits nutrients into the basin, allowing grasses to grow in the humid soils, and turning the fast-flowing stream into a slow meandering creek. Here, shepherds bring their flocks to graze on the thick turf amidst an otherwise infertile land.

Lago Ercina, at 1,108 metres above sea level, and a humid depression in the Picos de Europa formed by dissolving subterranean limestone.

Lago Enol at sunset, and the Plains of Comeya, a massive depression (poljé) in the landscape formed by melting glacial waters and dissolving limestone. Today only a meandering creek remains of what was once a glacial lake that filled the basin.

The entire landscape here is one vast karstic sponge, its surface pock-marked with sinkholes (jous) and depressions (poljé), and its subterranean recesses perforated with caverns and drains into which creeks suddenly descend only to reappear in lower springs. Digging shafts deep into these limestone rocks, for centuries men have sought to mine its riches of iron, magnesium, zinc, and lead. The only road leading to the alpine lakes of Covadonga was in fact built for the mines of Buferrera, which are now a decaying testament of the industrial age.

The Palomberu beech forest, sheep graze in a small karstic depression, and the limestone landscape of Picos de Europa.

If in the past these mountains were exploited for their treasures, if Covadonga was born a symbol of God and country, in today’s world of the shrinking, dying biosphere, they become one of the last refuges of what the Romantics called the immense, limitless sublime.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: