Perhaps the biggest downside of living on an island, any island, is the occasional (or frequent, depending on your personal circumstances) feeling of claustrophobia. However beguiling island life can be, there are times when you get a bit stir crazy. Much as I love it, I’d be in denial if I said it wasn’t so. I think it’s fair to say that all immigrants feel this way, and a fair few native sons too.
You may wonder how I could get tired of almost constant good weather, great wines, dramatic mountain scenery, and beach life? I love all of those things (and more – I’m not entirely stupid!) about Tenerife, but I was born curious, I guess. I fell in love with Tenerife a very long time ago, but I’m not rooted here, just anchored for now.
Cool mists, mountain meadows, delicious cider and waterfalls would provide a contrast, the change I crave, no? That’s exactly what I found in Asturias two weeks ago.
I’ve been wondering why I haven’t explored the north of Spain until now. I can only think that 40 years of living in England had numbed me to the delights of rolling, green hillsides, doe-eyed cattle and sloshing along in mud, all of which I rediscovered in Picos de Europa National Park.
Of course that contrast with my local landscape, which already bears the parched aspect of summer, might have a lot to do with it, but it wasn’t just the landscapes, it was the people too, so relaxed and welcoming.
It’s very much a luxury to have your own, personal guide to show you around too. It made me realize how much we miss when we trot from place to place, looking but not fully understanding what we see. I knew little about Asturias, and I was asked pretty last-minute if I wanted to do the trip, so I didn’t have time to check very much out. Perhaps that was a good thing, because perhaps the awe wouldn’t have been the same if I’d seen the magnificent pictures on Naranjo de Bulnes or the Cares Gorge on the internet before I went.
After dinner the first night I was raring to go early-ish next morning. The drive from the airport to Gijon had definitely wound me up on the greenery. When you come from a desert environment, which the south of Tenerife is, green fields as far as the eye can see is like taking a long, cool drink when you’re seriously thirsty. It’s a balm for the eyes.
Gijon, our destination, is the largest city in Asturias, but I saw nothing of the city outside of the hotel, being whisked away to the mountains each day. The main thing I noted was how quiet the roads were compared to Tenerife. Perhaps it was just where I was, but noticeably more tranquil.
This is my first reason to go back – to see Gijon, which has a long history, Roman Ruins and An International Bagpipe Museum - now that I just have to see!
My second reason is to see Oviedo, because Woody Allen said if he ever left Manhattan, Oviedo is where he would choose to live. Of course he gave it a shout out in “Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona” and it looked pretty cool.
My third reason is to see the coastline! The glimpses I saw of the beaches were quite breathtaking, utterly different from Tenerife (not that there is anything wrong with beaches here, just that I love variety!) , but the beaches fell to someone else, and my “beat” was the mountains.
Nothing could have been a better starting point for me. This spring on the island had kindled a yearning for greenery that hadn’t surfaced in a while. I even found myself giggling about how the road tunnels through which we passed were covered with grass and even trees. It seemed almost surreal.
Driving through forest and alongside churning rivers was a bit like being on another planet. Listening to my guide, Juanjo, was a revelation. It was hard to keep up with his commentary (I get carsick when I take my eyes off the road!), but I think I remember the important points!
First to Covadonga, the one place I had had time to read up on, but even so I was utterly unprepared for what was to come. Covadonga was the inspiration for, and the kernel of the Picos de Europa National Park in 1918. In 1995 the Park was extended to its present size, encompassing mountains in Castille & Leon and Canatabria as well as Asturias. I wrote about its champion Pedro Pidal y Bernaldo de Quiros, Marques de Villaviciosa here for The Spain Scoop, so I won’t repeat it……..just let me say he sounds like my ideal man!
Covadonga today in the Catholic world is a kind of dream destination. People flock from all over the world to marry in this magical setting, and no wonder. Sheltered by towering but friendly mountains, the basilica of Our Lady of Covadonga stretches elegantly skyward. My first glimpse, as we wound up through the trees, made me think “Cindarella’s Castle” … those spires!…..but when we approached on foot I could see that for all its grandeur, its beauty lay in its relative simplicity (I’m not a fan of the overly ornate in architecture nor in fashion!). It more or less becomes a part of the setting, and not at odds with it. I peeked inside, but it seemed to be roped off, so I didn’t intrude. It was the same, spacious and dignified.
Outside the church stands a statue of Pelayo, the Founding Father of Asturias. A Visigoth nobleman who set in motion the long fight against the Moors for the reconquest of Spain. It is said that he retreated to a cave nearby, and there he prayed to the Virgin Mary, who next day helped his forces to win the Battle of Covadonga. There are variations on that story, inevitably. And here, opposite, I looked over to the very cave, at eye level with the square surrounding the church. A spectacular waterfall issuing from the rocks just below, and the shrine, full of floral offerings open to the world. Religious or not, it’s a very beautiful sight, with a palpably tranquil atmosphere. It makes you happy to step away from your skepticism for a while.
We walked across to the cave, which is now accessed not by the original entrance which was becoming worn away and dangerous, but by a new, short tunnel carved into the rock by man. There is a gap with a perfect view of the church, giving a much better idea of its setting than I could get close up. Entering the cave proper I was surprised by the simple stone marking the grave of Pelayo. In retrospect that seems typical of the area. I have yet to visit Asturian cities, beaches or cultural delights, but I brought away with me a strong sense of a people focused on real life rather than its material trappings, and with a potent sense of being a part of the landscape and not something separate.
4th Reason to Return to spend some quite time in Covadonga. It’s the sort of place you want to linger and meditate.
From Covadonga we curved up the narrow mountain road to Lake Enol, and thence to Lake Ercina, and then strode out over impossibly picturesque hillsides to a mujada. This is a collection of stone cabins used by shepherds in the summer months whilst their cattle graze these lush pastures. All the way up cows had nibbled by the roadside, making our journey a very careful one. I’m used to seeing goats or sheep wandering around at will, but not cattle. I stifled another giggle, having a flashback: walking with my grandmother who had bovinaphobia (new word for you? LOL! Fear of cows!) These mountain cattle are as sure-footed as the sheep, and a soft brown, like Jersey cows, with those incredibly appealing eyes. Who could be afraid of them?
The visit was humbling, knowing that this traditional lifestyle was still a choice here; being allowed to see the smoke room where delicious Gamoneu cheeses are prepared; being made so welcome in the shepherd’s domain, and feeling so disconnected from the outside world.
At this point I should tell you something about my guide, Juanjo, who had been appointed by Turismo Asturias to show me his mountains. Born and bred in Picos de Europa his knowledge was formidable, he spoke with great pride of the history, the geology, the sports, the food. He seemed to me a beacon for 21st century Asturias, deeply rooted in the mountains, and yet with a thorough grasp of modern technology – he used an iPhone and understood the iPad with which Paradores de España had equipped me better than I did! I have no doubt that the region needs folk like this in order to protect as well as promote the region.
5th Reason to Return: to hike these stunning mountainsides! Simple as that.
We returned to Canagas de Onis for lunch, where I got to sample the renown Asturian cider, and finally understood the difference between this marvelous, fruity drink and the bottled fizz. I may never drink bottled cider again! Sadly, Asturias just about drinks all the cider it makes, so there is no surplus for export! I didn’t get the famous demonstration of pouring it from bottle to glass from on high, but a novel contraption (for the tourists remarked Juanjo) which expressed the liquid into the glass, causing it to hit the side of the glass was brought to our table. It’s the hitting the side of the glass which slightly aerates the cider, giving it just enough buzz. I didn’t realize until later, also, that special, very thin, glasses are used for the purpose, whether poured from above the head or whooshed from a contraption! It’s such a treat to be able to drink something alcoholic knowing I don’t have to drink, and much cider was required to wash down a delicious lunch …..oh the calories!….so much so I just figured the food deserves its own post, and I deleted half of this paragraph!
6th Reason to Return: To sample more food and cider!
After lunch we wandered down to the Puente Romano the site of a bridge across the river in Roman times, although it’s disputed that the bridge we now see is that old. Still, it’s pretty, and I got the giggles again, because we were being followed by a cameraman, who was recording my reactions (just wish he’d been in the mountains with us!). I freeze on camera. Much as I love being the other side of one, still or video I’m hopeless on the opposite end. After a very brief walk across the river, the three of us left to explore more of the lovely countryside by car, and I saw how the amazing waters of the province are harnessed to provide power. I appreciate that Asturias is/was the heart of Spain’s industrial base, and of course, power is necessary for all sorts of things these days (says she who would assuredly freak out without regular internet access!), and it did seem that things were kept as discreet as possible. It can’t be easy.
I arrived back at the Parador in Gijon, my head spinning with everything I’d seen, and not on a superficial level. I’d learned as much in a day as I might learn in a week in other places and situations, and I spent what was left of the evening scribbling it all down, and translating from my badly written notes. Maybe it was the mountain air, but I slept like a log, and woke raring to go the next morning, after all, the last thing Juanjo said to me was, “If you love what you’ve seen today, wait until tomorrow!”……..
I’m still ambivalent about press trips and such. Not sure I can deal with the possibilities of being handed a complimentary something or other and then not liking it. So far that hasn’t happened (i.e. the few things I’ve accepted have been excellent and I had no worries about saying so). Regarding Asturias, if anything I am, frankly, likely to be more effusive than I could be expected to be. The thing with press trips is that they whet your appetite, and leave you wanting more. If they don’t do that, then they are really haven’t done their job. This one left me absolutely panting for more. I don’t think I’ve ever been more reluctant to leave somewhere! I was in Asturias on behalf of The Spain Scoop, at the invitation of InfoAsturias and Paradores de España.