Anyone who’s been following my posts on the Camino will have noticed that I’m trying to record this epic experience by dividing it into manageable chunks, each chunk theoretically being one of the different provinces I walked through. This method appeals to my sense of logic and aesthetics, and is helping me to identify and concrete distinct phases of what would otherwise just be a blurry memory of trudging, resting, washing, eating and drinking, as for 35 days I did little other than that. The trudging was characterised by either sun or rain, and views which made me run out of synonyms for ‘spectacular’. The futility of my map reading and the dream like repetition of daily activities meant that much of the time I had no idea where I was, in relation to the bigger picture (though I could tell Santiago was getting closer by the increased number or pilgrims, and the km markings on some of the carved stone signposts). It’s a good thing I was on the Camino and not doing any kind of serious trekking that required actual navigation skills.
For this reason I can’t really remember where Cantabria ended and Asturias began. I could look it up on a map in order to tell you, but really, the border in this case seemed more of a theoretical delineation rather than a literal physical frontier. Over a period of three or four days walking, one province slowly merged into the other – there was no marked or immediate difference between them. I’m sure I’m treading dangerous territory here, and that anyone from either region (who spoke any of the Cantabrian or Asturian dialects), would be able to make an immediate case for how and why the two provinces are special, unique, and vastly superior to each other (or every other).
However, to my untrained eyes and ear, the main obvious characteristic of Asturias was that it rained a lot, though perhaps this was more due to timing than to any climatic difference between it and the rest of northern Spain. The fact that I spent much of my time in a poncho, walking with my head down watching my feet, and with limited or no peripheral vision, may have slightly hindered my recollection of this particular phase.
Fortunately, about a year ago I spent a weekend in Oviedo, so I can’t claim to be totally ignorant of the beautiful history and architecture of the region. But the truth is, to me Asturias means three things; cider, chorizo cooked in cider, and fabada (a meat, black pudding and broad bean stew, obviously accompanied by cider).
In a town called Villaviciosa (the town of vice?) we actually did a Camino within a Camino, the Camino de la Sidra. Instead of yellow arrows, the route was marked with painted red apples, easily visible despite the rain and alcohol (two potent blurers of vision).
There’s no doubt I did my best in both the cider and the fabada department. The fabada, despite being delicious and apparently “the best fabada in the world” (according to the restaurant signage) was probably the heaviest dish I’ve ever eaten, and a bit of a shock to my system (which had been predominantly subsisting on cheese and bread until that moment). It’s a good thing I did try the best fabada in the world, as it will probably be my last, unless I decide to one day take up gruelling medieval farm work in icy mountains (the only labour that could conceivably justify a regular intake of such a dense and fatty food). As for Asturian sidra, I gave it many chances. I like the bitterness, and the novelty of pouring it (which has its own special verb, escanciar), and sharing the big bottles amongst friends. But to be honest, I prefer the Australian variety, which is a tiny bit sweeter, and comes adequately aerated and can therefore simply be enjoyed as drink, rather than a spectacle.
Another pretty feature of Asturias is the Orios. Pronounced like the biscuit (sorry, cookie – if there ever was an excuse to use the word “cookie” in Australian English, it’d be in reference to the Oreo). Anyway, Spanish Orios are something altogether different. They’re old fashioned (as in, built a long time ago) structures built on stilts, used to store grain in rainy agricultural areas. They’re most commonly found in Asturias and Galicia, I’m not sure why we didn’t see any in the Basque Country or Cantabria (perhaps it has something to do with the type of agriculture, but to the best of my knowledge it was corn and wheat most of the way). Asturian Orios look like little wooden houses on stone legs, with exposed beams, and corn and onions hanging from the rooves to dry. Originally the Orios were used as individual silos for each farm, but these days they’ve been converted into car ports, cubby houses, and shelters for firewood. Some had even been completely renovated and were rented out as holiday accommodation. My favourite ones, of course, were those that were completely decaying… moss covered, tumbling down, and home to the odd stray goat or chicken. If it weren’t for fear of spiders or the structure collapsing, I would have quite happily slept in an Orio over some of the pilgrims’ hostels we stayed at.
Another thing to mention about Asturias is that after Villaviciosa there is a very big fork in the road – you have the option to change Caminos. The Camino del Norte continues westward, through Asturias’ biggest city, Gijón, and along the coast until Galicia. Or there is the possibility of dipping inland to the capital, Oviedo, where the Camino Primitivo starts. The Primitivo is an even more mountainous route, and reportedly one of the most beautiful of all the caminos. Having already been to Oviedo, and feeling ‘loyal to the North Route’, I decided to keep to my original plan. I wanted to see Gijón, and was optimistic about the weather getting better and squeezing in a bit more beach time.
As it was, I spent most of my time in Gijón on a bus to Decathlon – a giant warehouse adventure store in the outskirts of the city. Because of this I missed Gijón’s free outdoor international music festival. My friend’s kept rubbing it in how much fun it was, though I think the visit to Decathlon was worth it – I really needed some cheap quick-dry t-shirts and a lightweight bedroll, before we got closer to Santiago and accommodation got even more crowded. The little I did see of Gijón was pretty cool, it has a beach, a fun, student vibe, nice old buildings, and some newer, trendier parts. I can see why it’s a popular city. But I’m actually sorry I didn’t visit Oviedo again. One guy in our group stayed with us on the Camino del Norte, but made a pretty heavy detour down to Oviedo and up again (he re-joined us in Avilés, with quite a few more kms under his belt), just to see the Cathedral and the relics in the pilgrim’s museum. They have a graveyard for people who’ve died on the Camino (many), and the tour is said to be fascinating.
Something I’ve just realised about Asturias is that, for me, it was the hardest part of the Camino. It wasn’t any more or less difficult than any other province, but by Asturias, I was beginning to flag a bit (from accumulated tiredness), and yet there was still quite a long way to go. There were some moments where I simply didn’t have a good time of it, but had no choice but to keep on going, pushing through… the famous old ‘just put one leg in front of the other’. This was due to two main factors; the weather (which was inevitable), and some very costly mistakes in navigation (which was nobody’s fault but my own). Not only did I not listen to critical advice at information sessions (“don’t take the mountain path, it’s dangerous and badly signposted”, oops!), but I repeatedly failed to follow simple directions that I myself had asked for. It really hit home just how bad I was at listening. It makes no sense that I have no qualms about stopping a stranger in the street and asking for help, and yet when they are generous and patient enough to give me clear indications, I don’t do them the justice of listening properly because I don’t want to waste their time. Usually I thank them before they’ve even finished and rush off in the direction they’re pointing, only to have to stop and ask somebody else for further instructions at the next intersection (thereby wasting even more people’s time). I don’t think I’m alone in this – impatience, bad short term memory, and a poor sense of direction, are all pretty typical of my generation. Anyway, I suppose it was good to recognise this as a problem, and have the opportunity to try and improve on it.
Ah, the Camino, so character building! I wonder how long any of it will last… the fitness certainly hasn’t!