There’s a slogan on one of the travel brochures that I picked up during a recent tour of the Asturias region that describes it as one of the best kept secrets in Spain.
I’m not sure that that is the case for the many visitors it receives from continental Europe as well as the Spanish who holiday here themselves but it’s probably fair to say that a majority of Irish people would not be overly familiar with its many unique charms.
While plane loads of Irish and British tourists head directly to the sunspots of the Costa del Sol or the Balearic or Canary islands there are fewer again who are prepared to seek out a part of the country that is genuinely Spanish and yet comes with all the beauty and sunshine that its more famous southern coast enjoys.
The Los Cubos de la Memoria (The Memory Cubes)
A short two-hour plane hop directly from Dublin will land you in Santander airport named for the famous golfer Seve Ballesteros and from there it’s just a skip up to the coast to the town of Llanes, the first destination on our whistle-stop tour of Asturias.
Stretching for about 30km along the coast at the extreme east of the province, Llanes (pronounced ‘yanis’) is part of the Costa Verde (the Green Coast), which is known for its spectacular coastal scenery, 32 white sand beaches, and mountains that have historically sealed off this part of Spain from the hinterland beyond.
Here the high ridge of the limestone Sierra del Cuera, which rise to over 1,100m, glisten with snow on the very highest peaks, such an unusual sight in Spain that it tricks you into thinking you’re somewhere else when you catch a glimpse of them in the corner of your eye.
The land then levels off to meet the sea in all its North Atlantic drama with powerful crashing waves, epic cliff faces and blow holes performing to the power of nature as they spurt tons of seawater 30 meters up into the air.
Shield your gaze from those snow-topped peaks for a moment and you could easily be in Galway.
And it seems an entirely appropriate comparison with the west coast of Ireland as this corner of Spain, strangely, has strong links with the old sod.
Just south of the town is the tiny village of Pancar, where oddly, there is a church dedicated to St Patrick.
The church of St Mary at Mount Naranco
Every year on the feast day of our patron saint, the little chapel of Pancar is lit up in green as the locals celebrate their own version of St Patrick’s Day in honour of local man Gaspar de la Vega, who returned after making his fortune in New York at the end of the 19th century to build this ornate chapel in honour of Saint Patrick.
Just behind the tiny church is a small hollow burrowed into a hill and known since time immemorial as ‘Saint Patrick’s Cave’, which served as a place of meditation and divine inspiration for the saint.
A sign outside the church, bedecked in shamrocks, makes the point that church was dedicated in 1922, the same year as the foundation of the Irish state.
It was in Pancar that we enjoyed our first taste of the locally brewed cider, in a cideria of course, where the time-honoured tradition of pouring it from a height to mix the juice before it hits the glass is enacted with great aplomb.
Trickier than it looks, my attempt to try out the technique only succeeded in pouring most of the contents into a bucket set up for just the occasion and splashing the the local mayor’s admittedly impressive golden snow boots.
Back at our accommodation, the La Hacienda de Don Juan, on the edge of town, we meet up with our local guides who bring us on a stroll around the beautiful seaside town.
The sign outside the church in Pancar
Laid back on a Sunday evening there were few locals about and we pretty much had the ancient cobbled stones for ourselves as we walked along streets where 13th century walls rubbed up against more recent fisherman’s cottages.
From a spot overlooking the town we could just make out the colourful breakwater in the port that is made up of blocks gaily painted in a staggering array of pastels.
Created by the Basque painter and sculptor, Agustin Ibarrola, the Los Cubos de la Memoria (The Memory Cubes) remember the Indiano phenomenon, when hundreds of thousands of people who emigrated from northern Spain in the 19th and early 20th century returned after having made their fortune in Cuba, Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela and Mexico.
When the Indianos returned they often built houses in their home village with the characteristic palm tree growing in front of a colonial-style house. There are thousands of these casas de indiano across Northern Spain inhabited by the Indianos who were famed for their generosity as they built schools, hospitals, churches and other public services in their villages.
As I gazed out at the churning sea of the Bay of Biscay I reflected on this back story of emigration so familiar to our own.
The sun sets over San Lorenzo beach in Gijon
We walked along the seafront admiring the town before returning to our hacienda, named after another local man who returned after making his fortune across the Atlantic, for a night’s sleep ahead of a short road trip in the morning.
That morning’s drive brought us to the capital of the region, Oviedo, where we visited a series of ancient churches, the first an extraordinary 10th century building that stands alone on a hill overlooking the town with views of the snow-capped mountains in the distance.
The church of St Mary at Mount Naranco was built as a royal palace for Ramiro I of Asturias who ordered it to be built as part of a larger complex that also incorporated the nearby church of San Miguel de Lillo, 100 metres away. Completed in 848, it was converted into a church dedicated to St. Mary at the end of the 13th century and declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in December 1985.
And although only a section of the church of San Miguel de Lillo remains after it collapsed the colours of the mosaics on the walls are as vivid as they were when they were first created over 1,000 years ago.
As we strolled through town, it was obvious that the Indianos had also left their mark here as we took in the beautiful colonial squares so similar to those in Cuba and other colonial cities I had passed through in southern and Central America.
Before our afternoon visit to the city’s most famous attraction, the Cathedral of San Salvador, we stopped for lunch at another cideria, where the strong odour of the beverage hits you as soon as you walk in through the door. Here the cider is served in a clever contraption that allows the cider to be automatically poured from a barrel suspended from the wall of the restaurant straight into your glass.
We passed around glasses of the bitter liquid to wash down the various cold meats and cheeses that are something of a local speciality here.
Walking along in the late spring sunshine on our way to the cathedral we came upon one of the more unusual artworks in Oviedo.
We had passed it earlier on our bus on our way into town and from a distance I could have sworn it was Woody Allen. So it was a surprise to me to come across it again and discover that it was in fact a life-size bronze statue of the the celebrated actor and movie make who enjoys something of a love affair with the city.
While the US film director is famously associated with New York City, he clearly also has a soft spot for Oviedo where he filmed parts of his 2008 hit ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’.
The affair began in 2002 when Oviedo awarded him Spain’s most prestigious arts prize, the Prince of Asturias award that he attended. The city unveiled its next tribute to the iconic director the following year, with the statue designed by Spanish painter and sculptor, Vicente Menéndez Santarúa.
After admiring Woody’s iconic glasses that have been replaced on numerous occasions after souvenir hunters made off with the previous pairs we left the bustling streets behind to retreat into the hushed silence of the Santa Iglesia Cathedral.
Here we admired the admired the extraordinary altar and fantastic collection of Romanesque column-statues before we were brought further down into the bowels of the church. Here rest the ancient relics including the Shroud of Oviedo, a cloth said to be smeared with Christ’s blood, which are kept behind locked iron gates in the Holy Chamber.
Suitably stunned by the history and culture of this fascinating city it was time to head back to the coast and a short drive brought us to the city of Gijon.
Pronounced ‘hee-han’ to my Irish ears, our accommodation here at the Abba Playa Gijón Hotel overlooked the sea front with wonderful views across San Lorenzo Bay.
Dinner that night was a special treat, as it was laid on in the Gijón Aquarium with sharks and other exotic sea creatures swimming majestically past in the background as we happily munched our way through plates of their fellows.
After filling ourselves with some of the finest seafood I have ever tasted we were back at the hotel for a good night’s sleep ahead of our next excursion.
The morning brought us to the sprawling Universidad Laboral de Gijón an immense site that boasts one of the biggest buildings in Spain. From the balcony near the top of its tower we could take in almost all of Gijon, sweeping around from its green surrounding hills to the sea from its dizzying 117 height.
Built between 1946 and 1956, it is used to host art exhibitions and concerts as well as serving as the home to several institutions including the faculties of the University of Oviedo, the Drama High School of Asturias and the Professional Music School of Gijón.
Whizzing down the elevator to the ground floor we were whisked over to catch our breath in the nearby Atlantic Botanic Gardens that feature tens of thousands of plants set in 25 hectares of land. Part of the gardens are over 100 years old and the Historic Garden features a rustic pool, 1,300 square-metre lagoon and other ponds that are part of a complex hydraulic system. Here we relaxed listening to the local birdlife as we marvelled at the various gardens dedicated to natural habitats from around the world.
Back in town we strolled past the bronze statue of ‘Augustus of Prima Porta’ the Roman founder of the city at San Lorenzo beach before we visited the Roman museum, considered to be one of the most important Roman remains in northern Spain.
It is located on the site of Roman baths discovered in 1903, where visitors can see how far ahead of the times the Romans were when it came to heating their houses.
A tour around the headland that juts out to the sea that is dominated by the impressive Eulogy to the Horizon, one of the most famous symbols of Gijón, took us to the old town with views over the once thriving fish port, now a marina for yachts. Another statue, this one a monument to King Don Pelayo shows the warrior king holding a cross after the Battle of Covadonga in 722 that brought to an end Moorish hopes of finally conquering Spain.
After that we were treated to spectacular brunch at La Salgar, one of the eight Michelin-starred restaurants in Asturias.
Managed by Chef Esther Manzano, La Salgar earned its accolade through the imaginative experimentation with humble ingredients which results in the cauliflower cream, Smoked sardine and herring roe that we sampled.
A ham croquette and scrambled eggs on corn chapatti with caramelized onion and cheese tastes quite unlike how they sound on the menu while the sea urchin in acidulated and aromatic hollandaise sauce over yogurt sounds more challenging than it is on the palate.
The coastline of Asturias
After a long, late lunch savouring the taste and selections we enjoyed a fresh walk in the beautiful gardens out back, a favourite of wedding parties that even feature some buildings built in the traditional Asturian style.
That evening, having walked along the seafront watching the surfers catch the last few waves in the dying of the evening light, I met the group again at the magnificently located Restaurant Auga, a modern and inspiring restaurant located in one of the most elegant spaces with the best views in the city.
Under brilliantly bright sunshine we spent the morning of our last day in Austuria on a stop-off visit to another stunning village overlooking the sea. Llastres is just one of those picture postcard locations in Asturias that with its 18th century Santa María de Sabada Church is the view that you capture on your phone and instantly add to your Instagram account.
But if we thought we had seen some spectacular scenery so far on this coast we were to be surprised once again as our guide Ana had kept the best till last.
Ribadesella, further along the coast, is a friendly once-bustling fishing town that is split in two by the mouth of the Sella River.
Here, the town made up of a series of parallel streets gives way to the Santa Maria Magdalena Church that dominates the heart of the old town with its magnificent frescos and paintings that are simply breath-taking.
Unfortunately time was running out so we didn’t explore Asturias’s Jurassic Coast, named for its smattering of dinosaur fossils or the Unesco World Heritage site of Cueva de Tito Bustillo with its interior lined with prehistoric depictions dating back as far as 35,000 years but in a few short days we had packed in a lot.
Before we left I couldn’t resist a quick stroll out along the pedestrian promenade around the headland, for views of the palm fringed Indiano mansions across the estuary that even more convinced me of why they had returned from so far away.
It left me with the strong sensation that while we had only scratched the surface, there was a lot more to be discovered here, in what truly is a sweet part of Spain.