The rail map of Spain is a pretty thing. Trunk lines radiate out from Madrid. These strands unravel towards the Costas, and the Portuguese and French border, and connect with filigree threads around the perimeter of the nation. Stout fibres running perpendicular to the radial lines hold the whole delicate structure together. But in the middle of the north coast, there appears a tangle as complicated as, say, the relationships in a Woody Allen film.
The province of Asturias is small, scenic and served by the highest number of narrow-gauge Feve railways: no fewer than five separate lines. Some connect the three main cities, Oviedo, Aviles and Gijón. Others cut through the rugged mountains in the south of the province, for example between Fuso and Collanzo - an excellent candidate for both Great Little Train Journeys of the World, and Amazing Transport Survival Stories.
This network is so disparate that defining a hub is nigh-impossible. But since the city of Oviedo is where the principal east-west narrow-gauge line crosses the main broad-gauge line from Madrid, it has a better claim than most. Furthermore, it is a most rewarding city for the visitor - most demonstrably because of its historic heritage. Go back 11 centuries and the kingdom of Asturias was one of the isolated patches of Spain free of Moorish control.
King Ramiro I created a palatial hunting lodge on the side of a minor mountain overlooking the city. It is still standing - and constitutes one of the great sights of northern Spain, and arguably the oldest Christian palace in the whole of Europe. From a distance, the building - now known as Santa María del Naranco - resembles an imposing and very aged barn. Indeed, a Philistine would describe this ninth-century lodge as an unembellished two-storey hulk. But get close and it looks more like a palace, standing imperiously in the middle of its own meadow, its simple dimensions augmented by stairways, alcoves and a profound sense of history.
A few hundred metres away stands the San Miguel de Lillo, a modest church of sandstone the colour of desert gold - and, as you will understand if you have visited the Cloisters at the top end of Manhattan, a lucky escapee (Rockefeller money transplanted several similar ecclesiastical jewels from Spain and France to New York).
From here, you can look across a handsome city backed by a crumple of verdant hills. It's not Manhattan, but it is magnificent. But don't take my word for it; a notable film actor and director was thoroughly smitten by the city, and described Oviedo as: "A delicious, exotic, beautiful, clean, pleasant, tranquil and pedestrianised city." That's enough adjectives, thanks, Woody. But the man who is honoured with a bronze statue opposite Oviedo's central park has even further to go: "It is as if it didn't belong to this world. Oviedo is like a fairy tale." If only he could see it all clearly; his spectacles are regularly prised from the sculpture.
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