An Asturias Road Trip: Exploring Spain’s Northern Coast

As soon as we’d pulled off the A-8 and onto the N-632, my brain kicked into gear: I’d been here before. This very same roundabout, where we’d dodged cars as we lost the trail of yellow arrows at daybreak on the second day of the Camino del Santiago del Norte.

Sí, Sí,” I shrieked. “I know this roundabout! Then we had to cross the highway and a beagle followed us to the little beach -”

“Cat, I’m driving. Shut your pico and tell me where I have to turn,” the Novio said, straight faced and without taking his eyes off of the road, whose grade nosed dangerously down the steep N-634 that runs parallel to the northern coast of Spain.

Camino de Santiago in Muros de Nalón yellow arrow

There are two ways to see the very best of Asturias: by foot and by car. The little mountain villages and pristine beaches are out often of the reach of the rickety old FEVE trains and buses, so retracing my steps on the Camino de Santiago del Norte was an absolute treat.

Deciding to spend a long weekend in Asturias was easy – not only is it our favorite part of Spain, but the Novio and I were celebrating our birthdays, our first wedding anniversary and my pregnancy reaching 20 healthy weeks (the gender reveal was a birthday gift to us both!). What wasn’t easy were the logistics: being a long weekend in August, trains were booked or prohibitively expensive, and both of our cars were standing guard outside of our house in Seville.

We’d need a rental car if we expected to do anything.

I will fully confess that I’d never actually booked a car myself! Always in charge of itineraries and lodging, I’d traversed India, planned a trip to Marrakesh and spent six years in Spain without needing to get behind the wheel. I didn’t even know what rental car companies operated in Madrid, let alone in which areas of the city, so I used EasyTerra to score a cheap compact from nearby Nuevos Ministerios. The service compared the nearby agencies, like Sixt or Enterprise, leaving only the lodging and itinerary (also my job on this trip).

Visit Lastres Asturias

My last trip to Asturias, I’d walked from Avilés to Figueras and across the Río Eo into Galicia, the Bay of Biscay always accompanying me to the left. Three years to the day after we’d arrived in Santiago, we picked up an Opel Meriva and began the trip north.

AP-6 to AP-66 to Oviedo

Glancing at the rearview mirror just past 2:30pm, I saw a snake of cars converting the AP-6 highway into a summer traffic jam. After rejoicing in the lack of people in Madrid for the first half of the month, it seems we’d found them all.

It isn’t a #roadtrip in #Spain till you’ve eaten your bocadillo, am I right?! With @easyterra

A photo posted by Cat (@sunshinesiestas) on

As soon as we’d past the M-50 ring road and the traffic eased up, we stopped for a bocadillo at a roadside bar. All epic road trips in Spain feature a simple sandwich on a dusty road, after all. The Guadarrama mountains melted into the arid plains of Castilla – where I’d studied abroad – before we caught the AP-66 at Benavente.

An hour later, we’d exhausted all radio stations but Radio María, but the music went off, the windows went down and the Picos de Europa rose before us, signaling our passage into Asturias.

A-8 to Faedo

As soon as we’d diverted past the capital of Oviedo and gotten on the A-8, I was flooded with memories of blisters, long walks and conch shells. I began remembering small details of our 200-mile hike, from memorable meals to cat naps in the shade of a picnic table.

We turned off the highway at exit 431, and my eyes grew wide.

Renting a car in Spain

“I’ve been here! I know right where we are!” Guiding the Novio around the roundabout by way of the spraypainted arrows, I was almost delighted to find that the next roundabout was under construction, just as it had been three years earlier. I could feel my calves tighten as the narrow road climbed downwards, past road signs announcing the Camino’s crossing over the highway and remembered our descent towards La Concha de Artedo.

At the bottom of the hill, we entered onto a mountain road that climbed out of a thick forest to hug curves around rolling, green hills dotted with hamlets and dairy cows.

Soon after, my mobile signal was lost. It wouldn’t be back for most of the weekend.

Faedo to Oviñana

La Casona del Faedo said it was in Cudillero, the technicolor fishing village I’d visited on my first afternoon of the Camino. It was an inexpensive, so we booked without realizing that it was in Faedo, a miniscule farming village in the Consejo, or district of Cudillero. But the air was crisp and the farmhouse was quiet, save the far off tinkling of cow bells.

Low phone coverage in Asturias

Ángel showed us to our room in the 130-year-old stone stucture, having recently reopened the family home after more than a decade in Lanzarote. He hailed from Pola do Siero, just like my mother-in-law. The internet signal didn’t reach our room – and neither did the 4G – so we passed time asking him for recommendations for food and sites.

Dusk fell over the valley, and we were back to the winding CU-4 towards the A-8. In Oviñana, we drove narrow roads to Sidrería el Reguerín. There was no place to sit on the patio, so we sidled up to the bar and had a bottle of cider uncorked before I could even ask for a free chair. The culín de sirdina was tart and cut straight through the acidity of the octopus salad set before us.

This is one of those places that has a set menu, but it’s always better to order whatever is written on the chalkboard.

Tabla de Quesos Asturian Cheese Plate

Downing another swig of cider and perking his nostrils, the Novio dove right into Asturian cuisine, ordering an immense cheese platter with quince pastes that disappeared within minutes. I’d have been satisfied, but no sooner had I run my finger along the knife to eat the last few crumbles of cabrales, a dish of fried zucchini stuffed with crab meat came out. The murmur of dinners grew louder as cider glasses were slammed on the wooden bar in rapid-fire fashion.

I took the wheel this time, nervously driving back towards Faedo on the hilly, unlit road.

Faedo to Muros de Nalón

Agustina wiped her hands on her apron as she walked out of the kitchen. “Can I interest you in some of my freshly baked cakes?” We gladly obliged as Ángel poured the Novio a coffee from an aging copper pot and followed it with fresh milk from across the valley. Agustina had been up early making a cinnamon coffee cake and pestiños – a honey soaked, fried pastry.

The Novio inquired about where to get the best smoked sausages and fava beans as Ángel nervously checked his watch. “You should hurry and get to Muros de Nalón. They’ve got a weekly market on Saturdays with just about everything.

A quick gulp of coffee later, and we’d jumped into the rental car and zoomed down the mountain, windows open all the way and the Novio’s hair, normally weighed down with hair gel, gently flapped in the wind.

Quesos Asturianos

Muros had been one of the first towns I passed through on the Camino, upon leaving Avilés and walking in a few circles around Piedras Blancas. We’d rewarded ourselves with a beer before the last ascent into El Pito, where we’d splurged on a nice pensión. The car came to a halt just under one of the blue and yellow tiles marking the path into the center of town and the market.

More than food stalls, we found clothing stands, used books and more people milling about the bars than the small market. While the Novio checked out the long coils of chorizo and morcilla, my nose drew me to the baked goods, where I bought a loaf of bollo preñao: sweet chorizo, strips of fatty pork shoulder and a few boiled eggs baked into warm bread.

Lunch was solved for 5,50€.

The Novio’s stock included six or eight links of both morcilla and chorizo to make fabada, a hearty bean stew. He downed a few culines of cider before we pointed the car down the hill towards Cudillero.

Muros to Cudillero

colorful Cudillero Asturias

Our first night on the Camino included a stop in Cudillero, dubbed as one of Spain’s most beautiful villages. Tucked into a natural bay and protected by rock formations, the sleepy town bubbles over during the high season. And interestingly enough, the town is said to have been founded by Vikings who sought a safe port in its natural breakaways, leading to a local dialect, Pixueto.

In late July, 2013, our legs had been too tired after 26 kilometers to do much else but have a taxi pick us up in El Pito and take us right to the port and its cool, pebble-streaked waters and central cider bars. Three years later, the Novio and I climbed the stairs leading away from the village center to the carefully stacked houses and sidewalks that tumble from the cliffs.

Things to do in Cudillero

Cudillero was just as quaint and colorful as I’d remembered it, though so overrun with tourists that I felt overwhelmed and uncomfortable. Just a simple look over his sunglasses was all the Novio needed to say for us to retreat to somewhere a bit quieter.

Cudillero to Soto de Luiña

“Which way to the Pilgrim’s Inn?” asked the peregrino, eyes, squinting in the hot afternoon sun. His face was streaked with sweat and a bit of dirt, evoking memories of ending up, at 1pm, in much the same state. I pointed up the road, indicating that he make a right just after passing the church, where he’d find a bed for cheap in an old converted hospital.

Camino de Santiago mementos

The Novio put out his cigarette into a conch shell ashtray as we watched a few more scattered pilgrims arrive to the bar we were sitting in front of, dip in for a cold drink and continue on to a nap. The bar was the first in Soto de Luiña – and based on the fact that it had run out of food by 2pm, it was likely the most popular.

We’d walked steadily along the A-632 that morning, dodging cars and cyclists on our way to Ballota and its virgin beaches. The Novio bought a bottle of beer and a bag of chips and instructed me to wiggle into my bathing suit while we drove towards the nearest beach.

Soto de Luiña to Playa del Silencio

I’d often heard that Playa del Silencio was one of Asturias’s best, given that it was inaccessible if you didn’t arrive on your own two feet or in a sailboat. Cradled by a sheet rock cliff and a thick forest, the nearest “village” is several miles away, and there are no chiringuitos or even a lifeguard stand.

Playa del Silencia from above

The car park led us to believe that the place was crawling with beach goers, but most we met on the way were heading back from the beach. The gravel path led down to nearly 350 stone steps that were narrow enough that onlyone person cold pass comfortably through.

My nice leather sandals crunched uneasily over the smooth stones that made up the beach. Even with the 513 meter stretch of beach full of people, there was… silence. Save the breeze whipping past mey ears and the ocean lapping at the rocks, it was eerily silent.

Playa del Silencio

We passed the bollo preñao between us, contemplating the next 20 weeks and what would come after. I treated our weekend as a babymoon of sorts, a few fleeting days when it would just be the two of us, when we could called the baby “Micro” and when my belly just looked like a little bit of bloat. I plucked my straw hat from my bag and rested it gently over my face, succumbing to yet another afternoon snooze – savoring every one of them I’d get before the baby arrives.

Playa del Silencio to Luarca to Puerto de Vega

Washing the salt off of my body, I heard the Novio downstairs speaking with Ángel as his beer glass clinked against the wooden picnic table that we’d come to claim as our own. Not only was it a long weekend, but it was when many villages in Asturias celebrated their local festivals, making for a madhouse in villages that didn’t have the infrastructure for so many cars, tourists and hungry bellies.

fishing villages in Asturias

We decided to try for Luarca anyway, another large fishing town where Hayley and I had spent a night. I remember finding it devoid of much life – it was grey (the water in the bay included) with most of the town shuttered up, despite being called the Pueblo Blanco de la Costa Verde. But in fiestas, it might just prove to be a bit more lively, and local favorite El Barómetro told us they had space at the bar for two.

We drove in circles around the large port and up to the picturesque cemetery looking for parking, but it was futile – we were onto the next village, Puerto de Vega, as soon as we’d determined that even the vados had been taken. Puerto de Vega was decidedly sleepier, but for Casa Paco. We nabbed the last unreserved table in the dining room, a chill chasing us in from the port, where a few white and red fishing boats bobbed up and down with the wake. The octopus was tender, the cachopo – a pork loin wrapped in cheese and ham before being deep fried – as long as my forearm.

Seagull on wood planks

That night in Faedo, I didn’t last five minutes in bed (with covers on!) before I fell asleep to the lull of the diners in the bar below, waking up the following morning to crickets and cowbells as the fresh dew still lingered on blades of grass.

Faedo to Grado

We skipped the pestiños in favor of fresh cheese bought from the neighbor and crushed tomato on bread that Augustina pulled out of the oven with heavy mitts. Unsatisfied with yesterday’s yield of products, the Novio had already spoken to her about the market in Grado. Due to its position in a flat, fertile valley, the consejo is rich in gastronomic tradition, particularly cheeses under the D.O. L’Pitu and beans.

Purple flowers in Asturias

The roads were foggy and damp that morning as the car slid down the valley into Villafria. Ángel gave us instructions as only a born and bred asturiano could do, full of local words I couldn’t grasp, waving hands and landmarks.

We somehow arrived without getting lost (though we had to screenshot the way on our phones due to lack of a mobile signal).

Food stands at the Grado market

Known locally as Grau, the entire town shuts its central streets for the massive weekly market, and shops stay open, closing instead on odd days. We fought our way through crowds and vendors hocking socks, fake watches and clothing to the Plaza General Ponte, where the traditional market has run every Sunday since 1258. I went to check the free samples on cheeses while the Novio proudly announced that the chori-morci he’d bought the day before were fresher.

We tagged team the whastapps, making the rounds to ask which family wanted fabes or fabines for winter stews. A kilo of good quality fava beans in Madrid was nearly twice as expensive at 20€/kilo: prices in Seville could be up to 10€ more! We walked back to the car with arms laden with cheeses, pig shoulder and beans, stopping briefly at a sidrería for a refreshment.

Weekly market of Grado

Our late start meant we’d finished shopping right about lunch time. Agustina had suggested the hearty menu at Casa Pepe el Bueno which, at 17€ per person per menú del día (on a weekend!), was more than we’d paid for a meal all weekend. The low-ceilinged restaurant was as stuffy as it was packed with people. For a starter, we both chose fabada, served in an enormous silver bowl, meaning two plates each.

“Now Micro knows what a true fabada is,” the Novio mused, pushing back his chair as his cider-drenched hake was set down before him.

the Novio in his element

I was able to make room for dessert as I felt the first small rumblings of our child – a quarter Asturian anyway – deep in my belly. That, or a satisfied stomach.

Grado to Playa de Concha de Artedo

The road back from  Grado was far bumpier – I nearly scratched the car on the narrow road behind Pepe el Bueno, stalled twice due to the car’s sensitive gears and was kindly asked to just navigate us back to Faedo. We made it as far as Pravia before losing signal and relying on our instincts to guide us.

An hour later and after risking bottoming out on an old cattle route, I collapsed into bed as clouds rolled over the valley, heavy with rain.

Asturias driving

Slipping on my bathing suit – still a bit damp from my dip the day before – we made one last beach stop at La Concha de Artedo. I’d been but a kilometer from this beach on our second morning of the Camino, and smiled remembering a beagle that followed us from the restaurant at the top of the hill all the way down to the next arrow.

It was chilly but the time I’d found a dry rock to rest my bag, but the Novio was already darting between rocks, looking for baby andarica crabs that had been washed in with the tide. The pools were warm and shallow, hiding the creatures under rocks full of bígaros and clams.

Concha de Artedo beach Asturias

Due to a goof up in our room, Ángel and Agustina had offered to invite us to dinner at the casona, free of charge. Being one of two restaurants in Faedo – the other was a vegan music bar, quite modern for a town whose population hadn’t topped 150 in half a century – she cooked nightly for more than just guests. As dusk fell, the Novio and the propietario shared a few culines of cider and we chowed down creamy croquetas stuffed with local chunks of chorizo and pito al chilindrón, a simple chicken dish in which a whole chicken is cooked and stewed in a vegetable paste.

Mi mujer tiene mucha mano en la cocina,” Ángel would later claim as we thanked them for the phenomenal meal. Indeed, Agustina was a kitchen whiz.

That night, the wind ripped opened our heavy wooden shutters. Lightning pounded the valley, and as I lazily pulled the windows shut and locked them, I couldn’t help but think that there’s no wonder the animal products up here taste better – it rains so much!

Faedo to Lastres

Bueno, hoy es tu día,” the Novio stated, taking a long drag off of his cigarette as Ángel set a glass of fresh juice in front of me. “What’s on the itinerary? It was my 31st birthday, and I wanted to do what any other 31-year-old-woman would want to do: Go to a dinosaur museum.

Chispa the dog

I patted Chispa on the head once more and thanked Ángel and Agustina for their hospitality. Checking the route before we’d be left without internet once more, we rolled down the Meriva’s windows and slipped back down the mountain.

Passing through Colunga before reaching the Museo del Jurásico de Asturias, we gobbled down the rest of our bollo preñao in the parking lot. Being a national holiday, the museum was teeming with kids. I nudged the Novio in the ribs, knowing full well that we’d be skipping the bars for kid-friendly activities in a few short years.

The northern coast of Asturias was once home to a number of sauropods during the Jurassic period, and the Las Griegas beach has uncovered a number of bones and the largest dinosaur footprint to date. Forming part of the Costa de los Dinosaurios, the museum is one of Asturias’s top tourist attractions.

For someone whose favorite college course was based on the prehistoric beasts, I was a bit skeptical due to the number of reproductions (I am a purist, oops), but to have free election over what to do that day, I enjoyed pointing out the different features of dinosaurs and goofing off in the reproductions park.

Panoramic view of Lastres Asturias

Lastres was just around the bend of the AS-257, another quaint village perched on a cliffside. The stone houses reminded me more of the southern coast of France than the northern coast of Spain, with its red roofs and bougainvillea spilling out of window pots.

Though we’d eaten everything on our list – from cheese to fabada to bollo preñao – the Novo hadn’t had vígaros. As a kid vacationing near Lastres, he’d pick the shiny black mollusks off of rocks and dig out the worm with his fingers rather than using a straight pin.

fresh vigaros in Asturias

A waitress spread an old, faded tablecloth at one of the beachside restaurants once we’d descended the stone stairs to the small port. As a summer baby, I was clear about lunch – freshly caught seafood. Time stopped for an hour despite the ancient clock tower ringing every quarter hour. As the restaurant where we sat on stools fishing the vígaros out of their shells filled as the lunchtime hour creeped slowly up, we ordered a plate of razor clams, piping hot with a hint of parsley and lemon, and squid in black rice.

I’d have a birthday pastry at some obscure rest stop a few hours later, the Novio promised.

Lastres to Madrid

clock tower of Lastres Asturias

Tempting fate, we decided to return to Madrid a bit earlier than planned, checking the traffic report on RNE every hour. Once again, we had the Picos behind us in the rearview mirror after an hour, then the Castillian plains before ascending Guadarrama and entering back into the capital.

Perhaps on my next trip to Asturias – Micro in tow – we’ll focus on the oriental part of the region. The Lagos de Covadonga, the tiny mountain villages tucked into crags and providing sweeping views of Bay of Biscay, the artsy cities of Llanes and Ribadasella. Or perhaps he’ll eat cheese at el Reguerín and hunt for crabs with his father at Concha de Artedo.

Colorful Asturias Spain

It’s easy enough to explore Asturias by bus or train, I suppose, but half the fun are the tight turns, the stoping for cows and the sleepy little hamlets where vecinos wave you down to try and sell you their fresh milk or butter. Save walking along the coast, it’s the only way to go.

EasyTerra Car Rental, a Netherlands-based rental agency that compares well-known suppliers in more than 7,000 loctions worldwide, graciously picked up our tab. We paid for gas and navigated tractors trails and tight mountain curves ourselves – so all of the opinions expressed here are my own. That said, their website is user-friendly and their prices are the cheapest we found!

Have you ever driven or walked through Asturias? What places would you recommend?

Autonomous Community Spotlight: La Rioja

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.

spain collageI would have been totally clueless about La Rioja unless it was for a Spain-born love of red wine and Liz Carlson’s Young Adventuress blog. And without knowing it, I may have saved some of the best of Spain for last.

Name: La Rioja 

Population: 322,000

La Rioja Collage

Provinces: Just one, with the administrative capital located in Logroño.

When: 17th of 17, December 2012

About La Rioja: Despite having the smallest population in all of Spain, this region packs a lot of punch worldwide because of its wine. Reds, whites and rosés – many of which are celebrated – are manufactured from grapes grown in the vineyards that spain La Rioja and the southern end of the Álava province in País Vasco.

This area was once part of the Roman kingdom of Hispania Tarraconensis, based in modern-day Tarragona. Given its positions between kingdom kingpins like Aragón and León, the area was hotly disputed by even smaller dukedoms, but the Moorish Invasion of 711 meant that La Rioja was soon grouped into the Al-Andalus kingdom.

wine branches in la rioja

After Sancho the Wise swooped in during the early 9th Century of the Reconquista, he claimed the land for the Kingdom of León. After a bitter feud against the Kings of Pamplona-Navarra, La Rioja was given independence as the Kingdom of Viguera before being swallowed up by Pamplona once more.

The region continued to be jockeyed between Pamplona, Aragón, and the soon-united Castilla y León as part of both Soria and Burgos before a new administrative district was formed in 1822 by the Regio reform.

La Rioja got its modern name in 1982 when the Spanish Constitution was passed into law and Autonomous Communities were given more self-governance. The province stands for more than just their cash cow, but for a place where wine is an integral part of the culture.

Oh, and dinosaur footprints have been found here, so toma.

Must-sees: It should come as no surprise that wine is the main attraction in this tiny autonomía. More than 14,000 vineyards and 150 wineries fills the 75 square miles of the Denominación de Origen, whose lifeblood is the snaking Ebro River.

spanish wine

The earliest reference to wine in La Rioja is dated in the late 9th Century, and thanks to the continental Mediterranean climate and a series of peaks and valleys that protect the vineyards from the wind, several highly rated wines have been produced here. The most common grape varieties are tempranillo and garnacha, and the technique of aging wine in oak barrels for at least one year sets wines apart from other Spanish DOs.

You can visit a number of the wineries in La Rioja, particularly in the Álava province and outside of Logroño. We stuck to just a few – Bodegas Darien on the eastern edge of the city, Marqués de Riscal in Eltziego, Laguardia and its underground medieval aging caverns (as well as trippy Bodegas Ysisos) and romantic Haro.

Marques de Riscal winery in Eltziego

Our wine tasting trips were pre-booked and included a guided tour and several tastings afterwards. There are a few bodegas within walking distance of town, as well.

Logroño has a definite small-city feel and served as an excellent home base. We skipped the old town’s few historic sites and instead focused our time on pinchos heaven: Calle Laurel (and its lesser-known counterpart, Calle San Juan). Pinchos are northern Spain’s answer to tapas: simply order a glass of wine and a single serving of food served atop bread, and within a few bars, you’ll be stumbling down the “Path of Elephants.”

tortilla at bar sebas

If you can rent a car, get out of town: Haro and Laguardia are beautifully preserved towns, and a visit to the monasteries of Yuso and Suso means you can get your Spanish nerd on: the first written records of Castillian Spanish are housed here! Apart from that, Roman ruins are scattered around the province and each of the 174 villages seem to have their own flair.

I’m all for Spanish public transportation, but La Rioja is one place to rent a car (so long as you’re not imbibing!).

The town of Assa, La Rioja

A fair number of towns in La Rioja – notably Logroño, Cenicero, Nájera and Santo Domingo de la Calzada – lie on the pilgrim route to Santiago, so expect to run into pilgrims and arrows

My take: Admittedly, my four-day trip to Rioja has a lot of speed bumps. Getting ticketed by cops! Having my cell phone robbed! SO MUCH SPILT WINE! But I loved our venture north, and my companions and I often talk about it being the last weekend hurrah before we got into the heavy adult stuff. 

Wine Tasting at Bodegas Darien

Apart from indulging on Calle Laurel and in little blips of wine towns, we had a chance to not focus on ticking off historical sites or racing to see museums before closing time.

I’ve got a preliminary plan to drive up to Madrid in May and pick up a friend so we can spend a long weekend in Logroño together. After all, eat, drink and be merry!

Have you ever been to La Rioja? What do you like (or not) about it?

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria | Castilla y León | Castilla-La Mancha | Cataluña | Extremadura | Galicia

Autonomous Community Spotlight: Cantabria

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.

When I sat down to write this month’s post about Cantabria, I didn’t feel inspired. I made it a point to get to Northern Spain one summer between summer camp in Galicia and summer camp in Castilla-La Mancha, but my trip left me far less than impressed. In fact, I called a post ‘Santandisappointed.’ Looking back, it may have been the crowds, it may have been traveling alone, it may have been my timing.

That’s why I’m offering the floor to my friend Liz Ferry, who has not only studied in the capital of Cantabria, but has also work their as an auxiliar. In fact, she loves the region so much, she left Andalucía to head back to a place where surf and turf exist together.

Cantabria and I go way back – back to the American crisis of 2008, when I studied abroad in Santander, Cantabria, and literally spent every penny I had, thanks to the exchange rate at the time. But apart from losing all my money, I fell in love for the first time in my life, and it was with a place. I later moved here in 2011, and with the exception of a one-year fling with Seville, I have stayed here ever since.

This tiny region is often considered by other Spaniards as cold, rainy, windy, and full of boring, sosa people. Our semi-Irish winters, however, make for an incredible landscape, with views of the Bay of Biscay, the Cantabrian Mountains, and the Picos de Europa.

 

 

 

 
Name: Cantabria

Population: 592,000

Provinces: Only one (Cantabria), but there are 10 comarcas: Asón-Agüera, Besaya, Campoo-Los Valles, Costa Occidental, Costa Oriental, Liébana, Saja-Nansa, Santander, Trasmiera, and Valles Pasiegos

When: May 2008 (Cat: 14/17, August 2010)

About Cantabria: Cantabria is a little-known region of Spain, which climate and landscape-wise is more similar to Ireland than it is to the interior and south of Spain. It’s known for its cold, rainy, and windy winters, and its mild summers, in which we hope to get enough good beach days to enjoy all the hidden corners of the region. Cantabria is also a Celtic region – along with Asturias, it was one of the last regions to hold off the Roman Empire from invasion.

Must-sees: The capital, Santander, is a small city of about 180,000 people. It’s home to one of the vacation palaces of the royal family, the Palacio de la Magdalena. There are great walking paths on the grounds of the palace that offer some of the city’s best views. From the palace, continue to the Sardinero beaches, Santander’s famed beaches that offer lots of activities nearby, such as a luxury casino. Continue walking along the coast to arrive at the cliffs, Cabo Menor and Cabo Mayor. Cabo Mayor is home to the main lighthouse, and provides the city’s best sunset views.

Santander also holds a Semana Grande festival every summer, the week leading up to the Day of St. James (July 25). The atmosphere of the city does a 180 – people are eating pinchos and drinking wine or cañas in the streets and at casetas, and there are free (and not-free concerts) every day, tons of activities for people of all ages, fireworks over the sea, bullfights, and typical fair rides.

For seaside enthusiasts who prefer a quieter scene, Cantabria is full of beautiful, natural beaches and coves. San Vicente is a fishing village with sea and mountain views, and the beautiful Playa de Oyambre is right next door. Suances is a tourist hot-spot in summer, with its plentiful beaches and mountainous landscape (it’s also where I work!). Liencres is my personal favorite, home to the Dunes of Liencres and a hidden, rocky cove beach called Portio. Castro Urdiales is a popular beach town near the border of País Vasco, which makes for a quick commute to Bilbao for a night on the town.

For mountain lovers, Potes is a must, with its cobblestone streets, cider, and proximity to the Picos de Europa. Fuente Dé is nearby, where you can catch a cable car into the Picos de Europa. San Roque de Riomiera, further off to the east, has breathtaking mountain views, as does Vega de Pas, a small town in the Valles Pasiegos.

For a historical visit, head to Santillana del Mar, the town of the three lies (if you break apart it’s name in Spanish, it means Holy Flat Land of the Sea, but it’s not holy, it’s not flat, and it isn’t on the sea). This well-preserved medieval village has become quite touristy, but for good reason – it’s like you walked into the Middle Ages. The famous Altamira caves are nearby, although most people are only allowed to see the replicas. For other caves with cave drawings (that are even older than those of Altamira), go to Puente Viesgo, a small village also famous for its churros con chocolate.

No Cantabrian experience is complete without a gastronomic tour. Cantabria is famous for its seafood and fish. Fresh-caught fish and seafood from the rough waters of the Bay of Biscay are served up daily throughout the region. Santander even has a whole barrio full of such restaurants, the Barrio Pesquero, where you can get a menu del día for 12 euros. Foods specific to Cantabria include cocido montañés, a typical bean dish, sobaos, a light breakfast pastry, and quesada, a cold, dairy-based dessert. After a weekend lunch, you can see scores of cántabros taking a shot of orujo, a liquor made in Cantabria.

My take: I’ll take an Irish-like winter any day in order to have the beautiful green views intertwined with the Bay of Biscay. If you’re lucky enough to see Cantabria on a sunny day, you too will fall in love. While we do prefer to keep it relatively unknown and to ourselves, I am proud to boast about my tierra Cantabria. Once a Yankee, always a Yankee.

Have you been to Cantabria? What are your thoughts? Check back at the beginning of October for the next installment, Castilla y León.

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias 

Autonomous Community Spotlight: The Principality of Asturias

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: travel to all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through spending ample time in Andalucía, Galicia and Castilla y León – vastly different in their own right – plus extensive travel throughout Spain. 

Asturias and I have a special relationship – the Novio’s mother was born in Pola do Siero, making him as asturiano as he is andaluz. By the time we made the long drive to Asturias during my spring break in 2009, I was already in love with the region nestled between the Bay of Biscay and the Picos de Europa.

The small region is one of Spain’s wettest and, in my opinion, its most naturally beautiful, and the only autonomía considered a principality. Asturies, as its called in the local gable language, was also the starting point of my Camino de Santiago – Hayley and I walked from the industrial port of Avilés.

And it goes without mention that I love fabada and cidra.

Name: Asturias

Population: 1 million

Provinces: Just one, though Asturias has eight comarcas: Avilés, Caudal, Eo-Navia, Gijón, Nalón, Narcea, Oriente and Oviedo.

When: 12th of 17 regions, March 2009

About Asturias: It’s believed that the area has been inhabited for millennia by the Celts, but Asturias rose to fame in 722 during the Muslim Reconquest of Spain. Hiding in the caves at Covadonga, Don Pelayo is believed to have had the Virgen Mary appear to him, and she told him to rally and fight the Moors. He became the first king of Asturias and the region became a refuge for nobility until the Peninsula was once again under Christian rule.

The Novio tells me Asturians are 100% Spanish because the Picos de Europa blocked the peninsular conquest of the Moors. Considering it’s still a reino, it still has its rulers – Prince Felipe and Princess Leticia are next in line to the Spanish throne.

Must sees: Like Andalucía, I don’t even know where to begin, except for saying that your best bet for traveling in Asturias is by car. There are buses and FEVE trains across Asturias, but the service is infrequent, and there’s tons of encanto in many of the small towns that you shouldn’t miss.

The capital of Asturias is Oviedo, a small city with a huge cidra scene. Calle Gascona is known as La Ruta de la Cidra, and has cider bars lining the streets. There are also pleasant pockets throughout – the plazas, the old man bars, the green spaces, the old Romanesque churches. I highly recommend the bar Platero y Yo for their cachopo – the north’s answer to a flamenquín – and excellent wine list.

Gijón is a pleasant, seaside city with colorful buildings and a bustling port, and nearby, industrial Avilés has a well-kept old town. But Asturias’s best is in its small towns, many of which we passed through on the Camino del Norte – Cudillero, Luarca, Tapa de Casariego, Ballota.

East of Gijón, there are other hamlets worth exploring, as well. After visiting family friends in misty Infiesto, we spent two nights in Cangas de Onís and used it as a base to make it to Ribadasella, Poo, the caves and cathedral of Covadonga.

The beauty of Asturias is astounding, as well. When packing for the Camino, I made sure to bring a swimsuit for the untouched beaches we hugged as we walked for five days along the coast. You can’t miss the Lagos de Covadonga, one of Spain’s highest chain of lakes, nestled in the Picos de Europa. If you love the outdoors, Asturias couldn’t be any more perfect. 

Asturian culture is based largely in its celtic origins, including bagpipes! It’s also a literary region that takes art and theatre very seriously, and sports greats Fernando Alonso and David Villa are from Asturias – must be all of that milk. Asturias is also home to bable, a language that changes its vowels around. Case in point, the greatest youtube video of all time:

My take: Asturias is exactly like all of those Leche Asturiana ads – rolling green hills, tons of dairy cows and virgen beaches. If you couldn’t already tell, I love its paraíso natural, its jovial and grounded people (my mother-in-law included!) as well as its food.

Each month for the next 14, I’ll take a look at Spain’s 17 comunidades autónomas and my travel through them, from A to, um, Valencia. I’d love your take on the good and the bad in each one, so be sure to sign up for my RSS feed to read about each autonomous region at the end of each month! Next up for May is the Balearic Islands.

Read more about Andalucía and Aragón

Have you been to Asturias? What do you like (or not) about the region?

Two Weeks on the Camino de Santiago: 14 Pictures of my Journey (Part 2)

Where we last left off, I had literally just climbed a mountain, but I had also scaled a mountain of self-doubt that told me my body was not strong enough to continue. We were halfway there, distance-wise, but coming to grips with the impending end of the journey.

Day Eight // Monday, August 5th, 2013 // Gontán – Vilalba //20km

Money can buy you happiness, it turns out, and we left Abadín before dawn after a few beers the night before and a sound sleep in a comforable bed to the tune of 19€ each. At this point, I’d only opened my sleeping bag once.

We didn’t speak much on the way to Vilalba, a once-powerful city that hosts a Parador. All of the sudden, there were more pilgrims on the trail who we’d never seen before, and we felt rushed to get to the next inn on time with Croissanthead (our so-named mascot for an earlier Xacobeo celebration). We had wine at the parador and met the cook, a man who had walked 15 Caminos in his life. I’d read somewhere that those who live along the trail are obligated by law to protect pilgrims and not do anything to ruin or impede their Camino. Written or not, pilgrims are respected by these townspeople, and not just for the tourism dollars they bring in. We were treated to a snack, courtesy of this fellow peregrino.

Even the local Proteccion Civil officer who ran the large albergue locked up 15 minutes later than normal because we invited him to a shot of orujo.

Day Nine // Tuesday, August 6th, 2013 // Vilalba – Baamonde // 20km

The reality of passing the halfway point in our journey was starting to weigh on me. The simplicity of pilgrim life was so inviting after a year of many changes and transitions for me, and knowing that I’d be finished in just five days got me a little depressed. I no longer befriended pilgrims, knowing I’d have to say goodbye to them once we reached Santiago. José was an exception. Sharing 20 kilometers with him into Baamonde was a treat.

The road that day was littered with small towns, dairy farms and leafy groves of trees and rudimentary stone structures. José is a secondary teacher in Valencia, so Hayley and I immediately had a connection with him and his outlook on life. Almost immediately after meeting another pilgrim, you exchanged the, ‘So what brings you on the Camino?’ question. José’s was simple, and it made me think of my own reasons.

The say the Camino always provides, and it does – from new friendships to a bit of clarity to a stronger body, or even a hot plate of food after a long trek.

That afternoon when we rolled into Baamonde, just 103 kilometers from Santiago, and we had ample time to enjoy the 94 others who were there sharing four showers with us. Afternoon beers, a large and tasty meal in a table that was far too small for us and our food, jam sessions in the patio as we waited out a rain cloud. When you only have one thing in common and nothing else matters, it’s easy to make friends. Besides, that’s what Facebook is for!

Day Ten // Wednesaday, August 7th, 2013 // Baamonde – Miraz // 14.5km

“Be careful of the Santa Campana,” Fernando warned us before retiring to bed. Our walk from the sprawling pilgrim’s inn at Baamonde to the rumored ‘nicest albergue on the Norte’ was a short one, but we’d have to rush – there were just 26 beds in Miraz.

We woke at 5am. It would be dark until nearly 7:30 a.m., but we didn’t have any time to waste. My guidebook told me that we’d walk three kilometers out of Baaaaaaaaaaamonde before turning left over the train tracks. Our flashlights bounced off trees, searching desperately before we got off-track and lost a bed.

Then it began raining. We thankfully didn’t see the witches of the Santa Campana, said to lure pilgrims into sorcery by handing them candles when it’s dark and rainy along the trail.

By the time we got to Miraz around 9:30 that morning, there were already six or eight other pilgrims in line. We set our bags down under the overhang, respecting the pre-established order for beds and joined the others in the town’s only bar. We considered continuing on to Sobrado, but I’m glad we didn’t – apart from a warm bed and blanket and other English speakers (the small albergue is run by the British Cofraternity of Saint James volunteers), we spent hours in the bar, warming up over beers and sandwiches. The rain and the fact that we had to wait forever was made better by the fact that there was a bit of cerveciña to make the time pass quicker.

Day Eleven // Thursday, August 8th, 2013 // Miraz – Sobrado dos Monxes // 25.5km

We took our time walking into Sobrado dos Monxes the following day, knowing that we were nearing the end of the road. It was a perfect day, with puffy clouds within reach and enough solitude to hash out issues and just talk about nothing in between.

The albergue is housed in a 10th Century monastery, and Hayley and I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to our weeks working in a haunted monastery in Uclés, Cuenca. The pilgrim hysteria was high, as a Jesuit group was also there, taking up nearly half the beds. After checking in and getting our stamp from the monks who lived on site and raised dogs and cows (which Carmela and I got to see!), Hayley and I escaped to a bar further outside of town. When we finished, half a bottle of wine each later, a stray dog who I’d tripped over earlier in the day was waiting for us, his broken chain dangling from his neck as he drooled over the hot pavement. We tried to lose him, and the poor pup kept getting shooed out of the monastery.

I honestly would have loved wasting hours petting him in the interior lawn of the sprawling, gorgeous palace, but he was not allowed to enter.

Long live Blacky. That is, if he stops tripping pilgrims.

Day Twelve // Friday, August 9th, 2013 // Sobrado dos Monxes – Arzúa // 22km

Fernando gave us a pep talk as we headed out of Sobrado towards Arzúa, the last major stop on the Francés and where our route would hook up with the main pilgrim trail. We’d lose most of our friends on this day who favored a shorter route that skipped the pilgrim town. Many bikers making their way to Santiago passed us, and we knew they’d reach Santiago in time for Pilgrim’s Mass that morning while we still had more than 50km to go.

Reaching Arzúa was a bit strange – there was already a long line outside the municipal inn when we arrived, despite making good time. Most of the private inns were booked up, too. In the end, a hotel offered us a good price for a street side room right near the central plaza.

‘You’ll need these,’ he said, handing us a pair of earplugs. I already had some, courtesy of the Novio, but I shrugged and took them anyway. We took long showers, ate a filling lunch and caught up on the news for the first time in days. Here in Arzúa, pilgrims are kings and there are loads of facilities for them. We had ample choices of where to eat, had special deals on laundry services and massages, and found ourselves feeling alone in a booming town – it took us ages to find familiar pilgrims.

Pilgrim culture shock at its finest.

Our second to last sleep was interrupted early the next morning by a bagpipe. The town had some sort of festival, hence the lack of private inns, and its last revelers were playing bagpipes to signal the end of the party. So that’s what the earplugs were for.

Day Thirteen // Saturday, August 10th, 2013 // Arzúa – O Pedrouzo // 19km

We wizened up and book a private pension again, not willing to hurry our penultimate day for sake of a cheap bed. This meant we could take our time walking, stop more often and really soak up the last few kilometers. By now, we were 41km away from the Plaza do Obradoiro, which we decided to split into two days.

This day was among the most enjoyable – frequently stopping for a beer, running into familiar faces, realizing we’d done 300 kilometers and were all but finished. Joining us were loads of bikers (we nearly got plowed into!), many families and scout groups, and even people pushing strollers! We saw the turigrinos – those who sent their packs ahead and just walked with little weight. I felt lighter than on any other day, and even the purge I’d do later that day of things I wouldn’t need or hadn’t used in two weeks seemed to lighten the load tremendously.

I realized that I’d done everything I intended to do on the Way, save arrive in one piece to Santiago.

Hayley stopped just ahead of me and pointed – didn’t you want to leave something at this mile marker? Once in Galicia, it’s easy to see how many kilometers are left until the cathedral because they’re all marked with the distance down to the thousandth. Exactly at 21,0km I left a purple and orange ribbon for Kelsey. I’d scatter several more the following day, too – at the Lavacolla airport, at Monte do Gozo and at Saint James’s tomb.

Day Fourteen // Sunday, August 11th, 2013 // O Pedrouzo – Santiago de Compostela // 21km

I slept terribly. Maybe I was anxious, but it could be because a homeless man walked into the albergue and took a shower, and then an obnoxious family who hadn’t walked much all took showers after 11pm, turning on lights and hair dryers after I’d already drifted into dreamland. I tried to read Shirley McClain’s The Camino, but it was full of weird mystical dreams and meeting random dead Scottish men who give her a locket and then there’s a big black dog that chases her and she sends him a big red heart of love in her bind of some shit.

Anyway.

I was grumpy, but we didn’t have time for it. Every step meant one second less of our journey, one second closer to the end. Memorials and statues were around every corner, and I felt like we were racing to get to the finish line (we did want to arrive by mass at noon). I made sure to stop in the chapel of Santa Lucia, following my protocol to always leave her a donation as my Catholic aunt told me I was to do if I took her name for my confirmation. I was emotional, about ready to burst at any moment.

It finally happened after reaching Monte do Gozo. After leaving a ribbon on the memorial to Pope John Paul II and stamping our passport for one of the last times, we started the trek downhill. I teared up, wiping away my emotion as Hayley warned me to get it together, or we’d never make it.

We stalled as much as possible without losing track of the time, which included shooting last-minute footage, splitting an Aquarius, stopping to admire a part of the city we hadn’t seen on previous visits. It was ending.

As we arrived to the old town, I was overcome with emotion – for the struggles, for Kelsey, for knowing that tomorrow meant Seville and life and the school year and social media. The bagpipe that I’d heard several times on previous visits rang out and I tripped over my feet. Within moments, we’d passed under the arch and into the morning sunlight. The lichen-covered church towered before us, and even though I’d seen it many times, it was more striking and more beautiful and just plain bigger than ever before. We laid down immediately, taking it all in, happy for the journey and the fact that our legs didn’t fall off.

We had 36 hours or so in Santiago, in which we drank beer, ate international food and paid out respects to Saint James. Hayley decided to shop for other clothes to wear on the plane, but I wore my smelly clothes home, concha attached to my bag. I was proud of it, and I wanted to it last until I was back home.

The thing is, the fact that I’ve seen and done something I’ve always dreamed about doing means that it’s going to last forever in my heart and my memories and my photos.

Yes, even this one: creepy doll heads in Lavacolla, just one of the weird things we saw in 325 kilometers.

Want more? My flickr page has every photo you could ever want to see, and I’m working on my first video! In the meantime, you can watch Hayley’s Camino video and tear up when I do when arriving to the Obradoiro (or laugh at how excited I get about a plate of lentejas)! To learn more about the Camino de Santiago, check out my resources page, or get your FAQs answered by Trevor of A Texan in Spain.

Spain Snapshots: The Romanesque Churches of Oviedo

There is little I don’t love about Oviedo, the capital of the Principality of Asturias, nestled between the Picos de Europa and the Cantabrian Sea – the enormous cachopos, the spontaneous rainpours, the colorful plazas with cidra bars and the raucous Calle Gascona.

Gran amigo of Oviedo is the American director Woody Allen. Uvieu has been front and center in a few of his films, and there’s even a statue of Allen in the central part of town.

Claudia assured me I would recognize this famous monument of Oviedo:

Recognize these churches? Perhaps from the film Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona when Juan Antonio takes the women to Oviedo for the weekend to meet his father?

We spent a lazy Sunday morning hiking to the pre-Romanesque churches that rest just outside the city on Mount Naranco. There’s a small visitors center just off the parking lot, but the beauty is really in the details of the two churches – completed in the late 9th Century. Santa María del Naranco was built as part of a large palace complex to the Virgin Mary, with San Miguel de Lillo, 100 meters downhill, though both were converted into worship places.

It’s easy to see why – the views from Monte Naranco of the picos are incredible. Clau and I spent easily an hour there, looking out over the capital.

If you go: You can drive to Monte Naranco by following signs leading away from the train and bus stations in Oviedo, or you can also take the local bus numbered 10 from the city center, getting off at the stop marked ‘Cruce.’ Follow the signs uphill until you reach San Miguel. Santa María is just 100 meters on. There are a number of bars in the area with great views and sandwiches.

San Miguel is currently not open, though guided tours will take you to Santa María to explain its history, construction and patrimony every morning but Monday. The structures can be visited year-round.

What’s your favorite UNESCO World Heritage Site, either in Spain or beyond?

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