Sunday 18 February 2018

Travel - Asturias: A hidden gem in Northern Spain

The plaza at night in Oviedo, the capital of Asturias
The plaza at night in Oviedo, the capital of Asturias
Siderias are everywhere in northern Spain
Fabada isa bean stew made with Asturian beans, chorizo and smoked ham
The aquarium in Gijon has around 5,000 fish in total
Eleanor learning the delicate skill of pouring cider all over the floor on her travels in Asturias

Eleanor Goggin

Because I'm lucky enough to travel a fair bit, people often inquire as to my favourite place. They expect me to come up with some far-flung destination and are often stunned when I say Northern Spain. Now don't get me wrong, I love the far flung destinations as well but I just love Northern Spain. So when an opportunity came up to go to Asturias, I jumped at the chance.

The Picos de Europa sit above the border between the regions of Cantabria and Asturias and make for spectacular mountain views. Asturias is verdant and lush and its climate is not unlike that of Ireland except for hotter summers. We flew into Santander in Cantabria and took the short transfer to Llanes in Asturias, a gorgeous fishing port boasting three beautiful beaches and various vantage points to view the numerous blow holes and brightly painted breakers. The coast is the most notable Jurassic site in all of Spain and very popular with walkers. We stopped off in the tiny village of Pancar on the outskirts of Llanes to see the little Church of St Patrick which was finished in 1922, the year of our independence, and is illuminated every year on Paddy's Day. The medieval streets of the old town of Llanes are a wonderful place to go for a wander and partake of some local specialities and a glass or two of local cider. I bought four drinks in our hotel bar and the cost was €11! And that included a short with a mixer. A glass of wine was two euro.

Cider is huge in Asturias and Siderias are everywhere. Waiters hold the bottle over their heads and pour the cider from a height to allow for a fizzy head. They allowed me to try my hand at it and I succeeded in spectacularly making an eejit of myself. Most of it hit the floor. What a waste of good alcohol. We tend to associate cider drinkers with a park bench and a brown paper bag but it's great to see older elegant couples popping in for a spot of lunch and a few glasses of cider. Some restaurants have a barrel in the wall by your table with a gauge to monitor your consumption. It's not to bring on a fit of the guilts but just to calculate the bill. A tad frightening at times.

Oviedo is the capital of Asturias and a gorgeous city. Beautiful old buildings in soft yellowstone abound and a stroll around its narrow winding streets is a must. The old quarter has been pedestrianised and most of the impressive period buildings are in this area. The cathedral of San Salvador is in the Gothic style and houses two gold crosses-the Cross of Angels and the Cross of Victory. We visited two of the oldest buildings in Oviedo. On a wooded slope just outside the city, are the church of Santa Maria del Naranco and the church of San Miguel de Lillo. Built in the ninth Century they are fine works of architecture but are no longer operational.

Oviedo is famous for its sculptures. There's one around every corner - more than 100 in total. Sculptures of fish vendors, women with children, La Regenta in front of the Cathedral to name but a few. Woody Allen loves Oviedo and once described it as a 'delicious, exotic, beautiful, clean, pleasant, tranquil and pedestrianised city'. He chose to shoot parts of his film Vicky Cristina Barcelona here and a sculpture of him takes pride of place in Calle de las Milicias Nacionales. One of the scenes was filmed in Camilo de Blas, a fabulous old-fashioned cake shop. It has been there for more than 100 years and the cakes are to die for.

There's a whole street devoted to cider bars and restaurants in the centre of town, known as the Cider Boulevard and it was here we stopped for a spot of lunch at La Finca. Plates of lovely cheeses and quince, smoked meats and a hearty stew called Fabada, made with beans, chorizo and ham, rice pudding with a caramel crust and copious glasses of local cider was the order of the day.

Gijon, the largest city in Asturias, and only about 20 kilometres from Oviedo was our next port of call. Yet another city in the North of Spain that has a beach. How amazing to be able to come out of your office and sit on the beach eating your lunch. I'd be slow to go back. It's a surfer's paradise and our hotel Abba Playa had a wonderful view of the beach. The promenade is two kilometres long and full of locals out for a stroll or walking their dogs.

The Aquarium is well worth a visit. I fell in love with the sea otter who lives on her own since her sister died. She put on quite a performance for us. There's a whole tank of fish that only get fed twice a week. I thought about moving in with them. Lose some weight fast. There's a small section where kids can touch star fish and sea anemones.

In the city itself the vast Palacio de Revillagigedo is a gorgeous Baroque building. Built in the 18th Century, it is now a centre for modern art and cultural events. A stroll through the little old squares and narrow streets, old fishermen's houses with outside steps and kids playing brings you to the Roman Baths, a subterranean museum with audiovisual material. The Atlantic Botanical Gardens, on the outskirts of the city, were well worth the trip. Four different environments are captured- the Cantabrian Environment, the Vegetable Factory, the Island Garden and the Atlantic Route. Nearby is the old Laboral University. A vast impressive building, it was built in the time of Franco and manages to look much older. It is now home to theatre, culture and education. We climbed the clock tower, which provides amazing views of the city.

Foodies are in their element in Asturias. The region has eight Michelin-starred restaurants, and Gijon itself has two. Two of them are owned by the Manzano family. Nacho Manzano runs the more rural Casa Marcial in Arriondas, and his sister Esther runs La Salgar in Gijon, which is where we had an amazing lunch. Seven courses to die for. Smoked sardine with cauliflower cream and herring roe, ham croquettes, scrambled eggs on corn chapatti with caramelised onion and cheese, sea urchin in an aromatic hollandaise sauce over yoghurt, hake salad with hollandaise sauce and dried roe, free-range chicken with rice, and to finish, orange cookie with creme anglaise, mango ice cream, caramelised mango and ginger coulis. All for €60. They love to bring traditional recipes to a whole new level. And they certainly did. The other Michelin-starred restaurant in Gijon itself is Restaurante Auga. A beautiful setting overlooking the water, again we had a veritable feast. Sea urchins and apple, sea bass, seaweed, spring garlic and lime, goats cheese soup with hazelnuts, and honey ice cream were just some of the courses.

Ribadesella is a lovely little seaside town, split in two by the Sella river. On one side is the older area with its tapas bars and siderias, and on the other the more modern part, with its sandy beach. Indianos were Spanish emigrants who went off to places like South America to seek their fortune and often came back to Spain with riches and built fabulous houses or Casas de Indianos to show off their wealth. There are some fine examples of these houses in the port area of Ribadesella. Now I have a son in South America. Wouldn't it be wonderful if he came home with enough money to build his Mama one of those massive casas. Not a chance. Along the riverbank is the Altamira-style series of interconnected caves, the Cueva Tito Bustillo. Daily numbers are limited for visiting the caves, so it's advisable to book well in advance.

Asturias has it all. Beautiful beaches, a rugged coastline, mountain walks, amazing gastronomy, laid-back friendly people, and plenty of siderias.

Whether you want an activity-based holiday, a city break, a beach holiday or a mixture of all of these, it's definitely the place to go. The north of Spain is still high up on my list of favourite places.

Take Three: Top attractions


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Siderias are everywhere in northern Spain

Northern Spain has been producing cider since medieval times. The waiter pours a thin stream of cider into the glass from a height and never spills a drop. He pours in only a small amount, known as a culin and is meant to be drunk immediately to stop it going flat. Siderias are everywhere and normally serve food as well. A hearty meal with cider is normally a cheap and cheerful way to dine


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Fabada isa bean stew made with Asturian beans, chorizo and smoked ham

The Asturias region alone has eight Michelin stars. There is a vast choice of Asturian-made cheeses. Cabrales, a blue cheese, is the best known. Fabada, a bean stew made with Asturian beans, chorizo and smoked ham, is filling and delicious. Fish is abundant. Frixuelos are pancakes which can be sweet or savoury and are divine. Casadielles are pastries filled with walnuts soaked in anise, deep fried in light oil and rolled in sugar.

Gijon Aquarium

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The aquarium in Gijon has around 5,000 fish in total

The aquarium in Gijon is worth a trip. More than 400 varieties of fish live here, around 5,000 fish in total. Amazing coloured specimens swim happily in large tanks in cave-like surroundings. Wonderful descriptions introduce you to the inhabitants of each tank. The southern stingray is found ‘on sandy bottoms’. The octopus can open jars of food by pressing his body on the lid and grasping the sides with his tentacles.

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