Spain Travel

Letter from Asturias

I wrote the article below 5 years ago, long before this blog was born, on another trip to Asturias. We are here again right now, and happy to report that nothing has changed. So, while we gather audio and photos to show you when we get back next week, I hope you enjoy this earlier “Letter from Asturias” as a taste of things to come:

If you take a walk along the beach at Gandia, a small Mediterranean resort town an hour to the south of Valencia, at nine o clock in the morning in July, a surprising sight awaits you. The entire front line, the ‘Primera Linea’, that long stretch of beach at the water’s edge, is already completely occupied by parasols and beach mats, yet there isn’t a soul to be seen. The canny Spanish holiday-maker stole down at dawn, marked out his territory, and went back to bed. The effect is rather eerie, and certainly frustrating for the despondent family that arrives half an hour too late: ‘Look Mama’, sighs a small boy, ‘the sea has all been reserved.’

And so it is for all the Spanish Mediterranean coast. The ‘Primera Linea’ has long since been reserved, marked out, built on and altogether gobbled up. The resort chain from Catalonia to Gibraltar is all but complete, with barely a missing link. In places it is mercifully low-rise and low-key, backed by orange groves and as distinctly Spanish as it was before the builders arrived. But in general the beaches are as packed and no less hectic than the Metro in Madrid, the sun is merciless and the humidity at night will make an insomniac of even the deepest of sleepers.

The sage Spanish traveller knows to head to the north coast instead. After a dip into the hot swarthy baths of the Med., a trip to Asturias brings immeasurable relief, like putting in some ear plugs and turning on the cold tap. Bordered by the more popular provinces of Galicia and Cantabria, and cut off from the centre of the country by the formidable Picos de Europa mountain range, Asturias has been all but forgotten, not a single ‘Apart-Hotel’ complex in sight.

Yet this is a land straight from the pages of a fairy tale. The mountains are so fierce and sit so close to the coast that you imagine them put there by some imaginative storyteller, who would have giants sliding down them each morning for a quick wash in the sea. The foothills behind the cliffs are so green, the cows that graze them so picture-perfect and the woodlands and vegetable patches so ornate, that one would hardly be surprised to stumble across Hansel and Gretel, or houses made of chocolate.

The people that inhabit this dreamy landscape are no less magical themselves. In the mountains, lottery sellers walk from village to distant village with strings of tickets around their necks, as eagerly as their city partners dart from bar to bar in busy urban streets. In tiny village fiestas they jump blindfold into a ring and tumble helplessly after squealing greasy piglets. Late one night in a roadside tavern I came across a drunk, elfish old man who filled the room with clouds of smoke from every long drag on his cigarette.

‘Still walking back to Ribadesella tonight then?’ the waitress teased him. This involved a journey of some thirty miles along the pitch-black coast. He filled the room with smoke again in reply. He could, he was saying, if he wanted, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he did.

The Asturians eat extraordinary bowls of rich bean and sausage stews, and drink cider for breakfast, lunch and supper, poured from earthy bottles held high above the head in one hand, into a glass held well below the waist in the other, eyes looking neither up nor down, but strictly dead ahead. Over the years they have shown ruthless powers of resistance. It is said that in the eighth century some thirty Asturians kept an army of 400,000 Moors out of their mountains, and as such this remained the only part of Spain not to fall under Moorish rule.

Now, it seems they feel under threat from a new invasion, just as numerous and no less alarming. ‘Presidents!’ snarled one waiter ominously, after he’d explained the dishes of the day. ‘They are coming from Madrid, presidents of enormous corporations, buying big houses. They have more money than you could imagine. More come every year, building their palaces on our land’. Could the unthinkable happen? Could Asturias fall prey to the worst excesses of the Mediterranean?

It’s doubtful. Even if the locals don’t send them packing then the weather will. A beach holiday in Asturias is a gamble that most Spaniards are not prepared to accept: for every day of sun, you may well have two of rain. But risk it, and you will lie on the most beautiful beaches in Spain.

Backed by Eucalyptus groves and cliffs carpeted in tropical greens, they are populated by foraging goats, peaceful locals, perhaps a stray Victorianesque English family playing cricket with driftwood, and silent nudists who take refuge behind a rocky outcrop down at the far end. The Cantabrian Sea is absolutely pure and invigoratingly cool, its waves endlessly ruffling the fine sand at the shore.

Back in Gandia, at six in the evening, many of the ‘Primera Linea’ sunbathing elite have retreated to their high-rise bunkers, as tanned as leather. A few elderly bathers flounder amongst the strips of plastic bag that somehow find their way into the tepid lifeless sea. It’s aerobics time and a large section of sand has been cordoned off for 200 teenagers who jump, sway and sweat this way and that, to the disco sounds of a monstrous sound-system that can be heard half a mile away. This is hellish and yet no-one seems to mind, the power of the sun it seems, having blinded their judgment. Long then, I quietly hope, may it continue to rain in Asturias.