ciento volando

travel, stories, and other flights of fancy


48 hours in Oviedo (and surrounds)

“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.

view near Las CaldasAsturias 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 breakfast at 26 Degreesalcoholic, 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 Castillo de Priorio, Las Caldas, Oviedosnow 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.

Vegetable garden, vegetables, mmm...


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Český Krumlov…

Český Krumlov is a little town, nestled in the hills in the southern region of the Czech Republic. It’s about halfway between Prague and Vienna, and was therefore the perfect interlude between the two big cities I visited during my Easter sojourn. It’s popular with tourists because it’s pretty, has fresh air, nice countryside, cute little shops, and a big castle atop a cliff face.

It was popular with me for three reasons.

1. Krumlov House. Was one of the cosiest hostels I’ve ever stayed in. The beds were comfy, the decor was rustic but spotlessly clean, everything was eco-friendly, the living room was decked out with lounge chairs, board games, puzzles and books, and the staff couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful.

2. U Dwai Maryi (The 2 Marys). Was recommended to me by the hostel, and I liked it so much I went there twice. It’s a traditional bohemian restaurant which specialises in medieval cuisine such as mead, gruel, and smoked meats. Although I wasn’t about to go and fight a crusade, it was cold and I did do a lot of walking, so the cheap and hearty meals were ideal. The comprehensive menu features an interesting ‘history of Czech cuisine’, and a guide to the health and nutritional benefits of the herbs and grains used in the Middle Ages. The only disappointment was that the cabbage, potato and daisy soup didn’t come with any daisies because they were out of season. But the idea has piqued my interest and I think I’ll attempt my own version as soon as spring comes.

3. The Egon Scheile Museum. For me a trip to a just about anywhere just isn’t complete without some kind of art and culture fix. Although Scheile was Austrian, his mother was born in Český Krumlov, and the artist took refuge there for a few years while he tried to escape the claustrophobia of city life. These days Egon Scheile is a touristic drawcard for the town, although at the time when he lived there, the people weren’t quite so appreciative of his presence. He was scorned for living in sin with his mistress and for using young girls as models. Eventually they denounced him for ‘violating public morality’; the police raided his home, seized his artworks, and arrested him. He spent a total of 25 days in custody and imprisonment, which turned out to be one of his most prolific drawing periods. Scheile later died of Spanish flu at the age of 28, along with his pregnant wife. He left behind a remarkable body of work for someone so young, in terms of both volume and maturity. I guess people just worked harder and grew up faster those days.

Aside from a lot of trudging up and down hills and trying not to slip on the ice/snow/wet cobblestones, I didn’t do much more of note in Český Krumlov. I’m afraid to say that the castle was (again) a bit of a letdown; it looked great from a distance, but close up, the facade was gaudily painted. I guess I’ve become spoilt from having the Alcazar of Segovia in walking distance – bright yellow fake sandstone bricks don’t just cut it for me anymore. Fortunately the way the castle was built up/on/in a cliff face was very impressive.

And the Scheile Museum Cafe had domed ceilings and a delicious poppyseed slice.