The allure of Asturias: sights & eats in Spain’s best kept secret
If there was one thing which really struck me as I set foot in Asturias for the first time this summer, it was just how incredibly green it was. This lush strip along Spain’s northern coastline is blessed with everything from rolling meadows to spectacular cliffs… vibrant fishing villages to secluded beaches. And of course, just 15 km inland from the coast, there’s the crowning jewel of the region: the jaw-dropping Picos de Europa National Park – an expansive, emerald green mountain range that stretches across ruggedly from Asturias to neighbouring Cantabria.
Lake Ercina – Covadonga, Picos de Europa
For a region that boasts such unspoiled natural beauty, Asturias still seems largely under the radar outside of Spain. In truth, I myself had never heard of the region until a couple years ago when an Asturian friend convinced me her homeland was not to be missed. With local Spanish families making up the bulk of the region’s visitors, the other half and I were often the only international travelers as far as the eye could see, especially in the rural areas. Despite this, the amiable and helpful locals here always gave us the warmest of welcomes wherever we were. Where my half-broken Spanish failed us, head chefs who had spent time abroad would be pulled from the kitchen to help explain dishes and shopkeepers would draft in their English-speaking friends to help translate.
And what of the food? Traditional Asturian cuisine is a generous, hearty and honest affair. A typical lunch spread would kick off with a huge pot of Fabada Asturiana (a rich stew made from local white beans, pork shoulder, chorizo, morcilla and saffron) followed by a humungous serving of Cachopo (breaded veal-cutlet stuffed with jamon & local cheese). Wash down your meal with plenty of sidra – the local, bone-dry cider which is poured from a height to aerate it prior to drinking. For those who fancy wine, there’s an ample supply of top-notch Albarino, Rioja & Ribera del Duoro from the surrounding regions. Cheese is also a big big deal in the region. They say great cheese comes from happy cows, and the countless cattle grazing happily away over the vast meadows and national parks produce some top-notch cheese. Be sure to try the local Cabrales – a piquant, crumbly blue. There’s also the creamier and subtler Afuega’l Pitu – one of my ultimate favourite cheeses. For contemporary dining options, there’s plenty of culinary creativity going down in the larger towns of Oviedo and Gijon. Whatever you end up feasting on or drinking in Asturias, one thing is for certain: you get incredible value for your money here.
If you are thinking of visiting Asturias, my suggestion would be to plan the trip in 3 phases: (i) Picos de Europa National Park, (ii) The Coastal towns and villages and (iii) the capital, Oviedo. Renting a car is the easiest and most efficient way to get around, but if you prefer to go car-free, local buses from Oviedo are fairly frequent, connecting the capital to the airport, Cangas de Onis (for the Picos de Europa), Gijon and beyond.
Without further ado, here’s a round-up of the very best sights and eats we came across on our Asturian adventure.
Picos de Europa National Park
What to see
No trip to Asturias would be complete without witnessing the magnificent Picos de Europa in its full glory. The park is vast, spanning almost 650 km2! Avid mountaineers could easily spend an entire week exploring the various hiking trails. If you are looking for somewhere to stay near the Picos, I highly recommend the gorgeous La Casona de Abamia guesthouse – the setting is truly breathtaking and you will be welcomed like family by Rosa Maria & Juan who run the place.
For shorter visits and day trips, the most convenient access point to the Picos if you are coming from Oviedo or Gijon is via the town of Cangas de Onis, located just outside the northwestern boundary of the park. From here, the picturesque mountain village of Covadonga and its sacred sanctuary is a short 15 minute bus journey away. For picture-perfect Lake Enol and Lake Ercina add another 30 minutes. The short, circular hiking trail that connects the two lakes is a must – it takes just over an hour and has some ridiculously beautiful views along the way.
A few words of warning: the weather in these parts can get rather temperamental. Mother nature’s watering can is what keeps Asturias so green and vibrant after all! Hence, be sure to keep an eye on the weather forecast and pick a clear, sunny day to visit the Picos – it makes all the difference in the world. Furthermore, given the narrow roads and limited parking spaces at the top, traffic controls often come into play during peak season. If this happens, the only vehicles allowed up the mountain road are the local shuttle buses that run between Cangas de Onis and the lakes. There is however plenty of car parking space between the village of Soto de Cangas and Covadonga where you can leave your car and hop on the bus.
Where to eat
There are dining options aplenty to choose from in Cangas de Onis. However, the best food we encountered was in the neighbouring villages of Soto de Cangas and San Juan de Parres.
Sidreria Los Ramos, Soto de Cangas
For massive portions of simple, hearty Asturian food, head over to this sidreria (cider house) in Soto de Cangas. The €15, 3-course set lunch menu (inclusive of a bottle of wine or cider) was incredibly good value. From the moment they brought out a cauldron-sized pot of Fabada to start, we knew we were in for a proper feast!
Casa Pedro Parres, San Juan de Parres
A visit to this cozy, homely rural village inn located in San Juan de Parres is an absolute must. Their intensely moreish and comforting Fabada Asturiana was the best we tasted on our entire trip. For mains, prepare yourself to take down their monster-sized hunk of succulent Presa de Iberico (Iberian Pork Shoulder), chargrilled simply with sea-salt to absolute perfection.
The Coastal Towns: Gijon, Ribadesella, Llanes
What to see
A road trip along Asturias’ coast is obligatory if you want to truly appreciate the region’s multi-faceted beauty. With a buzzing city beach and charming historical quarter packed full of eateries and sidrerias, the vibrant port town of Gijon has it all. Explore the narrow streets and quaint plazas of old town. Climb up the Cimadevilla headland to admire the Elogio del Horizonte sculpture. Or wander along the seafront and the pedestrianised streets of the town’s modern district. If the weather misbehaves, take shelter in Gijon’s aquarium, featuring species from Asturias and all around the globe.
East of Gijon, there’s the idyllic, sleepy fishing village of Llastres with it’s cliff-side views and spiraling roads. Next, stop by the coastal resort town of Ribadesella where you can admire prehistoric cave paintings at Cave Titu Bustilo and savour the finest in Modern Asturian cuisine at the Michelin-starred Arbidel. Further east of Ribadesella, there’s the thriving port village of Llanes, with plenty of quaint shops, restaurants and nearby beaches.
Where to eat
El Tomate Bistro, Gijon
Located a short walk away from the crowds of Gijon’s old town, El Tomate Bistro serves up an ever-changing chalkboard menu of Asturian-inspired dishes in a casual, contemporary setting. Sardines, deep fried in filo pastry and topped with papaya compote were a real treat as was their rather unusual Arroz con Aguacate (Avocado rice), served with plump, freshly grilled langoustines. Local Afuega’l Pitu cheese, served as a light creamy cuajada (curd) and paired with quince jelly and lime was perfectly balanced and a wonderful end to our meal.
Fine dine on modern Asturian cuisine without breaking the bank at Ribadesella’s Michelin-starred Arbidel. Chef Jaime Uz’s amazing 8-course tasting menu here will set you back a mere €35! Feast on delectable dishes like King Crab Risotto and Hake with Wild Mushrooms, Lemongrass & Sesame emulsion. Easily the best value Michelin-star meal I’ve ever had anywhere on the planet so far. Reserve ahead, it gets very busy!
The Capital: Oviedo
What to see in Oviedo
Asturias’ capital, is a seamless mix of old and new. The narrow lanes and charming squares of its casco antiguo (old town) are a stone’s throw from its modern shopping streets and elegant, landscaped parks. The futuristic, Battlestar Galactica-esque Palacio Congresos sits side by side with residential condominium blocks.
Take a wander through old town and its numerous plazas, stopping by to admire the main cathedral (Catedral de San Salvador de Oviedo), local food market (Mercado El Fontan) and the various bronze sculptures depicting local Oviedo folk. At Calle Gascona, watch as barmen pour the local sidra (cider) from above their heads to give it some fizz and be on standby to down it in a single hit. For sweets, pit-stop at Rialto or Camilo de Blas to sample Oviedo’s famed Muscovitas and Carboyones pastries.
To escape the city, hike or take a bus up to nearby Monte Naranco to visit the world heritage, Santa Maria del Naranco and San Miguel de Lillo Pre-Romanesque churches. There’s also incredible views of Oviedo town from up there.
Where to eat in Oviedo
Enjoy inventive Spanish cuisine at this upmarket eatery located in Oviedo’s modern district, away from the crowds of old town. The ingenious Calamares en su tinta (squid tempura’d in its own ink) is a must. There’s also more traditional dishes on offer like Cachopo stuffed with Iberian ham and fried Cantabrian pixin (anglerfish).
This tapas bar and restaurant, smack in the centre of old town specializes in all things arroz (rice)! Moister than paella with a texture akin to rissoto, the rice dishes here are cooked with everything from baby squid to Iberian pork, lobster to foie gras. For those who don’t fancy rice, there’s also fideua (short noodles) as well as a whole host of classic tapas and larger sized dishes (raciones) on offer. You must try the texturas de tomate y queso fresco cabra here – a simple, but heavenly combination of fresh, confit and sun-dried tomatoes paired with fresh local goat’s cheese.
Chef Edgar de Miguel’s sleek, contemporary establishment just off Gascona street serves up innovative Spanish and Asturian-inspired dishes. Having trained in some of Spain’s best kitchens including San Sebastian’s Akelare and Martin Berasategui, the quality of the food here is top drawer as you would expect. The house-special ‘Patatas Bravas’ are easily the crispiest and tastiest version of the old classic I have ever come across. Best of the lot of tapas we sampled though had to be the ‘Patatas Rellenas de Gochu Asturcelta’ – these crispy potato croquettes were stuffed with the fluffiest mash and topped with prime, melt-in-the-mouth, chestnut-fed Asturian pork.
¡Adios Asturias! We will most certainly be back again someday. A selfish part of me hopes the region will continue to stay under the radar of international tourists. However, I reckon it’s just a matter of time before word of it’s incredible beauty and heritage gets out to the masses. Go before it’s too late!