by Don Harris | January 2010

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 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.

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