ciento volando

travel, stories, and other flights of fancy

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El Camino de Santiago, Asturias

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.

IMG_1148For 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!


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...