8 Must-have Experiences in Northern Spain

“I’m very sorry to say it, but I prefer Northern Spain,” Diego said with a shrug. I returned his shrug and began regaling all of the places I’d been in Galicia and Asturias (and all the pulpo I’d eaten).

“So you’re a fan, I see?” he responded. Des-de-lu-e-go. 

While Seville and Southern Spain will always be my second home and I was devastated to move away, I am deeply enamored by anything that touches the Cantabrian Sea. Though my time has been mostly logged in the occidental regions of Galicia and Asturias, I have clocked in 15 trips to the four autonomous communities that stretch along the northern border of Iberia.

colorful Cudillero Asturias

Northern Spain feels more authentic: there are beaches but they often lay silent. The food is rich and earthy, a true testament to the way that land is cultivated. Festivals are less about color and pizzazz and more about bringing people together around an open fire or an oversized plate of food, stacked high with local delights. There’s a quiet spirituality in the ruddy-faced Galicians, a whisper between Basques in their language – which has no ties to modern tongues – that breathes mysterious. Where the Andalusians skip letters, gallegos change Ns for Ñs: asturianos make Os into Us.

Anything from the Camino de Santiago and up, give or take, is the Spain you don’t expect to find.

A tour through the north of Spain is getting far off the beaten path. As in, limited-flights-and-bus-routes-and-barely-on-the-map off the beaten path. I’ve spent considerable amounts of time in the north, traveling through the westerly regions of Galicia and Asturias frequently and with a belly swollen by good food and drink and a heart filled with a morriña for a land so starkly different from Andalusia’s olive groves and whitewashed villages.

Feeling overwhelmed with so many beautiful beaches or lack of transportation? For holiday ideas and packages in Spain visit Bookmundi.

torre de hercules coruna lighthouse

Galicia

Jagged coastlines, cheese shaped like a boob and a barnacle fisherwomen risk their lives to harvest, plus witchcraft, medieval stone villages and some of Spain’s most celebrated wine?

Secret’s out – Galicia is nothing short of surprising (and awesome).

I felt so moved by the northwestern region of Spain, in fact, that I spent five consecutive Julys there, culminating in tracing the steps of thousands of pilgrims through the interior of the Lugo and A Coruña provinces in search of plenary indulgence – and a bit of myself.

Walk the Camino de Santiago

walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain

At the very top of my list is walking a pilgrimage route undertaken by the faithful and the adventurous. Though it’s no longer full of vandals and disease, seeing Asturias and Galicia on foot was magical and a way for me to more fully understand the north. For thirteen days, I carried a pack that was 1/10 my body weight, garnering blisters, stamps in a pilgrim passport and countless stories along the way.

Reaching the majestic Catedral de Santiago de Compostela after 326 kilometers and five blisters was a lesson in resilience in both myself and the people who believed this passage would earn them an automatic berth into heaven. While everyone has their own reasons for walking the Jacobean route, mine was a little mix of adventure and proving to myself that I could. It stands out in my mind – next to watching Spain win the 2010 World Cup (I watched in Galicia, no less!) – my most vivid memories of a decade in Spain.

As the botafumeiro swung over my head and I clutched my compostela certificate, I promised myself I’d do it again.

Indulge in a mariscada, queso tetilla and pimientos de padrón

where to eat seafood in Tapia Asturias

When I worked at an English language summer camp in Galicia, a part of my paycheck went straight to an all-out seafood fest. Piled high on a serving platter, we’d pick through boiled shrimp, sweet, plump crab legs, ugly-looking gooseneck barnacles whose goosebump purple skin hides tender meat. We’d toast to a job well done and feast like kings before taking our bounty (and an extra kilo or two) back home for rent and bills.

Queso tetilla, a creamy sheep’s cheese shaped like a tit and called like one, too, flash-fried pimientos del padrón sprinkled with sea salt and fried or marinated chunks of pork loins, washed down with crowd pleasing Estrella Galicia beer or a crisp Albariño wine filled my evenings after classes. And that’s not to mention the plato estrella – boiled octopus served over a bed of potatoes with a dusting of sweet, smoked paprika, polbo a feira.

The best part? It’s wickedly cheap. Tapas for a euro or two, a full-blown ración for under five. During my first trip, we assumed we had stumbled upon an overprice tapas bar only to be overwhelmed with the amount of food placed on our plates. And while walking the Camino, we ended up in someone’s dining room squished between truckers, noshing on a soup because there was no set menu.

If you love food, don’t miss Galicia (or my list of best places to eat in La Coruña).

Visit the Islas Cíes and Playa de las Catedrales

playa de las catedrales galicia

Whereas the Costas are full of Northern Europeans, busy boardwalks and mediocre eateries, the 1500 kilometers of coastline in Galicia hide pristine beaches where you’ll be joined by families, fisherman and a Gadis supermarket bag of food. They’re staggeringly beautiful and – by Spain standards – untouched.

The majestic Playa de las Catedrales (Praia des Catedrais) was just a short taxi ride off of the Camino from Ribadeo, and we took advantage of a low tide to climb down worn stairs and walked between rock formations, toes in the sand. The cliffs, covered in goose barnacles and home to sea crabs, resemble the soaring naves of cathedrals (If you go: as of 2017, you must snag a free ticket to visit the beach during low tide).

islascies4

You can also take a boat ride to the Islas Ciés biosphere, facing the bustling port of Vigo. The chain of islands is considered to be one of the most picturesque parts of Spain, and its Playa de las Rodas was named the Best Beach in the World in 2013. We camped out, arriving early to hike the myriad of trails that crisscross the archipelago and eating sandwiches we’d prepared in Julie’s kitchen before sharing beers with others while watching the sun set over the Atlantic.

From Sanxenxo to the Riazor to the cliffs at Cabo Fisterra, it’s worth renting a car and taking advantage of the paisajes.

Attend the Patron Saint Festival in Santiago de Compostela

st james at the santiago cathedral

Spain’s holiest site is the massive cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the cockleshell-covered remains of St. James were said to be discovered by a hermit in the early 9th Century. After primitive shrines and chapels were burnt to the ground during the Muslim raids on Galicia, the Mixing Romaneque, Baroque and Gothic architectural hallmarks, it is the jewel in he crown of a lovely city steeped in pilgrim lore.

It’s also the focal point of massive celebrations that fall on July 25th, a holiday in Spain commemorating the patron’s role as the Matamoros (Moor-Slayer), in which St. James was said to descend from heaven to slay the Moors that were overtaking the Iberian peninsula. Imagine the Alameda park jammed full of carnival rides and stands peddling cotton candy, concerts in practically any open square or green space and a midnight fireworks display.

We went on a whim, packing our Gadis bags with bottles of alcohol, snacks and an extra layer of clothing for good measure. We bounced around the concerts, leaning on one another as the fireworks lit up the night and the western façade of the cathedral before passing out on the short train ride up to La Coruña in a heap.

Extra points if you attend during a Xacobeo year, when the holiday falls on a Sunday and swells with pilgrims destined to reach the temple before the Misa del Peregrino on the Holy Day. It’s every 6-5-6-11 years.

Principado de Asturias

Oviedo Cathedral

I have a soft spot for Asturias – my mother-in-law was born here and my favorite Spanish dish is a hearty fabada, so not even a 13-hour drive from Seville to rain-soaked Oviedo one Easter weekend would have tainted my love for what some label as a paraíso natural, or natural paradise.

In-freaking-deed. The Picos de Europa – said to hold the last bastion of Spain safe from the Moorish conquest – frame rolling hills where the country’s best fed cows that lead to the ocean. Like Galicia, you can find D.O cheeses here, eat a cachopo the size of your forearm and kick back fizzy culos of fermented apple juice, called sidra.

In fact, we love Asturias so deeply that we spent our babymoon here and took the Babyman up for our summer trip the following year. Maybe it’s the mountains or the hamlets that top them or the fact that the people in those villages traverse those mountains for the right cheese seasoned with paprika.

Pueblo-hop through fishing villages

Visit Lastres Asturias

Asturias is known for its quaint fishing villages. Perched around small bays and river mouths with boats with peeling paints bobbing off a pier, they are literally worthy of your phone’s entire camera roll.

Cudillero, Luarca, Tapia de Casareigo… you can literally follow the N-630 highway that snakes between the Picos de Europa and the ocean, stopping off at any one of them for fresh seafood and an abundance of abuelos. Throughout the summer months, these villages swell with travelers and former residents who left for the big city and its work opportunities. But pueblos in Asturias make you feel like a local. When we stayed at La Casona del Faedo for two consecutive summers, we were greeted with a hug and pinched cheeks, just like a grandma would do. The cabrales cheese at El Reguirín in Oviñana was creamier than the year before. Our pictures appeared in a local paper at a goat roasting festival.

And when the Novio cooks fabada with the smoked embutidos and bulging fava beans we bought last summer in Grado, it’s a big, fat hug.

Visit the pre-Romanesque churches of Oviedo

san miguel de lillo

Urban centers in Asturias are somewhat relative: you can see the capital city of Oviedo in half a day while whiling away the rest at a sidrería or sleeping off a huge potaje. Urban tourism takes a backseat to the gorgeous landscapes and outdoor activities – and by a long-shot. But if you don’t miss one thing in Uvieu – local tongue for the city – it’s the pre-Romanesque churches perched above the city.

Coinciding with the start of the Muslim campaign in Iberia in 711, the following two centuries saw a burst of box-like structures that later became places of worship. The Principality is dotted with them, but none more accessible or charming as those of San Miguel de Lillo and Santa María del Naranco.

When my friend Claudia moved from Sevilla to Oviedo, I took advantage of starting the Camino in Avilés, just a stone’s throw away, to spend a day with her. We took an early hike up to the Naranco hill that faces the city to the churches, wonderfully preserved and worthy of a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing. Reflecting on our years as extranjeras in Spain and passing a milanesa between us, it seemed incredible that Spain eclipsed our two countries in age and enlightenment.

Visit the convent at Covadonga and the Picos de Europa

Roadtrip Through Asturias

Having married someone with Asturian blood, I was to pay tribute to one of the most important places in Asturian history: the monument at Covadonga. Tucked into the Picos de Europe above Cangas de Onís, a church and hermitage are one of the region’s most visited sites.

In 722, when Muslim armies were overtaking Spain, the Christian Iberians took refuge in the Picos under Pelayo, destined to become the first king of Asturias. The salmon-colored basilica spires poke out between the foggy mornings that seem to linger in the mountains, slow to burn off and reveal the area at face value. Clinging to the mountain face is a small hermitage, where the Virgen de Covadonga reputedly killed would-be conquerers by provoking avalanches – she is so beloved in Asturias that many young girls are baptized in her name.

The lakes can be hiked, so long as your timing is right between tours, seasons and frequent road closures.

Descenso de la Sella

fishing villages in Asturias

Although I myself haven’t done it, smelling and seeing the Novio and a friend tumble off a bus in Valladolid clued me in to this festival, held in August annually. August truly is festival season in the Principality, and the Descenso de la Sella is as Spanish a mix as egg and potato – sport and fiesta seem to come together as well as a tortilla de patata. There is a competition where kayakers race 15 kilometers downstream from Arriondas to Ribadasella, a charming village that shares a coastline with the Sella river and the Atlantic.

Revelers camp along the way, between the two villages, loading up on cider and whatever food they can manage. Known as the Fiesta de las Piraguas, there are costumes, concerts and bars set up on the banks of the Sella and at the finish line. This year’s event is set to take place on August 4th.

What to do in Northern Spain

Madrid has lost its sheen to me, a city with a profound history that seems reduced, at times, to chain restaurants and a flood of tourists. While you can’t miss its multitude of museums, if you’re looking for a Spain ajena de tapas and flamenco and, ahem, sun-soaked coasts, put the northern provinces on your list.

Have you ever been to Galicia or Asturias? What would you recommend seeing, doing and eating?

Photo Post: the Manchego town of Cuenca

“Just take a look at this!” Pa tossed a magazine across the room towards me, dog-eared to a photo spread of an eagle soaring over lush pine trees. I’d announced my move to Spain a few weeks before. While my grandmother wept and cursed me for leaving the country to find a foreign husband, my grandfather nudged me and told me I’d have the adventure of my life.

They were both right, but that’s not the point of this story.

The article my grandfather had saved for me was about a nature preserve in Eastern Spain, one of its largest and finest. The Serranía de Cuenca is comprised a small hills and rock reliefs and is home to wild boars, mountain goats and that eagle Pa pointed at (which is likely a vulture).

“Will you go for me one day?” he asked with a wink.

Spain Blue

The Manchega city – famous for its casa colgadas, or hanging houses – has been near the top of my list since I moved to Spain because of that promise to Pa.

He was a man of few words. But when Pa said something, he meant it. And when I made him that promise, I intended to keep it.

So when my grandpa passed away in May 2014, plunging me into that dreaded expat fear – grieving abroad – I felt a renewed need to visit Cuenca. The problem was that it lay more than 500 kilometers away from my home in Seville for nearly a decade. A move to Madrid meant I was a car trip away.

Souvenirs from Cuenca

I literally knew nothing more about Cuenca than it was easy enough to see in a day, its famous site are the 15th Century houses that look ready to topple into the Huécar, and that it’s the victim of a vulgar joke. But in an age where fellow Millennials travel for Instagram-worthy pictures, it could have had a crumbling church and a famous dish, and I would have still visited.

When Inma and I left the city on one of those bright, chill-in-your-bones Sunday mornings, fueled on coffee and gossip. As we had often done in Seville, a sunny patch of sidewalk and a cheap glass of beer sidetracked us as we walked towards the city center, built on a crest above the Huécar and Júcar rivers.

I had Camarón with me, eager to use my eye for something more than baby pictures and to capture a place that seemed to house my grandfather’s spirit. Sleepy, surprising and colorful:

Scenes of Spanish villages

Colorful facades in Cuenca Spain

beautiful house facades yellow Spain

colorful homes Cuenca Spain

Cuenca cathedral

Casas colgadas museum Spain

Great view of Cuenca's Casa Colgadas

Pretty view of the Hanging Houses of Cuenca

Casas Colgadas of Cuenca

Inma and I traversed Cuenca’s hills and narrow streets before lunch time, legs as exhausted as our vocal chords. I can’t say that Cuenca lived up to me expectations, but I wasn’t really looking for it to. A promise is a promise is an easy Sunday trip, and I found my Pa in the strangest places.

In an old man bar, the abuelitos tight lipped, hat pulled down over his brow.

In a quiet corner with a wood carving on the door.

A whistle from a passing car.

Spanish Abuelo

It’s been three and a half years since Pa’s heart decided that enough was enough, and he slipped away from this world. It’s been more than ten since I moved to Spain. But as we drove back west, the sun setting over the hills that mark the way back to Madrid, I feel like I’d done good on my word.

Mirando pa Cuenca, indeed.

CUENCA, SPAIN

Have you ever been to Cuenca? Read my posts about other colorful cities in Europe, like Córdoba and Copenhagen.

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?

Three Incredible Experiences to Have on Tenerife

 I’m writing this article from my new flat in the middle of Madrid. It’s stuffy in here and I’m restless (not to mention pale, and suffering a major case of the summer blues). I scroll through the promotions tab of my email and see there are plenty of places in Europe I could be going. Of course, there’s also the option to venture back down towards the South.
Playa Jardin Puerto Cruz Tenerife

I have earned exactly 1.5 vacation days at my new gig, and it all gets me thinking of my 2014 jaunt to Tenerife, which was a real surprise. I expected to see loads of beaches all packed with sunbathers, but we found beaches that had black sand and were empty but for a few locals casting lines into a mirrored bay. We also found pristine coastlines and fresh, inventive food. It was an island holiday that felt decidedly Spanish.

I’ll admit that my friend– an island convert who lives and breathes salt water and blue skies–had planned most of the trip ahead of my time there. Flying into Tenerife Norte and starting in the capital of Santa Cruz, we ringed our way around the northern half of the bowling pin shaped island in three days.

Climb Teide

Towering over Tenerife is the active volcano Teide, which also marks Spain’s highest point. Like the Giralda in Seville, it’s never quite out of view. From the bowels of the island we drove steadily upwards towards its peak, the cities melting into plush forests and finally, a Martian-like landscape as we entered into the Parque Nacional del Teide, which is only 50 minutes from popular resorts in the South of Tenerife like Costa Adeje.

Teide collage

Stretching over 3,700 meters above sea level, Teide is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its significance not only in the formation of the island, but its flora, fauna, landscapes and its bizarre mythology, which makes it similar to Etna or Vesuvius. The ancient Guanches believed that Teide held up the sky, and from the slender top (if you make it that far with the sulfur smell), you can see across to La Gomera and Gran Canaria. Just remember to dress in layers –  the hike up is hot, but it’s freezing once you reach the peak!

To visit Teide properly, you’ll need to first secure a permit online for free. When you arrive, book a cable car up from the car park (27€), then access the foot trails to the top of the peak.

Eat at a Guachinche

Eating locally produced, tradition-stepped meals for me is usually the highlight of my trips. After we climbed Teide and were sufficiently hungry, we rolled the car down the steep western face of the volcano and into La Orotava and a guachinchie, or family-run vineyard that serves food. It’s a concept as tinerfeño as Teide itself.

This is not the type of restaurant with a large menu, but the more the type of place where you eat whatever they prepare you. The produce comes from the garden out the front, and your table has a faded plastic table cloth. You don’t leave until your stomach is full.

Tenerife Road Trip - Guachinche Eats

Julie asked what was on the menu for the day, as there is not a fixed set of dishes in a guachinche, but she didn’t need to – she just ordered one of each. What we got was a garbazná, long coils of spicy chistorra grilled over an open flame, fresh cheese, a lightly charred steak and eggs with potatoes. Nothing fancy, nothing expensive and nothing from a supermarket. Even the wine we drank was produced on the family’s small vineyard that tumbled down the hill towards the Atlantic.

Explore San Cristobal de la Laguna

Reminiscent of the Canaries’ colonial days, the town of La Laguna also borders one of its modern marvels – Tenerife North Airport. But cradled between Teide’s foothills and the sea, the brightly colored pastel buildings seemed to have broken off from some Caribbean outpost and floated to the western coast of Africa.

Tenerife Road Trip San Cristobal de la Laguna

I can’t say we did much more than stumble along side streets, pick up some fruit in the market on the northern side of town and bathe in the late March sun. There were multiple bottles of Tropical beer split between us, as well as wedge potatoes with spicy, earthy mojo picón sauce.

My next vacation is a month off – and it’s for work, technically – but knowing that the islands or some other destination is just a quick jaunt away has my face turned to the sun before the summer melts away into fall.

Have you ever been to the northern side of Tenerife? What would you recommend doing?

What to Do in Alcalá de Henares: the City of Cervantes

The Spain of my pre-Sevilla had one leading protagonist (perhaps loverboy?) : Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Spain’s most famous author is best known for his chronicle of Spanish knighthood, Don Quijote, Man of La Mancha, and he penned the book while living in Valladolid over 400 years ago.

If you’ve ever studied Spanish, you’ve likely been force-fed the adventures of a wayward knight whose fantasies took over his perceptions of daily life. These days, my fantasies have been about getting out and exploring my new city and its surrondings.

So it seemed only fitting to make our first day trip from Madrid to Alcalá de Henares, the city in which Cervantes was born and to which his name is commonly associated to pay an early homage to his and contributions to the Spanish language and its literature. I’d visited Alcalá on a biting cold April afternoon in 2013; this time, the Novio and I chose a clear day in mid-July to escape the heat in La Capi.

Sunshine and Siestas in Plaza Cervantes

My sense of direction is far sharper than my common sense, so my feet led us right into the historic center and to the Plaza de Cervantes. Ringed with benches and Spanish abuelos (Do I need to tell you that I fell in love with the city immediately?), it sidles up to the university, historic city and Calle Mayor, and is crowned by the former Santa María la Mayor church.

Plaza de Cervantes in Alcalá

Plaza de Cervantes Alcalá

Alcalá is actually a town of 200,000, making it a city by Spain standards. But on a long weekend in the middle of summer, the city itself was about as dead as Cervantes – plazas and bars were empty and shops closed. And without a plan or interest in ducking into a museum, we did little else than stroll from plaza to bar to plaza.

Houses n Alcalá de Henares

Don Quijote in Alcalá

The historic center itself is small and easily walkable, a pleasant cross between the squat, wood-laden buildings conserved from the 16th Century and a modern city with a cutting-edge educational institution.

The Universidad de Alcalá is considered to be one of the oldest universities in the world and became the first planned university city, earning it a UNESCO World Heritage nod. Taking a tour with a guide was the best way to learn about the long and fascinating history of the campus (and it’s under 5€ if you have a carnet joven!) and the role it still has in Spain’s educational system. Oh, and it’s pretty.

University of Alcalá de Henares

Facade of the Complutense in Alcalá

The Novio and I walked arm-in-arm through the winding streets of the city, stumbling upon sun-dappled plazas and retracing the footsteps of Cervantes, Caredenal Cisneros and other prominent Spanish figures. Alcalá was also the city in which the Catholic Kings conceded a meeting to Christopher Columbus and agreed to study his claim that the world was, indeed, not flat.

Calle Mayor Alcalá de Henares

We sidled up to the bar at Bar Índalo, an institution known for its generous free tapas. Most bars give heaping plates of snacks to its student population, but we were más que comidos for less than 12€ and chose tapas rather than having something shoved in front of us. If there’s one thing that Madrid does better than Seville, it’s free bites with your drink (and vermouth. I am an old man when it comes to alcohol).

Tapas at Indalo Alcalá de Henares

Visiting the city following a springtime trip to see the Manchego windmills that Don Quijote thought to be giants, the hallmarks of El Príncipe de los Genios were evident, from statues of the Man of La Mancha to bars hailing Sancho Panza, the voice of reason in Cervantes’s most famous title. It certainly gave me context to the man who wrote the Spanish novel I’ve yet to tackle (I’ve had a 400th Anniversary edition for nearly a dozen years).

Alcalá de Henares

If you go: Alcalá de Henares is a quick cercanías trip from Madrid – it will take you 40 minutes on the C2 or C7 line from Atocha – roundtrip is about 7,20€. Large city festivals include the Día Cervantino on September 9th and Día del Libro on April 23rd, the day marking both Cervantes and Shakespeare’s deaths.

Have you ever been to Alcalá de Henares or another UNESCO World Hertiage site in Spain? My university town is a UNESCO Literary City, and I’m kind of a book nerd, so please share below!

Chasing Don Quixote: a Detour through Castilla-La Mancha

Bueno, Castilla-La Mancha isn’t exactly known for its long, winding highways,” Inmaculada said, dragging her fingertip across the screen of her mobile phone six consecutive times as the car pointed towards Valencia. It had been nearly 100 kilometers since I’d had to even move the steering wheel for anything other than overtaking.

Literally called the scorch or the stain in Spanish, La Mancha may not be famous for its roads, but it is renowned for two things: Don Quixote and Manchego cheese. Resting comfortably on top of Andalucía and cradled between Madrid and Valencia, its size and its small towns have intimidated me. Everything seemed a bit archaic, a bit sleepy and, mostly, a bit unreachable without a car and an extra-long weekend.

windmills and Don Quijote

Stretching out on either side of the highway as I drove Inmaculada and Jaime to Valencia was land. Sand. Barely a glimpse of a small town. Like any other Spanish student, we were made to read Quixote in high school and made a point of paying homage to a fictional knight bound by the ideals of chivalry and true love. But the landscapes I’d read about in Cervantes’s greatest novel were nothing but  flat and brown. A literal scorch of earth, true to the region’s name.

Three days later, I left the coast, shoes and jacket blackened from Las Fallas, and tilted back towards the heart of Castilla-La Mancha. The great hidalgo‘s “giants” were only a few hours away. I took my old, tired car, an allusion to the old, tired steer, Rocinante, with me.

The drive should have been easy enough: the Autovía de Este until it met the Autovía del Sur and a few minutes’ drive west to Consuegra, where eight or ten windmills stand guard on a jagged crest of mountain, crowned by a medieval castle.

“Destiny guides our fortunes more favorably than we could have expected. Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them, so with their stolen booty we can begin to enrich ourselves. This is nobel, righteous warfare, for it is wonderfully useful to God to have such an evil race wiped from the face of the earth.”
“What giants?” Asked Sancho Panza.
“The ones you can see over there,” answered his master, “with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long.”
“Now look, your grace,” said Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.”
“Obviously,” replied Don Quijote, “you don’t know much about adventures.

Per Trevor’s suggestion, I wanted to stop first in Alcázar de San Juan, home to a number of beautifully restored windmills that wouldn’t be run over with tourists. Spit out from the Contreras Reservoir that naturally separates La Mancha from the Comunitat Valenciana, the radio frequency suddenly switched to a CD, and soon the Eagles (could there be a more perfect band for a road trip?) were running through my stereo.

I calculated I had enough gas and my bladder could make it the 200 kilometers to San Juan. It was an easy jaunt on the A-3 until Tomelloso, where I’d hop onto the CM-42.

Maybe it was the Eagles or the long, flat, endless journey down the motorway, but I turned onto the wrong highway at Atalaya del Cañavate. As someone who uses landmarks to mark the way, the names of towns, echoing old battlegrounds and ruined castles, began to seem foreign. Stopping in Alamarcha, my phone confirmed what I’d suspected for several dozen kilometers: I’d gotten myself lost.

But the giants were calling, and I wasn’t too far off the path. Monty-nante roared back to life, I turned up the music and rolled down the windows. We set off, a girl and her horsepower, to slay giants. Or, take some pictures of windmills before lunch. The allusions end there for a bit, lo prometo.

Like our Quixotic hero, I blinked hard to make sure I was seeing what lay ahead. As soon as I’d gotten on the CM-420, the long, straight highways became curls around hills, between cherry and almond groves and without a soul or engine in sight. The brown patches of earth were immediately lush and covered in alfalfa, dewey from the previous day’s rain, and full of low, stout grapevines. I pulled over and turned off my GPS, happy to sit in near silence as Monty’s tires shifted effortlessly around curves. After all, this was as adventurous as my Holy Week travels would be.

“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

I began climbing a hill at what I believed to be halfway to San Juan. Just below the cusp, I saw the stationary arm of a giant – a set of windmills protect the town of Mota del Cuervo. We nudged our way towards them, standing in a solitary row of six or eight.

Windmills in Castilla

molinos at mota del cuervo, la mancha

Windmill landscape

The tourism office was closed and my car was the only one parked in the ample gravel lot. I had the giants to myself, and I practically squealed. Lately I’ve been feeling jaded as I travel in Spain, as if nothing else can ever impress me the way that laying eyes on the Alhambra or the Taj Mahal did; but feeling the wind whip by my ears as I looked across the scorched Manchego plain reminded me that, yes, there is still plenty of Spain to discover.

But I had to press on, to not let perception or kilometers or a low phone battery squash my dream of seeing Consuegra when I was this close. I drove right past San Juan and its beautiful windmills atop an olive tree grove crawling up the hillside. As soon as I’d crossed the A-4 highway some 40 kilometers later, the giants at Consuegra began to come into view, huddled around a castle.

windmills in my rearview mirror

The town itself was dusty and sleepy, as I’d expected. Streets had no names, rendering my GPS useless. Monty chugged slowly up the steep, barely-meter wide streets as old women swept street porches and clung to their door frames. Images of the old hidalgo became commonplace – bars named Chispa and La Panza de Sancho, souvenir shops touting wooden swords and images of windmills and an old warrior atop a barebones steed.

Rounding the final curve, a man waved his arms up and down, pleading me to stop and flagging me into a full parking lot. “It’s International Poetry Day,” he said, “and the molinos are closed to car traffic.” Closing my eyes and throwing the car into reverse, I consulted the day’s plan. After getting lost twice and being pulled over by a Guardia Civil, I had to make a decision: resign myself to hiking 500 meters up to the windmills as the clouds closed in ahead, or drive back down towards Andalucía for a winery tour in Valdepeñas.

I chose to buy a bottle of wine in the DO and call it a day. I had dreams and bucket list items to chase.

The windmills were barely visible, save a few solitary blades reaching over the rock face. After an entire morning searching for them, it was like they had stopped spinning, as if the proverbial wind had been blown out of my sails. And coupled with a bus full of tourists, they just didn’t have the wonder that the molinos and my moment of silence at Mota del Cuervo had.

Even the clouds overhead looked menacing and about to burst.

Panoramica molinos de Consuegra

Windmills at Consuegra

I hiked to the farthest point from the castle, to windmills bearing less common names and without selfie-stick toting tourists resting on the stoops. These windmills were decidedly less picturesque but somehow more authentic.

A View of Don Quixote's Giants

panorama of Don Quixote's windmills

Maybe it was a pipe dream to think I’d have the windmills all to myself for an hour of reflection. Maybe I thought they’d be bigger, like the giants I’d read about in high school. But like all things in the chronicle of the hidalgo, not everything is always as it seems. Feeling a bit dejected and pressed for time, I climbed back into Monty-nante, a true warrior after 1000 kilometers over four days, and took the autovía south.

“Take my advice and live for a long, long time. Because the maddest thing a man can do in this life is to let himself die.”

It’s been over a decade since I’ve studied abroad, and half a lifetime since we read an abridged version of Don Quixote junior year of high school. And it’s been just over four centuries since Miguel de Cervantes penned the closing chapter to a masterpiece that endures time and place.

Molinos de Consuegra

In high school, I remember thinking Don Quixote was a fool, a haggard old man with pájaros en la cabeza who should have listened to his trusted Sancho Panza. Feeling very much like a pícara myself at this moment, I had a car ride to reflect on things and my somewhat failed mission to fulfill a teenage dream.

After a few weeks that could very well change the Spain game, I couldn’t help thinking that the old man had a few things to remind me: about perspective, about the clarity in insanity and that failure is also a means to a happier ending.

EXHIBITION

Have you ever seen the windmills at Consuegra?

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