The area covered by the map below shows western Asturias and eastern Cantabria, an area between the cities of Gijon and Santander, which I found to be one of the most fascinating rural areas I've ever visited in Europe. People are friendly, you're never far from the sea, and the climate is moderated by its exposure to cool Atlantic waters of the Bay of Biscay. We visited in the summer and were able to watch incredible thunderstorms almost every evening from the wrap-around patio of our rented "Casa Rurale." The area is a favorite with Spaniards who know enough to avoid the heat of Spain's interior in summer.
Asturias and Cantabria Map: Spain's North Coast
What's some of the things you can experience on Spain's northern coast:
- Cider Houses - Asturias is sidra or cider country, along with Cantabria and the Basque region.
- The Picos de Europa, separating the Liébana region of Cantabria (the westernmost section) from Eastern Asturias, are a tourist favorite. A craggy limestone range with immense slopes and dramatic gorges, the picos are a great destination for mountaineering, bird watching, walking, and trekking.
- Cheese - The lush green valleys are perfect for dairy cattle - try the local blue cheese Cabrales.
- Prehistoric painted caves in abundance - There's the famous Altamira, of course, but some lesser know caves, pointed out on the map as gray stars, are worthy of your attention as well.
Casas Rurales in Asturias
Casas Rurales are a fine way to experience Asturias. You'll find a plethora of them surrounding the town of Infiesto, in a region called Concejo de Piloña, where you'll also find many recreation areas in which to hike or picnic, along with small mountain hamlets which host bars, restaurants, and cider houses. To get information on the Casas Rurales, see the Aspitur website, or pick up a handy map from the tourist kiosk on the main road through Infiesto (on your left if you're going East). See the summer storm picture below, mostly taken from the veranda of a house we rented located just south of Infiesto. It happened almost every afternoon, so we set up a regular cheese and wine tasting and watched it develop.
Congas de Onis
Congas de Onis sits besides the river Sella on one of the old pilgrimage routes. It used to be the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Asturias. There are lots of opportunities for river sports like fishing and kayaking nearby. A walking trail along the Sella follows the highway northwest. Congas de Onis is centered around a medieval "Roman" bridge, and there's a bar and restaurant right on the banks of the Sella in the shadow of the bridge--have a coffee or a meal on the lawn here.
Picos de Europa
From Congas you can travel on to the National Park of Sierra de Covadonga to visit the mountain lakes the park is noted for, or to start your visit to the Picos de Europa. (Covadonga is where the Spanish Christian army first held fast against the Moors in 722.) If you just want to have a view of the Picos from your hotel room, check out the area around Arenas de Cabrales. Best time to visit is late summer, earlier and the weather is pretty unpredictable, and it can get mighty cold and fog shrouded in those hills.
These ancient granaries made of chestnut and set upon triangular pillars as protection against rodents are almost a symbol of northern Spain. Called Garaia in Basque country, they're still in use, mainly because it's illegal to tear them down and they do serve a function for rural inhabitants of Asturias. That's a picture of one on the right.
Sidra - The Cider Culture
Cider houses are found frequently in the Asturias region. Cider houses are separate from bars because of the ritual nature of pouring and drinking that cider requires; the floor of a cider house can be awash in discarded dregs at times. Interested in how it's all done?
How to Drink Sidra (Cider)
You must drink the whole bottle at one sitting. Cider oxidizes quickly and becomes flat.
The ideal temperature is between 10-14 degrees centigrade, cool but not cold.
A "gulp" or small amount of cider should be poured into a narrow glass from a height of around 30 cm or three feet. This aerates the cider, enhancing the bouquet and the natural carbonation, and is called "throwing" the Cider, which produces the gas Spaniards call "estrella" (star). Here is a page that documents the correct way of Throwing the Cider. This should be consumed at once.
If there are dregs, you can consume them or dump them out on the floor (some siderias have special drains for this--that's why a sideria is separate from the bar in most establishments offering both.)
In La Sideria (Cider Bar)
You order a cider, which usually comes in a 750 ml bottle like a bottle of wine.
The waiter will open the bottle, then probably go to a special "pouring station" where he will pour a glass and bring it to you.
You will repeat this (sometimes having to nod at the glass when you want another) until you've had enough or the bottle is down to the dregs.
Some places will just set a bucket at the side of your table without offering further assistance beyond uncorking the cider. You're on your own with the pour if this happens.
This experience will set you back a few Euros.
Altamira is known as the "Sistine Chapel of Prehistoric Art pretty much since its discovery in 1879 by Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, but alas, it is currently closed to most visitors (5 lucky visitors a day can visit via ticket auction). A replica has been built, called the New Cave, and you can visit it in the Altamira Museum in Santillana del Mar, about a half hour walk from the center of this beautifel city. Entrance costs 3€. Here is a detailed information on visiting the museum and cave from the official site: Visiting Hours: Museo Nacional y Centro di Investigacion de Altamira.
Puente Viesgo and its Prehistoric Caves
The village of Puente Visego has a variety of interesting restaurants and makes a fine lunch spot before you head off to the caves of Monte del Castillo, just a short, uphill drive out of town, well marked. For a reasonable fee, you'll visit two caves, one noted for its paintings and the other for the variety of rock formations, stalagmites and stalactites.
The road south from Puente Viesgo, N 232, is quite scenic, but desolate after the town of Soncillo.
A pretty port town close to the prehistoric caves of Tito Bustillo. Lots of shops and restaurants in town. You can make reservations for the caves, then go and visit them at your leisure. The Saint James Way pilgrimage route passes through Ribadesella, here called the Camino de Santiago del Norte, one of the oldest routes.
Don't Miss Cuisine
Try the famous blue cheese of the region called Cabrales. There is plenty of fish in the region, of course. Fabada is a local stick-to-the-ribs bean stew with Spanish chorizo and other meats and it's one of my favorite dishes of all time.
Posadas and other Lodging
The P symbol inside the box on our map indicates that the village hosts a posada, or historic country inn, often quite charming. Here's a short list:
Ribadesella - Posada del Valle
Santillana del Mar - Posada Casa del Organista, Posada el Pedroso.
Cangas de Onis - Posada del Monasterio
Valdaliga (marked "H" on the map) La Charola (with library, barbeque, laundry and Internet).
Nude Beaches - Naturalism
There is a nude beach with camping nearby near Ribadesella called Playa de l'Arena de Vega. See Nudist beaches in Asturias for more.
There is an airport at Oviedo serving Asturias.