The evening light was softening the rugged coastline and in the distance the silhouetted mountains dominated the landscape. I was heading west along the coastal road from the Basque Country that takes you through Cantabria onto Asturias. Taking this route you catch regular glimpses of broad, sandy beaches and small seaside communities that cry out to be explored. Whilst ahead you see the drama of Spain’s first National Park, the Picos de Europa. The park’s striking limestone peaks surround tiny hamlets that are almost caught in a time warp. Lichen-clad grain stores and stone cottages huddle in the shelter of the foothills,
whilst along the lanes you can still see locals walking in roughly hand crafted clogs.
The Spanish peninsula with sea on 3 sides, is the most mountainous country in Europe, (after compact Switzerland), so one is usually never far from a “sierra” or a “costa”. The northern provinces of Asturias and Cantabria combine these in a seductive mix, practically untainted by the impact of tourism. On one side is the Bay of Biscay with its big surf and un-crowded bays and then on the other, mountains and country pastures.
We’d flown into the elegant Calatrava-designed airport of Bilbao and had picked up a nippy rent-a-car to drive out of the Basque capital across Cantabria to the Asturian capital, Oviedo. This part of Northern Spain is more accessible than ever, thanks to new national and international air routes and new motorways making it a feasible long weekend destination option for many in Europe.
A car is important if you want to enjoy the best of two worlds; the wide beaches of the coast together with the inland Atlantic forests, deep river gorges and hundreds of mountainous peaks, some that reach over 2000 metres high.
It was getting late but my portable navigation guided me to the Hotel without delay; the charming Libretto, overlooking Parque San Francisco. Thanks to Spain’s late night culture I still had plenty of time to head out into Oviedo’s labyrinthine old town and enjoy some tapas with wine or maybe even the local cider.
The hotel’s superb location means you can walk to all the main sites, including old town where you can enjoy some splendid northern Spanish tapas, cheeses, wines & ciders. If you head to Calle Gascona, you may feel a little like a young university student or gawking tourist, but it’s worth it to choose from the myriad of bars serving local cider. In balmy summer evenings the bars spill out on to the street, or if like me, you arrive in early Spring, take advantage of a cosy inn where you can sit inside and even have you own cider draft at your table, topping your glass up as you go. Don’t wear your best shirt or shoes – cider is being splashed around all the time! In fact in most places, the cider is served by waiters holding the bottle high above the glass splashing alcohol slightly over the rim, supposedly to add oxygen to improve taste and texture and also, based on a tradition of cleaning glasses when they were once shared.
It was late before I decided to head back to my room. At first glance the Libretto Hotel looks a classic property,
yet inside its interiors have a funky, theatrical, operatic flair. My room was small, yet beautifully furnished with a designer furniture including a contemporary chaise longue and the high tech touches like a flat screen tellie and CD player. The bathroom, with is screen printed walls featured a classic roll top tub and rain forest showerhead.
Plenty of towels, fluffy robes and slippers completed the space. The style is glamour, with flamboyant upholstered bed heads, designer furniture and contemporary lighting.Staff are very friendly and helpful and have maps and information to enjoy the area.
Oviedo is a city of fine architecture; modern spaces like Calatrava’s Conference Centre
contrast with ancient sites like the 13th Century Cathedral of San Salvador and the 9th Century Santa María del Naranco on the edge of the City.
Culture has always been part of the city’s life, having inspired artists and writers across and the centuries and now Oviedo is home to a number of theatres and auditoriums with a progressive mix of arts. Oviedo and its neighbouring Gijón and Avilés have combined to create a candidature for City of Culture in Europe 2016.
If the great outdoors in more your style, ask the hotel to make you a picnic lunch and head out to the peaks. Off season is one the best times to go, as the narrow, mountain paths are open to traffic, so you can cheat and drive hundreds of metres up into the sierra without having to get a single blister! There is also a cable car on the southern side of the park, for those that don’t want to put on boots. Yet walking is of course the best way to enjoy this place and the most famous vista is that of the upper glacial lakes of La Ercina and Enol, over a 1000 metres above seas level. Here you can stumble across wildflowers throughout spring and autumn, as well as small rock lizards – enjoy all this to an alpine soundtrack of sheep and cow bells clanging in the distance.
After a day exploring it’s great to return to the city with its numerous opportunities to enjoy traditional cuisine which is dominated by flavourful cheese, fresh seafood of course and robust country style bean stews!
The next day it’s all change – a day on the beach. The wind and crashing waves drove me to take shelter in one of the beach bars – different from the familiar chiringuitos of Spain’s southern coast, these solid, robust family run restaurants are perfect for simple, fresh dishes washed down with a glass of scrumpy or a young wine.
If you have more than a few days here, you may be tempted to tick off a few tourist sites. The most obvious is the incongruously named inland village of “Santillana del Mar” (the Spanish call it the town of the three lies as it name implies it is a holy town, on flat land by the sea – well, “ni es santa, ni llana, ni tiene mar". This medieval town
of some 4,00 residents is a little like going to the Cotswolds, around each corner is yet another shop offering “local” artefacts, and you spend most of your time trying not to be in other people’s photographs, but the place is undeniably charming, especially off season, on a fresh September’s day.
This northern coast delivers a fresh experience of Spain. It may combine the familiar Iberian qualities of sandy beaches and striking mountains, but in a gloriously refreshing and un-clichéd way.
We stayed at the Hotel Libretto –Download Hotel Libretto_Marqués_de_Santa_Cruz_12_33007 Oviedo_ Asturias_T+34958202004_by_Andrew_Forbes
Marqués de Santa Cruz, 12
T: (+34) 958 20 20 04
Vueling Airlines, S.A.
T: (+34) 933 78 78 78