“…but I’m not happy”

Map of the Valley of Liébana, c. 1900, 1:200.000. Click to enlarge, or for the complete sheet

From the balcony of the Casar de Aliezo where we spend the nights, we can see the lights of Ojedo slowly extending to Potes, which is already hidden behind the bend of the valley.

Ojedo (Cillorigo de Liébana) crossed by the river Bullón, seen from the other side in a photo
of the 50’s.
Aliezo, where we took the above photo from, is the house group
at the top right. Further you can see the houses of Tama.

To Liébana one arrives as to an island, and the elder locals also speak about it like that. This region alwas offered a shelter in the protection of the abrupt and capricious mountain ranges and gorges, over which a gentle plain with good soil and a mild climate for plants and animals was waiting for the refugees. This intensive impression of the physical protection, as alive as demanding, converts over time into a sentimental shelter, and the daily experience of beauty is stronger and more pervasive than anything other. Hard and fragile at the same time – islands are like this –, Liébana immediately reveals its intimacies to the traveler, and it unfolds into an intricate archipelago. Each of the valleys leading down to Potes, drawn up by the rivers Deva, Quiviesa and Bullón, calls for a closer look. Each valley is home to a swarm of tiny villages that affirm their identity with their little bell towers, stone shields houses, barns, stables, corrals and a history which, in recent times, is almost entirely about aging and loss.


From village to village we often stop by to talk with men and women working outside. They all make clear that they are proud to live there, while recognizing the difficulties of the daily work. They show around with a resigned admiration, just as one speaking about a whimsical lover: “this is for those who love it”, they say, immediately adding: “I could not live anywhere else”. They feel sore about the fact that almost no young people stay in the villages. “This is wonderful here. But I’m not happy. Of my six children only one has remained in the village, and yet I must be thankful for this one”, laments, although with a smile on her face, an elderly lady, well dressed, sitting on this rainy summer afternoon on the porch of his home. “Although there is enough work here”, she adds. She feels like talking, and invites us for a coffee. She speaks a clean and clear Castilian. Some of the locals venture with the so-called “rural tourism”. The camps are being gradually abandoned.


The spiritual center (at least officially) of Liébana is the monastery of Santo Toribio with the two surrounding hermitages of San Miguel and Santa Catalina, as well as with the little Cueva Santa, the holy cave somewhat higher. Santo Toribio boasts with the largest piece of the Holy Cross in the world. From the beginning of the settlement of the valley there are documents about the monastery. According to tradition, it must have been founded by King Alfonso I who in the eighth century recognized that these valleys offered a good refuge for Christians harassed by Muslims. The monastery, first dedicated to St. Martin, received its cognomen from the little village of Turieno laying just down the river Deva. Around 1959 the monastery suffered a bad renovation which wiped out almost all traces of the oldest building.

Before the renovation probably all the monastery was as dilapidated
as one can see on the walls of the convent in this old photo

To the left, the two gates of the church, the main gate and the Door of Forgiveness,
which is only open in the jubilee years.

Peasants of Liébana on the way home from the monastery of Santo Toribio after the
traditional “change-over”: from 16 April to 5 October each day two neighbors
go up from each village of the valley, while on great feasts
one person from every family.

The great feast of the valley is the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on 14 September.
For this occasion, near the end of summer, everyone arrives to the
monastery on adorned carts and wearing their best clothes.


montes sin una flor, lápidas rojas,
y la sombra que baja. Pero hierve
la luz en los espinos. No comprendo. Sólo
veo belleza.


I saw
mountains without a flower, red gravestones
and the shadow falling. But the light
flames in the scrubs. I don’t grasp it. Only
beauty I see.

         I distrust

(From Antonio Gamoneda, Blues castellano —1961-66—)

In the next entry on Liébana we will follow the same path to Santo Toribio and the hermitages, up to the source of the river Deva.

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