Neftalí Platas García (Photos by José A. Armesto)
Datos do mapa © dos colaboradores do OpenStreetMap, CC BY-SA
This region is placed in the border between the provinces of Lugo and León. The area in both provinces forms an indivisible unit belonging to the same mountain range, although it's usual to find the designation of “Ancares de Lugo” and “Ancares de León”. Hills in Lugo and in León are part of the Cantabrian range and they share many cultural, historical and anthropological elements.
Juridically, Ancares is protected like a Hunting National Reserve, from 1966 (León) and 1973 (Lugo). In 1972 all the area was declared “Picturesque area” (Law 2647 of August 18).
The region of Os Ancares is much bigger than the Reserve, (it occupies only 79.77 square kilometers in Lugo and 383 in León). The full area spread out from Miravalles peak, in the border with Asturias, till the mountain pass of Pedrafita do Cebreiro like a mountainous strip that crosses the eastern part of Lugo and the western part of León (in Lugo it occupies 423 square kilometers and in León, 530 square kilometers).
The area has a very extreme mountain Atlantic-Oceanic climate with intense snowfalls. In some low areas there is a climate with Mediterranean influence. The annual rainfall goes beyond the 1000 mm and presents in form of snow in winter.
The self-reliant economy of Os Ancares, based fundamentally on cattle, caused a general emigration from the sixties onwards. This affected mostly women and young people and, as a consecuence, the area has an aged population. On the other hand, the structure of the territory, the hardness of the climate and the shortage of economical activity caused that whole villages were deserted. In the area of Lugo the population density is 12,7 inhabitants per square km, but in León it reduces to 5,5. The whole area has now more or less 26000 inhabitants that live in one of the 692 small villages isolated in many occasions during the winter by the snowfalls.
The soil, the flora and the fauna of this area are very varied and characteristic due to the fact it's a boundary territory. The soil is characterized by an abundance of rocks, mainly slates, granites and sandstones that make it acid soil.
There are many oak and chestnut woods where we can find hundred-year-old trees as well as abundant hollies that gave the fruit to feed the capercaillie, a protected and representative species of the area now almost extinguished. We should also point out the existence of bushes. In general, the area has a very big biodiversity in the vegetal field and in the animal one, with abundant endemisms and relict species from the Ice Age.
Regarding the fauna, we can mention wild boars, roe deers, rabbits and hares, kestrels, vultures, wolves, foxes, sparrowhawks, eagles, squirrels, yews, wild cats, otters and civet cats. The brown bear is an usual visitor, but it's not clear if it reproduces in Os Ancares.
The more important heights in Os Ancares are Cuiña, in the area of León, with 1998 metres; Mostallar, with 1935 metres, in the area of Lugo and Miravalles, with 1969 metres, in the limit between Asturias and León. Other important peaks are Pico Lanza (1876 metres), Corno Maldito (1848 metros), Pena Longa (1835 metros), Penarrubia (1821 metros) and Tres Bispos (1792 metros).
The main river is the Cúa, in the area of León. In Lugo we should point up the river Navia, where there are many trouts. Some of its affluents like Ser, Cervantes, Quindous, extend along the reserve.
The geological history of Os Ancares is long and complex. The hills were formed like a result of the Hercynian orogeny (400 to 240 million years ago). The mountain range is formed by flagstones and granites, with quartzite in the tops. All these rocks, after being colonized and altered, produce a more or less clayey soil of acid nature that determine the existing vegetation.
The organisation of the relief, very mountainous and with deep valleys, causes important communication problems and also strong limitations in the use of the soil, because little surface of land is arable.
The most important resources of the area are the agriculture and the livestock farming. Agriculture is conditioned by the acid soils and the big slopes. The small surface to farm and the division of land into smallholdings make the agricultural profits very limited.
The crops are organized according to the altitude: in the valleys there are the best grasslands with corn and vegetable gardens. In the slopes there are rye fields (they were abundant years ago but are very reduced nowadays) and wheat fields. Upper, the terrain is for pastures. The more abundant crops are rye, potatoes, corn and turnip and less important are the crops of onions, cabbage, beans, broad beans and pumpkins. These last two products are employed to feed the livestock.
The growing of chestnuts and honey is very important for the economy of this area. The beehives were placed years ago in a circular area of stone named “cortín”, to protect them from the animals, particularly the bears. Some of these structures can be seen now in Navia de Suarna.
The economy of Os Ancares is based in livestock, particularly pigs and cattle. Oxen had great importance in this area until the fifties because they were used to work and carry goods. They disappeared due to the depopulation and the reforestation because it was forbiden to take the cattle to the mountain.
The gastronomy of Os Ancares is based in natural and typical products of the area: derivative from pig, farmhouse cheeses, chestnuts, honey, “filloas” (similar to crêpes), hunting and fishing products and so on.
This area belonged to the Asturian kingdom of Alfonso I and was populated with people from the coast of Portugal. Later people from Galicia, León, Asturias and even the Basque country arrived. All of them mixed together in the same way of living, due to the isolation of the area.
A small detour of the French Way to Santiago crossed the mountains of As Nogais, Becerreá and Baralla. It can be seen nowadays one part of this route, the one from Fonfría, in the municipality of Pedrafita do Cebreiro, to the capital.
There are many monuments in this area like hillforts, castles, churches and bridges, but the most important one is the “palloza”, the traditional house.
Older than two thousand years they have a circular plant. Its structure is conditioned by the geography and the climate of the area. Built in stone, its roof, made of thatch, presents a conical shape, with a big slope that avoids the snow and the water overload it, at the time that the thatch let the smoke filter and, in this way, chimneys are not necesary. They make the most of the uneven land to pour the sewage water. Inside the house there is one part for people and another one for cattle, and in this way it was possible to use their heat. The hamlets of “pallozas”, which are the most important monument in Os Ancares, can be admired in Piornedo, O Cebreiro, Campo da Auga and other villages of this area.
Even now the signs of the Roman presence and its colonizing activity are obvious. One of these signs is the bridge in Pontes de Gatín with remains, although the popular tradition says it was built by the devil in one night.
We can also observe in the skyline, from Paradaseca, some lines known as “médulas” of Paradaseca. They are placed in Mirandela and formed part of the net of Roman gold-bearing exploitations. Another trace of the Roman presence are the numerous forges (specially in the area of León) but there are few remains today.
Os Ancares preserve an important group of beliefs, legends and myths. One of the main aspects of this culture is the one relating to beliefs that let them identify people, animals, plants and homeland. The human being is seen as a product of the land where he is born, animals are seen like human beings, plants are considered organisms with feminine properties and homeland is represented like a fertile female that should be kept and cured from her illness.
Worship to the fire:
Remain of the ancient worship to the fire is the habit of covering the hearth all the nights and lighting the fire each day with the rests of the day before. It was considered a sacrilege and a cause of misfortune to let it die, so they tried to keep it on during the whole year. It was seen like a protective deity and people worried or victim of sufferings tried to found themselves on their own in front of the fire to revive and imprecate it.
Some special days in the year, people threw it flowers; when they baked bread they gave the fire a portion and when they met to eat around it they threw some spoonful of fat to raise the flames and revive it.
It wasn't allowed to throw into the fire any dirty object, specially the eggs shells because S. Lourenzo was burnt with them. The home fire must be preserved pure and because of this no guilty actions can be committed in front of it. The fire was not only personified but also seen as a superior being that could not be offended.
Worship to the sun and the dawn:
The Sun is seen as soul of the nature and source of life. When women milked the cows, they offered to the dawn a cup of milk placed in the window orientated to the east. Everybody that felt sad by a big misfortune, knelt down in front of the rising dawn and begged its protection using different words and formulas. Before kneading and baking bread women offered Venus (the star baker) one of them.
It's thought the sun purifies and strengthens; because of this everything produced in the mountains and high places was considered to be stronger and more nutritious than products from low fields. In fact this, the straw from high places was the only one hard enough to use in the roof of the traditional houses. In the same way, grass from the mountains is considered to be better to feed and cure the cattle.
It was thought some illnesses were caused by evil spirits or witches. Children were protected against them from the very moment of their birth with scapulars and, at the same time, the houses were also protected with a cross of Caravaca or with palms blessed on the Passion Sunday.
Each illness has its own remedy. For example, to prevent worms in the children they used an amulet made from the root of the lily that was hung from their neck.
They also used many remedies to prevent the cattle illnesses. Years ago the carbuncle illness was incurable and the animals that died were buried in the crossroads because these places were thought to be purifier. In the village named Candín, to avoid cattle plagues, there was a ceremony where two persons situated far from each other held a stole by the borders while other people made animals go under it and, in this way, they remained healthy.
Relating to ground fertility there are many beliefs. People from this area think that the salt, the rye (to fertilize) and the turnips (to avoid bad grasses) are purifier elements.
Worship to the moon
People think the Moon has also a special strength and influence on the human beings because it regulates the birth and the reproduction and, at the same time, it regulates the circulation of the blood.
The pigs should be killed in November or December, in last quarter, because in the rest of the months the blood can go off and the meat could not be kept.
One of the most famous saints in this area is Santo Antonio because he is seen as the responsible one for the cattle illnesses to cure or the lost cattle to be found. People have also faith in O Santo Milagre do Cebreiro, to whom they offered when they suffered from a big illness or in case of operation; and in the Virxe de Trascastro, patron saint of the Val de Fornela, to whom they went barefoot or on bended knees to thank her help.
In this area we can find different legends related to treasures. One of them says that in the peak named Miravalles, inside caves, there are some iron and gold chains; another one assures that in the village named Villasumil, on the top of the church, was found a solid gold bullock.
“Mouros” (moors) are a race of supernatural beings which inhabited the lands of Galicia and Asturias since the beginning of time. For unknown reasons they were forced to take refuge under the ground, and now they are usually seen by people in the surroundings of castros. The "Mouros" work with gold, silver and gem stones with which they make up enormous treasures. In Ancares we can also find some legends related to the “mouros” like the one saying that in the place named Aire de Reibón (Pereda) there are some hollow rocks and inside them it's possible to listen to noises and voices, because thay are inhabited by "mouros" in underground passages.
In the village named Pereda it's believed that when somebody is very ill a sinister drumroll is heard, the death drum, that announces the irremissible death of the person. The owl song is also considered death omen for everybody who heard it. In the village named Candín people believed in the “Santa Compaña” (Holy Company) that came from the afterlife to redeem alive people.
The wolf has always been one of the most dreaded and combated animals in the area. To fight against it different methods were employed, like the one called “cortín dos lobos”, a ditch with a stone wall where they make the animal fall and later it was killed. One of these buildings could be seen some years ago in the placed named Balouta. Even prayers were used to fight against wolves and to defend cattle from them.
The wolf and wild boar hunting was made by beats, traps and poisoned objects that were very dangerous and damaging because they killed other animals that could eat them. Nowadays only controlled beats are allowed.
- González Arias, A.(1995) Guía e Rutas dos Ancares, Galaxia, Vigo.
- Xiz Ramil, X. (1994), Os Ancares, Everest, Madrid.