A land of seaside villages, surf cities, spectacular windswept beaches and serious ciderhouses, Ben Holbrook explores the best things to do and places to visit in Spain’s ‘Natural Paradise’.
“In Asturias we really know how to eat,” chuckled Ernesto as he poured me another glass of red wine. We’d only just met but he felt like an old friend. There’s something about the Asturianos, a warmth and familiarity that gives you the sense you’ve known each other for years.
We were huddled around a huge wooden table at a traditional cider house called Sidrería El Cabañón and the vibe was one of celebration, as it so often seems to be in these parts. Every square inch of our table was packed with beautiful tapas dishes: wafer-thin slices of crimson cecina (cured beef), colourful goat cheese salads and huge platters stacked with towers of the region’s famous cheese. It was a feast of biblical proportions.
“Here in Asturias we have the widest variety of cheeses in Europe,” boasted Ernesto. “Around 50 or 60 different types. Not the highest production in Europe, eh, but variety.”
Cider in Asturias is natural and poured from a height so that it ‘breaks’ upon colliding with the glass, giving it a zesty fizz that brings it to life.
We passed the heavy plates around the table, exploring the different flavours, and watched in awe as the skilled escanciadores (expert cider pourers filled up our cider glasses. Cider in Asturias is natural and poured from a height so that it ‘breaks’ upon colliding with the glass, giving it a zesty fizz that brings it to life.
Next to our table, two chefs busied away at an open fireplace, cooking Jurassic-sized t-bone steaks of ox, or ‘chuletons’ as they call them, over dancing flames and embers. We were all stuffed to the brim after the tapas but somehow managed to find space for our steaks, and many, many more ‘culíns’ of cider.
“You know what this means when we ask for un culín?” asked Ernesto. “It means ‘bottom’, or ‘little bottom’, because we just fill the bottom of the glass with cider.”
The idea is to drink your culín de sidra all in one go before it loses its zing. We’re talking alcohol percentages of around 6-8%, so things would get messy quite quickly if you were tipping back full glasses.
Seaside Living in Llanes
“Asturias was always very poor, so the people would paint their houses using the same paint that they used to paint the fishing boats,” Ernesto explained to me as we ambled leisurely through a technicolour street.
“Asturias was always very poor, so the people would paint their houses using the same paint that they used to paint the fishing boats…”
“You will see that many of the little villages and towns in Asturias, especially by the sea, are still very colourful. Even though we can now afford to buy paint, whatever paint we like, we still like to use many different colours.”
Llanes is your archetypal ‘quaint little fishing village’, a popular holiday destination among the Spanish. It’s all narrow streets that rumble with rowdy tapas bars and sidrerias (cider houses), and funky-smelling marinas jampacked with little fishing boats. The town’s coast stretches out for 45 glorious kilometres and harbours some 32 beaches, which are best viewed via a gentle stroll along the grassy Paseo de San Pedro, which offers views over the Cantabrian Sea and the terracotta skyline of the town.
Llanes is […] all narrow streets that rumble with rowdy tapas bars and sidrerias (cider houses), and funky-smelling marinas jampacked with little fishing boats.
I always remember Alejandro, my Asturian girlfriend’s father, explaining that Llanes is a particularly popular tourism destination for people from the neighbouring Basque Country.
“It’s beautiful here and the weather is better, we have the beaches and great food, but years ago it was also safer than staying in the Basque Country because they had problems with ETA, the Basque terrorist group. So a lot of them bought holiday homes here in Llanes,” Alejandro told me. Today there is still a sort of utopian air about it with its beautiful apartments, palm-filled gardens and relaxed pace.
The best way to see it? Just follow the locals’ lead and hop from bar to bar, sipping cider, nibbling tapas and diving into seafood banquets. You won’t have to go far to find a stretch of sand for a food-induced siesta!
Tales & Tribulations of Asturias’ Indianos
“In Asturias during the 19th century, like other areas in the north of Spain, there were not many opportunities to prosper,” Ernesto explained. “Thousands of Asturians emigrated to the ‘New World’, to Mexico, Argentina and Cuba, for example, to escape poverty and make a better life.”
“Thousands of Asturians emigrated to the ‘New World’, to Mexico, Argentina and Cuba, for example, to escape poverty and make a better life.”
Living conditions on the ships travelling from Spain to the Americas were horrific and many emigrants didn’t even survive the journey, which took around two months. Only a few who made it to the New World actually became wealthy, but the few who did strike it lucky became rich beyond their wildest dreams. These fortunate emigrants were known as Indianos and many of them returned to Spain to retire and revel in their wealth, often using their money to build new hospitals, schools and universities in their home towns.
Iñigo Noriega y Lasso was one of the lucky ones, an Asturian who emigrated to Mexico at the age of 14 and made vast amounts of dough with a slew of businesses involved in agriculture, textile production, mining, land development and railroad construction. At the height of his career he was the second largest landowner in Mexico and one of the richest men on the continent.
Only a few who made it to the New World actually became wealthy, but the few who did strike it lucky became rich beyond their wildest dreams. These fortunate emigrants were known as Indianos…
He never returned to Asturias permanently but did build a summer house in his hometown of Colombres to holiday at with his beloved wife Guadalupe Castro. The property was finished in 1906 and named Quinta Guadalupe. Sadly however Guadalupe died in 1904 and never saw it. Today, Quinta Guadalupe houses the Indianos Foundation-Museum of Emigration, sharing many stories like Iñigo Noriega’s with collections of handwritten letters, photographs, posters and more. The perfect place to unravel this fascinating history.
If you’re particularly taken, as I am, by the legacy of Asturias’ Indianos then you might enjoy the experience of staying at an authentic Indian Palace. Many of these colossal properties have been transformed into palatial hotels. I highly recommend Hotel Palacio de la Llorea, which boasts its own golf course and ultra-modern spa facilities.
Rambling Ribadesella, Where Mountains Kiss the Sea
The north of Spain has a reputation for being the wettest region of Spain and you’ll often hear the weather being compared to Britain’s. But let me assure you from personal experience that, though it’s nowhere near as sunny as, say, Barcelona or Valencia, it is far sunnier and drier than the UK. I considered this while surveying the outrageously beautiful beachfront town of Ribadesella. Little trawlers trundled out into an emerald green bay, the sun beaming down on the butterscotch sandbanks and bleaching the cloudless sky.
A range of Asturias’ ever-present, grass-clad mountains pierced the horizon and framed this sleepy little fishing town like a Rembrandt oil painting.
Serious Cider Tasting at Sidra Crespo
The whole of northern Spain is blanketed with apple trees but Asturias is responsible for around 80% of Spain’s cider production. Unlike wine, cider doesn’t necessarily get better with age so fresh cider is the best cider – and it doesn’t get any fresher than drinking it directly from the barrel it was made in.
…fresh cider is the best cider – and it doesn’t get any fresher than drinking it directly from the barrel it was made in.
There are countless sidrerias (cider houses) across Asturias but I highly recommend a paying a visit to Sidra Crespo, where you can learn about the entire production process from cleaning the apples in local spring water to pressing them under the weight of a giant stone. Everything here is done the old fashioned way, without chemicals, preservatives or anything else not deemed to be ‘natural’. More importantly though, you get to drink this cloudy nectar directly from the barrels (quite literally) in unlimited quantities. Like I say, it doesn’t matter what you do in Asturias, it always feels like a celebration.
A Saunter Through Surf City – Gijón
“There was a poll asking Spanish people about their favourite destinations to go for their holidays and Gijón was at the top of the list,” Ernesto explained casually.
“You get the feeling that the people here are very happy: enjoying the beautiful beach, stopping to take a coffee in the sun, meeting friends for tapas in the old town. When I used to lived here I would always walk to work along the seafront and I remember always feeling very happy by the time I arrived at my office.”
“There was a poll asking Spanish people about their favourite destinations to go for their holidays and Gijón was at the top of the list.”
With its vibrant streets and squares, which are all painted with hues of burnt orange, seafoam green and pastel pink, Gijón is undeniably handsome. It’s actually the largest city in Asturias, but it isn’t the capital (that would be Oviedo). The main beach, San Lorenzo, is the most popular beach in Asturias (though not necessarily the most beautiful) and is excellent for surfing.
Then there’s Cimavilla, Gijón’s old fishermen’s quarter. This cobblestoned warren of ancient cider bars and seafood restaurants bustles day and night with swarms of beautiful young things and old timers pouring cider and chomping the city’s famous sardines. Oh, and there are Roman ruins here, and parks galore, making this glorious ‘surf city’ the perfect base from which to explore all the best places in Asturias.
Going Slow in Oviedo
Oviedo is the capital city of Asturias and has a way of constantly reminding you of the fact. Its residents are a particularly well-heeled bunch and there’s a palpable sense that they have things to do and places to be. The buildings, too, are grand and imposing, contrasted with colourful little courtyards and street markets that make for A-grade people watching.
There’s also plenty of points of interest and cultural attractions to explore, most notably the divine San Salvador Cathedral. It was founded by King Fruela I of Asturias in 781 AD and among its many important vestiges is the Sudarium of Oviedo, a bloodstained piece of cloth which some say was wrapped around Jesus’ head after he died.
Naturally, as the capital of one of Spain’s greatest gastronomic regions, Oviedo is the place to eat.
Naturally, as the capital of one of Spain’s greatest gastronomic regions, Oviedo is the place to eat. For traditional Asturian dishes with a slight modern touch, local vibes and some of the friendliest cider pourers in the land, be sure to grab a table at La Finca Sidreria. Their fabada Asturiana – a hearty stew with fava beans, blood sausage, vegetables and hunks of pork seasoned with paprika, saffron and garlic – is one of the best I’ve had.
Cudillero: The Prettiest Town in the Land
It’s a bold thing to say, but I believe the little fishing village of Cudillero is one of the top three most beautiful fishing villages in Spain, if not Europe. Its buildings are stacked like dominoes on the near-vertical slopes and painted in a kaleidoscope of different colours, no doubt harking back to the days when the locals only had leftover paint from the fishing boats to paint their homes with.
Built in a small valley on the sea, the main part of the village is a mish-mash of little bars, tobacco shops, restaurants and gift stores selling little wooden fishing boats and colourful paintings by local artists. But take a few steps into the thick of the village and you’ll find scenes of local life untouched by the hands of time: salty old seadogs with cavernous crinkles in their faces and their trolley-wielding tidy wives, who leave strips of fish out on washing lines to dry in the sun. It really is like travelling back in time.
…you’ll find scenes of local life untouched by the hands of time: salty old seadogs with cavernous crinkles in their faces and their trolley-wielding tidy wives, who leave strips of fish out on washing lines to dry in the sun.
Hike up to the mirador (lookout point) to enjoy elevated views of this tiny tumbling town in all its glory.
Luarca and its Lighthouse
“Now that you know how to pour your own cider, you are half Asturiano, so it’s time to visit my town – Luarca. And I have a surprise!” Ernesto revealed.
Though not quite as fantastical as Cudillero, Luarca has more of an authentic feel, a sort of dishevelled desirability. Many of the old fishermen’s houses have been left to rack and ruin, their once ornate wooden windows now bruised and battered by the Atlantic breeze.
But the port is still very much alive with fishing boats, real fishing boats that take to the seas every day, captained by umpteenth generation seafarers. And high up on a neighbouring cliff is a beautiful lighthouse, a white chapel and eerily beautiful cemetery that overlooks the surrounding cliffs and the village below. Not a bad place to spend the rest of eternity, I thought to myself.
As for the surprise, Ernesto had saved the best ’til last…
The Cascading Cliffs of Cabo de Vidio
“This is one of my favourite places in Asturias. I used to come every morning to walk my dog, but I had to stop coming because she is a bit crazy and was chasing the goats down the side of the cliffs,” laughed Ernesto.
As well as the hearty gastronomy and dance-inducing cider, Asturias is renowned for its extraordinary natural beauty and often referred to as a “Paraiso Natural” (Natural Paradise). And this wild stretch of coastline is a prime example. Battered by the Atlantic Ocean, Cabo de Vidio (aka Cape Vidio) is a heart-joltingly beautiful seascape where cliffs cascade into the sea and crumbling rocks jut above the waves like the broken teeth of shipwrecked pirates.
Asturias really does have it all.
For further reading check out the Editor’s own highlights of Asturias here, or catch up with Ben’s other peregrinations in North Spain. He has already reported on the best places to visit in the Basque Country and popular points of interest in Cantabria… expect his report on the best destinations in Galicia next!