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.