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An Epicurean Odyssey: Cantabria and Asturias

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Within a few minutes of leaving Bilbao we were already out of Basque Country. Cantabria is a mountainous region on the Atlantic coast that few international travelers have heard of, let alone visited. Our inclusion of Valencia and the Dordogne into this trip meant we didn't have time to spend even one night in Cantabria, but we had most of the day to explore at least the coastal highlights of the region. Our first stop was Santander, the largest city and regional capital. Given that it was Saturday our first priority was to locate and explore the covered market, an important part of our travel experience that had been somewhat lacking on this road trip. Fortunately Mercado de la Esperanza proved to be the best market we encountered on the Spanish section of this trip and was eclipsed overall only by the beauty in Biarritz.

The two-level market was humming with activity when we arrived. Outside the main building were a number of produce stalls covered by canopies. Staircases led downward to the seafood market on the lower level which was filled with determined shoppers circling counters laden with innumerable varieties of fresh, gleaming fish and shellfish.

On the upper level we found more produce as well as beautiful delicatessens and a couple of snack bars. It was way too early to find anything substantial to eat but we were able to get enough into our stomachs to tide us over until lunch time.

After striking out in every Spanish city since Valencia, we'd finally struck market gold in Santander. However, we weren't finished with the city yet. I was excited to check out Santander's answer to Azkuna Zentroa, the Centro Botín. The cantilevered exterior of this futuristic cultural center proved to be even more striking than its Bilbao counterpart. The outside of the building is surrounded by a maze of observation decks on multiple levels, eventually leading to the roof with views of the town and the Bay of Santander.

It was a short walk through the Jardines de Pereda to downtown Santander. We spent a half hour walking among attractive modern townhouses mingled with a few remnants of the medieval old town, which had been largely destroyed by fire in 1941.

The best seafood restaurants seemed to be clustered in the Barrio Pesquero next to the fishing port south of downtown. We drove to the area and weren't disappointed. Marisqueria Casa Jose had pretty much everything we'd seen in the market on their extensive menu and we ate our heart's fill of all our favorite shellfish and fish stew. We were now a little behind schedule but it had been well worth it to make the most of a great Spanish coastal town.

A half hour west of Santander is the preserved medieval village of Santillana del Mar. Despite its name the town is set well back from the shoreline. By the time we arrived I was the only conscious occupant of our car and Mei Ling wasn't excited about waking up so I decided to go out exploring on my own. Our GPS had taken us to the back end of the village and car entry was strictly prohibited, so I parked at the side of the road as close as I could and set off down the cobblestone road that led into town. Once I entered I realized there wasn't very much to see. The old churches and houses were atmospheric enough but nothing we hadn't already seen on a grander scale in Cuenca and Aragon. Once I arrived at the center of town it was clear that every single person walking in the street was a visitor and that every single business in town catered to tourism. There may have been a native population there, but if they weren't in the tourism business they were keeping well out of sight. I took some photos to show Mei Ling and went back to the car. There would be much better places ahead to spend our time.

Close to the western edge of the Cantabrian coast, the fishing town of San Vicente de la Barquera enjoys a reputation as one of the more picturesque seaside towns in the area. We drove across the estuary via a scenic causeway but found little within the town that would seem to justify a stop. It seemed the town was probably much more scenic when viewed from a boat in the estuary with the Picos de Europa mountains in the background. There were surely decent seafood restaurants around as well but we had just finished gorging ourselves. Instead we passed through the town and paused on the northern bank of the Ría Brazo Mayor to take some photos of the medieval castle and church on the hill that rose behind the town.

And just like that we were out of Cantabria. We would be spending a little more time in Asturias, the next coastal region on the way to Galicia. Much like Cantabria, Asturias consists of a coastal strip with beaches and fishing towns as well as a mountainous inland with picturesque villages and ski resorts. The only two cities of substantial size are close together in the center of the province, Gijón on the coast and the capital Oviedo fifteen miles inland. We were staying in a modern apartment complex a good distance from the center of Oviedo, where there was no ambiance whatsoever but convenient parking right outside the front door. Since we would be pressed for time the next day, we decided our best opportunity to see Gijón would be to have dinner there that evening.

Gijón proved to be a good choice as there was an arts festival going on in the old town by the seaside and the streets and cafes were filled with people. It seemed that every table was covered with glasses of sidra, the traditional fermented cider of Asturias. It was so crowded that our attempts to find a table in a restaurant were repeatedly rebuffed. We resorted to Tripadvisor which came through with a very authentic Asturian restaurant just a couple of blocks from the pandemonium which was practically empty when we walked in. We were served hearty traditional food including some flaming sausages that fascinated the boys.

As usual for northern Spain our apartment lacked air conditioning but fortunately it was much less humid than it had been in Bilbao. We tossed the kids in the tub to remove several layers of grime that had accumulated over the last couple of days of heavy traveling.

In the morning we did our walking tour of Oviedo's old town. The entire neighborhood was unusually bright and well-maintained, almost as though the old quarter had been recently restored in anticipation of some major cultural event. Nevertheless the foot traffic was quite low on Sunday morning and on some streets it felt like we had the area completely to ourselves. The focal point of the old quarter was the Oviedo Cathedral, whose tall Gothic belltower could be seen at the end of almost every street in the area. We also passed the covered market which was of course closed.

Also in the heart of Oviedo is the Parque San Francisco, adjacent to the old quarter. This large and well-manicured green space boasts majestically tall trees, shady paths, bronze statues, and of course playgrounds. On the way into the park we came across a parade whose participants were wearing traditional Asturian costumes.


Across from the park is a bronze statue of Woody Allen which has stood in the middle of the street since 2003. The actor has been a long-time champion of Oviedo and was awarded the Prince of Asturias award the year before the statue was unveiled.

We had now been wandering around Oviedo long enough for the more touristy restaurants to begin opening for lunch. I had hoped to be back on the road at this point, but we decided it was better to eat now rather than risk being too late for lunch at our next destination. We browsed through the old town for a restaurant and eventually found one in an immaculate little courtyard with pastel townhouses, a polished flagstone floor, and a bronze statue of a woman and her donkey.

We were now well behind schedule but Oviedo had been worth it. We were lucky the market hadn't been open, or we might have had to scrap our next stop entirely. That would have been unfortunate because the fishing village of Cudillero proved to be another highlight of Asturias. The tiny village is protected from the forces of the Atlantic by a long seawall which forms a port. Within the port numerous small fishing boats and dinghies are anchored. The village rises up a hill from behind a large boat ramp, but most of the action is concentrated at the lowest level around the main road through town.

The village was obviously geared for tourism, but the vibe felt more like local Spaniards who were getting away for the weekend by car than international package tourists such as I'd seen in Santillana del Mar. Our chosen seafood restaurant felt very authentic as well, with succulent broiled zamburiñas and navajas. An industrial-appearing pump on the bar dispensed sidra into personal bottles and we had our first taste of the Asturian standard. I could see that sidra would have to be an acquired taste. The overall impression was musty or even fetid, and far from refreshing. Nevertheless it was a complex and savory flavor and I could see myself growing to like it over time.

I was a little stressed out once we returned to the car because we were behind schedule for Cathedral Beach, our first stop in Galicia. I had to apply for permits to visit the beach a month in advance and if we arrived too late for low tide we'd lose our one chance to see the famous stone arches that give the beach its name. Of course there was nothing we could do except get back on the road and hope for the best. The gods of travel would make the final decision on how our day would end.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:06 Archived in Spain Tagged travel oviedo santander blog asturias tony gijon cantabria friedman cudillero santillana_del_mar

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Great blog!

by ToddP


by zzlangerhans

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