North from Madrid: Oviedo

North from Madrid: Oviedo

(This post is continued from my posts on León and Gijón.)

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.

San Miguel de Lillo

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.

San Miguel de Lillo Distance

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.

Santa Maria del Narco
Photo by Flipao de Spain (?); licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

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.

Oviedo Statue

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.

Oviedo Market

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.

Oviedo Market 2


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.

Campo de San Francisco

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

North from Madrid: The Cantabrian Mountains & Gijón

North from Madrid: The Cantabrian Mountains & Gijón

(I have broken up my original post for ease of navigation. Click here for León, and here for Oviedo.)

Over the Hills

Asturias Mountains

The drive to Gijón was magnificent. It was a stormy, overcast day. The sky was gray and the countryside was covered in fog. The road wended its way through green hills. The land here was grassy, a big change from the parched land of Madrid. Little towns appeared and disappeared as we went, just a few shabby buildings huddled around the road.

Running parallel to this road was the railway. It was perched a little bit above us on the hills. It must have been built long ago, for at several points it was sheltered by a concrete bunker that looked ancient. To me the bunker looked like it could collapse at any minute, and I managed to convince myself that this railway must not be used any more, for it was too dangerous. But a passing train told me otherwise. The road and the railway danced around one another through the hills; the tracks passed from our left and to our right as we drove over railroad crossings. Our radio began to flicker in and out, dissolving in a haze of static. The fog, the green hills, the tiny villages gave me that distinctly odd feeling, which I can only describe by saying it felt like I was in a movie.

Suddenly we found ourselves on the top of a mountain. That road had taken us up to 1,400 meters (about 4,500 feet) above sea level, and now we began a steep descent. Before us was an entire mountain range, their peaks covered in snow. These are the Cantabrian Mountains, a range that runs 180 miles across the north of Spain. It was these mountains that, several hundred years ago, shielded the embattled Christians during the Muslim invasion; and they still constitute a major barrier in the Peninsula, separating the plains of Castilla y León from the coastal regions of Asturias and Cantabria.

Located in these same mountains, further east, are the famous Picos de Europa (Peaks of Europe), so named because they were the first landform visible to sailors returning to Europe from the Americas. Nowadays these mountains are an iconic natural park—one of the chain of parks that occupy the entire range.

Valley Asturias

The road led down into a huge green valley. Little towns could be seen below us. In such an big space the towns looked as fragile and insignificant as ant-hills on a sidewalk—mere specks in the enormous expanse. The road twisted and turned around the mountain, into the very bottom of the valley. Horses roamed these fields, pure white and chestnut brown, grazing on the grass. The scenery was stupendously beautiful—almost overpoweringly so.

After ten minutes we stopped at a restaurant by the side of the mountain, to take pictures of the view. I tried to open the door, and immediately felt an intense pressure pushing from the other side. It was the wind. Strong gusts of cold blew constantly up there, forceful enough to make you lose your balance. The wind tore right through your clothes and chilled you in seconds. I had only felt intense wind like that once before, when I was standing on the top of Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania. I ran behind the restaurant building to escape the gusts. But there was one creature up there who didn’t seem to mind.

Asturias Mountains Horses

Sitting outside by the parking lot was an enormous dog. I don’t know what was the breed or whether it was a mutt. It had a big, slobbery face and a mottled, gray coat. He was clearly an old dog. But he was friendly. As soon as we got out, the dog raised itself on its creaky legs and started ambling towards us. All of us gave him some friendly pats on the head, and all of us were instantly covered in saliva.

I snapped some pictures and then got right back in the car. It was just too cold. But I felt bad to leave the dog: he seemed so lonesome up in that parking lot, sleeping in the cold wind.

We started driving again. But the cold had sapped my strength. I fell asleep almost as soon as I got in, and the next thing I knew I was in Gijón.


Gijon Port

“Nice town,” I said, after I woke up and stretched my legs in the tight space.

We were driving through the city center, turning down narrow streets.

“When do you wanna stop?” I asked.

“What do you think we’re doing?” T said. “We’re looking for parking!”

Every street we saw was packed, so finally we decided to suck it up and pay to park in a garage. Soon we were out on the street, walking along the harbor.

Gijón is a harbor city, occupying the biggest and best port of the Asturian coast, bathed in the Bay of Biscay. Though now the biggest city in the province, Gijón has historically been relatively unimportant; it was only in the nineteenth century, when it became an industrial hub, that the town started to grow into the city it became.

When we arrived it was an overcast but otherwise nice day. The harbor was full of little white boats. For the most part these boats were all of the same type: speed boats with two motors, big enough for four people at most. I suppose there is a lot of pleasure boating up here.

It was lunch time by now, and all of us were famished. We walked around aimlessly until we found a restaurant and ordered the menú del día. This came with the famous fabadas asturianas, or Asturian fabada stew. This is a stew made with pork, chorizo, and fabada beans. Curiously, nearly every region of Spain has its signature bean stew. Madrid has its cocido marileño, made with garbanzos. Segovia’s stew uses judiones, a giant white bean; and in Cantabia, right next to Asturias, the local cocido montañes uses smaller white beans. Aside from the beans, however, the ingredients are fairly standard—above all, salted, spiced, and cured pork. In any case, all of these dishes make for a very hearty, filling, delicious meal.

After lunch, we strolled into the peninsula that forms the old city center. This peninsula has quite a bulbous shape, and juts out rather impudently into the sea. The neighborhood is called the Cimadevilla, and forms the oldest part of the city, which has ruins dating back to Roman times—though I didn’t see any.

At the end of this peninsula is a park, and quite a nice one. This is the Cerro de Santa Catalina, or hill of Saint Catalina. It used to be a military fortification, but now it is a rolling, grassy hill that overlooks the ocean, where children play and senior citizens stroll. Once you walk to the top, you can see the whole town behind you, the coastline on either side of you, and the endless stretch of water in front of you.

In the center of the park is the Eulogy to the Horizon, a sculpture by Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida. It is a large concrete construction that looks like a ring standing on two pillars. But the ring is oriented horizontally, hanging over you with little apparent support. The whole structure looks impressively precarious, as if it can totter any minute. Framed between the legs of the sculpture is the great ocean beyond. There you can sit, hanging your legs off a cliff, enjoying the view.

Eulogy to the Horizon
Photo by Roberto Sueiras Revuelta; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

We walked around the park for a few minutes, and then paused to look at the other side of the harbor. It was filled with cranes, boats, and warehouses; this was the industrial port.

View from Park

“What’s that?” GF asked, pointing.

I squinted, and noticed a strange dark cloud forming over the port.

“Huh,” I said. “Weird. Maybe it’s coal smoke or something.”

As we kept looking, the cloud grew bigger and darker.

“Wow, look at that,” T said, noticing the cloud. “Good thing the winds aren’t blowing towards us.”

But almost as soon as she said that, the winds changed. The cloud was moving towards us. I’ve never seen anything like it, a big, black mass of fog rushing over the open waters towards me. It was surreal and a bit terrifying.

“Let’s get out of here,” T said, and we began to walk away. The other park-goers had a similar idea, and we all started heading towards the town. But we didn’t go fast enough.

The next minute, the storm hit. Terrible winds ripped through the park, bending trees, turning clothes into balloons, making people stumble as they walked away. It felt like I was back on that mountain.

“Holy shit!” I said to GF as we hurried back towards town.

Then it started raining. In minutes it turned from a drizzle to a downpour. I couldn’t help being filled with pity when I saw a band of teenage girls struggling through the storm wearing tutus with bare legs.

The rain kept intensifying. It was obvious that there wasn’t any more fun to be had in Gijón, so we skedaddled to the car. We passed street after street, and soon I could hear the sound of human voices in the distance, accompanied by a drum. Who on earth was singing in this weather? We turned a corner and came upon a group of about 50 people, all wearing blue and white shirts. A girl was pounding a simple rhythm on a drum and the rest of the people, mostly men, were singing at the top of their lungs. It sounded like a drunken, disheveled pep rally. These were sports fans from Galicia; their team was playing against Asturias that day.

The wind and the rain continued to pick up strength—very soon becoming dangerous. The only time I have experienced comparable weather was during hurricane Sandy.

“I’ll go and get the car, you guys wait here,” D said, like a true hero, and ran off into the storm.

The rest of us took cover under the entranceway of a bank. The winds roared, traffic lights swung too and fro, and pedestrians ran for cover. After five minutes of waiting, a group of teenagers joined us in our little shelter. We talked and then lapsed into silence. More time passed. The weather only grew more vicious. It got so bad that I began to be afraid for D’s sake. What if a branch fell on him? What if he was knocked over by a gust of wind? Such questions didn’t seem unreasonable as I watched a man stumbling in the street, his hands raised to protect his eyes from the rain. And indeed, I later learned that this storm caused some significant damage to the town. It was a spectacular thing to see.

Ten minutes went by; then fifteen. Just as I began to consider going out after him, the car pulled up.

“He’s here!” we cried, as we ran to the car and hopped in.

“Let’s get out of here,” D said.

We retreated. Our next stop was our hotel in Oviedo, only 40 minutes away. By the time we arrived there, the weather had turned from a tempest to a calm night.

Addendum: Cut short by the storm, we missed the most notable sight in Gijón: the Universidad Laboral de Gijón. This is a massive building—the biggest in Spain, measured in area (270,000 m2), dwarfing even the Cathedral of Sevilla (11,520 m2) and the Monastery of El Escorial (32,000 m2).

This is no accident. Construction began shortly after the end of the Spanish Civil War, in 1940, and the building is imbued with the ethos of Spanish nationalism. In style, it is a deliberate imitation of—or homage to—Juan de Herrera’s design of the Escorial. In this way it is oddly reminiscent of the infamous Valley of the Fallen: another post-war monument on a massive scale, laden with Spanish symbols. Nowadays this massive building complex is home to a host of institutions—an art center, a music school, and as a branch of the University of Oviedo.