Don’t be surprised to spot a few backpackers tending to their blisters in Oviedo’s vast Plaza de la Catedral, Cathedral Plaza. For centuries, pilgrims have traveled this Spanish city on one of the many trails that make up the famous Camino de Santiago route in northern Spain, also known as the Way of St. James.
Your hike through the Asturias region can be considerably shorter and less tiring, but thanks to another historic center of Spain that has been made vehicle-free, you can also find the serenity you are looking for in this very special plaza of Oviedan in which the Chapel of San Miguel in the Cathedral of San Salvador is part of a collection of local monuments that make up a Unesco World Heritage.
Forming an almost equilateral triangle with the Cantabrian coastal towns of Avilés and Gijón, Oviedo is solid and immaculate as befits the capital of Asturias. Which means that its cultural offer is also robust.
At a corner of the cathedral square, the Asturias Fine Arts Museum is housed in two historic mansions and a newer building, all connected in a completely labyrinthine fashion. But turning around several times is worth it to stumble upon a hall of saints by El Greco, an arrogant youth painted by Goya and Zurbarán’s austere depiction of Christ on the cross. The museum’s collections take you further through the age of Picasso and Dalí, and offer the opportunity to discover beautiful Spanish and Asturian artists less known (to you) from the last century.
Head a few blocks further southeast through the Old Town to reach the restored Mercado El Fontán, one of those late 19th-century glass and cast iron market temples. Browsing the aisles of vendor stalls teeming with fresh produce, hardy sea creatures and thick meats will give you your first idea that Asturian cuisine just might be something special.
When you head to Fruela and Uría streets, the latter being a main shopping boulevard, and you come to Escandalera Plaza, you will easily recognize a zaftig female form and a plump baby on her lap that makes up the bronze statue. Maternity (Maternity) as Botero. A slight detour onto Pelayo Street and you can’t fail to stumble upon Culis Monumental, an extremely tall Botero-ish statue that, as the name of a Spanish speaker suggests, is a huge butt, or more precisely a statue that displays one butt on either side. Oviedo may be properly bourgeois, but he is by no means imperturbable.
As elsewhere in Asturias, the city’s newer quarters feature well-preserved Art Nouveau (called Modernism in Spain) banks and office buildings, the funding of which arguably comes in part from Indian riches, as those Spaniards and many Asturians were called who went to the Americas and came back rich and ready to flaunt it.
Just west of the old town, Campo San Francisco public park is lined with shady paths along which you can imagine the good Oviedan bourgeois of a century ago strolling around. with family in their Sunday finery. Today you will pass statues of prominent figures from this past, as well as a whimsical figurine of Mafalda, a cherubic and precocious little girl whose Argentinian-Spanish designer Quino won a 2014 Princess of Asturias award for her comic book character.
Eclipsing the park on an urban spatial scale, the enormous, ten-year-old convention and exhibition center located in a neighborhood further west of the city, is a work by Santiago Calatrava that anyone familiar with his work would guess. immediately by its ribbed whitewashed hull of a structure with wings that jut out high into the air.
Also mixing the old and the new, the modern Barceló Cervantes Hotel, which takes its name from a street which in turn bears the name of the illustrious writer, revolves around a casa indiana. As usual for these villas built by Asturians returning with great wealth from the Americas, this one has a facade of red brick almost confectionery, while today it is wedged between hotel wings made of glass that s ‘address more to business types.
A few blocks from the Barceló Cervantes hotel, the small Eseteveinte taberna is a light and bright bistro-type affair that offers shared platters with modern touches and artful presentations of seafood, meat stews and other traditional Asturian dishes.
A few kilometers south of Oviedo, things quickly get rural and in a place that is little more than a motorway stop, the home cooking of the husband and wife team who run Camacho Bar is one of those great fortuitous travel finds. Pass the small bar opposite, cross the narrow kitchen with its boiling pots, and you come to a dining room in the back that looks more like your eccentric aunt’s living room, with an old piano, deer skulls on a wall and bricks. a-brac in abundance. Everything, stews like callos caseros with scallops on the shell and fried cod, local devotees, from industrial workers to costumes, are returning.
North of Oviedo, a slight detour on the way to the town of Gijón on the coast brings you to a parish called Prendes and right into the house which is Casa Gerardo Restaurant. The restaurant may have been founded in 1882 as a modest ‘roadside dining house’, but today you have a high-end dining experience with its Michelin-starred cuisine under the command of Chef Pedro Morán and his son Marcos.
The Moráns are known for their interpretation of the Asturian staple food fabada, a stew made with beans, black pudding, pork fat and chorizo and dishes like hake with cider sauce, and pitu de caleya, an Asturian free-range chicken. For his part, Marcos Morán can exhibit passionately and at length the quality, supply and preparation of the beans. Just like Oviedo and Asturias themselves, Casa Gerardo for all its novelty preserves and honors its deep roots.
Note: For those flying to Madrid Barajas Airport, it’s just another hour’s flight to Asturias, with Avilés airport located about 20 minutes outside of the city. The flight model takes you directly above the rugged Picos de Europa mountains where the hamlets below appear like so many miniatures, a sight that provides a great introduction to the heart and soul of this region.