Spain’s Best-Kept Secret

Bruce Schoenfeld

Asturias, with its gorgeous sea-to-sky landscapes and world-class cuisine, is like a country all its own

This is a meal I could eat nowhere else, it occurs to me around the seventh course. I’m in the mountains of Asturias, and I’ve been served a dish of sea urchin and ham that unites the coast and peaks of this northern Spanish province in one bite. Two tables away, I see José Antelo raise his fork in triumph. Antelo is an air traffic controller in Barcelona. His brother, Luis, is a judge in Madrid. They live in two of Europe’s top restaurant cities; they can enjoy memorable meals night after night. But three or four times a year, they meet to eat in Asturias.

"Nowhere else in Spain can you find so many flavours, such incredible variety, in such a small area"

Asturias? This autonomous region of Spain lying along the Bay of Biscay, dense with trees that run up hillsides, dotted by wild marshland, and scalloped with tidy beaches, is hundreds of kilometres from both those cities. “Nowhere else in Spain can you find so many flavours, such incredible variety, in such a small area,” says José. “It is like an entire country.”

A rich bean stew Fabada Asturiana, a rich bean stew, at Casa Marcial restaurant in La Salgar 

We’re dining at Casa Marcial. Housed in an old mansion, or casona, decorated with window boxes and topped by a barrel-tiled roof, the restaurant sits at the top of a winding road in La Salgar, a mountain village that smells of pine. The coast is six miles to the north, but La Salgar remains so deeply embedded in the hilly, heavily forested interior of the region that, I’m told, many of its residents spend their entire childhoods without ever seeing the water. The Manzano family opened Casa Marcial in the middle of the last century as a general store, selling olive oil, cider, cattle feed, even clothing. In 1993, 22-year-old Nacho Manzano, the son of the owners, returned from the coast to start a restaurant. Gastronomes such as the Antelos love Casa Marcial, which has been awarded two Michelin stars. So do locals, who don’t dress up to eat there.

When I head back over the mountain to my hotel in seaside Gijón, it’s almost dawn. Walking in the November drizzle by the seawall, I pass a rowboat filled with fishermen. When I look around me, and remember the village I just left, José’s description hits home. Asturias is like an entire country.

Returning to the region for the first time in years, I’d driven north from Madrid a few days before. After hours on a flat brown mesa, at the northern edge of the province of León I entered the Negrón tunnel—and emerged somewhere else, in a land all its own. The highway curved through a valley rimmed with tall pines, past bulbous rock formations atop vertiginous slopes. I saw homes with picture windows cantilevered over stone-paved streets and ancient granaries perched on stilts. There had been no official demarcation when I passed from León to Asturias. But I hadn’t needed one.

Playa de San Lorenzo beach in GijonSurfing lessons at Playa de San Lorenzo beach in Gijon, one of the most popular beaches in Asturias.

I was heading for the Asturian capital of Oviedo, a compact city of roughly 220,000 residents separated from the slightly larger Gijón by rapidly encroaching suburbs. Each city has a proprietary social scene; you can be a VIP in one and all but unknown in the other. Oviedo has the better museums; Gijón has the beach. Twice a year, the Sporting Gijón and Real Oviedo soccer teams bring the rivalry to life before a full stadium.

Most visitors come upon Oviedo first. They seek out some of the best pre-Romanesque architecture in the world, 14 preserved buildings, including the tall ninth-century palace-church complex of Santa María del Naranco. I go there first, and enter a vaulted room made of stones the colour of milk-clouded coffee. Only one other person is here. The windows are cut thick into the walls, their shutters flung open. I peer over a grove of trees and see the city spread out below.

Within the hour I’m making my way through Oviedo and find sculptures on almost every corner; more than a hundred adorn the city. Before I reach my hotel, I pass “La Maternidad,” a rounded woman with an equally rounded child by Colombian sculptor Fernando Botero, then Miguel Ortiz Berrocal’s “El Diestro,” a metallic rendering of a bullfighter’s torso.

Oviedo’s artistic awakening has happened only over the last generation, just as Nacho Manzano started drawing international attention to his small restaurant in the mountains. “Before then, we didn’t think Asturias had much to offer the world,” explains Esther Manzano, Nacho’s sister, who has her own restaurant, La Salgar, in the centre of Gijón. “We didn’t believe in ourselves. We didn’t have fantastic weather. We were a long drive from anywhere, there were no flights. We assumed nobody would want to come.”

Cathedral of OviedoThe Cathedral of Oviedo in the Alfonso II square.

Then two things happened: Europe’s new bargain airlines began flying here in the late 1990s; and Woody Allen’s 2008 film Vicky Cristina Barcelona sent its characters to Oviedo for a weekend. “Woody Allen told the world we exist,” Esther says. “He opened the world’s eyes, but he also opened our eyes.” A statue of the controversial writer-director stands off Calle Uria.

Tourism has helped raise the standard of living in Asturias, but it hasn’t changed its nature. Spain entertained more than 80 million visitors last year, enough to overrun many of its best-known places: Barcelona has transformed from the raucous port town it used to be. Madrid seems like an international shopping mall. Asturias, however, remains regional, strong- flavoured, authentic.

"Asturias, remains regional, strong - flavoured, authentic."

While Oviedo, like many inland cities, tends to be insular, overtly polite, and socially inaccessible, Gijón is a port town: working-class and occasionally profane, open to the sea and new ideas. Oviedo has an opera house and a full program to fill it; Gijón prefers its series of avant-garde festivals. When I visited, the Jazz Xixón festival was underway, and I bought a ticket to see the experimental band Portico Quartet. It was easy to spot the blazing neon sign for the venue, Teatro Jovellanos, mounted above a pedestrian mall. Inaugurated in 1899, the theatre was renovated shortly after the fall of ruler Francisco Franco in 1975 and bought by Gijón in 1995. It has served as a cultural centrepiece since.

The Church of Santa Maria del Naranco in OviedoThe Church of Santa Maria del Naranco, a pre-Romanesque church built into a mountain near Oviedo.

I spoke with Tonio Criado, the festival’s director, in the lobby underneath an enormous crystal chandelier. Criado grew up in a small inland town near Cangas de Onís before moving to Gijón. Now he wouldn’t live anywhere else. “It’s the youngest city in the region, and the freshest,” he told me. “You find that in our music, our cuisine, our way of life.” When I asked him whether he feels Spanish or Asturian, he didn’t hesitate. “Oh, Asturian. But really, I am from Gijón. What we are doing here couldn’t happen in Oviedo.”

The following morning, I visit Gijón’s Museum of the Asturian People, a re-creation of a traditional village. The grounds include a 17th-century peasant house, a covered alley where the bowling game cuatreada is played, a bagpipe museum (bagpipes are a common instrument in Asturias and Galicia), and several of the granaries—called hórreos—that are ubiquitous in the area. There is a food exhibit, and I’m astonished to see how rudimentary the kitchens were, even in urban areas, into the 1950s and 1960s.

Many of the dishes made in those kitchens are now served at Esther Manzano’s restaurant, La Salgar. If Casa Marcial is where the Manzano family adds an Asturian element to high gastronomy, La Salgar rewards Asturians with deliciously familiar food amid Gijón’s clamour. The idea was to have local diners taste quintessential versions of dishes they’ve been eating all their lives, such as arroz con pitu, the chicken, rice, and red pepper that every Asturian remembers from childhood. “Dishes of the home,” Esther declares, “served in a restaurant.”

Like San Francisco and Scotland, bad weather suits Asturias. I leave Gijón and head east along the coast under a steady drizzle. In August, Ribadesella attracts Spaniards desperate for a respite from oppressive heat. On a misty cool November morning, it’s a particularly lovely fishing village. Kids splash through puddles in the streets. Adults walk dogs. Shop owners stand in the doorways greeting friends.

"Like San Francisco and Scotland, bad weather suits Asturias"

Not far away is Tito Bustillo Cave, site of one of the more remarkable discoveries of the last century. In 1968 a group of amateur spelunkers discovered a magnificent series of cave drawings, dating back more than 10,000 years, on the walls. Another mysterious drawing was made some 30,000 years ago, according to carbon dating. Although the site has been validated by experts, its existence continues to raise questions. Why were drawings made in precisely the same place some 20,000 years apart?

I ponder that over lunch 15 minutes to the north, on a spit of beach. Güeyu Mar restaurant is a glorified shack where owner-chef Abel Alvarez has been grilling fish since 2007. His menu is whatever the boats have brought in that day, supplemented by seafood in tins that Alvarez has preserved. There’s no meat, rice, or potatoes; just seafood, local vegetables, and excellent bread rolls. I eat razor clams and sardines, grilled cockles and kingfish. I drink Asturian wine (which barely existed a decade ago), a blend of three local red grape varieties. Crisp and salty, it tastes like the sea.

Cangas de Onis bridgeCangas de Onis, the much-photographed Roman bridge.

Rain is falling again; when I step outside, I see a vivid rainbow arcing from the hilltop trees down to the water. Then I pivot inland. I stop in the hill town of Cangas de Onís, where a much-photographed Roman bridge spans an unhurried stream. From there the next morning, it’s a short trip to Covadonga, one of Spain’s most historic spots. You could argue that modern Spain began when the Moors were halted here by the Visigoth nobleman Pelagius, the founder of the Kingdom of Asturias, in 718. Spaniards needed nearly 800 more years before they expelled the Moors, but the Battle of Covadonga marked the start of the reversal.

The setting is breath-taking, with a serpentine road leading up a canyon, past a waterfall and then a small shrine. At the top, shimmering above the mist, rises the majestic, pink-stone Basilica of Santa María la Real de Covadonga. I’ve visited before, but hadn’t seen the lakes above Covadonga in the Picos de Europa (Peaks of Europe) National Park. Now up another winding road I drive, bound for those lakes. Trees fall away, and the view opens to a sky of cottony clouds.

Then I hear bells. They start softly, but soon their jangle has drowned out the car radio. I round a bend and see several hundred sheep painstakingly crossing the road in front of a line of stopped cars. I park and walk into the nearby brush, inhaling air so fresh that it sends a jolt of sharpness into my chest. The spiky mountain peaks surround me from a distance; all I hear is the din of the sheep bells, like church bells ringing. A driver honks in frustration, but that only makes the sheep stop in their tracks. With great deliberation, they look around, then resume their shuffle.

Eventually the stragglers get across. By now, traffic probably snakes halfway down the mountain. The cars are starting to move, but I can’t walk back just yet. The bells clank and the air crackles and the peaks look like cathedral spires. Around me is a sea of sheep. I’ve never been anywhere like this. I don’t want to leave.

Note: the writer visited Asturias before the COVID-19 pandemic.

From National Geographic (December 2019/January 2020), Copyright © 2019 by Bruce Schoenfeld.

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