By Regina Winkle-Bryan
‘Asturias? Where’s that?‘ you may be thinking.
If you are, you’re not alone. Asturias is off most tourists’ radars when they come to Spain with flamenco, sunshine and fiesta on the brain. There’s no flamenco in Asturias, nor is there sunshine most of the year (as you will see in my photos). There are, of course, fiestas in Asturias, but that’s not saying much because there are fiestas everywhere in Spain. Do not expect the same all-nighters in Asturian cities as you would in Barcelona or Madrid.
So why come to Asturias? Because most people don’t. I saw very few non-Spanish travelers in this region of Spain, which is popular with Spaniards from the South in hot summer months. The exception to this is the Picos de Europa, a National Park which is well known among Europeans. The Picos de Europa are mountains where lakes and local flora and fauna can be enjoyed if the rain and fog let up – to be clear: it rains a lot here and sunny mist-free days are rare. I felt like I was back in Oregon for most of my visit. Still, the Picos de Europa are one of Spain’s most impressive natural sights if you go at the right time. I did not go at the right time (it was March) and so saw what looked like the edge of a lake shrouded in thick fog banks.
No matter what the weather is doing, Covadonga, its basilica, and a visit to see La Santina in her cave overlooking a waterfall are worth a jaunt into the Picos. They say that young women who wish to get married should throw a coin in the water below the Santa Cueva, or the Holy Cave, at Covadonga and that if they do love will surely come their way. I wanted to participate but didn’t have any coins and didn’t feel like a five euro bill would have the same effect. Happily ever after thwarted. Damn!
I should also mention some of the history behind Covadonga. Does the name ring a rusty bell for you? It didn’t for me which is why I was embarrassed to learn that this was where Don Pelayo defeated the Moors in 722. This win marked the beginning of the end of the Moors’ control of Spain, though it took quite a long time afterwards for Spanish kings to reconquer the Iberian Peninsula. Don Pelayo’s bones are up at Covadonga, and looking around the rugged terrain, it’s easy to see why he and his troops had the upper hand.
After his big win Pelayo became king. For 57 years the nearby village of Cangas de Onís was the capital of Spain. Hence the popular Asturian saying: ‘Cangas de Onís is Spain, the rest is just conquered land.’ These days it’s pleasant to visit Cangas de Onís for an afternoon, have lunch, eat some creamy Asturian cheese, and admire the rivers Sella and Güeña that run, rich with trout, through it.
One of the largest cities in Asturias is Oviedo, which quite frankly surprised me. It was a stunner. Lots of pink stone buildings, flower-filled plazas, lush parks, cozy shops and cafes, and an incredible number of bronze statues portraying days-gone-by. And it’s clean. So clean. Barcelona, where I live, is a real pig’s stye in comparison. Of course, Oviedo’s spic-and-span sidewalks may have something to do with all the rain.
Better than the tidy streets were the free tapas which are more than just your average olive or handful of popcorn. I was served a mini rice and pork tapa in a wee cast iron pan when I ordered a Coke. Free food always makes me happy, even if I don’t eat pork.
All in all, I liked Asturias. I’d like to return in the summertime when the fog has lifted and the sun is shining on the Picos de Europa. Give this region of Spain a go if you’re interested in seeing a less touristy part of the country. Remember, Cangas de Onís is the real Spain, at least according to Pelayo.