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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Spain
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Spain
A trip through the cultural riches of Asturias is almost like a journey through the ages of human history. That ‘s because in every comer of this Spanish stronghold you’ll find a small fragment from civilisations past. From Paleolithic etchings to medieval houses, lavish 19th-century residences to postmodern urban constructions, Asturias is a living document of our times.
Paving the way for the future
With a wealth of cutting-edge constructions, Asturias is a hub of modem culture. The round formations that make up the Oscar Niemeyer Centre stand prominently in Aviles, while the futuristic lines of the Oviedo Congress and Exhibiton Centre are a startling contrast to Pre-Romanesque architecture. In Gijon, the LABoral Art and Industrial Creation Centre houses a whole host of modem artists and contemporary craftspeople, with frequent exhibitions and talks from its resident creatives, showcasing Asturias1 commitment to the future talent of Spain.
The dawn of man
One of the most surprisnig sights is the presence of cave paintings, evident in Tito Bustillo and El Pindal. At the former site, drawings are superimposed one over the other, showing that the cave’s various inhabitants between 22,000 and 10,000 BC were keen on redecorating after moving in. The most interesting depiction is one of a whale or dolphin, a rare sight in prehistoric art but most likely spotted off the Asturian coast.
The Way of St James
Otherwise known as the Camino del Salvador, parts of this famous pilgrimage route have earned Unesco World Heritage status. Stretching 75 miles, the roots of this walk originate from the Muslim invasion when many Christian treasures were sent northwards for safekeeping. Travellers were encouraged to visit the Cathedral of Our Saviour in Oviedo before travelling onwards to Santiago, and today adventurers retrace those steps on a four-day walk, taking in the magnificent expanses of countryside and religious relics in between stops.
Just a short journey out of the cities reveals a different side to Asturian life: pretty villages that lead down to sandy shores. These villages are the perfect place for a stroll and a meal – you can guarantee the local seafood will have been caught and cooked that same day. Here are just a few stops that show another side to the dynamic region.
With a reputation as a shows topper in the province, Cudillero’s focal point is its scattering of pastel-painted houses adorning the coastline. Sheer cliffs are a beautiful backdrop to the fine-sand beaches which feel wonderfully secluded. Playa de la Concha de Artedo has turquoise waters and green-topped cliffs, making for an arresting panorama, while Playa del Silencio is equally pretty. In town, El Faro is a traditional restaurant famed for its grilled fish dishes, which are perfect for a light lunch.
The town of Ribadesella is neatly cut in two by the mouth of the Sella River, its two distinct districts joined by a bridge. The Playa de Santa Marina is a very popular beach on the west side of the river, with a broad sweep of golden sand and modem amenities. Across the bridge to the east lies the Old Town. Here, you’ll find Romanesque churches, pretty squares and elaborate 19th- and 20th-century mansions painted in a rainbow hue of pastels. Just a 10-minute stroll from the Old Town lies Riba desella’s most famous draw: the Unescolisted Cueva deTito Bustillo. This cave’s interior is lined with prehistoric depictions of horses, bison and reindeer that date back to 15,000 BC.
This seaside town has a seductive pull because of its proximity to the mountain range Picos de Europa. It’s also home to some of the best beaches in Asturias. At the port, which is important for both deep-sea and in-shore fishing, you will find The Cubes of Memory: reinforced blocks designed as sea defences but turned into a vibrant work of art by Basque artist Agustin Ibarrola. Outstanding 13 th- century architecture such as the Basilica de Santa Mana de Conceyu is monument to the historical importance of this stopping point on the Way of St James pilgrimage, and there are myriad beaches within easy reach, too, such as the popular El Sablon and Puerto Chico.
Oviedo is the capital of the principality and its compact size belies the fact it is bursting at the seams with monuments, museums, restaurants and a cathedral. It holds a special place in the region’s history, as this was the last stronghold against the Moorish occupation of Spain in the eighth century. Founded in 761, the city is renowned for its pre-Romanesque architecture, with examples such as the Cathedral of San Salvador and the Monastery of San Vicente standing testament to the distinctive Asturian style, recognised by its Gothic detailing and golden decorative embellishments. But Oviedo is not a city that rests on its former glory: a quick glance around and you’ll see resplendent mod era edifices such as the Congress Palace. Designed by the architect
Santiago Calatrava, the spectacular geometric structure makes for a remarkable sight. Meanwhile, downtown, you’ll also find a series of modern sculptures by a number of new and illustrious artistic talents. Cosmopolitan comforts are not far away either. In town, enjoy rustic tradition at the Mercado El Fontan, Oviedo’s colourful 19th-century food market packed with meats, fish, fruit and veg. Take a pit stop in Dos de Azucar, a homely cafe near the market calling out with a tempting range of teas, extra-thick hot chocolate and sweet treats. On a special evening, dine out at Gloria. Two-Michelin-starred Asturian chef Nacho Manzano is the resident culinary genius of this elegant food house, which is exquisitely decorated in a monochrome palette.
Tracing its roots back to the days of Roman civilisation, Gijon saw exponential growth as a working port throughout the Industrial Revolution. Now, after an extensive makeover, it has all the charm of a modern seaside city, with pedestrianised streets, parks, seafront walks, cultural attractions and lively eating, drinking and shopping areas. Summer entertainment turns up the heat during the warmer months, while water-based activities such as scuba-diving, sailing, boat trips and dolphin-spot ting means there’s an adventure to be had at every turn.
Catch a glimpse of its classical connections in the old quarter by visiting two Roman settlement sites. In Campo Valdes you’ll find the largest and best-preserved Roman baths in northern Spain, while in Plaza de Jovellanos, the remains of the city wall lie near the commanding clocktower. In the evenings, you can capture the flavour of popular Latin rhythms by visiting the bars of the Fomen to district, while the Caile Marques de San Esteban offers a variety of lively cafes and pubs that stay open into the early hours.
As one of the first commercial ports in Asturias, it’s no surprise that the commercial shipping history of Aviles, dating back to the 12th century, has paved the way to a prosperous future. On a stroll around the harbour you’ll see a range of artistic styles from all over the world, encompassing the typically Romanesque through to Modernist. Highlights include the Ferrera Palace, formerly the Marquis’s residence, which is located on the corner of Plaza de Espana and Caile San Francisco.
The gardens of the house are now a beautiful public park. And in a trading city, it’s fitting that a church dedicated to San Nicolas de Bari, the saint of traders and sailors, stands prominently nearby. Having been restored during the 16th, 17th and 20th centuries, it’s an appropriate tribute to the city’s merchant heritage. Traditional shopping areas a re found in Caile La Camara, Caile Jose Cueto, Avenida Fernandez Balsera and Caile La Fruta, while typical cuisine and nightlife can be found in the Sabugo district. This area has seen a recent revival thanks to its excellent offering of Asturian food and drink.
Cuddling up to the Bay of Biscay in the middle of Spain’s northern coast is a region that locals claim is the last bastion of true Spanish culture. Its mountains tower watchfully over rugged coastlines that are punctuated by colourful fishing ports and hundreds of pristine beaches. In contrast to the parched plains of the south, the green land, mountain streams and ocean views he re are a tonic. Hiking trails wend their way to an altitude of 2,500 metres, passing through rich vegetation and forests inhabited by beguiling wildlife. This is the essence of Asturias: arguably Spain’s most diverse destination, with a characterful landscape that has remained unchanged across the centuries.
Rustic villages and pre-Romanesque architecture sit side-by-side with the contemporary culture that characterises the capital, Oviedo; and the meditative hush of the valleys is occasionally broken by the zealous clamour of local fiestas. Yet this region remains a secret hideaway in comparison to more touristy locations beside the Mediterranean. A trip to Spain’s coastal flipside will convince you there’s much more on offer than just sun and sand.
ONLY WHEN THE LAST lays of afternoon sunshine clear the sandstone facade of Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor does the most magnificent town square in Spain begin to come to life. Old couples shuffle along colonnaded walkways; children play tag and dribble melting ice cream over the paving slabs; students clatter away on their laptops in the cafes. Gazing sternly over the whole scene are the greatest minds and bravest souls in all of Spanish history: explorer Columbus, conquistador Cortes, writer Cervantes -their profiles etched into the stone arches. Inches above their heads, local residents lean on cast-iron balconies and study the square in expectation.
Home to Spain’s oldest and most prestigious university, Salamanca has the double fortune of being quite possibly the nation’s brainiest and most beautiful city. Biscuity-ochre towers rise over the city, sending long shadows creeping down alleyways along which students pedal to their lectures. Ancient faculties line cypress-shaded squares – their stones bearing Latin inscriptions from alumni who graduated centuries ago, some painted in bull’s blood.
Hogging the skyline are twin cathedrals that survived the 1755 earthquake which destroyed Lisbon, and still sport broken windows and cracked walls from the tremors, while south of the city is the wide, sluggish expanse of the Rio Tormes slip ping beneath a Roman bridge on its way to the Portuguese Atlantic. Gaining admission to Salamanca has never been easy, nor has paying the tuition fees. Fortunately some especially bright students hit on a novel solution to this latter problem.
On the stroke of nine, two groups wearing shiny shoes, tight trousers and colourful sashes shuffle into the square, armed with an assortment of accordions, double basses, mandolins, guitars and tankards of beer. Soon the far comers of Plaza Mayor are noisy with the twangs, claps, shouts and whoops of the ‘tunas’, groups of troubadours who have busked to pay their study fees since the 13th century, with each band linked to a particular university faculty. ‘Doctors have always made the best tuna bands’ says Fernando Yunta, an architectural student who nonetheless plays guitar in the company of surgeons and psychologists. ‘Some of the songs we sing are about love or bullfighting. Some of them are about the university. We play for the music, for the fun. And also because it is a good way of getting girls.’
Salamanca’s traditions have endured through the many turbulent chapters of Spanish history. The university’s most famous story concerns the poet Luis de Leon, snatched from a lecture for heresy during the 16th-century Spanish Inquisition, locked away in solitary confinement for four years before returning to the same lecture theatre on his release with the words ‘… as I was saying yesterday’. Another professor exiled from Spain for six years during the political unrest of the 1930s returned to the lecture theatre and made exactly the same joke. ‘You feel history in the atmosphere when you study in Salamanca,’ says Maria Jose Gonzales, a student currently taking a master’s degree in psychology, swinging on a cafe chair as the tuna bands retune their instruments. ‘You feel you’re studying where generations studied before you. And, of course, it helps that the whole town looks a bit like something from Harry Potter.’
FALL THE HEROES OF the Spanish-speaking world -from footballers to bullfighters, painters to kings – one man in particular stands out. His face grins at you on bank notes; his silhouette appears on postcards; his story has been told in ballet, opera, film, a Broadway musical, a Picasso painting and even a Coldplay song. And rather uniquely among national heroes, he is revered for being useless. This man is the great writer Miguelde Cervantes’ 17th-century comic creation Don Quixote, and his homeland is Castile-La Mancha.
It is a landscape in widescreen mode -big skies and arrow-straight roads, a patchwork of scrubby fields extending to the horizon. Every so often crumbling castles appear, indistinct on hazy hill tops. It is a place where temperatures are high, mirages are many, and inhabitants are few. ‘La Mancha has a long history of locals who are considered a little bit crazy’, says Santiago Moraleda – a man who, dressed in a long black cloak in the midday heat and with a large tawny owl pecking at his ear, would seem to affirm his own theory. ‘But we are also people who are known for being very courageous, too.’
Santi isn’t as peculiar as he might first appear, for he is taking part in the annual medieval festival in the market town of Consuegra. For much of the year itis a sleepy place, where old couples perch on windowsills watching farmyard traffic rumble past. Every August, however, its citizens engage in weekend-long binge of mead glugging and pork roasting in the main square, plus some energetic battle re-enacting in a medieval castle, which rises regally over the town. Minibuses full of archers shuttle about the streets, Moorish encampments are pegged beside the football pitch and processions of monks walk solemnly beneath the tourist information office. Though his day job is as a guide for birding trips, Santi has dressed up as a knight for the occasion and has brought his own collection of birds of prey to the party.
Consuegra’s most famous chivalric hero was, of course, Don Quixote -for it was here, some say, that he charged on horseback, lance in hand, at his most fearsome enemy. Santi happens to be standing in the shade beneath this particular foe, which was in fact not a many-armed monster at all, but a win windmill. It is on e of a great many whitewashed towers that still stand sentinel on rocky bluffs overlooking the plains of La Mancha – some preserved as museums, but most abandoned, their sails and cogs jammed solid and their roof spaces home only to nesting birds.
They were spinning long before Cervantes published his novel in the early 1600s, and have forever been an icon of the region. Fighting a windmill, and losing, is a defining moment in European literature and encapsulates the story of Don Quixote: a day dreamer who chose to live in a make-believe world of heroic adventures rather than humdrum real life. To some readers of Don Quixote, the hero is a blundering lunatic – but to others it is he who is sane. and the rest of the world that is crazy.
Santi has decided to name his various eagles, owls and kestrels after characters in the novel. And, just like the Don, he and other the inhabitants of Consuegra have decided for one weekend only to play at being lords, ladies, archers and knights – to briefly inhabit their own world of make-believe. The festival draws to an end; siege ramps are packed away, arrows pulled out of targets and Santi gathers together his feathered friends to head home. ‘The most important ingredient in the story is craziness’ he says. ‘For only with a little craziness can you truly have a life of dreams.’
Like Ronaldo versus Messi, Catalan independence and the specifics of King Juan Carlos’ love life, the question of wherein Spain you’ll find the best food is a discussion that should be initiated with caution (possibly ending in waving fists and looking up rude words in your Spanish dictionary). The logical answer is Madrid, for it is here that you can taste the A-Z of all Spanish cuisine, from Andalucian gazpacho to lamb cooked in a Zaragoza style. And, thanks to the tapas philosophy, it is quite feasible to eat your way across the entire country in one evening.
’When you go for a night out, you don’t drink beer and wine because you’re thirsty,’ says Jose Angel Mozos Garcia, welcoming customers into his seafood restaurant La Mar beside the city’s Opera House. ‘And it is the same with tapas in Madrid – people don’t eat because they are hungry, they eat just because it is fun. You start at your local and you keep going through the night.’ Outside Josh’s restaurant, the evening tap as crawl is slowly? gathering momentum, while inside, the kitchen shuttles off steaming plates of things that only this morning were swimming off Spain’s Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts: rich and creamy? Valencian seafood paella, and prawns from Cadiz now drowned in garlic to make the classic dish gambas al ajillo, beloved of Madrilenos.
‘Food in Spain isn’t about formal dining, white linen and good manners,’ continues Jose, scooping up prawns with a chunk of bread in his handsome, Moorish-tiled dining room. ‘It is food you eat with your hands; food designed for socialising.’ Madridisa capital that is decidedly short on formalities. Unlike London, Paris, Berlin and Rome, it has few iconic landmarks – no famous triumphal arch, no truly colossal cathedral. It is a city whose spirit comes more from its atmosphere than its bricks. And at no time is Madrid more spirited than the depths of night, when tap as expeditions are full swing – at an hour when London and Paris are tucked up in bed, when even Rome has paid its bill and is ready? to go home.
Navigating between eateries, you might cross lamp-lit squares where crowds spill out from the tabernas and lean on the pedestals of statues; or stroll beside the locked gates of p arks like Buen Retiro, the scent of pine wafting over the railings through the air; or potter beside the facades of vast galleries where, inside, the gaunt faces of El Greco portraits watch over empty? rooms that hours ago were busy with crowds. Some tapas places are pit stops, like Casa Labra – the founding spot of the Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), in whose boisterous wood-panelled interiors cod croquetas sell for the democratic price of 1 euro 25 cents to standing customers.
Other restaurants invite you to linger longer; one such is La Bola, home of Cocido Madrileno- a ‘Madrid stew’ of sausage, hamhock, beef, chicken and potatoes, cooked in ceramic pots following an Asturian recipe unchanged since the 1870s (and served in interiors that have likewise barely? altered since). And then there’s the joy? of making your own miraculous Madrid tapas discovery – finding a bar squirrelled away on a backstreet off a backstreet, a place which serves the greatest tortilla espanola tasted by mortals and which, no matter how much Google Map detective work is done, cannot be found the following evening. Or indeed ever again.
As I set out of my hotel onto Segovia’s sunny streets, a Roman aqueduct looms ahead of me, making the signposts to it redundant. I walk alongside it, following the arches and touching the cool stones. I was expecting something grander. After all, this structure in central Spain was built by the ancient Romans, and I had imagined that their public works were on the same scale as the Colosseum, and the many temples, baths, and amphitheatres that still stand across Europe.
I turn right towards Segovia’s historic Old Town, and suddenly, I am not disappointed any more. The Old Town and the Aqueduct together are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Standing before me in the Plaza del Azoguejo is the “monumental” stretch of the Aqueduct: 128 stone pillars topped off by two tiers of arches, all built by stacking massive blocks of granite acquired from the nearby Guadarrama Mountains. The entire structure is built without mortar; only the equilibrium of forces holds the huge granite blocks together.
Many Roman aqueducts, designed to bring water from springs and rivers to cities and towns, still survive across the erstwhile Roman Empire. However, the Segovia Aqueduct is one of the few that still stands in all its glory; at its tallest, it measures 92 feet.
Segovia is a tiny town, less than a hundred kilometres from Spain’s capital Madrid. Its charming terracotta and sandstone houses provide a picturesque backdrop to several historical monuments, such as the Alcázar or royal palace, the massive Gothic cathedral, and Romanesque churches of various sizes. But the most stunning of its monuments is the remarkably preserved 17-kilometre-long Aqueduct.
Mariano, my guide for the day, tells me the Aqueduct was in use until the mid-19th century. The old quarter of Segovia which includes an 813-metre section of the Aqueduct was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. “The Aqueduct is a protected monument now, but as a child I remember seeing cars driving in and out of these arches,” Mariano laughs.
The structure was likely built to tap water from the River Frio in the late 1st or early 2nd century A.D., by Roman troops who were sent to conquer the area and eventually settled here.
Local legend has its own version of the Aqueduct’s creation story, linked to Christianity. It talks of how a young Segovian water carrier who was tired of carrying her pitcher through the town’s steep streets, made a deal with the devil. He could take her soul if he could bring water to her home before daybreak. The devil began building the Aqueduct, but as the rooster crowed, he was just one stone short of completing the structure, and so was unable to take her soul. The holes visible on the stones are said to be the devil’s fingerprints.
Leaving the Aqueduct behind, Mariano and I walk northwest for about ten minutes to reach Plaza Mayor, the main square, dominated by the Cathedral of Segovia. This was the last Gothic cathedral to be built in Spain, in the mid-16th century. I’m awestruck by its size, and find it difficult to fit the entire structure in my camera frame. The bell tower soars to nearly 90 metres and there are numerous, intricately carved spires rising up from every conceivable corner.
The relative austerity inside is surprising; I was expecting something more opulent. After a look around the cathedral’s museum, which houses a superb collection of paintings, tapestries and rare manuscripts, Mariano and I walk through the narrow alleys of Segovia to another of its crowning jewels—the Alcázar.
As we near the moat, the castle fortress comes into view, and I’m reminded of the Walt Disney logo. It turns out that the castle is said to be one of the inspirations for Cinderella’s castle at Walt Disney World, Florida. The fairytale palace stands on a rocky crag at the confluence of two rivers. It was built between the 12th and 13th centuries as a royal residence for Castilian kings. Its towers, turrets and sharp slate spires were built over different periods of time, giving the castle a part Romanesque, part Moorish feel. The fortress houses an artillery museum and opulently decorated rooms.
The Gallery Room with its ornate ceiling, shaped like an upside down ship’s hull catches my eye. So does the Monarchs’ Room, with its golden frieze depicting Spain’s kings and queens. I climb one of the towers and survey the Spanish countryside, feeling very much like Isabella I of Castile, who lived in the castle, and was one of the most influential queens in Spanish history.
Later, I return to the Plaza del Azoguejo for a cup of coffee. The late afternoon sun casts a warm glow over the Aqueduct. I marvel at the skill of Roman engineers who knew exactly how to pile stones without mortar to build a magnificent structure that has withstood the ravages of time.
Segovia is 96 km/1.5 hr northwest of Madrid and a 30-minute ride away by the high-speed AVE train network (tickets from €12.90, lower promo prices offered occasionally; www.renfe. com; every 20-45 minutes). Hotel San Antonio El Real is conveniently located near the aqueduct. The heritage building has large bedrooms with traditional Moorish elements; doubles from €90. Hotel Don Felipe offers rooms with a view, looking over the Alcázar.
Segovia’s most famous dish is the cochinillo asado, or roast suckling pig cooked slowly in huge wood-fired ovens, leaving it crispy on the outside and perfectly tender and flavourful on the inside. Order to share, as most restaurants serve a massive portion. Another Segovian speciality is judiones de la Granja, a thick creamy stew made with enormous local white beans. This warming stew usually has a bit of chorizo and bacon added to it. For a sweet end to your meal, try a slice of ponche Segoviano, an airy sponge cake layered with cream and wrapped in marzipan.
The world’s biggest football rivalry stems from an oft-ignored political backstory: Real represented General Franco – the right-wing dictator who ruled Spain with an iron fist from 1936-1975 – while Barça represented the Democrats.
Catalunya, particularly the city of Barcelona, was repressed under Franco’s regime. To the city’s people, these matches were, and to a degree still are, a way to stick it to the man. Now imagine watching this epic face-off at the two-tiered Santiago Bernabéu stadium, packed with over 85,000 people, singing, screaming and crying – to a point where players can’t hear their teammates mere yards away. That is what the El Clásico is about: It’s not just a football match; it’s a (civil) war, minus the bloodshed.
Smack in the middle of one of Madrid’s traffic arteries rises the stadium’s greying façade, overdue a facelift and in the process of getting one by 2020.
But you’ll want to visit the Bernabéu before its architectural botox. There’s a Spartan ruggedness to it, which is fitting given that it’s hosted the best players from every generation who’ve donned that famed Madrid armor.
The April 23 fixture could very well be the title decider of the La Liga season. What’s more, you don’t need to worry about exorbitantly priced tickets either: With the financial crisis in Spain, you might be able to score them for as little as €80.