After escaping the tempest in Gijón, we drove to the city of Oviedo—the capital city of Asturias. We dropped off our bags in the hotel and went out to eat. It was a cool, clear night. Though situated several miles inland, Oviedo has an oceanic climate, very similar to that of Gijón. But fortunately for us, this day the storm that hit Gijón didn’t travel so far inland.
All of us were tired and soaking wet, so we didn’t have a lot of energy to go exploring. We walked around for about ten minutes before settling on a bar near the hotel.
“Cider is the typical drink in Asturias,” D said. “Sidra.”
“Oh, okay,” I said, “let’s get some.”
The waiter came, and we got a bottle. But we couldn’t just pour it for ourselves. In Asturias they are serious about their cider, and you have to pour it in a special way: by holding the bottle high up above your head in one hand, and the glass as low as possible in the other. Then you try to aim the stream of the cider into the glass. This process is meant to aerate the cider—but I seriously doubt it noticeably affects the flavor; it just looks cool. In any case, our waiter duly performed this feat for us, taking the glass and the bottle to a special pouring station so he didn’t get the floor wet.
Cider in Spain, by the way, is quite different from cider in the United States. It is not at all sweet, but instead quite bitter. I like it.
Two fellows in the bar were watching a soccer game on the television.
“That’s the game in Gijón,” D said, pointing to the screen.
“Really?” I said, thinking about the storm we just escaped. “They’re playing in that weather?”
“Soccer fans are crazy,” D said.
I lapsed into a pensive silence as I contemplated the game on TV. I’ve never been able enjoy sports of any kind; and I have trouble understanding why other people do. In all competitive team sports, the point is to win; and you support your team just because it is “your” team. The whole affair seems to be an exercise in pointless competitiveness and mindless provincialism. All this passion for balls and nets. Admittedly, there is of course a huge degree of skill, finesse, strategy, and athleticism in sports too, which are their redeeming qualities. I can enjoy watching Olympic gymnastics, for example, since it isn’t about winning or beating the other team (at least, for me it isn’t).
Athleticism notwithstanding, aggressive displays of fandom—singing, chanting, wearing matching jerseys, even deliberately getting into fights—give me the creeps and I cannot help having misgivings about the whole thing. Doubly so, when I consider how much time and money is spent on these activities that could be spent elsewhere. When I see people looking at a TV in a bar, their mouths open, their eyes transfixed, I cannot help thinking of the countless hours they have done the same thing.And how has it benefitted them? It’s like an addiction. And when I think of the tremendous salaries paid to athletes and coaches and owners, I feel a bit ill.
Look, I know this has nothing to do with Oviedo, but part of traveling is forming your opinions about certain things in life, and this is my opinion about sports.
Well, we ate, we drank, we paid, and then we went to bed. We’d had a long day, and had another one coming up.
Our first stop the next morning was San Miguel de Lillo. This church is situated outside the city proper, elevated on the grassy Monte Naranco, a mountain that provides an excellent view of Oviedo.
At first glance, you wouldn’t think much of the building. The church is scarcely bigger than a house; and to an ignorant viewer, such as I was, it looks like it could have been built fifty years ago. But this is one of the oldest surviving churches in Spain. It was consecrated in 848, and is built in a pre-Romanesque style. It sits, rather lonesome, in a flat space by the side of a road.
As I mentioned elsewhere, Asturias was only very briefly controlled by the Muslims during the Middle Ages, and so is home to perhaps the longest continuously Christian settlement in the Peninsula. This is one reason for the excellent preservation of this Pre-Romanesque structure. (The title of the “oldest church in Spain,” however, goes to San Juan de Baños, a Visigothic church in the province of Palencia, built almost two centuries before San Miguel de Lillo—around the year 650.)
San Miguel de Lillo is relatively simple and unadorned: flat walls, right angles, and a few small windows. The visible ornamentation is confined to the lovely lattice window on the southern wall. It is arresting to think that this church could comfortably fit into the nave of the great Romanesque edifices that would be build a couple hundred years later. Technical advancement was swift and startling.
We took some pictures, wandered around, and then decided to walk along the road to see the companion of this lonesome structure: Santa María del Naranco.
Along with San Miguel de Lillo, this building once formed a part of a large palace complex commissioned by the Asturian king, Ramiro I (790 – 850). It is possible that he wanted to building his palace here, on the Monte Naranco, because of domestic disturbances and challenges to his legitimacy. In any case, it did give him a nice view.
Santa María del Naranco was originally his palace; but as the name indicates it was later turned into a church. The building is about as tall as San Miguel de Lillo, but considerably longer. Still, it is not a terribly big building; and in fact the idea that it had once served as a palace made me feel nostalgic for simpler times.
This apparently humble structure is of considerable architectural importance, partly because it presaged many of the features that came to dominate the Romanesque period—such as the barrel vault with transverse ribs, reinforced by abutments on the outside. I particularly appreciated the balconies on either side, formed by graceful rounded arches. There are more than half a dozen windows on either side, and quite large ones too. If San Miguel de Lillo struck me as claustrophobic and dark, this building was airy and light.
To enter these buildings, you need to be a part of a tour—and, according to the schedules on the doors, there wouldn’t be any tours for some hours. Thus we contented ourselves with examining and taking pictures of their fine exteriors. The view of Oviedo from here was even more photogenic—with the snowy peaks of mountains in the distance. Spain is a place of expansive vistas. Everywhere I go, I see a view worth painting.
Once done with pictures, we got into the car and drove into town.
The first thing you will notice in Oviedo are the statues. There are tons of them, sitting in every park and plaza. Most of them are metal sculptures of people: a mother nursing her baby, a young woman sitting on a bench, a scholar reading a book, a farmer with her donkey, an elegantly dressed woman of society, a traveler in a big overcoat with a pile of suitcases, a fisherwoman sitting amongst her fish, looking bored and tired.
Individually, these sculptures are no masterpieces; but the final effect is to give Oviedo an indelible charm. For me, the sculptures, with their prosaic subject matter, drew my attention to the poetry of everyday life. The statues focused my attention on all the little moments of boredom, anxiety, or tenderness that populate the day—the microscopic tugs of emotion that we push to one side as we go about our usual business.
And these statues were scattered throughout a truly lovely town. The whole aesthetic of Oviedo is intimate and joyful. No building is too big or ostentatious; everything is on a human scale. The streets twist and turn, effortlessly leading you from one plaza to another. Every time you turn a corner you are surprised by another open space, full of people. Bright colors, blues and yellows especially, give a playful atmosphere to the city. It is a pleasure just to walk around.
The artistic focus on everyday life was matched by the abundance of life I found on the streets of Oviedo. It was a warm and sunny day, and the streets were full of people—not tourists, but residents going about their day. Patrons crowded the restaurants; children ran through the streets while their parents chatted. An art gallery was open to the public, selling works by local artists—some of it quite good. Women and men of all ages filled the streets, having conversation with friends, carrying shopping bags, smoking, drinking, laughing, gossiping, sitting, standing. But most conspicuous was the market.
Tables were set up in rows, filling several plazas and streets; and on these tables was assembled every sort of thing you can buy. There were jackets, shirts, socks, pants, and a table covered in underwear.
And there was a lot more than clothes. One table was covered in tools of all sorts: pliers, saws, rakes, clamps, shears, picks, hammers, screwdrivers, levels, planes, axes, and even a meat cleaver—all of it old and rusty. It looked like the set of a horror movie. Moving on, I found electric drills and power saws, extension cords, old flower pots, metal chalices, target arrows, paint brushes, and tea kettles. There were old candelabras, sunglasses, wooden bowls, statuettes of bathing women, ceramic vegetables, floral tea cups, a bust of a woman wearing a bonnet, wooden serving spoons, hand mirrors, golden incense burners, old music boxes with handles to turn, bronze crucifixes, copper bells, tiny metal horse statues, old clothing irons. How had these people accumulated so much stuff? And who wanted to buy it? It was a flea market of the most charming kind, and every table brought to light unexpected mysteries.
Finally I got to the used books, and lost myself in their titles. There was a lot to choose from. Eventually I found something I’d long wanted to buy: a copy of Ortega y Gasset’s La rebelión de las masas, or The Revolt of the Masses—his most famous work. Happy in my purchase, I moved on, past a woman selling flowers and into a luxury food shop selling local produce. It was full of quality meats, cheese, vinegars, olive oils, and wines. GF bought herself a big thing of cabrales cheese, and D and T did the same.
Beyond this there is not much to tell. We briefly peaked inside the Church of San Juan el Real, a twentieth-century edifice built in a delightfully eclectic mixture of styles—which also so happens to be the church where Fransico Franco was married.
We did the same with Oviedo’s elegant gothic cathedral—though at the time I didn’t take the time to appreciate the Cámara Santa, or Holy Chapel. This is a pre-Romanesque structure, roughly the same age as those mentioned above, that is now adjoined to the gothic cathedral. Even today, the chamber retains its original function: to house the relics of the Kingdom of Asturias, which include the Sudarium of Oviedo, supposedly the cloth wrapped around the head of Jesus after he was crucified. The so-called Torre vieja, a pre-Romanesque tower, sits besides this chamber—built as a look-out post to detect potential Norman or Muslim raiders, hoping to steal the relics.
We also took a quick stroll around the Campo de San Francisco, Oviedo’s charming central park, which like the city itself is full of statues—not to mention turtles and birds. From there it is a short distance to the Campoamor Theater, the venue where the Princess of Asturias Awards are bestowed. Previously called the “Prince of Asturias Awards,” its name was changed when Felipe, the Prince of Asturias, became the King of Spain in 2014—thus making Felipe’s daughter, Leonor, the new Princess of Asturias. Prince or Princess, this is Spain’s most famous honor, given for achievements in the arts, sciences, or public affairs.
The city more or less explored, by now it was 3 o’clock and we were hungry. D really wanted to eat a cachopo. This is one of the most iconic dishes of Asturias. It consists of two fillets of veal, with ham and cheese sandwiched on the inside, quite like veal cordon bleu.
We tried one restaurant, but it was full; we tried another, it too was full. Restaurant after restaurant was jam-packed with people. Finally we had to give up, since it was time to check out of the hotel. Thus I didn’t get to try cachopo in Oviedo. But from my experience in Asturian restaurants in Madrid, I can confidently say that it is a delicious dish. Indeed, all the Asturian cuisine I have tried is excellent. And this is not just my opinion: Asturias is generally regarded within Spain as being one of the best provinces for eating.
Our trip was over. It was time to retrace our steps back to Madrid. The road led back up the Cantabrian Mountains, and the view was even more spectacular. Several times we stopped the car and got out to take photos. In the crisp air and the clear sunlight, you could see for dozens of miles. We arrived in Madrid after nightfall. And so we were faced, once again, with the melancholy prospect of returning to work in the morning after a great weekend of travel