Asturias has great food, scenery... and don’t forget the cider
Hidden gem on Spain’s north coast brings back many memories for Conor Pope
Cudillero fishing village in Asturias.
“Asturias? Where the f**k is Asturias, ” asked Michael O’Leary when someone approached him in Dublin airport a couple of years back to ask if Ryanair would ever consider flying from Ireland to the province in northern Spain.
In fairness, to O’Leary, it was a fair question and one I’d have struggled to answer had I not found myself unexpectedly playing the grand-sounding role of El Professor in Spain’s secret gem hidden between Galicia to the west and the Basque Country to the east in the 1990s.
I ended up there quite by accident. Having graduated with a comically bad arts degree in pre-Celtic tiger Ireland, I wasn’t swamped with job offers so had to choose between a certificate in teaching English as a foreign language or life in a Kilburn squat.
I chose the cert and after finishing the course in the depths of a gloomy Galway winter, I half-heartedly started scanning the small ads for work. The first ad that caught my eye was for a job at a school in a place I’d never heard of so I faxed off my CV. I must’ve been the only person to apply as I was offered the job the same day following a crackly 90 second telephone “interview”.
Moments after my plane landed, my dreams dissolved. I was met at arrivals by a stocky man who introduced himself as Manolo
Within a week I was off to Asturias, to a town called Sama de Langreo, with a suitcase filled of shorts and t-shirts and a head filled with dreams of lazy sunny days, siestas and dusky maidens desperate to make the acquaintance of a pasty-faced Irish man with no Spanish and fewer prospects.
Moments after my plane landed, my dreams dissolved. I was met at arrivals by a stocky man who introduced himself as Manolo as he brushed snow from the shoulders of his heavy wool coat. Then we drove through grey sleet to my new home in the foothills of an enormous coal mountain and in the shadow of a power plant which belched endless clouds of filthy black smoke into the murky sky.
I fretted as we drove – both about the spectacularly inappropriate summer clothes in my case and the Mad Max look of my new world. My fretfulness was not helped by my flat. Its proximity to the power plant gave it a highly toxic smell and ensured its walls – and my Hawaiian shorts and t-shirts – were eternally coated in coal dust. That Kilburn squat suddenly seemed more appealing.
While it was, by any measure, a bad start to my Spanish adventure it was also the beginning of an enduring love affair with the country and a province roughly the size of Cork.
Asturias was, for many years, the most heavily industrialised part of Spain thanks to its deep sea ports and the deeper seam of coal running through it. But despite the industry which tore chunks out of it for a century, Asturias was then – and still is – the most beautiful part of Spain, a natural paradise, to borrow its tourism tagline.
There are winding paths to wander and cycle, white waters to paddle, mountains to climb, a tough stretch of the Camino to walk
It is a place of towering snow-capped mountain ranges peppered with postcard pretty villages lost in time, wide expanses of national parkland where bears and boars still roam wild and stunning stretches of white sands and frothing waves. There are winding paths to wander and cycle, white waters to paddle, mountains to climb, a tough stretch of the Camino to walk and even a shrine where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to help the Pelayo, the first king of Asturias, turn back the Moors at the start of the re-conquest of Spain in 722.
But ask anyone from Spain to identify just one thing about Asturias and they will immediately say la comida – the food – and for good reason. Even the least promising looking restaurants in the ugliest towns in Asturias serve plates that the best, most feted restaurants in other parts of the world would struggle to replicate.
Ask the Spanish to identify a second thing about Asturias and sure as anything they will say la sidra.
Cider in Ireland brings to mind early evenings spent necking flagons before weaving into teenage discos or – for the more civilised or older folk – summer days spent in beer gardens pouring it over ice. But cider in Asturias is different, in fact it is like nothing you have ever encountered.
The ritual in an Asturian Sidreria is brilliantly baffling. You take a seat and wait for a waiter to arrive with a green bottle and a single glass – imagine a pint glass with a wider top. He holds the glass at his knees and the bottle high over his head and pours a mouthful of cider into the glass while staring imperiously in the opposite direction to the pouring. The distance between the bottle and the glass carbonates the cider slightly and presents the first person with the glass to be downed in one, save for a small drop at the bottom which is tipped on to the floor to (sort of) sterilise the glass’s rim. The waiter (he’s actually called un escanciador) then pours another mouthful for the second person. And so it goes around a group.
Cider drinkers never pour their own cider and always drink at a pace determined by the escanciador – which can be a good or a bad thing depending on thirst levels. It doesn’t taste particularly alcoholic but packs a mean punch, specially if you get an escanciador who takes a shine to your table.
I left Asturias more than 20 years ago but it has never left me, so when the Spanish Tourist Board made contact and offered me the a chance to go in search of lost time I couldn’t say no.
Llanes (pronounced Yanes), an hour’s drive from the Ryanair-serviced airport in the Cantabrian capital of Santander, was our first stop. It’s a cute fishing village beloved of well-heeled Madridlenos who have long used it as a bolt hole to flee the dead heat of their summer. We were there out of season which lent it a post-apocalypse feel and as we walked through its narrow streets and gazed down at the beautiful beaches on the town’s fringes there wasn’t a sinner to be seen, apart from a solitary old lady dressed in black who looked at us with suspicious eyes as she wandered past.
From Llanes we went to the nearby village of Pancar to see the Church of St Patrick – presumably the person designing the itinerary thought a stroll around a dilapidated church with the vaguest connection to Ireland would be of interest to a bunch of Irish hacks. It wasn’t. The sideria next door was and several of the group tried their hand at the cider pouring which was, to be honest, mortifying.
From Llanes we drove to Oviedo, the administrative capital of Asturias and a lively student hub awash with Celtic traditions. Like many Spanish cities it’s split into an old town – with its ancient and imposing yellow stone buildings and narrow streets – and a new one with wide shopping streets and an obligatory El Corte Ingles.
In truth there isn’t a whole lot to see in Oviedo save for the ninth century churches of Santa Maria del Naranco and San Miguel de Lillo on a hilltop behind the train station. Oh, and a bronze statue of Woody Allen, obviously. The director was honoured with the Prince of Asturias Award for the Arts in 2002. He loves the city and filmed bits of Vicky Cristina Barcelona here which helped him get a statue to call his own.
It is not the architecture or the sites, or even Woody Allen, that makes Oviedo a pleasant place for a stopover but its food – and on weekends its nightlife. We ate lunch in La Finca on a street of siderias and were served two quintessential Asturian specialities: Fabada, a heavy stew made with beans, chorizo, ham knuckles and the Spanish version of black pudding, and Cabrales cheese which is an incredibly strong blue from the Picos de Europa. Neither dish is for the faint hearted.
And there was the cider. I was dismayed to see that in the years since I last visited, health and safety concerns or fiscal responsibility has seen some restaurants installing automated pourers – basically a barrel of cider in the wall by your table which pours out exact measures at the push of a button. There is no spilling, no shared glasses, no imperious man measuring how much you drink. Just a machine doing everything except creating the magic atmosphere of an old-school sidereia.
Next up was the cathedral of San Salvador. It is know as a Gothic structure but it’s more of a mish-mash of styles with Romanesque, Gothic and Rennaisance flourishes. As churches go, it is grand but a visit will not likely live long in the memory.
Unlike a stop in Gijón, Asturias’s largest coastal town and its equivalent to Cork. It is not the capital but wishes it was and believes it should be. In truth it has a better case than Cork. It is bigger than Oviedo and there is more to do there. Its main draw is a beachfront that stretches for more than 2km on the city’s edge and acts as a surfer’s magnet – although even better surf is to be found further up the coast.
Gijon is an old Roman town and its tiny squares connected by labyrinthine streets teem with urban life. It can be supremely decadent at weekends with streets heaving with drunken revellers until well after dawn. La Marcha (or the craic) is a big deal here and if an Irish person is to stay the course they will need to pace themselves carefully.
The Romans who used to bathe here would no doubt approve of the debauchery. The baths they left behind are now a mildly diverting subterranean museum but be warned that the audio-visual aids and the text on the exhibits is incomprehensible unless you have a fairly strong grasp of Spanish and there are no allowances if you don’t.
Dinner on our first night was served – weirdly – in the local aquarium, a pleasing setting even if eating platters full of fish as their cousins looked on mournfully while swimming overhead was kind of unsettling.
There are better places to eat in the city. Asturias has a remarkable eight Michelin-starred restaurants with Gijon boasting two. At La Salgar we had a seven-courses tasting menu including smoked sardines with cauliflower cream, a souped-up ham croquette, scrambled eggs with caramelised onion, sea urchins, hake, and an orange cookie served with creme anglaise and caramelised mango.
And the price? €60. Unlike other parts of Spain where prices have inched up in line with northern European norms, Asturias remains very cheap.
Hours later we were in Gijon’s other Michelin-starred restaurant starting into another tasting menu. Restaurante Auga overlooks the port and is stunning but there are only so many Michelin-quality courses a body can eat in single day and by the time the second round of sea urchins appeared I’d had my fill.
It would be remiss to talk of Asturias without mentioning the weather. It is not typically Spanish and the reason it is known as the green coast is because – despite the old saying – the rain in Spain does not fall mainly on the plain. It falls on Asturias and, as in Ireland, you can easily have all the seasons in a single afternoon.
The weather gods were smiling on us this time and when we got to Ribadesella, one of the most beautiful seaside towns in Spain, the sky was blue and the temperature was in the low 20s – not bad for early April.
The old fish market by the port is worth a visit, as is the church, one of very few in the world to be named in honour of Saint Mary Magdalene. It is a modern structure with wonderful fresco paintings documenting the upheaval wrought upon Spain by the civil war of the 1930s. All the restaurants on the docks serve some of the best seafood you will ever eat.
Ribadesella’s big draw for many people is the Tito Bustillo cave, which houses a stunning collection of Palaeolithic rock art. More than 10,000 years ago the cave was inhabited by humans but fortunately for us, if not for them, the entrance was sealed thousands of years ago in a rock fall allowing for the preservation of objects, tools and remarkable wall paintings.
The cave is now a World Heritage site and open to the public, although visits are strictly controlled and only 15 people are let in at a time. Slots must be pre-booked and, unhelpfully, booking is impossible online – although the website promises this radical feature is coming soon. It also warns that all the tours are conducted in Spanish.
The cave is not the only place in Asturias where language can be a barrier. The region has been largely unaffected by the flood of English-speaking tourists who have taken over the other costas and locals with a good command of English are very few and far between. I blame the English-language teachers who worked in the area in the 1990s. They must have been rubbish.