Spain – the gift that keeps on giving. We are in Soria, the least densely populated region in Spain with an average of just 9 people per square kilometre. Our home for the weekend is a small house, set in the middle of a vast pine forest and flanked by high tree covered hills. People have sometimes compared this area to the Taiga forest in Russia … minus the bears.
The jewel in the crown for many people here in Soria is its famous lake – La Laguna Negra. A breathtaking lake hemmed in by steep cliff faces that hide the high peaks of Urbion behind. Its name comes from its surprisingly opaque surface (you’d think clean, mountain water would be crystal clear). Legends tell that the lake is bottomless and is home to a creature that devours anyone who dares enter its waters. In actual fact the lake is not more than 8 metres deep and every august there is a swimming competition in its murky waters (no lost souls or limbs yet).
We arrive early and follow a delightful path that winds through beech and pine trees, crisscrossing streams brimming with snow melt. Our reason for arriving early is to avoid the people that take the bus up to the lake. As great as these services are for people that wouldn’t otherwise make it to the lake, I still feel that arriving at natural beauty spots should always involve a sense of effort (and later achievement).
The lake sits at 1,753m high and is often frozen until late spring. We are lucky to be here during an early heat wave and the sun sits proud in a clear blue sky (Soria is the coldest province in Spain and the following week temperatures dropped to well below freezing).
Stillness overwhelms. The lake’s surface is still, the sound of breaking ice crackles through the early morning air from the mountains behind. We soak up the scene before a bus arrives and hurries us on. Passing the western shore of the lake we start to climb. From a gap in the cliff face a waterfall cascades down, rushing below our feet as we cross a small wooden bridge.
Here things get a little more complicated. We are in the shadow of the cliffs and our steep route up is covered in ice and frozen snow. Slowly, and very carefully, we climb. Rocky rushes on impatiently taking advantage of his natural crampons. We ascend a steep gully and eventually reach easier terrain. We reach a high snow-covered valley, there is no one here. Using snow bridges to cross streams, we come to an area of natural springs. The water bubbles up only to swirl back underground down miniature whirlpools. Songbirds chirp away happily in the stunted trees.
After an hour or so we reach a pass and get our first glimpse of Urbion (2,228m), the province’s highest peak and the source of some of Spain’s most important rivers – the Ebro and the Duero. Our aim is to climb Urbion, yet its icy slopes look dangerous without crampons. The path we need to take sits precariously above a sharp drop to the frozen lake below. Prudence wins. We head right and start to climb another peak, Zurraquin (2,105m).
As we climb, the views stretch for miles. We take in the dense forests of Soria, and the peaks of the Sierra Cebollera that straddle the borders of La Rioja, Burgos and Soria marking the northernmost limit of the Iberian mountain system. Reaching the rocky summit we are greeted by a strange spectacle: hundreds of rocks are pointed vertically, so the top looks like a jagged series of knife edges. Who knows if this is natural or human-made, and if it is human what was the purpose?
Further on we find a sheltered spot for lunch. Water trickles and glints in the distance, birds of prey soar above us. Cracking open a couple of cold beers, we toast to life.