In the mountains of Asturias, the border between Earth and sky is rock hard and razor sharp, but also precariously thin and sometimes blurred by mist. It seems only natural that these soaring massifs, plunging abysses, and swirling cloudscapes should give rise to a mythical monster like the cuélebre. According to folktales told in the farmhouses below, the dragon-like winged serpent dwells in karst chasms, guarding treasures gathered deep within folds of limestone, and emerging when hungry to swoop down and devour cattle―not to mention the occasional hunter, herder, maiden, or monk.
The creature’s domain spans the ridgelines of the Picos de Europa range, and orbits multiple UNESCO-protected biospheres. Muniellos, for example, is the largest oak forest in Spain. Wild boar and wolves move between the trees, as well as the Cantabrian brown bear—a population recovering from the edge of extinction here, and a sight almost as mythic as the Cuélebre. “The feeling of seeing a bear is difficult to describe,” says José Tuñón, director of the nonprofit conservation group Fundación Oso de Asturias. “A mixture of excitement, adventure, joy …”
Such encounters are not as rare as they used to be, with numbers now up to an estimated 350 from fewer than 75 bears in the early 1990s. Muniellos is a prime feeding ground, says Tuñón, where the animals “gain body fat before winter lethargy.” And as their habitat expands through unspoiled, depopulated countryside, they have effectively become fuzzy envoys for the region’s ecological appeal. “The brown bear is now a mark of environmental quality.”
Guided tours now run deep into the wilderness, and there’s a real sense of discovery for first-timers in this quiet pastoral corner of “Green Spain.” Asturias can seem like a whole other country to those who picture Iberia as dusty plains or sunny Mediterranean beaches. Hikers and cyclists will instead find shaded groves and grassy pastures, sheer rock faces and luminous glacial waters. They can choose between two routes along the medieval Camino de Santiago pilgrim trail―the Camino del Norte coastal path, or the older, tougher Camino Primitivo, the original route across inland valleys―while the nearly century-old La Vuelta bicycle race provides a route map for bike tours that traces the lakeshores and lookouts around Covadonga.
There is gold underfoot, and the Roman Empire moved mountains to get it. Today’s travelers can see how the hills of Navelgas were reshaped by ancient mining operations, and visit the highland dig site at Chao Samartín, where Romans repurposed Bronze Age forts to store their loot. So, the gold pieces hoarded by the cuélebre might well be nuggets of truth at the core of its legend.
Perhaps the beast is also a relation of the dinosaurs that left fossils and footprints on the “Dinosaur Coast” between Gijon/Xixón and Ribadesella/Ribeseya. The prehistoric past does not feel so distant along these cliffs, and nearby Tito Bustillo cave is awash with ancient images of humans, ice-age mammals, and even a whale dating back as far as 35,000 years. The earliest homo sapiens may have painted them, or our cousins the Neanderthals, according to Professor Rodrigo de Balbín-Behrmann.
“The possibilities are open,” he says, which also applies to their meaning―perhaps these symbols served a religious purpose, but he’s reluctant to project, or to simplify. What captivates Behrmann is not just the beauty of the images, but their mystery. On these rock walls, and in the replica gallery that’s open to the public), “we find ourselves before a humanity that felt like us, and that was capable of abstracting and creating forms we still do not fully understand.”
And if these forms must be considered treasures, too, we can say the same of other riches created in Asturian caves. Cabrales, for example—a tangy, mustardy blue cheese named after the mountain community where it is matured in deep, dark, limestone caverns. Óscar Díaz Bada of Quesería Ángel Díaz Herrero makes an award-winning variety called Los Mazos using the ancestral formula pioneered by his great-great-grandparents. Cow’s, sheep’s, and goat’s milk are blended, warmed, curdled, and salted, then ripened in a cave over 4,900 feet (1,500 meters) above sea level at an optimal temperature of 6.5 to 7.5 degrees Celsius. “It’s like cooking at low heat. Everything happens slower, but the flavor and texture are more perfect,” says Díaz Bada
The grandmother who taught Óscar cheesemaking also cautioned him about the cuélebre, a warning he took literally as a child, but now reads metaphorically: “Caves are usually horizontal, but chasms are vertical and deep. I think the myth was a way to keep kids away from places where they might fall.” In the old stories, the monster is often appeased with abundant offerings of dairy produce and fresh meat. There’s a ring of truth to this, too, as the Asturians’ abiding love of food lends the regional cuisine its own power and depth, and tends toward extraordinarily generous portions.
Ideally, the wanderer will come down from the peaks ravenous and ready to feast at a sidrería, or cider house, a totemic tavern serving signature dishes like fabada asturiana, a rich, buttery stew of chorizo, pork shoulder, and blood sausage with white granja beans. The cider itself is another regional icon, served sweet or natural and customarily “thrown” into the glass from a height in an aerating flourish that doubles as a social ritual. An associated spirit of conviviality extends from tiny rural pubs to seaside fish restaurants in Llanes to whole clusters of bars in Oviedo/Uviéu, the capital, or Gijón/Xixón, the biggest city in Asturias.
Legend tells of an unusually low-lying cuélebre lair in Oviedo, just behind the Convent of Santo Domingo, one of many striking Gothic, Baroque, and Pre-Romanesque churches across Asturias, one of the earliest medieval Christian kingdoms. It kept eating the residents until a canny monastery chef fed it bread full of pins and nails―effectively slaying the dragon. Such a victory calls for celebration, and locals put real energy into their biggest religious festival. The mid-June fiesta of San Juan/San Xuan marks the start of the summer with bonfires, dances, and reenactments of legend and myth. This is when the cuélebre is said to be weakest, as Asturias burns bright and the forces of darkness retreat.
Find more Spanish legends here.