Adventuring in Asturias

From rich forest cover to preserved ancient culture to kilometres of stunning coastline, here’s how you can experience Spain’s hidden kingdom.

Published 21 May 2021, 15:33 BST, Updated 24 May 2021, 13:13 BST
Cattle graze on the high grasslands of Ponga Natural Park, in view of the Picos de ...

Cattle graze on the high grasslands of Ponga Natural Park, in view of the Picos de Europa mountain range, where a national park covers forests, lakes, and snowy peaks.

Photograph by Asturias Tourism/Alejandro Badia

There is a Spain that is known to the world by now, and then there is Asturias – a different country altogether, a former kingdom unto itself in the relatively undiscovered northwest. Greener and older than more familiar corners of the peninsula, it rolls inland from soft dunes along the Bay of Biscay to gentle hills where cowbells sound across the pastures and echo off the high peaks above.

A clifftop footpath above the port of Gijón (Xixón), with a popular lookout from artist Eduardo Chillida’s landmark sculpture, Elogio del Horizonte.

Photograph by National Geographic/Chiara Goia

The region’s personality is most outwardly expressed as generosity, and conviviality. Asturians love to eat, and to share, and the food alone is reason enough to visit. Vintage taverns hold sacred the hearty fish dishes and meaty farmhouse recipes the local cuisine was built on – caldereta and fabada – as well as time-honoured techniques for pouring the natural cider that serves as the regional nectar.

 

Built on a mountainside by King Ramiro I in the 9th century, Santa María del Naranco is an icon of Asturian pre-Romanesque architecture.

Photograph by Asturias Tourism/Benedicto Santos

Asturias is home to multiple caves containing Palaeolithic rock art, including Tito Bustillo with its striking images of horses, bison, and deer.

Photograph by Asturias Tourism

Set those traditions alongside the contemporary gastrobars and Michelin-starred restaurants you’ll find dotted across the countryside and clustered in the three main cities: lively, princely provincial capital, Oviedo (Uviéu), the bigger maritime hub Gijón (Xixón), and the ancient estuary settlement, Avilés. Each has its own character, but all make fine entry points into Asturian culture. Much of the history is still alive – audible in the Celtic-sounding native folk music you can hear performed by seasoned players, and visible in the region’s sinuous, signature pre-Romanesque architecture.

Beautifully wrought examples have survived for more than a millennium, from Santa María del Naranco, on a mountain near Oviedo (Uviéu), to Santa Cristina, in Lena. They are now UNESCO-protected, as are the vividly preserved Palaeolithic art that colour the walls of seaside cave Tito Bustillo, in Ribadesella. Excursions along the Jurassic Coast can take you back much further than that, to the dinosaur fossils and footprints found collected and displayed at the Museo del Jurásico.

The Asturian coast stretches across  around 400km and some 200 beaches, including the river mouth cove of Rodiles, which is famed for its surf breaks.

Photograph by Asturias Tourism/Noé Baranda

The same prevailing winds and waves that sculpted the cliffs along around 400km of shoreline also attracted some of Spain’s very first surfers to beaches like those of Gijón (Xixón), where the pioneers arrived in the 1960s. Some 200 other beaches along the Bay of Biscay include the prime surfing grounds of Tapia and Salinas, while the La Barra river mouth break at Rodiles is said to be one of the best “lefts” in Europe by those who have ridden its perfect barrels for distances of at least 150 metres.

Asturias boasts Spain’s best-preserved wild coastline, offers spectacular viewpoints and excavation sites marked by dinosaur fossils and footprints.

Photograph by Asturias Tourism/Gonzalo Azurmendi

Cyclists claim Asturias as their turf too. Professional road-racers often come in late summer to compete in the nearly century-old Vuelta a España challenge, and tour-bikers follow in their slipstream all year round, though usually at a more leisurely pace, the better to take in ethereal sights en route. One stage of that circuit winds seemingly vertically upward toward cloud-capped peaks on the legendarily steep Alto de l'Angliru. Another traces the iridescent glacial lakes of Covadonga (Cuadonga), which is also prime hiking territory, in the midst of the renowned Picos de Europa range. The range’s three main massifs are laced with trails that cross paradisical meadows, pass into otherwordly limestone grottoes, and ascend to breathless heights above the valley floor at viewpoints like the Ordiales Scenic Balcony. Other walking routes trace the routes of the ancient Romans, who dug into the Cantabrian mountains to mine for gold, and stored their loot in repurposed Bronze Age hill forts, or castros, like Chao Samartín.

Cyclists climb to Sotres village on a scenic mountain section of the Vuelta a España road race that is also popular for long-distance bike tours.

Photograph by Asturias Tourism

Today’s visitor can also follow the original pilgrim path, or Camino Primitivo, first walked by medieval king Alfonso II, as he set out to find the tomb of Saint James in what is now called Santiago de Compostela. The landscape hasn’t changed much since then. Asturias encompasses Spain’s best-protected and least-manicured countryside, and around 1% of the entire world’s UNESCO biosphere reserves. Its oak and beech forests are habitats for wild roe deer, boar, and wolves, its higher slopes are home to native Asturcón horses and Cantabrian brown bears.

The protected hills and valleys of the Muniellos Biosphere Reserve encompass one of Europe’s largest remaining expanses of ancient oak trees.

Photograph by Asturias Tourism/Amar-Hernández

In its small and rural places, the human roots of Asturias really show. This is a land of hard work, of industry and agriculture, of fishing villages, farming communities, and mining towns where old ways still hold. The stilted granaries, or hórreos, that you see in fields across the region, with especially dense clusters around the parishes of Bueño and Espinaréu, remain in widespread use because they function so perfectly. These iconic, geometric structures need no screws or bolts, keeping food safe from weather and pests just as they did in the 16th century (when many still-standing hórreos were built).

Traditional stilted granaries, or hórreos, are an emblematic sight across the region’s beautiful farmlands, some dating back to the 16th century.

Photograph by Robert Harding Picture Library

Neither do Asturians forget how much they owe to generations of men who dug for coal in the darkness, and helped make this region a powerhouse of railroads, shipyards, steelworks. The art and craft of the ironsmith, or ferreiro, goes back even further, to preindustrial times. Forges were raised at the edges of forests, beside rushing rivers, turning water through wooden wheels and early hydraulic hammers to beat and shape the iron in showers of sparks and jets of steam.

A blacksmith, or ferreiro, demonstrates the traditional tools and methods still used to craft iron at Mazonovo’s working forge and riverside museum.

Photograph by Asturias Tourism

You can still see these places and processes too, at sites like Mazonovo – a fully operational smithy and ethnographic museum that shows visitors dynamic demonstrations of those tools and techniques. For the first-time visitor, watching living ferreiros at work gives you the same feeling that arises from many new experiences of the region. Whether wandering a ruin, admiring a church, or finishing a bowl of bean stew, you get the same sense of gratitude that comes from enjoying the fruits of Asturian labour.

At National Geographic, we want to inspire your next adventure but only when it is safe and advised to do so. Please, refer to official Covid-19 regulations and guidelines from relevant authorities for international travel and travel within Asturias.

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