Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Road Trip to Asturias!

Asturias has been on my "to-visit" list since I arrived in Spain over a year ago and I'm happy to say I finally made it! I didn't know much about it, but the reason I wanted to go was because I knew that the city of Oviedo was there. My college advisor/mentor José Fábres once told me that he thought Oviedo was the most beautiful city in all of Spain. So, I decided to go decide for myself! I feel like this trip was meant to be because in addition to my desire to visit Asturias, one of my colleagues and close friend here, Stavros, has been wanting to go all year to see the beautiful mountains AND I just so happen to know someone who lives in Asturias this year, Baylee! She is a fellow Bennie and a former roommate doing the same program as me. When I told her we were planning a trip up there, not only did she offer to let all 4 of us (Alexa, Heidi [roomie], Stavros and I) stay with her, but she wanted to travel with us and show us around! It was a done deal :)

We decided in the early stages of planning this trip that we wanted to rent a car because it would be cheaper and easier to get to all the places we wanted to go to, which included mountains and tiny pueblos. Well, the car didn't end up being as cheap as we'd hoped, but in the end it was still probably a little less expensive than all the buses would have cost us, definitely more convenient and way more fun! So it was a great investment, no regrets. We also decided that we wanted to plan this trip during a "puente" (translation = bridge) aka long weekend, so we could get the most out of it, and May seemed like the best time to do it! So on this past Thursday, we headed out on our adventure.

The first day didn't start off super well. We had some complications with the car rental which took a while to figure out, and by the time we got on the road we hit a major traffic jam leaving Madrid (combination of 'puente' traffic and a couple of fender-benders) and then once we were out of the city we hit a couple more jams on one-way roads going through pueblos. So, we arrived in our first stop, Oviedo, in a little over 6 hours instead of 4.5 like we expected.  Nonetheless we were excited to start our trip! Baylee was there waiting for us as she has never really seen the city either! Oviedo was very beautiful as José had once told me. The architecture is really captivating because it's a mix of beautiful golden sandstone and colorful buildings. It was a very eclectic display of architecture for such a small city! We didn't have much planned for Oviedo, so we just walked around and enjoyed a quick drink/tapa. Although it was beautiful, I have to disagree with José because I think that there are more beautiful cities in Spain.  If I could tell José my opinion, I'm sure he would just shake his head and laugh as he made some clever rebuttal (no doubt he's still doing that in heaven!). After Oviedo we made the short 25 minute drive to Gijón on the coast, where Baylee lives. That night we took it easy and made some homemade pizza and met her local friends who are not so local themselves; they're from all over Europe.

After breakfast on Friday we headed out on our longest leg of the day to Luarca, just 50 minutes west of Gijón on the coast. Luarca is a charming little coastal pueblo that doesn't look like much when you first drive in. The first thing we saw was average looking buildings along a semi-dried-up river. However, as we walked closer into town we started to see architecture transform into beautiful white houses. Farther on we found a charming plaza and cute little harbor and the pueblo started to grow on me. We took a quick peak at the coast before we took the stairs up to the "mirador" (lookout) recommended to us by the tourist office and then we saw the stunning view of the town in it's entirety. Panning from the left we saw beautiful blue waters of the Atlantic ocean followed by the adorable pint-sized village harbor filled with colorful boats and finally the pretty white houses that lined the serpentine river and covered the hills of the town. It was such a beautiful view that it took us a while before we wanted to head back down again. As gorgeous as it was, we had lots more to see that day!

We hopped back on a small coastal road so we could see the beautiful views of the cliffs along the rocky coast for a half hour and arrived in Cudillero, another picturesque coastal town. Although they have the coast, harbors, and hills in common, Cudillero had a much different style than Luarca. Unlike Luarca's predominately white buildings, Cudillero's came in all different bright colors topped with tiled red-roofs. We found a nice restaurant with a menu del dia featuring local seafood and some Asturian dishes like fabada (beans stewed with chorizo) and escalopines al cabrales (beef cutlets with blue cheese sauce).  After lunch we decided to climb the winding steps built into the little alleyways of the town and made our way to the top for an amazing view of the city. Similar to Luarca we got an amazing look at a combination of beautiful houses, the harbor and crystal blue waters.

Later that night we went back to Gijón and Baylee took us out to a local sidería. Sidra is not cider as we American's know it. It's not served carbonated in beer bottles and it definitely doesn't taste like spiked apple soda. There's a whole culture to sidra as we learned. It's ordered by the bottle (comparable to wine bottles) for only 2-3 euros. Then, a sidra expert will come to the table and pour it for you. The pourer stands behind a metal stall of sorts that protects others from getting splashed as he holds the bottle as high as possible in the air and pours it down into a glass (additionally, the best pourers don't even look!). Only about a shots-worth is poured and then handed off to the first person who wants it at the table. The sidra is then drunk by said person immediately and the empty glass is given back to the pourer to be refilled. Once everyone at the table has had a serving, the pourer leaves for about 10/15 minutes later and then comes back for another round! It was really fun to watch and be a part of the sidra culture for a night! We enjoyed a few rounds of sidra (don't worry, it's only 6% alcohol) with some Asturian raciones (big tapas to split) and then headed back to Baylee's.

Lagos de Covadonga
The next day Baylee's friends joined us on our adventure (which required a second car). We woke up bright and early and drove a little over an hour east to Covadonga which is in the Picos de Europa mountain range. First, we stopped in the town of Conga de Onis which comes just before the national park to see it's famous Roman bridge. After a quick look and a stop to the tourist office, we headed on to Covadonga. It's a busy time of year, so no one can drive to the top of the mountain because of heavy traffic on the tiny road that's hardly big enough for two cars.  The alternative was to catch a bus to the top of the mountain to see the famous lakes of Covadonga, so we did that. At first I was annoyed that we had to pay an additional 8 euros to get to the top, but I'm happy we did. The curvy road (singular) was extremely narrow, steep and was not only shared with other shuttle buses but also ambitious cyclists trying to make it to the top and shepherds with their cattle! It took us over 30 minutes to make the climb but it was all worth it. At the top are the stunning two lakes (more like ponds by MN standards but still pretty) as promised and countless breath-taking views over the green hills and mountain peaks of the Picos de Europa mountain range. We spent a good couple of hours exploring the hiking trails and then made the trek back down via bus. Then, we drove our car to visit the mountain church/monastery that sits on a cliff and walked over to it's chapel that sits inside a cave with a waterfall. Stunning! We were starving at this point so we all got back into the cars and headed to our next stop, Cabrales.

Cabrales is pueblo that's so small that if you didn't know better you'd blink as you passed through and it wouldn't think that you'd missed a thing; however Cabrales is famous for one thing, CHEESE! Cabrales cheese is a blue cheese known for its strong flavor.  We had a lunch there and decided to try some of the local queso! As a cheese fanatic I have to say it was probably the best blue cheese I've ever had, but very strong as promised. After lunch we moved on to the coastal town of Llanes where the weather turned slightly cloudy and windy (until this point, it was very pleasant! 50s/60s and sunny except for a little colder on top of the mountain). So, we passed through quickly and drove back to Gijón.

For our last night in Asturias we bought some sidra and practiced pouring it ourselves at Baylee's house. This required a bucket and a LOT of towels as we are very inexperienced pours.  After we all took turns pouring for each other, we went into town and enjoyed some drinks with Baylee's friends on a chilly Asturias night.

The next morning Baylee took us around Gijón (as we hadn't really had a chance to tour it before with our busy agenda). It only took and hour and a half to get a brief tour of the city. I really liked it because it reminded me so much of Almería. I don't know exactly why considering the landscape is much greener, but I think it had to do with the fact that they are both industrialized Spanish coastal towns that are similar in size and charm. After the tour, it was time to hit the road so we thanked Baylee and said our goodbyes. We had a nice drive through Cantabria and Castilla y León on the way back to Madrid. We were sad to say goodbye to our rental car (who we had named Pablo) because it meant the end of our trip.

It was an amazing weekend in Asturias! This tiny region of Spain far exceeded my expectations, and I must say the the landscape is the most beautiful I've seen in the entire country. I loved the culture between the siderías, laid-back coastal villages and friendly people I met. My only regret is that I didn't get there sooner. Surely if I visited last year I would have gone back again because I didn't get enough! My first trip to the north of Spain was a smashing success, and I'm eager for more, which is good because I'm headed to Basque Country this weekend. Hooray for back-to-back weekends in northern Spain!

No comments:

Post a Comment