Where - and why?
Asturias is a region in the middle of Spain’s north coast, cosying up to the Bay of Biscay. It manages to cram a great deal into very little space, whether you are seeking surf, turf or city life. There are few other places where you could walk at an altitude of 2,000m in pristine wilderness – home to bears, wolves and eagles – in the morning; relax on an uncrowded beach in the afternoon; and eat in a bustling city in the evening. Equally surprising is how accessible Asturias is from the UK, whether you sail, rail or fly.
Who has been this way before?
Asturian history is an unbalanced mix of lead role and anonymous fringe player. Rome’s imperious advance across Iberia came unstuck when they reached Spain’s northerly mountains. Eight Roman legions (over 70,000 men) and Emperor Augustus himself were needed to subdue the Asturian and Cantabrian tribes. The magnificent Roman bridge at Cangas de Onís and the Roman baths in Gijón (00 34 98 518 5151; 10am-1pm and 5-8pm daily except Mondays; ¤2.40, free on Sundays) are proof of their stay.
Asturias’s moment of defining glory came in the early 8th century, when the region became the last refuge of Christian Spain in the face of Moorish conquest; in 722, an Asturian noble, Pelayo, defeated a Moorish force at Covadonga. The victory was heralded as the moment when Islamic Conquest became Christian Reconquest. Today, Covadonga is popular among Spaniards as a pilgrimage destination: a basilica (open daily 9.30am-6pm; free), a shrine and a statue immortalise King Pelayo.
Asturias’s importance as a bastion of Christianity (the Reconquest was to take nearly eight more centuries to complete) saw an explosion of pre-Romanesque religious architecture. Perhaps most emblematic of this simple, handsome style is the ninth-century church of Santa María del Naranco (10am-1pm daily, 3.30-5pm except Sunday and Monday; ¤3). The former palace of King Ramiro I is built on a fold in the green fields just outside Oviedo, and is an easy, worthwhile excursion from the city; you can walk it in about an hour.
A longer walk?
Good idea. Asturias offers superlative hiking for all levels. Around a third of the region is protected natural space; Unesco has recognised four biosphere reserves. Head for the Cordillera Cantabrica, the curtain of rock drawn across northern Spain from the Basque Country to Galicia. The calendar girl of the range is the Picos de Europa National Park, with several summits above 2,000m. At 2,648m, the highest, Torre de Cerredo, is twice as high as anything in the UK. The mountains have been mauled and carved by rain, leaving bald towers of rock and dramatic cleavages. The greatest of these canyons is the 16km Garganta del Cares, the Cares gorge, well over a mile deep at points. A walk along it, on a path cut into the rock, makes for a memorable jaunt.
One of the great pleasures of walking in Asturias is staying in the red-roofed mountain villages; as almost every hamlet in the Picos now offers accommodation, you can walk from village to village. Casas rurales or aldeas are often-charming traditional lodgings offering a self-catering option (casasdealdea.com and casas.co.uk are good places to look). Alternatively, there are plenty of small, family-run hotels. The higher mountains have a number of refuges, or you can camp.
Can someone else organise it for me?
Yes. Pura Aventura (0845 225 5058; pura-aventura.com) offers fully guided walking holidays. It has a departure on 6 June for £1,379; the one-week trip includes double room, full-time guide, all meals, transfers and transport but not flights. Exodus (020-8675 5550; exodus.co.uk) also does walking trips, and in addition offers a one-week mountain-bike trip with departures in May for £749 per person, and in June for £779, including flights, accommodation, breakfast and five dinners.
Somewhere more tranquilo?
Somiedo Natural Park, in the south-west of the region, offers breathtaking walking on paths less trodden. If you don’t want to hire a car, you can get there by bus, with two departures a day from Oviedo (change in Grado). The Natural Park is home to the largest population of brown bears in Western Europe, and although sightings are rare, the potential to see one adds a thrill to the walking. You have got a good chance of seeing magnificent eagles and griffon vultures soaring past you on thermals here.
The hub of the park is the cosy, if sleepy, village of Pola de Somiedo, which has a friendly information office that can help to plan your route. Avoid August and public holidays, and you’ve every chance of having many of the tracks to yourself, with only the occasional shepherd or cow as company.
An authentic local experience?
For an insight into Asturian village life, spend a night in the hamlet of Saliencia: you can end a day’s walking here by starting in Valle de Lago, walking up the valley to the lakes, then returning down the parallel northern valley. The charming Juan and Belé*run the no-frills Casa Bernabé (00 34 985763474; email@example.com, details on casasdealdea.com), where a double room with breakfast costs ¤40. Speaking Spanish is not essential, but obviously helpful.
Juan farms cattle (“It’s not worth keeping goats as the wolves get them”) and is likely to have tended to them before you wake in the morning. Salencia is also a good starting point to access an old Roman road with dramatic ridge views and world-beating picnic potential.
If you get the chance to eat in the village of Valle de Lago during your time in Somiedo, do so at the restaurant-bar Carbrona – it’s nothing to look at, but the food is first rate and great value: the fabada Asturiana, the hearty regional stew, is particularly good here, as is the tenera de cabrales (veal with blue cabrales cheese), add a quality bottle of Bilbao rioja, and you’ll still pay less than ¤20. They also make substantial bocadillos for picnics.
Naturetrek (01962 733051; naturetrek.co.uk) is one of the few companies offering trips here; as the name suggests, it runs specialist tours combining walking with education on flora and fauna. Two one-week trips are scheduled for June, based out of Pola de Somiedo, costing £985 including flights, transfers, meals and accommodation based on two sharing.
Family friendly hikes?
The Ruta de Alba in Redes Natural Park, and the Ruta de Los Lagos in Somiedo are both family friendly. La Senda del Oso, accessible by car or bus from Oviedo, is a former railway, now a 21km walk or ride through a landscape of green hills and steep valleys, between the villages of Entrago and Tun; a lengthy, though flat, day’s exercise. Paca and Tola, two bears, rescued as cubs after their mother was illegally shot, are the bonus attractions on the route. They are now looked after by the Asturian Bear Foundation, and enjoy a large enclosure, so feeding time (midday) is the best chance to see them.
Asturias’s three principle cities are Oviedo, Gijó*and Aviles. All are of a manageable size and eminently walkable, though their attractive cores tend to be surrounded by grim industrial suburbs.
Oviedo, perhaps the most handsome, was once capital not just of Asturias but of all Christian Spain. The cathedral, university and fine-arts museum (00 34 985 212057; museobbaa.com) are all worth a detour; the last is open 11am-2.30pm and 5-8pm daily except Sunday afternoons and Mondays, admission free. It boasts paintings by El Greco and Picasso as well as Asturian artists. Calle Gascona, near the cathedral, u
oapparently has more cider houses (sidrerias) than any other street in the world – a good place to sample Asturias’s national tipple, along with regional tapas.
Gijó*is a sort of Newcastle of Spain, with an attractive centre, declining industry and warm-hearted hospitality. Meanwhile, carnival will be celebrated today in Avilés with a ferocity that astounds even this fiesta-loving nation. Fancy dress is almost obligatory for the street-party that takes place the Saturday preceding AshWednesday.
Check into the Parador of El Viejo Molino (00 34 985 370 511; parador.es), a stylish conversion of a 100-year-old mill in one of the most beautiful sites in Gijón; from ¤135, without breakfast. At the opulent Hotel Reconquista (00 34 985241100; hoteldelareconquista.com) in Oviedo, a double room in an 18th-century hospice will set you back ¤235.
Splurge on food at Casa Fermin in Oviedo (00 34 985216452; casafermin.com), or in one of Arriondas’ two Michelin-starred restaurants: Casa Marcial (00 34 985840991; casamarcial.com) and El Corral de Indianu. (00 34 985841072; elcorraldelindianu.com).
When should I go?
You can go to the Asturian mountains at any time of year, but the first snows usually fall in October and can continue through to April, making the higher mountains off-limits for all but the specialists during these months (except for Asturias’s three ski stations). If you plan an independent trip, check weather forecasts, seek local knowledge, pack suitable clothing and ensure you have at least basic navigation skills.
The climate is sunnier and warmer than the UK. If an Atlantic depression does come calling, there are a number of quirky museums in which to pass a few hours: you can go down a mine at the Mining and Industry Museum (00 34 985 663 133; mumi.es), open 10am-2pm and 4-7pm daily except Monday, admission ¤5; learn about Asturias’s cider culture at the Cider Museum in Nava (00 34 985 717422; museodelasidra.com; noon-2pm and 4-7pm Tuesday-Friday, ¤3.50); or, at the architecturally striking Jurassic Museum (00 34 985 868 000; museojurasicoasturias.com; ¤6), you can get can information on several Asturian beaches where you can search for your own dinosaur footprints.
Very clever clogs
It's not every day that you walk past someone wearing a pair of large, raised wooden shoes, but spend any time in rural Asturias and it will happen.
Madreñas, a type of clog, are still very popular here. Hailed as the ideal footwear for the damp climate, they're made to be worn over a snug pair of slippers – you’ll see them left outside the doors of many houses. Contrary to appearance, they are actually remarkably light, and the wood not only keeps the feet dry, but also warm in winter and cool in summer.
Most of the madreñas worn today are machine-made, but there are still a few, very few madreñeros – artisans who craft the shoes by hand. You can find 60-year-old Luis Teson Lozano, for example, in Pendones, a village in the Nálon valley. Ask for him in the bar, and you’ll be directed to his workshop where he’s likely to be deep in sawdust, with a cigarette in his mouth.
Luis made his first pair of madreñas 50 years ago to exchange for food, and hasn’t stopped making them since. He can, like a good tailor, tell you the size of your foot by sight alone, and is only too happy to show you how he sculpts a block of wood (despite, amazingly, lacking a thumb, thanks to a moment of carelessness with an axe when 20), and is delighted if you want to have a go.
His engraving tool of choice? A sharpened umbrella spoke. Luis can knock off a pair of the finest clogs in a couple of days, and sells them for ¤25.
To learn more about madreñas, and the importance of timber in Asturian culture, visit the Museum of Wood and Madreñas in nearby Veneros (00 354 985 60 80 97; open noon-2pm and 5-7pm daily except Monday; ¤1.50).
Vamos a la playa!
The Asturian coastline has more than a passing resemblance to Pembrokeshire. Of the 200 or so beaches, some offer decent surf, others are ideal for swimming, while all along the coast there are attractive seaside towns and villages. As yet, there isn’t development on anything like the scale of Mediterranean shores.
Llanes, a popular fishing-harbour town in Eastern Asturias, makes a good place to relax after excursions in the Picos. For pretty fishing villages, Luarca, Llastres and Cudillero are good bets, with a variety of accommodation.
If you want the scenery, but don't like sitting still, get yourself on to the coastal path between Pendueles and LLanes; with the right tide, you'll see bufones, the natural blowholes that give noisy geyser-like performances.
Inntravel (01653 617945; inntravel.co.uk) has a week’s self-guided walking holiday based on the Picos, which includes coastal walking. There are spaces on 12 April; prices start at £622 based on two sharing, breakfast, dinner and some picnic lunches, but not including flights.
You can discover your own beaches simply by travelling along the coast. Playa de Ballota, an eyebrow of sand with a craggy island near the Cantabrian border, or Playa del Salencia, near Cudillero, are two stand-out beauties. Good for families is Playa de la Griega, near Colunga.
Just over an hour’s drive from Asturias airport is a place that dolefully claims it is unknown to international visitors and forgotten by domestic ones: Redes Natural Park. Superb, varied walking from craggy high mountain to native beach forest is on offer here. The people are friendly and helpful; speaking a little Spanish will pay rich rewards. The park information centre in Caso (00 34 985 60 80 22; redes@taxusmedioambi ente.com) is the largest building in town. The walks around Branagallones offer exhilarating high-mountain routes; your hotel can book you a taxi to get to the trail-head for ¤30. But to combine valley and gorge, low pasture and expansive high vista then the challenging route between the villages of Caleao and La Infiesta takes some beating. The valley of Nalon saw heavy fighting in the Spanish civil war. There are few sadder places than the village of Tarna, located near the pass into Leon and the plains of the Meseta; it was razed to the ground in the fighting. It’s been rebuilt, but a definite chill hangs over it. Redes does not readily lend itself to inn-to-inn walking – you will need either a local taxi or your own vehicle. Caso makes a good base. Hotel La Lastra (00 34 985608084; hotellalastra.com) in an 18th-century villa, commands wonderful views down the valley. It has doubles for ¤45 including breakfast. Hotel Reciegos (00 34 985927109; complejoreciegos.com) is run by Marigel Álvarez, who makes ancient Casin cheese in her adjoining micro-dairy. There are only eight rooms, starting at ¤71 with breakfast.
Asturias: travel essentials
EasyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) has daily flights from Stansted into Asturias airport, near Aviles; while Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies London to Santander, two hours by car, bus or train from the Picos.
Brittany Ferries (0871 244 0439; brittany-ferries.co.uk) is adding to its Plymouth-Santander route with another sailing from Portsmouth starting in March, journey time is about 24 hours, and fares start from £186 return for two and a car, but do not include accommodation.
You can get to most places by bus or train, as long as you're not in a great hurry. Alsa is the principle bus company – check timetables and routes at alsa.es.
Another option is the Feve narrow-gauge railway, which offers excellent value if not velocity as it winds its way across northern Spain. It connects all the main urban centres, as well as an eclectic mix of smaller stops. You can plan your route at feve.es, or pay Explore (0845 013 1539; explore.co.uk) £1,245 and take its 12-day trip through Asturias to Galicia on the Feve, accommodation and breakfasts included, but not flights.
Watch Ben Ross and Simon Calder travel through Asturias as part of their video rail journey through northern Spain: visit tiny.cc/hNOH3.
Infoasturias.com is an official website, but the Hotel Posada del Valle (00 34 985 841157) has the best English-language guide to the area (asturiaspicosdeeuropa. com/english).
The Spanish tourist office: 08459 400180; spain.info/uk/ ToursSpain