Traditions of the Costa Verde

Peter Williamson, 17 August, 2018
Earlier this summer, Peter Williamson returned from Asturias, a green and verdant land, steeped in tradition, where age-old farming practices are still very much in evidence.

I'm fortunate enough to have been to Asturias twice – and I love it. It's very much quiet Spain; Spain for the Spanish, where it's not uncommon to come across farmers scything grass by hand, cows being walked through the village to a milking parlour, and water-powered mills still functioning as they have done for centuries.

I was based at the tranquil Posada del Valle in the tiny hamlet of Collia, near Arriondas, just over an hour's drive on remarkably quiet roads, from the small but perfectly formed Oviedo-Asturias airport (oh, what joy landing here after the hell of Stansted). Run by ebullient English hosts, Nigel and Joann Burch, it's the perfect spot to relax after a day's exploring, with views to die for.

The farms and rural hamlets here are characterised by traditional grain stores called hórreos, raised from the ground on pillars, or pegollos. There are an estimated 18,000 hórreos in Asturias, the oldest dating from the 15th century. Some are in need of urgent repair, but the vast majority have been renovated and are still being used. In the coastal village of La Isla, one had been converted into a beach bar, while round the corner, I found this one, looking as it probably has done for generations.

Further along the coast I came across deserted sandy beaches. There were holiday-makers, the vast majority of whom were Spanish, enjoying the heat of the midday sun with ice-cream, while I trudged past, looking forward to an ice-cold beer back at the hotel – if not sooner.

At Playa Vega, having walked there from the hotel, I was left in no doubt as to what was on the menu at this quirky beach restaurant. Delicious seafood, freshly landed that morning in the nearby fishing village of Ribadesella – and now on my plate.

But it's not all about sandy beaches. This is a rugged coastline, as the holiday name suggests, where colourful wildflowers line the paths. I hardly met a soul on the way to charming Llanes, the sudden noise and bustling people bring my 'silent mode' to an abrupt end.

Llanes actually turned out to be a fascinating little seaside town: I arrived along a grassy cliff-top esplanade; descended to a gateway in the old fortified walls; meandered through a maze of narrow cobbled streets; and browsed the shelves of this enticing deli, selling a wide range of quesos, sidras and embutidos. It even had a plastic pack-donkey tethered to the door.

The only time I saw numbers of other walkers was when the paths I was following coincided with sections of the Camino de Santiago, marked by stylised golden scallop shells (the symbol of this long-distance pilgrims' route) all the way across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostella. Most were weighed down with rucksacks, and still had many miles to walk, but their common goal kept them going.

The 'ample' rainfall in Asturias is responsible for its greenness, and for the wide rivers that tumble down from the high mountains on their way to the sea. In Arriondas, the River Sella is used to its full potential every August, when hundreds of canoeists take part in the annual Descenso – a 20-kilometre race down the river. I saw colourful graffiti on the riverbank and more canoe hire shops than you can shake a paddle at. Must be quite a sight

Apart from the aforementioned grain stores, the vernacular architecture of Asturias is quite distinct. I spotted this once-grand villa, standing abandoned and decaying on the outskirts of the town, a relic of more prosperous times. Oh what stories it could tell...

Nearby, I caught the local 'Feve' train from Arriondas railway station. This rail service is slow and old-fashioned yet plays a key role in life here, linking the many rural settlements to larger markets. For me, it gave yet another perspective on this timeless land, as I travelled to Sevares to then walk back to the hotel.

The approach to the Palacio Sevares took me along an avenue of intertwined plane trees. When I looked closely, I was astounded to see that each tree has been trained in such a way as to merge their branches into those of the next tree making a kilometre-long living entity. The characteristic patterned bark is due to the inner tree growing faster than the bark. It then cracks and peels away leaving different layers of coloured bark.

Signs of farming are evident in every inland village. In one, I came across this contraption. Obviously some kind of hoist for tethering and raising large livestock while checking their feet. It looks old, but it looks as though it still get used.

Near the hamlet of Andeyes, the early morning rush-hour consisted only of this lady passing with her two cows, heading home to the milking parlour. With such lush grass, the cows here produce rich, creamy milk. Probably where the chefs at Casa Marcial, a Michelin-starred restaurant just out of shot on the left, get their milk.

Our notes suggest a slight detour to see an old corn mill - and it's well worth it, especially if you happen to be there when it's in operation. I came across this old man working away, grinding and bagging his flour in a time-honoured tradition that has changed little over the centuries. He was so pleased to see my interest, he even opened up the sluice to 'full throttle' so that I could get the dramatic effect of the waterfall.

Lush grass means it rains here, and the northerly winds off the Bay of Biscay often blow in a dense sea fret (haar or mist) that shrouds the hilltops, hiding the views – and the cud-munching cattle. Just below the summit of Picu Pienzu, I almost stumbled upon these docile, albeit fearsome looking, ladies, as they, too, waited in a heightened state of anticipation for the mist to burn off and the magnificent views to re-appear.

To walk in sunshine, early one morning I drove up through the mist to find the two mountain lakes above Covadonga basking in glorious sunshine. From there, I followed a rocky trail that slowly wound its way up into the mountains, reaching a high col from where glorious, jaw-dropping views stretched in every direction. It was hot and I was thirsty but much to my surprise, the nearby Refugio de Ario was not only manned, but was selling ice cold drinks. Bliss...

On entering, I was greeted by rows and rows of battered old plastic shoes, waiting in serried ranks for the next pair of weary feet to kick off the constraints of their sturdy boots for the freedom and comfort of aerated sandals.

Heading back down the hill, I stopped to visit the impressive Basílica de Santa María la Real de Covadonga. Aside from the vast main church, is a small chapel cut into the cliff-face and accessed by a slippery tunnel. It is lit my hundreds of candles left by worshippers who come here to pray and to marvel at this remarkable feat of engineering, the foundation of which dates back to the eighth century.

The chapel also contains the tomb of Pelagius, (685-737) the first King of Asturias. His victory at the Battle of Covadonga, is credited with beginning the 800-year-long Reconquista – the expulsion of the Moors from Spain. His remains were transferred to the Holy Cave of Covadonga by King Alfonso X of Castile, as were those of his wife Gaudiosa and his sister.

For a single view that encapsulates the landscape of Asturias in all its many guises, there is only one place to go – and that is the Mirador del Fitu. I climbed the steps to the small viewing platform and was enthralled at all I saw before me. The snow-capped peaks of the Picos de Europa, shimmering in the sun; folds of rolling, wooded foothills like waves on a stormy green ocean; quiet meadows and red roofed hamlets in the valleys deep below; and over to the west, a ragged coast, interspersed with sandy beaches as far as the eye could see.
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