“The north of Spain is beautiful” they tell me, “but it always rains”.
It also snows and can be incredibly windy, but this doesn’t matter in the province of Asturias, where (according to my recent experience), everything is magical and good.
Asturias is known for its green, green hills, ragged mountains, stormy beaches, bagpipes, cider, roasted chestnuts, blue cheese, fresh milk, almond sweets, and hearty stews. It’s proudly, unequivocally Spanish (in terms of the people and lifestyle), but the Scottish, Irish, and French influences are clearly there. To me, some of the scenery is reminiscent of wild and windy Tasmania, and the scattered cows also brought to mind the lush Victorian dairy country back home. I guess I had an incredibly good value weekend, if you take into account all extra the places it felt like I was visiting. Though the truth is, these bus window daydreams were just a bonus. Asturias is wonderful enough itself, without needing to evoke other landscapes.
I arrived in the capital, Oviedo, at 2.30 on Friday afternoon, and was picked up by Marian, a long lost Australian friend (who I’d ‘done’ Spanish with at Uni, though what on earth we ‘did’ in those days currently escapes me). After dumping the backpack and having a quick cup of tea, we wandered in to the city centre for a perfectly timed meal. An Asturian lunchtime set menu is a must do, but the food is incredibly rich and it’s a good thing we were ravenously hungry. On a colleague’s recommendation we ate at ‘El Fontan’, the restaurant upstairs from the central market. I can happily pass on this recommendation, and especially urge you to try the pote, a traditional soup/stew made from chorizo, beans, vegetables, and other mystery meats. Apparently it’s not nearly as heavy as the even more famous fabada, but why you would need anything heavier in modern times beats me.
Lunch was followed by a pleasant wander through the incredibly compact city centre, and a peek inside San Salvador, the gothic cathedral (which was all at once gloomy and bright, depressing and inspiring, austere and ostentatious, depending on your outlook and other reference points… but yes, I think I liked it).
Then, before our bellies had truly registered the weight of lunch, we stopped in at ‘Camilo de Blas’, one of Oviedo’s most famous (and beautiful) bakeries. Possibly a bit overindulgent, but totally unavoidable. A friend had told me I simply must go there, and Marian conveniently happened to live just next door!
After that we had a rest, drank some digestive herbal tea, and then went to hear some nuns singing in a nearby church.
Dinner was cider, al fresco despite the rain, and I learnt a new un-translatable verb. To escanciar is to pour cider in specific manner, with the glass held low and the bottle up in the air, so that the cider (which is flat) becomes aerated on the way down. The waiters on Calle Gascona (the Boulevard of Cider) are practised experts who do rounds of the tables, rationing large swigs (never a full glass), and each table shares a bottle. As it’s considered a bit weird/rude to pour your own drink, it’s important to stay on top of your game, because the waiter tips out any undrunk cider (on the pavement) before he ‘escancias’ the next round. Fortunately, cider is neither expensive, nor gassy, nor particularly alcoholic, so both the body and the wallet managed to get off rather lightly, despite what felt to be a very long and liquid evening.
After a sleep in and some more tea, Saturday morning got to an official start with a hearty breakfast at 26 Degrees, a new and very groovy Ovetense (Oviedo-ian) bakery/restaurant/cafe. We sat in comfy lounge chairs, listened to relaxing music, were attended to by slick waiters, and enjoyed a breakfast of Spanish potato omelette (stuffed with sliced ham and melted cheese), fresh bread rolls, fresh orange juice, coffee, and mini chocolate croissants, for only €3.60 each. I don’t think I will ever be able to pay for a breakfast in Melbourne again.
Then the rain, which had been gently mizzling on and off all morning, kindly stopped for a few hours, clearly in respect for the great expedition we had planned. With the encouragement of full bellies and some unexpected sunshine, we walked 8km from Oviedo to a small village called Las Caldas. The route was the first part of La Senda Verde, ‘The Green Trail’ (which continues on for I have no idea how far, but it would be worthwhile finding out). In Las Caldas you can find beautiful views of green farms, autumn-y forests, and distant snow capped mountains, there’s also a vine clad castle built on the river bend, some bars and cafes, and most importantly, our target, the Aquaxana spa centre.
Aquaxana is just one part of a big 4-5 star hotel complex, which is fortunately open to the non-hotel-residing public. Whilst most of the treatments are rather extortionately priced and a bit too ridiculously named for my humble plebeian tastes (green tea ‘caprice’ with lymphatic draining for €150, no thank you), entry to the thermal baths is only €18 (and €14 on weekdays)… and for this you get 2.5 hours of spa time, with creatively aimed ‘massage jets’, indoor and outdoor pools, steamy ‘Turkish’ and dry ‘Finnish’ saunas (with optional crushed ice), beautiful views, free foam thongs (sorry, flip flops), and a water, sound and light show for those who arrive at the correct hour (we did not).
After about two hours we reached our literal saturation points, and dragged our pruney bodies out of the water and into a nice cosy bar down the road. It was called El Peñon, served fantastic cider cooked chorizo, and like everything in Oviedo, I’d recommend it to anyone who goes there. Be sure to order the delicious house red, and if you have any luck understanding the waiter’s accent (not even our Spanish friend could), please let me know what type of wine it is, or at least what it’s called.
By the time we got back home (after unsuccessfully looking for peacocks in the San Francisco park in the dark), changed our clothes, and had (another) cup of tea, it was time to do the Saturday night thing…which meant heading for ‘the Street of Wine’ (Fridays being all about the Boulevard of Cider).
On the way we stopped for a few hours at Bodega El Molinón, where you can sit around barrels in a candle lit courtyard, and order your drinks through a window which goes to the main bar. Our reason for choosing El Molinón, aside from the cool set up and excellent (exceptionally excellent) service, was to get a cheese board and sample Cabrales, a famous Asturian blue. It’s aged in limestone caves in the Picos de Europa mountain range, and as you might have guessed, it is quite a potent cheese. It quite possibly singed some of my nostril hairs, and I can almost still taste the flavour (which I’m yet to decide if I like or not). It’s recommendable to enjoy in the company of other milder cheeses, with fruit, quince paste, and perhaps some wild boar chorizo. That’s right…Pumba chorizo, which is gamier and softer in flavour (less acidic) than other chorizos, and definitely worth trying. I guess I’m back to being a fully fledged carnivore again.
The tone of the weekend was well and truly set, and Sunday was more or less a continuation of Friday and Saturday. That’s to say, eating, drinking, and walking (mostly in the rain). It’s occurred to me that for someone who claims they love to travel, I’m a really quite a creature of habit. On Sunday we had breakfast at 26 Degrees, wandered the market (umbrella stalls are a big feature), had midday drinks at El Molinón, and stopped by Camino de Blas (Marian had left her umbrella there the last time, in a rather unnecessary ploy to get us to return).
At 2.30 on Sunday afternoon I boarded the bus, laden with almond filled horse shoes and a bottle of cider*. For once the sugar high was welcome; it helped me stay awake and admire the scenery on the way home.
If this were a proper ‘48 hours’ column in a professional travel publication, I guess it would be considered a bit skewed. There must be a lot left out; I know there’s much more to Oviedo than what I sampled. Such as the seafood, fabada, chestnuts, and salmon. Perhaps they have art there too.
But personally, I simply couldn’t ask for more in a weekend getaway.
Except perhaps a salad.
* I’ve been warned that Asturian cider doesn’t taste as good after you cross the mountains. That’s okay, I bought it for cooking purposes, as boiling chorizo in cider is something that even my little ‘non-kitchen’ can manage.