- by Don Harris
We always look forward to visiting Asturias, a magnificent area where the crashing sea, sheer mountains and green pastures abound. To the north are the Bay of Biscay and the Cantabrian Sea. To the south are the amazing Picos de Europa. Its dramatic sheer cliffs have protected the area from invasions from the south, and its geographic isolation has protected the area from foreign intruders.
The capital city of Oviedo offers hearty food, and restaurants which vie for who makes the best fabada bean stew. The Asturians use few condiments in their dishes that might detract from the natural taste of the ingredients. Their kitchens use traditional stoves, much as they do in neighboring Galicia and in Ireland – all areas settled by the Celts.
We love the way the waiters nonchalantly pour sidra from arm’s length into fragile glasses. Never is a drop lost! Sidra hard cider is brewed just down the road toward the coast in towns such as Nava and Villaviciosa. The latter was the port where Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his entourage landed on his way to claim the throne of Spain (due to a navigation error!).
However, we are talking about “modern” times, since two monks founded the city in 761 AD soon after the Christian victory over the invading Moors. A fascinating place we have visited many times over the past 45 years is the Camara Santa in the Cathedral of Oviedo nearby. It is the repository of relics, some of which originated in Jerusalem. For safekeeping, the Christians passed them across Africa and north through Spain ahead of the invading Muslim armies.
Within the room full of relics and jeweled boxes from the 8th century are two remarkable processional crosses – made of wood encased in gold and studded with jewels. The Cross of the Angels (808 AD) has delicate filigree and polished stones. The Cross of Victory was crafted exactly one hundred years later in 908 AD and shows advances in jewelry-making such as faceted stones. We find it worth the trip just to revisit the Camera Santa, as well as two fascinating pre-Romanesque structures on the outskirts of town: Santa María de Naranco and San Miguel de Lillo. There is nothing quite like the art one can find here in the remote part of Spain.
The Ibero-Celtic men of Asturias ambushed the Berber forces working their way through the sheer Picos, hoping to complete their invasion of Spain. The mythic Battle of Covadonga in 722 AD was the high water mark of the Moorish presence in Spain.
Had not the Asturians been victorious, the Islamic forces would have completed their capture of Spain and extended beyond the Pyrenees to all of Christian Europe.
We have visited the site of the battleground where a heroic bronze statue of Don Pelayo surveys the valley of his victory, and the grotto of the Virgin of Covadonga welcomes the faithful. The Celtic natives are proud to point out that the Principality of Asturias is the only part of Spain that has never been conquered by outsiders. The Prince of Asturias is the Crown Prince of Spain.
While we were in the area we visited bucolic valleys and meadows dotted with grazing sheep and goats, whose milk produces local artisan cheeses which are unique to the area. Cangas de Onís, the ancient capital of Asturias, is a delightful town by a rippling river. Blue cheeses from the town of Cabrales cheeses are cured in caves close to the sea. More delicate cheeses such as Gamaneo are made by hand by local cheese makers -- some still originate in the high meadows atop the Picos de Europa.
"Thank you for sharing these beautiful remembrances of Asturias. My family is from Ovideo and I appreciate your recognition of this lovely region!"
"My family is from Miranda and I miss that portion of Spain the most. The people work hard, but just seem to have such an "ease of life." It's about family and taking care of each other. Thank you for taking us on yet another little trip to our beloved Spain."
"Thank you Alexis,
And next month I will tell you a modern day story of how one is a family addressing the economic crisis in an affirming and inspiring way. You are right -- the family is the key, and the way you are cherished as a child.
"What a wonderfully written synopsis on the proud people of Asturias. My family hailed from Pravia and your story brings back memories of the wonderful food and meals I shared with my relatives there."
"When we first visited Spain some 40+ years ago my wife Ruth and I visited many paradors, and at the time each of them had Heno de Pravia soap. What a nice aroma. To this day when I use that soap it brings back a lot of memories.
"I also was born in Spain, immigrated to the U.S.A at age 18, although I have family all over Spain, I can't go to Spain, and cannot visit Asturias, as previous comments family is very important to the Asturians, their doors are always open and welcome all visitors with a smile or two, and of course lots of food!! "
"Asturias is is one of my favorite places in Spain. The Picos de Europa are amazing mountains, and the people in the village markets could not be friendlier. We particularly like the cheese market at Cangas de Onís near Covadonga."
"I visited Asturias right after Sept 11th. I wanted to find the 2 villages where my grandparents grew up, one near the coast and one in the mountains. What beauty, and much of it unspoiled by billboards, advertisements, tourists. It was harder to communicate in our limited Spanish since rarely did we find anyone who spoke English, but it is a gem. And I found a relative who I didn't know existed, offered us Cidre, walked outside in his madrenas to get it below his house, and pulled chorizo down from the ceiling. Amazing place. "
"Don, thanks for sharing the history and beauty of the land of my ancestors. My paternal fam is from Sama de Grado, Aviles & Ribadesella. Its strong family ties and community strengthens their character and stretch their welcoming arms to distant relatives. The meshing of shore and mountains radiate a beauty only surpassed by the glimmer in their eyes and their relaxed manner after a hard's day work. "
"Thank you for your reminiscences about the Old Country. It is always fun to return to a familiar rural place. It seems that time is not the most important commodity there, and the people love to see you just as friends. What a beautiful place to revisit by the seashore."
"Gracias por describer la magnifica y diferente región Asturiana. tradiciones, cancione, y buenisimas manzanas que producen la sidra de Gaiteru. Nostalgia y alegria de ver que es reconocida internacionalmente.Gracias por la autentidad de su artículo. Una Asturiana en California"
"Thank you for your wonderful article on Asturias, Spain as both my parents were from that precious region. I have been there many times through the years, visiting my ancestors, and loved the area tremendously. It's like a secret treasure."
"My father is from San Justo de las Dórigas Asturias and I lived in Asturias as a child. In my humble opinion Asturias is the most beautiful part of Spain! One small correction, in several places in your wonderful article you refer to "...past 45 years is the Camera Santa in the Cathedral of Oviedo." I believe it should say Camara not Camera. Thank you for a lovely article! Salud, dinero, y amor...Berta González-Harper "
"Thank you for catching that English spelling glitch. I try to be careful about that. I agree you that Asturias is such a wonderful place! It doesn't get a lot of publicity in the tourism world but maybe that's just as well because then this beautiful treasure will not be overrun with buses and fanny packs."
"My grandparents emigrated to the US in 1907 as newlyweds, he from Teverga and she from Tameza, both mountain villages not far from Oviedo. I have yet to explore Asturias but it is on the ”bucket list”. My parents brought back wonderful memories of their trips to this most beautiful region."