The Enchantment Of A Green City In Green Spain
Monday, August 25, 2008
Exploring the magical city of Oviedo, the jewel of northern Spain.
Jetlagged but finally at our destination, Miles and I checked in at the Hotel Favila, dropped off our backpacks, splashed our groggy faces with cold water, and joined the swelling crowd for the evening stroll along Calle Uria. The critical mass carried us past the magical forest of Campo de San Francisco Park. Men and women were paseando through the park, dressed in the year’s colors of brown and violet, fuchsia and black, and wrapped in Kashmir shawls and suede jackets. We went on toward the medieval neighborhood with its towering Gothic cathedral and golden arched passageways.
We were in Oviedo, the capital of Spain’s northwestern province, Asturias. Oviedo has become something of an annual pilgrimage for us before we venture into the enchanting coastal wilds of the province. Oviedo is enchanting in its own right. This green city casts a spell through her intimate avenues of sandstone, marble and carved wood, her jovial residents who help the visitor without a moment’s hesitation, her golden cider bars, her Celtic and pre-Romanesque motifs, and her fresh, locally grown/caught/hunted food. A university town, Oviedo is surrounded by rolling green hills and mountains while the Atlantic Ocean is only a forty-minute drive away.
Founded in A.D. 757, then destroyed by invading Arabs and Berbers, Oviedo’s more permanent beginnings date to the early 800s when King Alfonso II moved his court from the nearby mountain town, Cangas de Onis, and rebuilt the sacked city. It was around this period that the warm golden and unique pre-Romanesque architecture flourished with its carved swirling stone and colorful facades of fantastic creatures and stories.
Some years back, Woody Allen arrived in Oviedo to accept a prestigious filmmaking award from the Principe de Asturias. When asked how he liked the city, he replied, “Oviedo is a city of fairytales.” Allen’s one-liner made Oviedans so happy that there is now a statue of him in the center of town with a plaque engraved with his magical words.
The next morning we set out on foot for the north end of town to explore the 9th century pre-Romanesque buildings on the nearby outskirts of Oviedo. Within ten minutes we were heading up a steep hill. In “Handbook for Travelers in Spain” the 19th century English travel writer Richard Ford described this walk as being forested and wild. Today, a neighborhood of walled-off luxury homes mark the first half of the ascent. After that, it’s almost as if you’ve transported back to Ford’s time: forest mingled with green pastures, farms, grazing cows, and horses all stretching upward toward two amber yellow stone buildings over 1,100 years old.
Built under king Ramiro I (A.D. 842-850), both buildings were constructed from a stone that appears to have absorbed the rays of the sun and illuminates from within. The first structure we reached was the church of Santa Maria del Naranco, a tall, narrow, airy, and perfectly symmetrical edifice with pillars and walls engraved with animals and symbols of kingship. An unusual shape for a church, it was originally built as the royal summer residence.
A little higher up the hill was the second pre-Romanesque building, the Capilla de San Miguel de Lillo. It was in more disrepair but teams of experts had recently discovered the chapel’s original walls and had outlined them on the ground. The standing remains revealed walls that had once been painted with rich, saturated colors in shapes depicting holy figures, animals, and plants. Pillars supporting the heavy vaulted ceiling encased twining motifs making the worshiper feel as if he were in a forest.
Hungry, we hiked back down into the city, pausing briefly to enjoy a frothy cold beer at a road side café. Miles, whose enthusiasm for Spain grows ever deeper as he discovers how much Spaniards enjoy gathering and eating, became animated with the thought of lunch. He enthusiastically suggested we hunt down a menu del dia.
Menus del dia, daily, prix fixe menus, are three-course lunch and dinner menus posted outside bars and restaurants all across Spain. We made a beeline for the medieval city’s stone walkways where only pedestrians could enter and where these menus abounded. We landed ourselves in a place called Cafeteria Manhattan. As east coasters the irony hit us, and we committed to their 10 euro lunch and warm welcome. The feast included fried calamari, grilled chicken, french fries, a salad of greens, olives and tuna, a small loaf of whole wheat bread, red wine, and finished with a dessert of Asturian cheesecake (less sweet than its American cousin and rich with very fresh creamy cheese from a nearby, grass-fed cow).
As we were tucking into our grilled chicken, I asked our waiter about the license plates. He lit up. “As you can see, the owner has a thing for Manhattan.” He paused, hoping our faces would register the marvel of this. They did. “The license plates come from his many years of living and working in New York. He, like so many Asturians, had to leave to find work; there’s just not enough work here. I lived in Hamburg for 20 years. Two years ago I returned and the owner gave me this job.” Stories of immigration are as much a part of Asturias and Oviedo as are the green hills, the good food, and the cows on the edge of town.
Every Tuesday morning the weekly market sets up in the center of Oviedo, next door to the historic heart’s daily covered market, El Fontan. Gypsies, West and North Africans, Ecuadorians, and Asturians alike mingled as artisans, farmers, ranchers, and merchants hawking their wares. The surrounding neighborhood had winding stone residential streets where homes were painted cobalt blue, spring meadow green, rust red, mustard yellow, and periwinkle.
Miles and I then stepped into El Fontan where we came upon an enormous selection of just-picked produce, fresh-caught fish, cured sausages, Spanish spices (especially saffron and smoked paprika) and hills of green, black, and red olives. The fishmongers efficiently wielded their pirate-like thick knives to behead, descale, and filet each fish to order. A nearby outdoor café refueled market goers with cider, wine, Asturian cheeses, Spanish omelets (tortillas), and olives.
Though a city, Oviedo is intimately connected to its countryside. It would have been difficult to leave if we didn’t have a few weeks in a rugged coastal village. As our train pulled out of the station, we saw the third and final pre-Romanesque building in Oviedo, the church of San Julian de los Prados. Built by Alfonso II, it is the oldest pre-Romanesque structure still standing in all of Spain. I knew I’d be back to check it out and to return to the Tuesday market.
Beebe Bahrami is a writer and cultural anthropologist specializing in travel, adventure, food and wine, and cross-cultural writing. Her book, The Spiritual Traveler Spain—The Guide to Sacred Sites and Pilgrim Routes, is due out in the spring of 2009 with HiddenSpring Books/Paulist Press. Her writing also appears in Michelin Green Guides-Provence, TransitionsAbroad.com, SouthSilkRoad.com, National Geographic books, The Pennsylvania Gazette, and in Bark, Wag, Expedition, and Archaeology magazines, among others. To read more of her travel writing or to learn about The Spiritual Traveler Spain, please visit her website at www.beebesfeast.com.