"The 'Descenso del Sella'"
Oihana invited me to drive for the second half of the morning. We headed southwards through Llovio on the right bank of the Sella, and along the N 634 into the deep, sinuous defile between the limestone summits of the Fitu and the Escapa, but only as far as a small car park tucked below the level of the road immediately beyond the first meander of the broad, fast-flowing river.
‘Yes, pull in here, Des. We’ll be going back the way we came afterwards, since driving the dreadful N 634’s no way to see the best of the countryside, but this is the most interesting approach to what I want to show you now. Time for a bit more exercise.’
‘I won’t complain about that!’
Having left the car next to a stack of red fibreglass canoes awaiting the coming of the spring and the adventure tourists, we retraced our steps along the hard shoulder of the busy road, choking in the traffic fumes, until we reached a narrow concrete path which descended precipitously to a narrow suspension footbridge providing access to the left bank. The metal mesh bridge deck bounced gently in response to our footsteps as we crossed it.
‘The Sella,’ commented Oihana. ‘Famous for its salmon especially in days gone by, somewhat infamous nowadays for the Descenso del Sella, the canoe race which takes place on the first Saturday of August each year.’
‘Unfortunately so. Today’s event is not quite what the founder, Dionisio de la Huerta, had in mind. Dionisio was a veraneante of the 1920s, who lived in Barcelona and spent his summer holidays in a house in Coya, near Infiesto. In 1929 he brought with him a folding canoe, and together with a couple of friends, the doctor Benigno Morán and a young artisan canoe builder, Manés Fernández, he started exploring the course of the Piloña, eventually getting as far downstream as Soto de Dueñas. Their activities created an amazing amount of interest in Infiesto and in the other villages in the valley, and the following year an informal race was held over that section of the river. In 1931 the section chosen for the race was from Soto de Dueñas to Ribadesella, all of 25 kilometres, a course which the winner completed in four hours and twelve minutes. 1932 was the first year in which the Descenso was organised as a proper competition, over 19 kilometres of the Sella between the bridges in Arriondas and Ribadesella, and attracting thirteen canoeists, from Oviedo, Gijón, Ribadesella, and Infiesto. The race was suspended between 1936 and 1943 on account of the Civil War and its aftermath, and it was in 1951 that foreigners first took part - from Italy and Portugal. Since then the event has grown into the most important of its kind anywhere in the world - over the past decade there have regularly been around 1,400 competitors each year, and it would be physically impossible to admit more.’
‘Sounds reasonable to me - so far.’
‘Yes, as you say, so far. Unfortunately, what was conceived by Dionisio as a sporting event and a physical challenge has evolved into far more. Far, far more, and not all of it very pleasant, to put it mildly. Over the whole weekend of the Descenso Arriondas and Ribadesella organise fiestas, and are invaded by literally hundreds of thousands of visitors, many of whom are young, have absolutely no interest in canoeing or the race, and are simply there to have what they would call a ‘good time’. And we both know what ‘having a good time’ means for most people nowadays! You can imagine it - the all-night racket, the rubbish, the broken glass, the filth, and, at times, the violence. Locals complain of sleepless nights, wanton vandalism, and the fact that their streets and portales are treated like public urinals. But nobody dare voice a complaint during the weekend of the fiestas for fear of reprisals from young, drugged, and drunken louts. As for the traffic! For hours before, during and after the race the N 634 between Arriondas and Ribadesella is one continuous traffic jam. FEVE still runs special trains to Ribadesella from Oviedo and Gijón, but even a 20-coach train has insufficient capacity for all those who want to use it nowadays. Naturally, drivers try to avoid the congestion by taking to other roads between Infiesto, Arriondas and the coast, and that makes life a nightmare for the few who still live in the villages along those lanes, and who are accustomed to just one car passing by every half hour or so on normal days.’
‘Another example of unsustainable tourism, isn’t it, Oihana? I wouldn’t be surprised if the costs incurred in laying on an event like that outweigh all the benefits.’
‘Nor would I. Such a shame, isn’t it, though? So far removed from the original ideal.’
* * * * * * *
I wrote 'The Rape of Arcadia' the winter following a particularly notorious 'Descenso' (2004), when chaos reigned in Ribadesella during the night following the event, and things became pretty nasty and violent.
Mercifully there has not been a repeat - the police and others have ensured THAT.
Poor old Dionisiu probably turns very uncomfortably in his grave, every time the first Saturday in August comes round.
Basta ya de 'descensos' y canoas! Let's see what Les Arriondes has to offer us . . .
Like L'Infiestu, Les Arriondes was by-passed in the early 1990s. Both towns have roughly the same resident winter population - around 2,500. But unlike its eastern neighbour, Les Arriondes serves as a 'gateway' town to the Picos de Europa, sharing this role with the larger and more touristy Cangues d'Onís, a little further up the valley of the Sella.
Essentially, Les Arriondes is the first goal for most folk arriving by rail, or by bus from the east, heading for the mountains. From the west, ALSA offers a direct bus service from Uviéu to Cangues, so there is no need to change vehicle or mode here. Since the mid-1990s the town has become the point of departure for visitors intent on paddling their own canoe (literally) down the Sella to Riba-de-Sella. The canoe-hire industry mushroomed almost overnight, and now the number of companies renting out these primary-coloured little fibreglass craft is legion. Perhaps there are more canoes now than trees . . .
I could almost count my visits to Les Arriondes on the fingers of one hand. Dropping off a BBC travel show reporter at the station in summer 1994, instructing her to get off at Cuevas and walk through La Cuevona ('Watch out for cows in the cave, lass, they don't carry lights!'). Doing the routine shopping on a day when L'Infiestu is closed up for fiestas. Visiting an internet café one afternoon to transmit urgent files when our phone line was out of action for a week following a thunderstorm. And signing the 'escritura' for our house in the notary's office in the Town Hall. A notary who had missed his calling as a Shakespearian actor, and who comes to life in my 'The Rape of Arcadia'.
The day of my car service trip in March 2009 I determined to find out what there remained of Les Arriondes that was worth photographing. I was not entirely disappointed, as you will see in the Travelogues that follow . . .