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25th July, 2019

Eight reasons to visit Asturias – Spain’s secret kingdom

Spain is a great place for a holiday. From the exotic Alhambra to vibrant Barcelona and westerly Punta Umbria, its culture, climate and heritage make it a favourite for holidaymakers.

But what if you wanted to see a slightly different Spain? A cooler, greener place where pine-clad mountains still offer a refuge for bears and silent Romanesque churches provide a glimpse into a fascinating past?

Let us spend some time justifying why a visit to Asturias on the Costa Verde should be on your radar.

1. Asturias’ rich history

The Cathedral of Oviedo

For a moment, step back in time to 711AD. The Moorish conquest of the Iberian peninsula has encompassed all but the region of Asturias, which lies on the north coast of Spain (to give an idea of where it is, if you were to stand at Land’s End and look directly south, you would be facing Asturias).

In 722 a Moorish attack was launched to acquire Asturias, the final jewel in the crown of the conquerors. But it was not to be. Taking refuge in the mountains, the Asturians fought off the attackers and from then on, the re-conquest of Spain began as the invaders were slowly driven back.

The Kingdom of Asturias was victorious and – unconquered – its unique character remained largely unaltered. Today it is sometimes referred to as the ‘real Spain’ and a visit to this beautiful region with its mountains, unspoilt coastline and delicious food is an experience not to be missed.

The ‘capital’ of the region is the city of Oviedo. At its core lies the cathedral – the current building begun in the 14th century, but within which lies part of the earlier Romanesque Cathedral, known as the ‘Holy Chamber’. Apart from its remarkable architecture and carvings, the chamber is home to the 10th century Victory Cross, the symbol of Asturias.

2. The abundance of sightseeing opportunities

The Church of San Miguel, Oviedo

From the cathedral square an exploration of the old quarter reveals the Archaeological Museum, the Asturias Museum of Fine Art with its impressive collections, some charming squares and tempting shops with a choice of regional delicacies. A day here may not be enough, particularly if you want to make the journey up the hill overlooking the city to visit two outstanding 9th century UNESCO World Heritage churches, one of which started life as a palace. Look out from this high spot and you’ll see the mountain backdrop beckoning, a must if you love natural beauty.

3. The mountains

Lush pastures encircle the Covadonga Lakes, west of the Picos de Europa mountain range

A trip into the Asturian Mountains offers a unique and memorable experience. The winding narrow roads that climb the hillsides zig-zag their way through pine forests and steeply sloping pastureland. Go early in the morning and you may find yourself literally travelling through the clouds.

As you emerge above them onto high ground, you enter a different world. On a sunny day you’ll see green meadows rolling away into the distance, cows grazing the slopes and little clusters of houses and farms. The local shop is often also the bar, the bakery and the coffee house. If you come across the artisan who makes the clogs that are still worn in the countryside, remember he is also the barman, waiter and owner of the small restaurant run from the ground floor of his home – the vegetables and spicy sausage grown and produced by him.

These mountains are also the home of the elusive and fiercely protected brown bear, while in some areas the Iberian wolf may be found.

4. Gijon

The beach at Gijon

Homes in the Asturian countryside represent only 20% of the population, the rest preferring the town or city. One town that is particularly popular with Spanish holidaymakers is the coastal town of Gijon. With a long seafront promenade and sandy beaches, it’s not hard to see why.

Explore the small but interesting old fisherman’s quarter, wander in the botanical gardens or enjoy window-shopping in the charming small shops that line the criss-cross of streets that make up the town. Afterwards, relax with a small but powerful coffee you may find served here.

5. The food of Asturias

Traditional Fabada

When it comes to food, Asturias is a delight. The ‘national dish’ is Fabada – a stew of beans, spicy sausage, pork, black pudding, bacon and saffron. Rice pudding is frequently served as a dessert and with an often delicate flavour and light texture, it’s a long way from the stodgy mess that many may associate it with!

Mushrooms are popular – sometimes sandwiched together with a filling of ham and covered in cheese. You may come across ‘garlic soup’ – served in tiny glasses with miniature croutons, or fresh fish that tastes like it’s just been caught.

6. The drink of Asturias

Asturian cider bottles

Wine is a different matter. With the exception of an area around Cangas del Narcea (southwest of Oviedo), where Benedictine and then Dominican monks were able to cultivate a vineyard thanks to a microclimate, grapes do not favour Asturias as they do other parts of Spain.

So what is the regional drink? Areas with abundant apple orchards give a clue. Asturian cider is poured from a height, in a similar way to the pouring of sherry in Cadiz bodegas. It needs to be drunk fairly quickly after production as it does not keep for long. With its distinctive dry flavour – a long way from many of the sweeter homogenized ciders on offer elsewhere – it’s an acquired taste, but not for the Asturians, who drink it in dedicated sidrerías (cider bars) to be found in many towns and cities.

7. Walking routes

People walking the 'Way of St James' to Santiago de Compostela

After enjoying the history, food and drink of this special region you may want to conclude with some fresh air, in which case you’ll find yourself spoilt for choice if you enjoy walking. If you’re feeling ambitious you could perhaps follow part of the Way Primitivo – the first of the pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela – which starts in Asturias and makes its way through the mountains and countryside along a challenging, but reputedly beautiful route.

Then there are the many coastal paths, mountain treks and climbs promising breathtaking views, and beautiful National Parks. The only problem will be which to choose.

8. It’s tourism infrastructure

Tourism here is largely home-grown – 86% of its visitors are Spanish, the other 14% coming from England and Germany. Perhaps it is a ‘secret’ that so far the Spanish people have largely managed to hold onto. Asturias is not a place frozen in time however – it lives and moves with the modern world, but it has something more, an indefinable quality that seems to reach out and wrap itself around the visitor.

Whether it is a glimpse of a way of life we all secretly desire, the majesty of the landscape, the freshness of the food or just a sense that one is in a ‘secret kingdom’ is hard to say. You may not even feel it – the only way to find out is to go and experience it for yourself.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.