SPAIN: Asturias to Andalusia, Oct 2017

Oct 5th, 2017, 12:42 PM
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SPAIN: Asturias to Andalusia, Oct 2017

After Sicily this spring,( here is Asturias in the autumn!

As this forum has great writing on the south of Spain, won't repeat what's been better said. Instead focusing on the northern/western leg of our trip ... for those of you in planning mode, this report is organized by city, highlighting art&architecture and F&B experiences that were stand-out.

Disclaimer that our road trips are habitually compressed, planned with my husband's German efficiency and driving stamina, so recommend to space this out for a less stop-and-go pace:

Segovia - Oviedo - Asturian Coast - Leon - Salamanca - Cáceres - Mérida

Seville - Cádiz - Gibraltar - Granada - Córdoba

Car rental from AutoClick, Madrid airport was €100 for two weeks for a station wagon. Be careful to get unlimited mileage and full-to-full fuel policy, as most Spanish companies offer cheaper headline rates but charge for exceeding limited mileage contracts and prepayment of the fuel tank at outrageous rates.

OK here goes ..

An hour north of Madrid, lies the splendid remains of a two millennia old aqueduct. To us, it served as the perfect parasol for kicking off official holiday mode with a midday beer in the shadow of its tall arches that show off the staying power of Roman engineering. We walked through Segovia's old town passing by the Alcázar (from Arabic al qasr or palace) and the Cathedral. After inhaling a marzipan lemon cake (ponche segoviano, at patisserie Limón y Mentha off the Plaza Mayor) we walked a couple kilometers further out to the Iglesia de la Vera Cruz, modeled with a circular base after the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. We missed eating the regional specialty, cochinillo (suckling pig) as the restaurants didn't open until 8:30 for dinner, and we had to get back on the road to make the 400km drive to Oviedo to arrive by midnight. The first real taste of northern Spain remained for the next day.

Javier Bardem sweeps his love interests away for "a weekend in Oviedo" in Vicky Christina Barcelona; the town now has a slouching statue of Woody Allen in tribute to his affinity for this 'charming little city.' Oviedo was not as little or as charming (to us) as other Spanish towns, but as the capital of Asturias, the tiny Christian kingdom that held out against the Arab conquest, its draw for us was the dozen or so pre-Romanesque churches within a fifty-mile radius. These are a must for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago and in our book, a must for the Camino de Pre-Romanesque Monuments! There is no other area in Europe with such a density of architectural remnants from the period between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the beginning of a new unified European style.

Over two days we saw six churches in & around Oviedo, all displaying a recognizable Asturian look, yet each unique in its own way: frescos at San Julian de los Prados, the secluded location of Santa Cristina de Lena, and the crown jewel, the elegant and restrained Santa Maria del Naranco. A note that opening times are very limited and in most cases need to be booked ahead to enter. The holy chamber at Oviedo's Cathedral is not only another nice example of pre Romanesque architecture but houses a number of key historical artifacts including the cross of victory and the cross of angels. The holy chamber has been carefully restored and the most interesting decorative elements stem from a romanesque extension that is carried by six double columns in the shape of the apostles. Longer visit hours here, just closed during siesta. We would have loved to pop into the Museo de Bellas Artes de Asturias, with a mix of Spanish masters and Asturians, but it was closed Mondays.

F&B: Asturias is known for its cheeses and cider. We had some great dishes topped with cabrales, a creamy mild blue cheese. Also was fun to watch waiters at the ubiquitous sidreria (cider bars) pouring with outstretched arm from a bottle held high into a cup held low. This creates a froth in the tart and bitter cider, and is supposed to be immediately knocked back as a shot. Lastly, fabada asturiana is a white bean and ham hock soup that I can imagine Hemingway tucking into after 'getting tight' on cider ..!

To reach the coast, we drove through the Picos de Europa range through lushly green curvy backroads that made us wish instead of a station wagon we had a roaster! We overnighted in Pravia at a pretty B&B, Antigua Casino, which served a delightful breakfast.

We had our 'second coffee' at a fishing village called Cudillero, that looked like it had been transplanted from Cornwall, England -- colorful houses tumbling down steep slopes to a narrow inlet in postcard picturesqueness -- and stocked up on Asturian produce at the well designed and well priced La Gijonesa Comestibles. Taking the coastal road east about three kilometers to Playa Aguilar, we enjoyed a fantastic vista over the cliffs of the Asturian coast and a walk on the beach (the water was not too cold, even for October).

Next stop an hour farther east was the port town Avilés, to see the cultural center gifted by the architect Oscar Niemeyer (the architect who designed Brasilia). Its futuristic shapes, including a white-and-yellow dome resembling a sliced boiled egg, were striking but the white facades had not worn well in the sea weather. A sculptural bridge that looks like a dead ringer for Richard Serra (it isn't) connects the Centro Niemeyer to Avilés old town.

F&B: After some hunting around, we came on Casa Alvarin, unassuming on the outside, bustling and packed with locals inside. The menu del dia at €15 had huge portions and included bread, water, wine. Being on the coast we went for seafood: saffron rice & salted cod served steaming in a tin pan, anchovies on tomato-smeared bread, and a charred, garlicky octopus a la plancha for the main, followed by a strongly perfumed arroz con leche. Delicious and could barely move after!

That's it for Asturias - and to close on an evocative note, here's the namesake guitar piece by Issac Albéniz:

On to Castilla y Leon in the next post ...
Mila2017 is offline  
Oct 5th, 2017, 04:21 PM
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I think you're motoring along just fine in a station wagon! I remember your lightning pace from your Sicily report. Nice to have a report from someone who likes to travel at a fast pace.
sundriedtopepo is offline  
Oct 6th, 2017, 06:09 AM
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A hearty thanks for this very timely report! I will be spending 12 days in Asturias, beginning with 4 nights in Oviedo, this month.

I first visited the area decades ago and was struck by the sight of the vista comprising the sea, the green landscape, and the snow-capped mountains. Not so many places in Europe offer that combination (although I will have to do without the snow-capped mountains in October!)

If you think of any other restaurant recommendations, I am all ears. Thanks for going into such detail about the sights. Can't wait to read more!!
ekscrunchy is online now  
Oct 6th, 2017, 11:39 PM
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Thank you Sundried! One of these days we'll go for British racing green at the auto rental

Ekscrunchy, glad it's timely and we too found the landscape shift from the arid central plateau to the sea/green/mountain striking. In terms of food, try the Guia Repsol, the Spanish Via Michelin. Also, worth watching , the latest installment of the 'Trip' films where Steve Coogan & Rob Brydon eat and joke their way around beautiful settings in Europe:

We are in Merida today so I am just catching up on writing the last few days, will continue soon. Thanks for reading!
Mila2017 is offline  
Oct 7th, 2017, 08:17 AM
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"A cathedral made of glass" is the way Leon describes its claim to fame - and indeed, stepping into Leon's Gothic Cathedral with its soaring height and elegant 1800 square meters (!) of stained glass was a breathtaking counterpoint to the dark, constrained church interiors we'd seen so far. Apparently this amount of glass is second only to Chartres in France, and due to structural miscalculations was saved from collapse by a 50-year-long restoration in the 18th century. Of the chapel artworks, I loved the pregnant Madonna - almost counterintuitive to see her with a swollen belly instead of holding a child.

Another highlight was MUSAC, a contemporary art museum that pays homage to Leon's iconic stained-glass through a facade of multicolored panels covering its cluster of rectangular buildings. To us it looked very much like Gerhard Richter's color charts series, one of our all-time favorites. In the old town there's also a Gaudi - Casa Botines, designed as the HQ of a local bank - but we skipped going inside as from photos it seemed somehow less idiosyncratic (and more "commercial cookie cutter" if that was even a concern in the early 20th century) than his work in Barcelona.

F&B: While hungry verging on 'hangry' and looking for lunch, speed-walking through a nondescript street we caught sight of a small red logo: CASA MANDO. No storefront. Inside, a sleek but empty dining space. They said fully booked, just have a last table for two. We sat down and dubiously watched the waitstaff turn away several people after us, while the room remained deserted. But sure enough the suits and the lunching ladies began to trickle in and it was soon totally full. Great day menu at €21. Learned it opened in 1969 and was recently renovated. Highly recommend!

Here lies the Oxford of Spain ... the Universidad de Salamanca is the country's oldest university and one of the oldest in Europe (est. 1218). The elaborate plateresque facade at the entrance, has Ferdinand & Isabella at the center and the famous 'frog of Salamanca' hidden in its intricate carvings - bringing luck to all who spot it without directions from a guidebook! The university is a magnet for language study for the 'purest' Castilian Spanish, to use the Oxford analogy again, like the Queen's English

As we visited after lunch, could not resist taking a short nap at the row-desks in a lecture hall, with its soporific air of centuries of students dosing off in there. Thankfully the CCTV guards didn't seem to mind ... A note to manage expectations: other than the library and staircase the plain and solemn lecture halls betray the exuberant renaissance facade. If pressed for time we would skip the interior.

Conversely, Salamanca's old town does not disappoint with its blond sandstone that shines in the sun and glows rosy during golden hour. Full of tour crowds and milling with students, it's a buzzy place.

We had dinner at El meson de Gonzalo, recommended in the Guia Repsol for the Castilla region's suckling pig that had eluded us earlier. Fat and salt always works! But the thick crispy skin, similar to roast goose in Hong Kong, for me is a bit much. So trying it once was enough and I'll be happy sticking to other iterations of cerdo ibérico from here. For coffee break, try the Niebla, an atmospheric old bodega with seating under trees by the cylindrical St Ursula convent, a quiet respite from the crowds.

The Ciudad Monumental in Cáceres is a step back in time to the 16th century, a hilltop village of medieval stone walls and twisting cobbled lanes. Unlike Salamanca it was nearly empty and felt like walking alone through a Game of Thrones set piece ...

F&B: Lovely lunch at Parador de Cáceres, in the garden courtyard of a restored Renaissance mansion. If this sounds dreamy, try the place next door - Atrio, a two-star Michelin by chef Tono Perez set in a Relais & Chateaux property, with an 11-course tasting menu at €150 ... sadly we had an unused R&C gift certificate sitting at home that would be perfect here had we thought of it. Lesson learned to do due diligence on such chances next time!

Provincial capital of Extremadura, with the largest number of Roman ruins in Spain. The sites are scattered across the compact city center, and all are accessible with a day-ticket (€15). Spent the morning seeing the theater, circus, and villas; grabbed quick bocadillos for lunch; and spent the afternoon at Museo Nacional de Arte Romano (free entry after 2pm). Fantastic collection --especially the marble statuary and enormous tapestry-sized mosaics-- laid out in a spacious airy atrium. Next the Museo de Arte Visigodo, a small villa housing Visigoth relics (which bear the same Roman craftsmanship, working under new masters).

After this long, hot and tiring day it was a relief to finally plonk down with beers on the Plaza Espana. Later, walked off dinner on the Puente Romano, at 755m one of the longest built by the Romans and therefore good for digestion! Parallel to it is a new bridge by Santiago Calatrava (who also designed the Palace of Congress in Oviedo), a slender white arc which taken with its reflection over the water looks like an illuminated eye bisecting the river.

F&B: in terms of regional specialties, loved the creamy, pungent Torta de Cesar!

Final note: between Cáceres and Mérida we stopped at Santa Lucía del Trampal, one of the few Visigoth churches still standing and likely the oldest church in Spain. Took awhile to find it but great to see a structure fully two hundred years older (7th century) than even than the pre romanesque trail.

Now in Seville but as Andalusia is well covered, will stop the report here. Look forward be reading Fodor TRs on this region over the next days - and F&B recommendations anyone can share here for the south are greatly appreciated.

Till the next time - happy travelling!
Mila2017 is offline  
Oct 7th, 2017, 09:05 AM
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Here are some of my recommendations for Sevilla; we ate mostly at small chef-driven bar/restaurants:
ekscrunchy is online now  
Oct 7th, 2017, 10:10 AM
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We ate twice at La Azotea in Seville, and loved it.

We also had dinner one night at the Mercado near the Triana Bridge. Think it's called Mercado Barranco.
KarenWoo is offline  
Oct 7th, 2017, 10:12 AM
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Regadera in Córdoba
El Trillo in Granada
KarenWoo is offline  
Oct 9th, 2017, 03:22 AM
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Thanks both,

Ekscrunchy enjoyed your writing and got very hungry! I like your approach of food focused travel. Will look for your Asturias report to see what culinary delights we undoubtedly missed ...

one more question: any good shops in Madrid for tasting olive oil to take home? Same for cheeses and cured meats. or simply go to El Corto Ingeles supermarket, or leave for MAD duty free?
Mila2017 is offline  
Oct 9th, 2017, 08:50 AM
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There is a wonderful shop foro olive oils in Madrid, PATRIMONIO COMUNAL OLIVARERO:

Robert2016: In reading the menus of vafrious Asturian restaurants, I see many plates listed as "taco de ..........," as in "taco de salmón ahumado," at Casa Fermin, and "taco de gauchin Astur Celta," at the restaurant at Pueblo Astur.

I know this not a taco in the Mexican sense of a corn tortilla under or wrapped around a protein or vegetable, but what does it mean? (My online searching lead nowhere...)
ekscrunchy is online now  
Oct 11th, 2017, 12:03 AM
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Thanks again Eks!

We saw the mysterious taco item on many menus, but were busy with basics so did not get to try.

Currently staying in Albaicin, what a magical place! Good eating in the former emirate of Granada
Mila2017 is offline  
Oct 11th, 2017, 07:33 AM
Join Date: Jun 2013
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Eckscrunchy you will find there are many things in n Spain which have a different name than in the rest of Spain. Now you’ve got me curious...I remember seeing tacos on the menu as well but can’t think of what it is! Hope you get an answer!

(Good thing to proof read—spellcheck changed your name to Ecosystem )
sundriedtopepo is offline  

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