Shhh... Spain likes to keep some things to herself. For how else can you explain why Asturias is overlooked? Tread softly. Pour some cider. And let's talk about the highlights of Asturias...
When thinking about Asturias highlights, I close my eyes and remember this quiet, contemplative part of northern Spain. There's so much more to this region than just a checklist of buildings and list things to see and do.
Asturias oozes culture, tradition, cider and sound from every cobbled corner. And one of the best ways to experience it is to take the luxury Transcantabrico train.
Highlights of Asturias: The Transcantabrico Luxury Train
Everything’s still, save for a breeze so slight it’s invisible until it reaches the window and makes the curtains sigh. I hear railway sounds from another century, a whistle and muted metal clanging, before the landscape of northern Spain picks itself up and learns to glide by.
I’m not used to seeing hedgerows at right angles and beaches with vertical shorelines. This is what comes from looking at the world from the luxury of my bed, a caramel affair drawn straight from the past.
The Transcantabrico train chugs through Asturias, rather pleased with itself. It’s received a makeover, introducing showers with more jet sprays than I know what to do with, plush burgundy corridors and last, but by no means least, a disco carriage complete with a sparkly spinning ball.
It’s the last thing I’d expect on a high class adventure that serves up fine gourmet dining at a sedate 31 mph. Yet that seems to be Asturias: old-fashioned charm, with fresh funk when you least expect it.
THE OSCAR NIEMEYER COMPLEX IN AVILES
Standing beneath the swirls of the Oscar Niemeyer Centre in Avilés, the world seems to fall away. The earth, that only moments ago felt sturdy and reliable, now spins with a heaviness that threatens to topple my balance. Harsh white lines cut an outline against the sky: showing me the disc that teeters above the staircase like an Alice in Wonderland fantasy.
It’s an optical illusion, of course. The building isn’t moving and neither am I. I’m simply standing on the vast forecourt of what’s become known as El Niemeyer in this former industrial town.
The Niemeyer Complex
It’s a complex of buildings, some finished, some not, designed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer and commissioned by the Prince of Asturias. Together, they aimed to regenerate the area by providing a space where the arts could flourish.
But as any local will tell you (and in this world of social media they do), that’s not all Avilés has to offer. Historic buildings flank paved open squares, sawdust mingles with cider in bars, while flags unfurl over balconies and stony coats of arms.
ASTURIAS HIGHLIGHTS: PICOS DE EUROPA
Picos Europa National Park merges sprawling grass fields with raw and ragged rock and mile upon mile of hiking trails.
Away from the cities, cars zip through the rugged Picos de Europa, while hikers stride past in Gore-Tex and influencers update their instagram accounts like there’s no tomorrow.
Yet Enrique Remi Fernandes, a 56 year old shepherd, strives to maintain a dying tradition.
TRADITIONAL CHEESE IN THE PICOS DE EUROPA
“I do it for my son,” he explains, when I talk to him about his work. Between April and June, Enrique lives on these exposed peaks, following a way of life that included 80 families when he was a child, but that has since dwindled down to, well, just one. Him.
He rises at six, milks his sheep and tends to his cheese. He has no days off,” not even on Sundays,” and turns to the radio, rather than anything else, for entertainment.
Yet elsewhere in Asturias, old customs enjoy something of a revival.
ASTURIAS HIGHLIGHTS: BAGPIPES
Carmen, Nacho and Mario treat my ears to a bagpipe display (I know, I thought bagpipes were Scottish, too.) It turns out that bagpipes and Asturias go hand in non-tartan hand. Unlike, say, Morris Dancing in the UK, playing the bagpipes in this part of Spain has captured the hearts - and lungs - of the next generation.
The sound’s reminiscent of its Celtic counterparts, though, at least to my uneducated ears. A hint of music, a serving of rhythm, plus that strange and ethereal impression of a cat being murdered at dawn. It all combines to create an unforgettable cultural experience.
The fresh and frothy cider in this part of Spain definitely makes it onto a list of Asturias highlights. It's not so much the drink itself. It's the showmanship behind the art of pouring it. Asturian cider needs to be poured from a great height - into a small glass below. Read more about Asturian cider over here.
The Tito Bustillo Cave
Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, the Tito Bustillo cave in Asturias is one of a collection of Palaeolithic sites with cave art more than 10 000 years old. Purple horses and rust red earth speak to the world and creativity of our ancestors oh so long ago.
Travel anywhere in this region of northern Spain and you'll spot Celtic crosses hanging from doorways, bridges and street signs. It's one of the quirkier Asturias highlights.
The Camino Primitivo
Running from the city of Oviedo in Asturias to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, this pilgrimage hiking route is one of the toughest ones going. The trail takes two weeks, so it isn't one of those Asturias highlights that you can squeeze into any itinerary. You'll need to plan your whole trip around it. Still, if that sounds good to you then you can check out the Camino Primitivo route here.
Disclosure: I visited Asturias as a guest of the Tourist Board of Asturias. Yet, I’m deliriously happy to say that all opinions are mine ;) That’s the joy of blogging...
What next after Asturias?
Once you've seen the highlights of Asturias, you can travel on to neighbouring Cantabria or visit Galicia for more of northern Spain. Look out for the lovely Llanes, a beautiful fishing village west of Bilbao and enjoy your escape from the crowds.