When thinking about Asturias points of interest there’s so much more than a checklist of buildings and things to see and do. This quiet part of northern Spain 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.
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 this year, 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.
Take Avilés, for example. Right now, the striking Oscar Niemeyer complex grabs the headlines.
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.
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.
Away from the cities, cars zip through the rugged Picos de Europa, while hikers stride past in Gore-Tex and bloggers update their Facebook accounts like there’s no tomorrow.
Yet Enrique Remi Fernandes, a 56 year old shepherd, strives to maintain a dying tradition.
“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.
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.
Back on the train, the Celtic crosses, cliffs and coastline drift by. I’m here for such a short time, that I cannot pretend to get beneath the skin of life in Asturias.
Yet already, I’ve fallen in love with its past and am intrigued to learn more about its future.
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…
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