Some say Asturias is the birthplace of today’s Spain. Why? Well, because it was from this rugged Atlantic landscape that the mighty Moors were dealt their first defeat as they battled fiercely for their conquest of Spain. This perhaps David and Goliathesque tale took place in the opening days of the 8th Century. The wiry, strapping Asturians fought off the powerful Moorish soldiers and wrote the first pages of the chapter on the Reconquest of Spain, making it the stronghold of the Christian kingdom. Ultimately all Spain threw off the yokes of foreign domination in 1492 – a time when other important events were unfolding for the Spanish in a far distant land.
Flanked by the Mountains and the Sea
Asturias is a one province Autonomous Community, a principality wedged between Cantabria and Galicia. Known as the Costa Verde (Green Coast), Asturias stretches for 90 miles and is dotted with tiny fishing villages and hamlets. With her face to the sea, she is guarded behind by the 8,500-foot-high Picos de Europa, only 25 miles from the coast. This craggy spine of mountains continues the line from the Pyrenees to the Atlantic. Providing a breathtaking backdrop of sheer cliffs, verdant valleys, snaking rivers, and apple orchards, the Picos are a hiker’s paradise. They also serve as a refuge for wild boar, deer, wolves, Iberian brown bears and herds of wild, shaggy Asturian horses. Prized by the Romans, these small horses were recognized for their power in difficult terrain.
The Port City of Gijon
Pronounced “hee-hohn”, Gijon is a 270,000-person-strong port city with the enormous beach of San Lorenzo in addition to the well-preserved old fishermen’s quarters. Important sites include Santa Catalina Hill featuring Eduardo Chillida’s 1990 concrete sculpture “Praise of the Horizon” and the cobblestoned Cimadevilla Quarter, situated on a peninsula that separates the port into two distinct segments. The Collegiate Church of San Juan and the Revillagigedo Palace date back to the 18th century. Other worthwhile stops include the 17th-century Palace of the Valdes Family and the Church of San Juan Bautista with its statue of King Pelayo. Don Pelayo, as he is known, was the tribal leader responsible for mustering the resistance to the Moors. The Universidad Laboral and the Escorial Monastery with its 400-foot-high tower are also most impressive.
Oviedo was once not only the capital of Asturias but of all Christian Spain, at least what was left of it in the 800s. For 200 years, Oviedo held this exalted position until the royal court pulled up scepters and relocated to Leon in the south. Her architects left behind an Asturian Pre-Romanesque jewel on the slopes of Mt. Naranco. Santa Maria del Naranco dates back to the 9th century and was the inspiration of King Ramiro I as a component of his summer palace. Not to be outdone, Alfonso the Chaste summoned craftsmen to erect the Gothic Cathedral between the 14th and 16th centuries to house the Holy Chamber, Camara Santa. Hidden within were the gems and jewels and crosses, their worth incalculable. Among these treasures were items spirited out of Toledo as the Moorish footsteps grew louder. Thieves stole the priceless gilded and jeweled Cross of the Angels as well as the Victory Cross in 1977 though they were later recovered.
Covadonga holds its place in Spanish history as well. Labeled the “cradle of Spanish independence, it was here that Don Pelayo took his stand. Ultimately Pelayo was crowned king and established his court in nearby Cangas de Onis. The Victory Cross in Oviedo’s Camara Santa is supposedly the one carried by Pelayo. His body was entombed in Covadonga’s Santa Cueva (Holy Cave) in 737 AD.
All this History Makes Me Hungry
Perfect. Visitors to Asturias can sample such delights from the Bay of Biscay as grilled sardines, lobster, golden sea bream and hake stew. Mountain streams offer up trout and salmon. Local cheeses include Gamonedo, Penamellera and Cabrales. A typical Asturian favorite is la fabada, a tasty stew rich with large beans. If you’re lucky enough to stumble upon a traditional merendero complete with small garden, you’ll dine with locals. From there you might continue on to a llagar to sample their cider and tapas or find your way to an espicha for traditional Asturian partying. It is all in good fun. Seems certain the locals will regale you with their proud history.