By Nigel Wright [email protected]
Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal five years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s and although now retired, still continue to travel as much possible and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.
Little known among most foreign visitors to the Iberian Peninsula, the principality of Asturias lies on the northern Costa Verde of Spain.
It is sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the stunning Picos de Europa mountains. It has a dramatic coastline with golden sandy beaches, verdant valleys clothed with chestnut, beech and pine, and gentle green pastures sloping down to a rugged coastline not unlike Cornwall.
There are attractive fishing villages and fields full of contented cows and free-range hens. Thousands of orchards supply apples to over a hundred breweries that produce cider, the most important local beverage. This is a beautiful area of Spain and quite unlike anything on its Mediterranean coast.
Almost as soon as we arrived we were to witness one of the principality’s ancient customs – the extraordinary etiquette required for pouring a glass of cider.
Next to our lunch table, and watched by his admiring family, a rotund Spanish gentleman held a full cider bottle above his head and his empty glass down by his knees.
With great ceremony he then began to pour, only to see most of the cider completely miss his glass and splash all over the restaurant floor.
Giggling children were firmly admonished by their mother, as a very embarrassed father had utterly failed one of the most important local tests of manhood!
The cider was, of course, meant to elegantly fill the glass without a drop wasted. This unique way of pouring the slightly effervescent Asturian cider is said to intensify the aromas during consumption.
Our accommodation overlooked the quiet, picturesque Rio Villaviciosa estuary in central Asturias. The wonderful view changed by the hour, dependent upon weather and the state of the tide. Magnificent Rodiles Beach was nearby, backed by sand dunes and shady picnic areas in the trees.
Our exploration of the spectacular coast began in Lastres, a fishing village set precariously on a cliff side with magnificent views east along the coast with the Picos Mountains as a backdrop. Further east, there were a number of pretty and popular beaches, of which La Griega, ideal for children, was our favourite.
Dinosaur footprints have been found fossilised on the beaches around here and it is known as the Jurassic Coast.
There is a splendid new museum, constructed in the shape of a gigantic dinosaur footprint that tells you absolutely everything you ever wanted to know about diplodocus, stegosaurus, tyrannosaurus rex and all their other dinosaur friends. It is superbly presented with lots of hands-on displays to suit all ages.
Further along the coast was our favourite town, Ribadesella, which is split by a river into two very different halves. The old town and fishing harbour lie to the east, with shops for browsing, buskers singing local songs and many restaurants providing an excellent choice for lunch.
To the west lies the more modern beach area, backed by wonderfully ornate mansions built by the Indianos. They were the Spanish entrepreneurs who in the 19th and early 20th centuries earned their wealth from trade with the West Indies and the Americas. Ribadesella is a place to relax, linger awhile and enjoy the ambience of a lovely Asturian coastal town.
The Spaniards’ preferred coastal resort is Llanes, which has an appealing crescent-shaped beach, a picturesque ancient walled town centre and in summer, a horrendous parking problem! There are dozens of restaurants all buzzing with activity and offering great value local seafood dishes.
These are supported by excellent regional craft shops tempting your taste buds with local cheeses, liqueurs, preserves and of course, cider. Llanes is an excellent place to watch the Asturians enjoy their leisure time.
Perfect mountain peaks
The ideal location to begin an exploration of the stunning Picos de Europa mountain range, Spain’s first National Park, is the town of Cangas de Onís, reached by a short but attractive drive through the lower coastal range hills.
The town sits astride the River Sella and has become the centre for adventure sports, particularly kayaking and canoeing. Its most famous historical monument is the picture perfect curvaceous Roman Bridge, although it is probably a medieval construction.
From here, there are various options for trips into the heart of the National Park. We chose to take the scenic road east to the lovely Cabrales valley, home of the famous, pungent but delicious cabrales blue cheese – made from a mixture of milk from cows, goats and sheep.
The highest peaks, huge towers of limestone, rising to over 2,500m and still with some snow in the height of summer, lie to the south.
We drove slowly down a winding road that followed a spectacular gorge to tiny Poncebos – a haven for walkers and climbers.
A rack and pinion funicular railway then trundled us for two km through the mountain and up to beautiful Bulnes, a gorgeous little hamlet nestling amongst the peaks. It is a popular journey for tourists and a great place for the fittest to begin hikes to the Picos de Europa summits.
Climate and culture
Abrupt, jagged, high, mysterious, beautiful, surprising and above all green. All these adjectives have been used to describe Asturias. The towering mountains behind the coastal strip act as a barrier to humid air from the cool Cantabrian Sea to the north.
This means that if an onshore wind is blowing, as it was during our visit, there is frequent drizzle and mist, even in summer. Tourists need not despair, however, as often just a few kilometres inland, the sun burns off the mist and the weather can be glorious, as it was for us in the mountains.
Asturias, in common with regions in France, Scotland, Ireland and Portugal, has a strong Celtic heritage and culture – immediately recognisable in its music. Bagpipes are played and many in the most rural areas wear madreñas – clogs that each have three tiny little legs! The Museum of Cider, in the central town of Navas, provides both an insight into the history of cider, and information on Asturian heritage. The locals even have their own language – called Bable or Asturianu.
It is a Roman style language, apparently not unlike Mirandese, spoken in N.E Portugal. Although there has been a decline in the number of Bable speakers in recent years, much effort is being made to keep the language alive.
Asturias makes a fascinating holiday destination and the locals are cheerful and helpful to tourists.
Almost no English is spoken and Portuguese is rarely understood. So, it is a great opportunity to have a few glasses of the potent local cider to gain confidence, open up your Spanish phrase book and have a go at wrapping your tongue around those peculiar lisping Spanish consonants.