August 28, 2020: A Birthday Treat
I entered the Principality of Asturias driving from the north coast of Galicia.
As I was on the north coast, my first stop was the Playa de Silencio- a beach surrounded by cliffs. Admittedly, this viewpoint was not as nice as everything else I had seen in Galicia.
My first real stop- and final stop for the day was the town of Cudillero. This stunning seaside town encompasses a narrow canyon where the houses cover both walls. The “streets” are narrow staircases. While not a huge place, this was one of the most exciting small towns I have visited in a long time.
At 8, I sat down for dinner at a local seafood place. I first order a famed Asturian cider which came with a machine that automatically poured it into my glass!
Asturias is known around Spain for having the best food and this place did not disappoint.
August 29: The Boulevard of Cider
The weather called an absurd amount of rain, so instead I spent most of the day in Leon and Astorga, which did not get any rain.
Upon returning to Asturias, I checked in to my hotel in Oviedo, the capital of the region. I then walked over to get dinner and drinks of the world-famous Calle Gascona (Boulevard of Cider), home to about 30 siderias (cider bars).
Cider is a big deal in Asturias. 90% of Spain’s apples are here and many are made into cider. Almost all the cider is consumed locally. Cider is traditionally poured into the glass from very high up. This apparently releases the aromas. When in a sideria, it is bad form to pour the cider yourself. You have to wait for a waiter to pour it “the right way” for you. Cider pouring is considered an important part of Asturian culture, so no matter how stupid you think it might be, you can’t criticize it.
Cider is surprisingly cheap. Most bottles are about 2.50-2.70 and never more than 3 euros. A bottle of cider contains about 2 “standard drinks” worth of alcohol, making the cider a really cheap way to get drunk. The taste is dry- especially compared to American ciders which are loaded with sugar.
I visited two siderias. The first one also doubled as a restaurant so I was able to get some food too. I ordered a cachopo- an enormous plate of breaded meat (chicken in my case) dunked over cheese and served with a side of fries. It reminded me a lot of a pork tenderloin sandwich, a famous dish from Indiana, USA.
The second place was definitely a bar. To aid in the cider pouring, the bar set up metal shields to prevent the missed cider from spilling on the floor.
After 2 bottles of sidra, I was sufficiently drunk and headed home. It was only 10pm. I can definitely see this street getting wild later at night.
August 30, 2020: Oviedo and Surroundings
I woke up early to get to my first stop: Monte Naranco. This mountain overlooking Oviedo is home to some pre-Romanesque churches. These and a few other scattered sites make up Asturias’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The churches were built during the 700’s at which point Asturias was an independent kingdom. The pre-Romanesque churches were relics from that time period. Access to the buildings is only by guided tour.
Famously, Asturias was the only part of Spain never conquered by the Muslims. Asturians are extremely proud of this fact and it will come up in the first minute of conversation you have with any Asturian.
The main building, Santa Maria de Naranco was originally a palace but then became a church. The top room was where the king lived and the bottom room was a tomb for the old kings. In my opinion, using one of your two rooms as a graveyard seems like a poor use of space.
We then walked over to a purpose-built church. This one had some intact ancient paintings so photography wasn’t allowed. The church reminded me of a smaller version of the ancient Armenian and Georgian churches.
I then headed into Oviedo itself. The town is chock-full of beautiful statues in immaculately kept plazas.
One statue that stood out was of Woody Allen, the American director. Oviedo is apparently his favorite city. He has filmed in Oviedo a couple times- most famously in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Oviedo’s top attraction is its cathedral. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday when the Cathedral is closed, but I was able to sneak into the Mass to get a glimpse of the inside.
I then headed to the superb Fine Arts Museum
And then to the archaeology museum.
And then to lunch. I am convinced that the food in Asturias is the best in Spain.
Even though the weather was rainy and cold, I had a blast. The city is so beautiful and clean.
The rain ended after lunch, so I decided to press my luck and go for a hike. The closest hiking is 20 minutes southwest in the mountains. On the way, I stopped at a bear sanctuary! Spain has approximately 150 Cantabrian brown bears left and they mostly live in Asturias – one of the most remote parts of the country.
It was very cool to see one of these super rare bears.
I then headed to the Ruta de las Xanas. This hike ascended a narrow gorge (canyon). The train was unbelievably carved into the rock over a vertical cliff. I have never seen a trail like this before!
The top of the gorge looked like a jungle with waterfalls and a river. Seriously, I would have believed it if told I was in northern Thailand.
For dinner, I went to a small farmhouse and was treated to some incredible mushrooms and fabada (bean stew). Seriously, Asturian food is the best!
August 31: Los Picos de Europa
This was the final day of my trip to Northern Spain. Luckily, I was saving one of the best days for the end. The Picos de Europa are a mountain range extending into Asturias, Cantabria and Castille/Leon. The strange name comes from someone returning to Europe from the Americas. These mountains – visible from the ocean- were his first sight of Europe.
The most famous spot in the Picos de Europa – and most accessible from Oviedo- is Covadonga. There are two attractions here: the lakes and the sanctuary.
I started with the lakes. To reach these high altitude lakes, you have to take an hour bus ride up a one-lane road that is open to two-way traffic. Somehow the bus navigated the crazy turns and narrow passes with relative ease. I was so nervous the entire time.
As the bus climbed, we crossed the tree line and entered the realm of hawks flying majestically. Eventually, we reached a parking lot where my hike began. Just above the parking lot was a viewpoint where I could see both the ocean and the snowy peaks! Truly incredible.
The best hike in the area is a 5 mile (8km) loop around the two main lakes. Along the way, I saw many cows and beautiful greenery.
After 3 hours at the lakes, I caught the bus ride down. Equally scary, but at least I knew what was going to happen.
I got off the bus at the Sanctuary of Covadonga. This was the spot where the Christian Kingdom of Navarra repelled the Muslims. Obviously, the king prayed the night before, making the victory a “miracle”. Today, the site is very important to Spaniards and is a religious pilgrimage site. In fact, the heir to the Spanish throne is called Prince/Princess of Asturias and receives the title at Covadonga. While at Covadonga, I saw a pilgrim climbing stairs on her knees.
The Sanctuary consists of the holy cave, an 1800’s church, and a large complex of hotels, schools, rooms for monks, gift shops, and a conference center. It reminds me a lot of Montserrat near Barcelona.
The obvious highlight of Covadonga is the cave, which is precariously perched over a waterfall. In the cave is a shrine with a famous idol of the Virgin Mary. The site is very cool.
A 10-minute drive from Covadonga is a town called Cangas de Onis. The town is actually quite old but the buildings are all from the 1800’s. Cangas de Onis is known for having great food and the world’s oldest cheese market- it has existed since the middle ages. A highlight from this market is the Cabrales blue cheese, which is made from the cows I saw roaming the Picos de Europa.
The city also has a bridge from the middle ages.
With that, it was time to head to the airport and back to Barcelona.
I was so impressed by Asturias. In such a small area, there is so much diversity: cool towns, beaches, mountains, wilderness, and history. The food also is so delicious and different from anything else I have had in Spain. The weather won’t be great, but I can’t recommend Asturias enough. It might be my favorite place in all of Spain.