Roadtrip Through Asturias

The nice thing about having two hours to prepare for a vacation when you’re coming from another is that your bag is almost nearly packed. I didn’t need to run around trying to find my passport, pour shampoo into a travel bottle, or pack reading materials. Just a few pairs of clean undies and socks, and I was on my way.
Kike, Inma, Alfredo and I took off from Sevilla at 10 am down the Careterra de la Plata, a highway that follows the ancient route explorers took to carry gold from the ports in Sevilla and Huelva up to Madrid. It crosses the wide expanses of Extremadura, up through the hills to Salamanca in Castilla y León and then onto Madrid.

somewhere between Ribadasella and Llanes

From the Guadalquivir River Valley, the four of us piled into Kike´s 97 Mercedes Elegance and drove north through the Sierra Morena, stopping in a village called Monesterio to fuel up. Extremadura is like the outback – sweeping plains of cork trees underneath a blue sky crowded with clouds straight out of the Simpsons. There are goats and pigs and sheep everywhere, as the region is famous for their meat and cheese products. In fact, there isn´t much more on menus here!

We arrived to Salamanca after about four hours, a beautiful town made from sandstone and home to Spain´s first university. Kike studied for a year here, and bought himself a nice meal at a restaurant called Dulcinea, right off the main square, right after receiving his measly paycheck. We waited nearly an hour for a table in the teeny and tightly packed dining room, then walked through the city. I had been here once during my study abroad course, so we quickly breezed through the cobblestone streets of the city past the cathedral, Casa de las Conchas, the university and the main square, considered one of the most beautiful in Spain.

Soon we were back on the road again, over the central plateau and through towns with just a church and a few excuses for buildings. This is the Spain I fell in love with – small, red buildings surrounded by absolutely nothing. Broken down, forlorn. But soon we were traveling through the mountains of León, through a rainstorm and past jagged cliffs that plunged into a large lake.

We reached Oviedo, the capital of Asturias, after sundown. It seems like the second you hit the northern provinces of Spain that line the Cantabrian Sea, everything is green and hilly. The truth is that Spain is really mountainous, and it gets a lot of rain (except for Sevilla, which is flat and dry). Oviedo was one of the first capitals of Spain because of its proximity to both the mountains that protect it and the sea just 10 miles to the north (Asturias is also one of the smallest states).

Our hotel, named for the second king of Spain who was killed by a bear during a hunting excursion, was right off Calle Uria, one of the main drags. The center of the city is small enough that it merited a quick visit the following day, but we concentrated our efforts on the sidra trail. Northern Spain has a reputation for producing some of the finest apple cider in the country. It’s fermented and poured by a waiter who raises his arm and tilts the glass below. As one could imagine, a lot of cider ends up on the floor! You only get a small quantity in your glass, which must be drank quickly in order to preserve the flavor. We pretty much were taking shots all night, a kind of Spanish version of power hour. We also ate – get this – sea urchins and a type of snail native to the Cantabrian that you eat with a nail. Yes, a nail. These Spaniards are crazy.

After the quick tour through the center, we were back on the road to a town called Infiesto. Alfredo’s uncle and his family live there in a town with one long street next to a creek surrounded by hills. It’s quite picturesque. In search of fabada, the fabled Asturian bean dish that I LOVE, we drove through several small towns through winding roads, past farms and herreros. We finally ended up at a restaurant with fabada and tortu, a flat corn tortilla with pig guts and a fried egg on top. Alfredo’s aunt gave us the names of places we should hit along the way, so we drove along a coastal highway through poor little villages, past the cliffs that plunged into the sea, in and out of little towns faster than imaginable on the two-lane highway.

We stopped in one small town called Niembro. We had to take a country road past a wide river, past the town’s forlorn cemetery and Kike’s poor car climbed to the top of the village on steep roads. We nicknamed the town “Mataninos” or the child killer because the roads were barely wide enough for his car, and we didn’t see any children. At the top of the hill, there’s a wide park with views on both sides of a beautiful beach and the Cantabrian Sea. It was breathtaking.

Inma, Alfredo, Kike and I on the Cantabrian Coast near Niembro

On the drive down, barely dodging other cars, we stopped in the town of Llanes for a coffee. The town has medieval roots and a nice seaside park. I drove us back to our destination for the night, Cagas de Onis, a village in the foothills of the Picos de Europa mountain range. the town is located on the river Sella and a menacing stone, Roman bridge meets you at the entrance to the town. It’s even more beautiful than any other place we’d seen. We spent the night eating and drinking cider.

The next morning, we got up early to drive into Picos de Europa to the Lagos de Covadonga. The highway closes off during busy tourist weeks because the mountain roads are dangerous. We arrived shortly before it closed, ensuring we could see two glacial lakes at the top. The mountains were still covered with snow and we had to hike a long ways up, but, like many things, it was worth seeing the entire mountain range and the lakes.

Lago Enol, Picos de Europa

On the way down, we stopped at a monastery built at Covadonga. Legend has it that the Virgen appeared here to Don Pelayo when the Moors were conquering Spain in the late 8th century. Because of the mountains, the Moors captured just about every part of Iberia except the small patch of Asturias. The Virgen told him and his men to reconquer Spain, which is what they did (it just took 700 years). There’s a small chapel in the cave where she appeared and an enormous church and monastery across the valley. The fog was coming down from the mountains, making the monastery shrouded by the time we left.

We headed to Gijon for the afternoon, the biggest city in Asturias. It’s very regal and laid-back, and we had a beautiful afternoon to walk around the marina and the city center and the beach. After lunch outdoors of more sea urchins and chicken, we had a nap and had dinner at a Michelin-rated restaurant. The food was amazing, the service was horrendous. We got a wheel of cheese, more vígaros and a few bottles of sidra before resting up for the long drive back.

Seaside church in Gijon

And it was back down to Sevilla and back to school. Nine more hours, countless losses of radio coverage and a bocadillo de lomo. And severely cramped legs.

How does it feel to make love to a G? and other Amsterdam adventures

When I first came to Spain, overwhelmed by cheap flight choices and 12-hour work weeks, I made a list of the top-5 places I wanted to visit before I went home. Ireland was up top, followed by Germany, Morocco, Portugal and Amsterdam.
I saw the Guinness factory in Dublin, visited Eva in Cologne, traveled to Tangiers with my family and saw two coasts of Portugal. And finally, this Semana Santa, I found myself on a plane from Madrid to Amsterdam with my friend Cat.
Semana Santa is a week of jaleo, religious processions and closed shops, mixed in with all-day drinking and soaring prices. In other words, as a resident of a neighborhood full of churches and narrow streets, I wanted out of Sevilla. The entire Catholic world comes to my city to watch several dozen church bodies, known as hermandades, dress up in long robes and pointy hats and parade around the city in penance and observance of Jesus’s death and rebirth. It’s not something I’m really into, honestly.
So, at 5:15 a.m., I was at Cat’s door, ringing endlessly to tell her that I had gotten a cab and he was waiting for us. Not surprisingly, neither of us had slept much and neither of us had many ganas to catch a plane at 7 a.m. After a quick jet to Madrid, where we bought a bottle of champagne and some fresh orange juice for mimosas and tried to get a person unlocked from her maze of an apartment, we were thankfully passed out on an Iberian flight to Amsterdam.
Martin was waiting for us at Schipol, a dazzlingly simple and clean airport. We took a train into the city to Staation Zuid, where rack after rack of bikes were parked at the entrance. Martin put us on a bus and he cycled to his house and waited for us there. These people have got it figured out with the bikes! Cars respect them, pedestrians respect them, there’s a place to park them everywhere!
Martin lives in a one-bedroom flat in the southern part of the city, a 10-miunte train ride from Leidespleine and the canals. He has a wall full of books, a comfy balcony and tall windows. Felisabel, whose sister is married to a Dutch man, explained to me that during the times of Calvinist thought, people were mandated to install large windows with no curtains so that everyone knew everyone’s business. This makes for little privacy, but a lot of light, and we certainly got a good day.
Taking advantage of that, we headed toward the city center, stopping to have a few beers in an open, golden plaza. The place was packed like a sardine can. We found a tapas place (oddly enough, the concept of bite-sized snacks has really caught on) and had creamy hummus, patatas bravas, an emapanda packed with broccoli and carrots and a bottle of house wine.
I have always touted my good sense of direction, but the rings of canals and alleyways in Amsterdam really turned me around. Cat and I spent several hours and several euros in beer on our quest for the Red Light District. We stumbled upon it – literally. Cat and I crossed a bridge and she was suddenly face to face with a prostitute in a glowing red cabin. We had arrived late enough for the drunks to be out, smoke wafting out of coffee shops and mingling with the smell of pizza and doner from every other storefront. It’s true what they say – the district glows red from the cabins where prostitutes for every fetish conduct their business. The red even shone on the canal. Cat and I indulged in some vices before we needed refueling – a strawberry covered waffle and french fries. We forgot about any shame as we gobbled it down!
The next morning/afternoon, we had a leisurely day walking around the city, following the canals and tram lines through the center. We had heard from Cat’s friend that there was a pillowfight in the main square, Dam Square, but no one we asked seem to know anything about it. After an overpriced buffalo mozzerella and salami sandwich, we found ourselves back in the Red Light District like moths to a (red) lamp. The stores there are outrageous. If it’s not a sex shop with all kinds of apparati. it’s a headsho full of marijuana memorabilia – Rastafarian ashtrays, lighters emblazoned with the flag of Amsterdam, etc.
Eventually it was time for our midday beer (Spanish beer consumption knows no time limits), so we wandered into a maritime themed bar called the Sailor or something. Not only were we the only girls, but we were the shortest by more than a head. Some guys tried to leave the bar and started talking to us, and we felt trapped by the five of them because they towered over us! We went to a more tranquil bar, where some old men tried conversing with me while Cat was in the bathroom. One of them told me his wife was a prostitute and therefore rich, making him available to me because they clearly had an open relationship. Yikes. Another with a wedding band offered to take Cat out. Turns out they were in town for a car show (hence the sausagefest in the other bar). I’ve discovered that most native Amsterdamers steer clear of the indulges like coffee shops and prostitutes, and that there aren’t so many old people in the city. Most of them live outside the city, which is inhabited by young professionals and students. A far cry from Sevilla and most of Spain.

We grabbed some wine and snacks to drink before heading out for the night. Martin suggested a place with live music in an old church called Paradiso. Sounded like something straight out of Ibiza, but we paid the 16€ to get in. The place was vacant at 1am (we should have known better), but we were soon joined by scores of revelers on the dance floor. We kept to ourselves – buying each other tequila shots and beers like we were on Spring Break, minus the nudity and ocean and stuff. At 3am, realizing we hadn´t ate, we went to a coffee shop that had exploded into a shop, a hostel and a restaurant to watch the NCAA semifinals and chow down on nachos and fries.`
The following morning, despite all of our efforts to wake up early, we finally got to the Van Gogh museum after two coffees and much later than our scheduled time of 10:30 a.m. The bottom level is was dedicated to Van Gogh´s impressions of the dusk and night hours, a wonderfully crafted progression from the hours a farmer leaves his hoe in the field to the deepest hours of sleep. Even the walls got steadily darker! I nearly fainted seeing some of Van Go´gh´s most famous pieces.
After an expensive lunch on a terrace near a canal, we walked through the Jordaan district to the anne Frank House. When I was a kid, I read her diary countless times, fascinated by her optimism and how her young mind could capture the fear and the restlessness so well. I´ve been dying to see the secret annex, and standing in line made me feel like a little kid about to pee his pants. Located on a street just steps off a canal and a huge church, it´s amazing how the back annex of the factory where Otto Frank once worked is invisible from the street. After the house was raided and the jam factory moved, the furniture was seized and Otto Frank requested it never be refurbished. The tour winds through the factory and contains a few artifacts of the family and those who helped them hide successfully for about two years. Up a narrow staircase is the two-story annex, void of most anything. Hard to imagine eight people living in there, silent during daytime hours. I got the same feeling visiting it as I had at the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC.
After such an intense experience, I needed to calm down. Cat and I found a bar on a canal that was full of old, drunk people and 80s music. We moved around, stopping to have a few beers until we were, magically, at the Red Light District again. Strange. We sat in a coffee house until two boys a bit younger than us asked if we wanted to have a beer in honor of one´s birthday. Long story short, they were lame and we ditched them.
We spent the last two days in Amsterdam doing a lot of wandering, cruising down the canals and admiring the wonderful canal houses, drinking Dutch beer (with a quick trip to the Heineken Brewery), spending an afternoon in an English Language bookstore and drinking more beer. Martin came out for falafel with us one night and cooked the next. Many, many thanks for your hospitality, Martin!

Our trip home was relatively easy compared to the trip to Amsterdam. We caught a taxi back to Cat´s house and, upon leaving her house, I was face to face with the Hermandad de San Bernardo, a religious fraternity that counts bullfighters and the whole fire brigade as members. I was tired of the KKK-looking nazarenos after a short time, but I knew crossing the center of the city with a huge backpack would be impossible. And it was. When I arrived home, I called Kike who merely said,”Pack your suitcase. Tomorrow we´re heading to Asturias.”
And I´m off again.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...