In October and November, I did a bit of travelling around Europe, something I didn’t do enough of during the school year. Note to self: this winter, take a long weekend somewhere sunny before you forget what sun is! The struggle of Seasonal Affective Disorder (winner of the best acronym ever, SAD) is real and forceful here in England.
First up was a whirlwind barely 48-hour trip to the Asturias region of Spain with my former study abroad roomie, Grace. Grace is in the US Navy and currently stationed in southern Spain, but when we were chatting and hit upon the idea of taking a trip together, she had just moments before booked a flight up North and was scrambling to see if she could move it or cancel it without a fee so I could come to the south. Having never been to Asturias, I just said: Why don’t we meet up there? I hadn’t done any research on what the trip would hold, and neither had Grace…nor did we until a day before we left. Turns out, you don’t need to plan ahead too much when you’re gifted beautiful weather and sights and partnered with a friend you haven’t seen in person for six years.
The first of the two cities we visited, Oviedo is the capital city of the Asturias province. The cathedral, a central feature in many historically important Spanish cities, was gorgeous (see below; I wasn’t kidding about the weather, was I?).
First order of business was sitting in the Plaza Mayor to eat patatas bravas made with queso cabrales and drink sidra and, every 15 minutes, saying “I can’t believe we’re both here” (this was me, Grace is far more pulled together when faced with the realities of six years apart).
We toured the city squares and parks and stores, saw some gorgeous artwork (my fave, El Greco, included, as well as Dali and Picasso) and buildings, and then went for dinner. Let me just say, the term “4-cheese pizza” has a whole new meaning when you’re in a cheese-producing paradise. After dinner, we rambled about until we found a cute bar near the cathedral, and stopped in for a nightcap. The bartender was interested in our story, and why we spoke Spanish that sounded like it had once been good, so we bantered with him for a bit then went home to read by mutual decision. It was a great relief to have a travel partner who was on my level, wanting to see the touristy stuff but also to simply wander and discover, and who would rather have a long, lovely dinner and then get some rest. Had we wanted to do different things, we would’ve, but unless Grace is the world’s best liar, we agreed on everything.
One of those touristy things was to take a bus out of the city to see two pre-romanesque churches built in the 800s, which my mind still struggles to comprehend. The tour guide told the story of San Miguel de Lillo, the smaller of the two churches, by saying it was built in the 800s and then, around the 12th century, suffered some serious structural damage because it was built near a river. And in 2015, it is solidly standing and you can do a tour in it. What! So even architects or builders who didn’t survey the land around them did a better job than anyone creating edifices today. If erosion over hundreds of years could’ve seriously been a factor in the structural integrity of your building, you’re doing all right.
San Miguel de Lillo
Santa Maria del Naranco
Making our way down from the pre-romanesque churches, we came upon a stilted structure with no windows and we got a little creeped out. Grace said what we were both thinking: “What is that, Baba Yaga’s hut?” We wondered if we were walking swiftly by someone who was being imprisoned in this fairy-tale hut of doom. (Later, on the bus to Gijón, we passed a few more and Grace wanted to know what they were so badly that she paid for phone data to Google “creepy hut on stilts asturias”, which actually got us an answer: it was a hórreo, or grain storage building. This did not stop us calling it Baba Yaga’s hut.)
We had only one day in Gijón, so we decided to just do whatever time allowed. After a quick exploration of the seaside boardwalk and surrounding area, we visited the original Roman baths which had been excavated recently (recently being 112 years ago, because Spain) and which dated to the 1-4th centuries. That some of that brickwork was still standing, and made enough sense to build a museum around it, was mind-boggling. I know I’m American and therefore used to my country’s (non-Native American) settlements being only about 400 years old , but I’m glad seeing history standing in front of us still awes me. It should awe us all.
Trekking up to the Cerro de Santa Catalina afforded an unadulterated view of the Bay of Biscay as well as the town and beach below. A hot air balloon rose in the background, and storm clouds lazed in, to add to the dramatic beauty. A famous landmark in Gijón is a large sculpture called “Eulogy to the Horizon”/ “Elogio del Horizonte”, by Eduardo Chillida. On the plaque nearby, the artist wrote:
“Creo que el horizonte, visto de la forma que lo veo yo, podría ser la patria de todos los hombres.” This roughly means, “I think the horizon, seen the way I see it, could be the homeland of all men.” Grace and I both thought this was particularly moving, and now in light of the immigrant crisis and the terror attacks in Paris and elsewhere, it has even more resonance.
We ambled down to an artisan’s market, where I made important purchases of tinned bonito tuna in olive oil after confirming that I could indeed take it back with me to England. A real life fear is that I will one day buy goods that somehow violate the complex rules on importing and Customs will seize my food (i.e. eat it for themselves, the cruellest outcome). Since I enjoy not having a full-on meltdown in front of strangers, over tuna, the tuna man’s assurance was important.
For our last dinner, we found a place that served croquettas the size of gerbils, and mains (the monstrosity below is called a cachopo and is cheese layered between slabs of beef, then deep fried) far larger than my hand. I took a poorly-shaded picture just to remember that I even once tried to eat something that oversized.
Though we’d planned to be adventurous — and prove to ourselves that we were still young — by going out to a bar for some after-dinner drinks, we had eaten far too much, and by the time the check came, we both looked at each other and just said, “Bed!”. Pathetic, I know, but the stomach wants what it wants and I must not deny it.
The stomach (and the heart) wish very much to return posthaste to Spain, so I’ll see what I can do about that.