Mike Baker visits Asturias in northern Spain
"Northern Spain," said the teacher at my Spanish evening-class, "is for the Spanish, not for foreigners." That was it: if the Spanish want to keep it a secret, it must be worth visiting, I thought.

So we set out for Asturias. The holiday cottage brochure had been severe. It warned that not many people would speak English, that there would be few, if any, swimming-pools, elaborate shops or sophisticated facilities, and that credit cards would not generally be accepted.

On the other hand, we could expect quite high prices since the area is popular with the Spanish middle classes, and little holiday accommodation. We were also warned that many houses had no cookers but only solid-fuel ranges which, apparently, some clients had deemed "unusable".

Anything is better than camping, so we chose a "compact" house in a small village near the fishing port of Llanes. It had no garden or balcony, but it did have a modern cooker. Perhaps that was why it cost pounds 600 a week.

The first day started bright, but by midday it was raining. It rained all afternoon and all the next day and most of the one after. We tried to fill the time with a visit to nearby caves. But when we got there, they had already swallowed their daily allocation of visitors.

Instead, we shopped in a small supermarket (what else was there to do?). Here we were informed by the other shelter-seekers that it had rained for each of the past 10 days. I made a mental note to pay more attention to my Spanish teacher.

However, on the fourth day it stopped raining. As the snow-topped peaks and ridges of the Picos de Europa finally shrugged off their shawls of cloud, we rushed to the beach. There were dozens to choose from. The nearest turned out to be a sandy expanse embraced by two arms of rock welcoming meringue-peaked waves, perfect for body-boarding. And half way down the track to the beach was a shanty-built restaurant with outdoor tables, cold beers and the best tuna steaks I have tasted.

As the sun dried the streets in our village, the flags went up. Like all Asturian villages it was preparing for the annual fiesta or romeria. In folk costume, the people danced, drank and ate for two solid days to celebrate the harvest and nuestra senora (Our Lady).

A bagpipe band (well, this is the Celtic fringe) led the dancers through the village, while rockets were fired from each street corner and emitted head-splitting explosions. Then the entire population processed to the tiny chapel on the edge of the village.

Once they returned, the cider began to flow. Yes, Spain produces cider. But that is a well-kept secret, too, since, very sensibly, they drink it all in Asturias so there is none left to export.

However, before drinking the cider you have to "wake it up" from its slumbers in the bottle. To do this, you raise the bottle above your head in your right hand, while your other hand holds the glass somewhere down by your left knee. In expert hands, most of the spurt ends up in the glass; in mine, most of it ended up on the floor. The higher the drop from bottle to glass, the better a cider drinker you are acknowledged to be.

After this, and trips into the mountains where eagles and vultures cruised high above us, we began to appreciate why the Spanish want to keep Asturias for themselves. We stopped wishing we had gone for our usual holidays in Pembrokeshire. (But Asturias is not unlike Pembrokeshire. Both have wonderful beaches, precipitous cliff-top footpaths and plenty of rain.)

It is the microclimate of this narrow coastal strip that makes Asturias different from the rest of Spain. The winds race off the Bay of Biscay and collide almost immediately with the Picos, which rise within a few miles of the coast to 2,600 metres (8,600ft). The result: lots of cloud, heavy rainfall and a most un-Spanish greenness.

The climate also makes it extremely fertile, which explains the most common architectural characteristic: the horreos. These wooden buildings, raised high on mushroom-shaped granite stilts, are built to store grain, corn, vegetables and fruit away from the humidity of the soil.

The fertility means a rich gastronomy. As well as the cider, there are a dozen or more different Asturian cheeses, including a wickedly blue and mouldy one called cabrales. Dried hams and varieties of ichorizol (spicy, blood-red sausage) are regional specialities which you often literally bump into as they hang from shop or restaurant ceilings.

In the mountains there is stewed goat and fabadal, a stew of dried white beans, sausages and pork. The mountain rivers provide trout and salmon and the Cantabrian sea produces shellfish, hake, bass, monkfish and (when the Spaniards are not fighting the French and Cornish fishermen over it) there is bonito or tuna.

Asturias is Pembrokeshire without the cold winds, Brittany without the GB stickers, Cornwall without the trippers, and Spain without the fish- and-chip and concrete-clad costas.

How to get there

British Airways (0345 222111) and Iberia (0171-830 0011) fly daily Heathrow to Bilbao. BA has a midweek fare of pounds 220; Iberia's lowest fare is pounds 200. Prices go down in September. Car ferry services run Plymouth to Santander (Brittany Ferries 01705 827701; car with four people about pounds 488 return) and Portsmouth to Bilbao (P&0 01304 212121; car with four about pounds 600 return).

Where to stay

Secret Spain (01449 736096) specialises in houses and small hotels in Asturias and Galicia. Travellers Way in Unspoilt Spain (01527 836791) also has some houses in Asturias.

Who to ask

Spanish Tourist Office, 57 St James's Street, London SW1A 1LD (0171-499 0901).

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