Asturias rewards slow travel. It is a compact region with many wrinkles hiding secrets that only reveal themselves to a patient gaze. In this post I am going to talk about some of the highlights, but I recommend you make a choice: it is better to take things slowly here and not rush around like a busy bee from valley to valley. My courses are short- five plays in five days- and that means many people will want to take advantage of extra time at either end of the course to enjoy Asturias. You don’t need to rush away to Barcelona, Bilbao or Burgos: far better to develop a deeper understanding of this unique region.
Let’s start locally. Villandás is in the Concejo of Grado. A concejo is an administrative district a little like a borough in England, with the town hall in Grado taking responsibility for all of the villages in the borough. It is a lively little town with a lot of history. As you walk, cycle or drive into Grado, you first go down the winding, shaded GR4 to San Pedro de los Burros and then head along the valley of the river Corias towards town. On the way you will pass the medieval tower in Villanueva and it is worth stopping off to mooch around this village that does not seem to have changed in centuries.
Grado was an important town in the Middle Ages. It was fortified because the local bullies, who had castles like the tower in Villanueva, could ride down and terrorise the townsfolk. There is not much that remains of the walls but around the library and the Town Hall, the town council has made an effort to show where the town walls would have been, encasing boulders in net cages to give an idea of where they were and how thick they were. Modern Grado is a bustling market town with markets on Wednesday and Sunday. People often come out from Oviedo to visit the market on Sundays and buy the famously good cheeses and breads of the area. It does not take more than half an hour to walk from one end of the town to the other through the market. I usually stop at Café Expres right by the tourist information office to have a café con leche before heading off.
There is a lot more to Grado than the market. It was an important redoubt of the Republicans in the Civil War. Oviedo held out against the Republicans and it was a priority for Franco to relieve the beleaguered garrisons there with an army that descended from Somiedo in the high mountain pass to the south. Franco’s army was vengeful. When they took a town execution squads would kill all the Republican officials and humiliate their wives and children. Soldiers would be offered the chance to join the nationalist army and they would “redeem” themselves by shouting “Viva Franco” and executing the brutal repression that came in the next village to fall. Carmen’s father was one of the soldiers who changed sides in this war.
On the road to Grado there is now a monument that indicates where one of the mass graves was. There are also walking routes you can take to investigate the trenches and fortifications that the Republicans built to try to hold back the Nationalist advance. You can see the fortifications in this blog post. The Civil War as tourism is a little grim, but there is a deep part of the history of Asturias wrapped up in the clash between the industrial mining cultures of the valleys and the rich bourgeois life of Oviedo. With your eyes open you can see more and appreciate it in a different way. This is particularly the case with the cheesier representations of Asturian nationalism. For the Franco government Asturias had symbolic importance. Covadonga, after all, is where the legend says that Pelayo won the first battle of the reconquest of Spain- a lone Visigothic noble fighting against the massed hordes of Islam. Spaniards who come to Asturias have to go to Covadonga to throw a penny in the pool and say a prayer to the Virgin- the Santina- and take a turn in the rather charming Franco-era church with its wafts of incense and piped music. Cangas de Onís has a Roman bridge under which hangs the Cruz de la Victoria, which is ubiquitous in the region. It represents the triumph of Spain over the Moors.
If you find all of this about as appealing as the monumental statues of Christ that you see all over Spain, you can focus on prehistory. There are some excellent prehistoric caves in Asturias- Tito de Bustillo in Ribadesella has a comprehensive museum and guided tours of the caves that were discovered accidentally by a group of cavers. Guides take visitors through an access tunnel into the caves to see paintings that come to life as he passes his torch over the surface to reveal layer upon layer of painting that was laid down over a period of hundreds of years. There are also caves in Candámo near to Grado.
Whilst you are in Ribadesella you might be tempted to take the Jurassic walk along the sea-front. Fossil dinosaur footprints walk their way up the cliff face. Further along the coast, closer to Lastres (https://www.turismoasturias.es/en/descubre/costa/villas-marineras/marinera-lastres), there is a museum that displays fossils and puts them into context. Lastres itself is a charming seaside town with steep walks up and down pedestrian streets from the top end of the village to the sea. You can sit on the beach or on the hotel at the top of the cliffs and watch the mist gathering over the Picos de Europa to the east. The coast of Asturias is stunning. I can give you details of walks along the coastal paths that dip and rise from secluded cove to rocky cliff-top and back. There are also pretty little fishing villages strung along the coast from Lastres, to Luanco, to Luarca and Cudillero. There is great seafood all along the coast, from the smallest little tabernas where you can get sardines fresh out of the ocean, to top class restaurants in the seaside towns like Avilés, Gijón and Salinas. You might also be tempted to stop off at the village of Somao, with its examples of grandiose houses called Casas de Indianos built by returning emigrés in florid neo-baroque style.
If you keep going along the coast to the west you will reach Ribadeo, which is on the border with Galicia. It is worth going into Galicia to see the beach of As Catedrais with its stunning stacks and caves. Nearby there is a well-preserved Celtic hillfort or castro at Coaña.
Although the coastline is pretty it is the mountain scenery that really makes Asturias distinctive. The mountains stretch from the Picos de Europa in the east to the border with Galicia in the west and are known as the Sierra Cantábrica. Each river valley has its own character. In the far west the valley of the Eo that opens out into the sea at Ribadeo has a magical secluded character and is well worth exploring. Towards the middle of the region you can follow the river Narcea up into the mountains past the historic town of Pravia and all the way to Cangas de Narcea where there is an enormous monastery that dominates the quiet, rural town. You are following the route of migrating salmon which can be fished from the waters if you buy the right permit and learn to distinguish the fishing reserves (cotos de pesca) from the reservations (vedado de pesca). There is also good trout fishing. Towns such as Cornellana and Belmonte welcome hunters and fishers and you will notice wild boar and fresh trout on the river.
If, instead of continuing to Cangas de Narcea, you turn left at San Martín de Lodón, you will find yourself on a road that winds up through the valley to Somiedo. Somiedo is a unique park and nature reserve. It was traditionally a region where the herdsmen took their cows to pasture in the summers, returning to the lower valleys in the autumn, and you can still see the traditional huts they used to live in during the season- the brañas. You can approach the famous lakes of Somiedo from two directions. If you enter from Pola de Somiedo you can stop at the tourist information office and ask for information, but I think it is magical to turn left before getting to Pola following the road to Saliencia. You pass through a tunnel that takes you into a valley that seems to have been forgotten by time and drive between towering cliffs. It is like entering the Land that Time Forgot. Saliencia is at the end of the drive as you can go no further by car. You have to park and take the mountain walk over the hills to the lakes on the other side. There is a Youth Hostel, run by Javier, a committed mountain runner, and two country houses for rent in Saliencia.
There are other natural reserves in Asturias besides Somiedo. In Yernes and Tameza there are many areas of outstanding natural beauty and the Redes park has beautiful woodlands, with well-marked trails. Trails through central Asturias are particularly well-marked by the Camín Real de la Mesa that redistributes government and European Union money for the conservation of the paths and trails of the region. Their office is in Grado in a beautiful restored town house where there are exhibitions about the region.
The valleys further east also have considerable interest. Trubia is a riverside town that once made its money from the armaments factory there. If you continue up the valley, you arrive at Teverga, which has a beautiful pre-Romanesque church complete with an eccentric museum in one of the rooms off the cloister where you can see the mummified body of one of the eighteenth century priests, dressed in his full ecclesiastical raiments. A short distance from Teverga is a museum that houses a complete collection of replica prehistoric caves. I went to Altamira when it was still open to the public and, although it pains me to admit it, the experience of viewing the caves in replica is better. They are accurate to the minutest detail. There are replicas of all the major Spanish prehistoric caves accompanied by display panels that have more information than you could ever possibly read.
Travelling around in Asturias is best on foot, hard by bike, limited by public transport and flexible with a car. A couple of days ago I was in Lagos del Valle in Somiedo talking to Adolfo about the possibility of using his campsite for a summer camp.
“Pah,” he said, “A lot of people turn up here in their cars and just do the simple walk to the lakes, but they are missing everything. You see those people over there?” He pointed at a couple sitting at a picnic table enjoying the afternoon sunshine. “It is their thirteenth consecutive year here, and every year they do something different. The paths through the mountains are inexhaustible. They hardly ever get into the car once they arrive.”
This is the best way to experience Asturias. It is certainly possible to go from town to town and cherry-pick the highlights, but the special quality of the region demands a slower look. I recommend choosing an area to look at and taking it slowly. You might fall in love and want to come back. Even if you never do, you will have come to know an area that is unique in character and culture. Don’t try to do too much in one go. Take it all in slowly, the same way you would if you were eating a meal that was truly pleasurable.
Asturias rewards slow travel.