By Linda Wainwright
My home is in the south on the island of Tenerife, an area which is, more or less, desert, so arriving in a place as green and lush as Asturias is a pleasing kind of shock. I have an acute sense of the value of the cool humidity on my skin as I step through the airport doors. I settle back into the luxury of the car, which has met us at the airport, and let Nature’s palette soothe my parched eyes.
Paradores de España and Turismo de Asturias have invited The Spain Scoop plus four other writers and artists, to spend two days exploring various aspects of the region. The feedback they get from us will be used as ideas for the decoration of a new Parador in Corias. Like most paradores (state maintained hotels), it’s a building of huge historical and cultural importance to the region. This new parador is a restored 11th century monastery. Both these organizations are curious to know what impressions will be made to a fresh eye.
I am already seduced by the green. Fields, trees and pastures line the autopista (freeway). True there is also some industry, but we are through that area in a flash.
Words are already forming in my mind the next morning, as I leave the hotel to meet my personal guide, Juanjo. Green is the key to this province, which is, actually, a principality. I’m playing with words: verdant, emerald, and jade. Yet over the course of the next few hours I begin to realize that it is the force behind the green that, for me, shapes Asturias. It’s water. Without water, simply, there is no green.
My “beat” is the mountains of the Picos de Europa, and from our first stop in Covadonga I am captivated by water gushing from a hillside. We meander twisting roads, alongside a river tumbling to the coast we left behind. The first sight of Covadonga’s basilica, from below, is breathtaking. It is sheltered between peaks giving it a magical quality, which is palpable. The basilica’s spires rise majestically heavenward, and from beneath a cave opposite, a waterfall cascades into a pool and thence to the river. The cave is the last resting place of Asturian founding father Pelayo. Appealing to a statue of the Virgin Mary, which had been hidden in the cave after the Moorish Conquest, he went forth to rout the enemy at the battle of Covadonga in roughly 719 (the exact date is uncertain). Thus began Spain’s long road back to Christianity.
Perhaps it’s fanciful of me, but the rushing water seems to echo the dash for freedom. This is the loveliest setting for a religious building I’ve ever seen, and this is where I begin to consider water itself, and not its consequences, as the life-force of the region.
This is an impression utterly confirmed by our next stop, Lago Enol, a peaceful lake nestled in undulating, lush meadows. Our progress up from Covadonga was careful, as random cattle grazed the roadsides, or ambled ahead of us, the cowbells sounding out a music in the cool air. This is their summer feast, they were allowed up here from June 1st this year, and they present a storybook picture.
A little further upwards and we alight at Lago Ercina and take our short walk across the high pastureland. Our way is soggy, and boots are muddy – a reminder of the wet spring. Distant, snow-covered peaks reflect in the lake, and a low cloud fingers its way up the route we’ve just driven. Water has more than one way of manifesting itself.
After lunch, when I drink not water, but delicious Asturian cider, we fit water into a historical context. The Romans probably constructed a bridge over the River Sella in Cangas de Onis, a charming town, which was once the capital of Asturias, but evidence suggests the bridge we see, and known as the Puente Romano, has medieval origins. It’s a reminder, however, that throughout history rivers have been the chosen sites for human settlements, providing not only water for drinking or for crops, but transport and cleaning facilities too.
Water also does more than enrich the grasslands and help feed the cattle. In the afternoon I see a hydro-electric facility where man has harnessed the wet stuff to provide for modern living. Water isn’t just moisture, it’s power too.
The next day is no less awash (excuse the pun) with water. Although the low cloud robs us of the planned view of the Naranjo de Bulnes peak, it doesn’t fall as rain, and we walk a very short way along the River Cares Gorge. It’s an unforgettable stroll. The actual hiking trail, the most walked route in Spain, my guide tells me, is cut into the limestone mountainside above us. The Cares has been harnessed for hydro-electric power too, and the path is for access for maintenance. The river water is an improbable blue. I can’t take my eyes off it, as if I can’t believe my eyes. I don’t want to leave, and I promise myself to come back to do the real hike.
My final stop on this revealing trip is to a cave where the celebrated Cabrales Cheese spends months maturing, and my strongest memory is of water again. It trickles down the walls of this subterranean cavern, ensuring the constant, year-round temperature the cheese needs to mature but stay fresh.
I leave the following day. It dawns clear and bright. The clouds, which have haunted my visit, are gone, but perhaps they were there to teach me a lesson, perhaps without the garlands of mist coiling around the high peaks, or inching their way up hillsides I wouldn’t have been so aware of how important water is to these stunning landscapes.
Linda was the guest of Spain’s Paradores Hotels and Turismo de Asturias. The Spain Scoop’s invitation was to give them feedback, as a first time visitor, of impressions of Asturias. All observations are Linda’s.