GIJÓN Y ENVIRONS
Tuesday-Wednesday, July 9-16, 2019
Marina Yates welcomed us onto the north coast of Spain Tuesday morning with Jésus, the marina manager, and his friend catching our lines. We had heard of the warm hospitality visiting yachts received in Spain, and Jésus and his staff proved it.
He later came aboard to help us plan our exploration of Gijón and the surrounding area. His enthusiasm for this region of Spain was infectious, and we carefully noted routes and sites to see.
But, we also had another treasure trove of information for this area, which we frequently consulted during our stay. Our friends Linda and Joel had traveled here resulting in several detailed emails providing excellent suggestions for a road trip.
Another source came from my brother and sister-in-law who had just recently returned from a two-week road trip, which included both inland and coastal sight-seeing. Coastal because my brother managed to bring his wetsuit and surf several times :)
Not only did Jésus assist in mapping out our itinerary but also served as transport to the local medical clinic. Furthermore, when we didn’t return until much later in the afternoon, we discovered he drove to the hospital (!) to see if we had been sent there. But, it was nothing that drastic. The clinic gave us an appointment and within two hours we had paid the 51 euro bill and obtained a prescription at a local pharmacy for 5 euros. The efficiency and low-cost stunned us (other times we’ve had to pay much, much more to access a country’s medical services), as did the concern and care from Jésus.
Our marina sat on the outskirts of the city resulting in a 20-30 minute walk to reach the old town. Along the way we noticed some ugly graffiti mirroring what’s going on back home. Another reminder of how nationalism brings out the worst in people.
But, that was one of the few signs we saw, hoping there weren’t more.
When exploring Gijón we walked by a statue of a king named Pelayo holding aloft a cross.
In reading later about this guy we discovered Asturias, a principality facing the Cantabrian Sea (Spanish name for Bay of Biscay) to the north, Cantabria to the east, Castile-León to the south, and Galicia to the west, served as the first area of this peninsula to reconquer lands from the Moors.
Pelayo (d.737), whom they think may have been a page or a bodyguard in the royal court of Visigothic King Roderick (who died fighting the Muslims), led the revolt in the early 700s, becoming king in 717 after pushing the Muslims out of his country and reinstating the Catholic faith and Spanish independence, at least in this bit of Spain.
Subsequently, Pelayo became a legend and is hailed as the savior of Christianity. One site describes his victory over the Moors as such: “Vastly outnumbered but armed with invincible faith, Don Pelayo’s heroic spirit attracted God’s blessing and changed the course of Spanish history” (www.tfpstudentaction.org). Yikes. Thus begins another religious righteousness that, to me, has poisoned the world.
But, back to Asturias where prior to Pelayo evidence has been found of human habitation 100,000 years ago. Later, during the Iron Age, Celtic tribes arrived and settled in this area. By the 5th century B.C.E. the Castreña culture populated the area, living in fortified settlements called castros located on hilltops surrounded by a circular ditch.
Next, the Romans arrived in the Iberian peninsula 219/8 B.C.E. They overcame their main rivals, the Carthaginians, in 205 B.C.E. and proceeded to push north and west, conquering tribes along the way – one being the Lusitanians.
The Lusitanians lost to the invaders in 133 B.C.E. but only after putting up fierce resistance. Interestingly, some historians accredit the Lusitanians under their leader Viriatus (d.138 B.C.E.) as employing the first Spanish guerrilla tactics.
The Romans continued their push into Iberia, now focusing on the Celtic tribes occuping northwest Spain, primarily in Asturias and its eastern neighbor, Cantabri. Only after ten years of fighting (29-19 B.C.E.) did Rome finally win the war.
Then, 700 years later the Moors arrived, which brings us back to Don Pelayo (FYI: most of the rest of Spain remained under the Moors until King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella I captured Granada in 1492).
Okay, back to Pelayo (labeled ‘the wild ass’ in an Islamic chronicle). Since his reconquering of Asturia from the Moors soon after their initial invasion, this part of the Iberian peninsula remained independent with the title “prince of Asturias” being used by the Spanish monarchy to this day. And, in spite of the Roman and Moorish invasions, the native traditions still exist as we saw during several festivals.
With time to explore the region we rented a car and headed south towards the beautiful Picos de Europa. For three days we oohed and awed over the glorious scenery laid out in front of us.
Within several hours we found ourselves in one of the Asturians’ most venerated sites: Covandonga. Here Pelayo began his reconquest of Asturias. Supposedly, the breath of the Virgin inspired Pelayo to win the Battle of Covadonga thus placing this spot on the history map. The cave, Cova Dominica, in which Pelayo and his soldiers sheltered became a holy site with the third king of Asturias, Alphonse I (693-757) building a chapel there. A masonry one was built on the spot in 1940.
Not only does the Holy Cave enshrine the Ausurians’ patron saint, la Santina (the Virgin de Covandonga) seen below in a 1918 procession to the Holy Cave…
but also Pelayo, his wife Gaudosia,
and Alphonse I who are entombed here.
Originally, pilgrims crawled on their knees up the 100 stone steps (Staircase of Promises) to reach the site, but now a tunnel connects it to the esplanade of the Basilica. And, overseeing the entire plaza is the iconic statue of Don Pelayo with his infamous Christian cross, la Cruz de la Victoria.
The Basilica dramatically rises as you begin your approach to the plaza,
passing the Collegiate Church of San Fernando.
Commissioned by King Alphonse XII (1886-1941), the Basillica was completed in 1901.
Walking back to our car we contemplated joining a long line waiting for the bus to see two magnificent lakes, Enol and La Ercina. It was tempting, as was taking the Fuente Dé cable car to the top of Picos Massif as my brother and his wife recently did; however, the heat won out with our choosing, instead, to avoid the crowds. We opted for an icy pop then slurped our way back down the hill to our car.
We continued winding our way further south through mountainous countryside with a few stops at roadside adventure camps
and miradors along the way.
Cangas de Onis
Our next destination was Cangas de Onis, capital of Asturias until 774 with its former Roman bridge reconstructed during the Middle Ages.
We also took advantage of some other works of ‘art’.
Posada de Valdeón
Late afternoon we began our search for a place to stay, and we found the perfect spot in Posada de Valdeón: Hotel Rural Picos de Europa. We knew we were lucky because not a lot of accommodations populate these small towns, but our hosts said the high season had only just begun since earlier rainy weather delayed the typical onslaught of visitors.
And, our room tucked up into the top floor made for a perfect ‘Heidi in the mountains’ feel.
This tiny village offered several lodges, a few restaurants (one being so good we returned for our second feast the next night), and an outdoor adventure shop. That’s it, along with the incredible vistas.
It’s also where we met and shared some wonderful conversations with two avid New Hampshire hikers who kindly suggested an easy stroll for us, starting in Cain, another small village further north.
We drove a half hour or so to Cain for a morning trek alongside the Cares River, a riverbed chiseled out of huge limestone blocks.
It also serves as a feed for hydropower, which is probably why such a well-established trail is carved out of the limestone, beginning with some short tunnels.
We went to the mid-point, then turned to retrace our steps. But, not before we experienced a religious moment… Thanks to our friend Ellen, we started seeing Flat Jesus in odd spots, including on a trail sign,
and in my back pocket.
We felt a bit abashed when others noticed our Flat Jesus, but we hopefully allayed any disrespect by saying it was ‘for our church’.
On our way back to our inn we stopped at yet another viewpoint (honestly, you can not not take photos of all this splendor)
only to find when we got back in the car that we could only go in reverse (!) while in first gear. Not a good thing when on narrow, steep, winding roads. In other words, backing up all the way back was definitely not an option.
After a few moments of wide-eyed concern of ‘how the hell do we get out of this predicament?!’, Max discovered he just had to really, REALLY gun it when starting on an incline. Problem solved but not without some rapid heart beating.
The next morning we packed our bags and headed off for more exploring as we made our way back to the coast, heading north and east.
The roads appeared well kept
although still a bit unerving with steep drop-offs and potential fog banks ahead.
With a full day ahead we decided to check out another popular pilgrimage site.
Just outside the city of Potes in the Cantabria province east of Asturias, Turibius of Liébana and some Benedictine monks settled in the foothills of Picos de Europa in the 6th century.
Several centuries later Don Pelayo’s successful campaign against the Moors resulted in a Catholic stronghold. Later, emigrating Christians from the north created a strategic buffer in the Valley of Liébana along the River Duer. Which is how the monastery Santo Toribio de Liébana came to be.
It gets a bit confusing as this Turibius of the 6th century (who would become a Saint) gets mixed up with another Turibius of Astorga of the 4th century (also granted Sainthood). I believe it’s the latter whose bones found their way to this monastery.
To me, what’s interesting is both championed Rome’s Catholicism versus Priscillianism, a form of Christianity developed here in the 4th century by, whom else, Priscillian (340-385).* And, one I had never ever heard about, which isn’t surprising considering my tiny knowledge of religions.
*This doctrine is a mix of Gnosticism (the Christians’ God didn’t directly create the earth, an imperfect spirit did…) and Manichaeism (the good power of God opposed the evil power of the devil) with the underlying dualistic premise: material was evil and the spirit good, which, leads to the logical (?) belief that this denied Christ’s humanity.
Priscillian didn’t sound like a fun guy as he has been described as a rigorous ascetic forbidding all sensual pleasures, marriage, meat and wine. He also has the distinction of being the first ascetic executed (he literally lost his head) for heresy by the Church.
And, this is one of the rabbit holes I follow when something unusual catches my interest and, which I’m certain doesn’t capture yours! So, onwards to what we actually saw…
We passed groups of orange t-shirted youth making their way up the long hill.
I later spoke with several of them who explained they comprised a group of around 100 kids from all over Spain. Their week-long pilgrimage ended here, for which they appeared extremely thankful.
We followed them into the church, built in 1256. The simplicity of the decor was refreshing after the lavishness of other churches and cathedrals we’d visited.
Here we witnessed a short sermon (which we didn’t understand) and a song (which didn’t matter that we didn’t understand as it was lovely).
Off to the left of the Apse an iron grill secured the Chapel of the Lignum Crucis. Eye roll not withstanding, peering through the bars we saw a glass encased, gold encrusted sacred relic.
This was the Lignum Crucis or in lay terms, the largest known piece of the True Cross… left branch, mind you, of the cross Jesus died on. And, if you could look at it without the gold casing (created in the 18th century) you could see the nail hole for one of his hands, I mean, the sacred nail hole.
And, how did this priceless piece of wood come to be here you ask? Well, Emperor Constantine’s mom, Helen (Saint Elena now) (246/248-330 C.E.) discovered it along with the crucifixion nails, the holy tunic, and the crown of thorns belonging to Jesus. Historians can’t quite pinpoint how Camaleño managed to get their hands on this artifact; but it most likey arrived in the 8th century along with the remains of Santo Toribio de Astorga. Which is why this ancient monastery is known as “The Sanctuary of the Lignum Crucis”.
I didn’t see it but the monastery’s cloister has replicas of the “Commentary on the Book of the Apocalypse” by Beatus of Liébana (730-800). Drafted in 776 then revised twice over the next ten years, his work served as a rallying cry for his countrymen against the Moorish rule. Thus, it became a best seller, causing others to create over 34 versions (called “beatus”) from the 10th to the 16th centuries.
In a small gift shop you could obtain a bunch of Christian items, including several versions of a baby Jesus,
with price tags that probably pay for some good communion vino.
As tempting as it was, we decided to not bring one aboard to keep our pagan doll company.
Rgardless of who did what when, this stone grouping of quiet buildings nestled amongst the forested hill exudes peace. One we enjoyed in spite of our heatheness.
Back down the hill we drove into another popular destination, Potes. We eventually found a parking spot and joined other tourists out and about enjoying a warm summery day.
A tower offered some great views
and a quick history of the region beginning with the Roman conquest of NW Spain and continuning through the rise of the Inquisition.
And, remember the Beatus mentioned earlier? An exhibit featured replicas of these manuscripts, noting that a variety of institutions (Paris National Library, Madrid’s Royal Academy of History Library, New York City’s Morgan Library, etc.) hold the originals.
Since the majority of text appeared in Spanish we deciphered what we could- not quite understanding the Beatus’ significance, but appreciating the illustrations,
including some rather cartoonish expressions of Adam and Eve…
While I perused the Beatus Max joyfully occupied himself scouting out various placements for Flat Jesus, the most notable relating to the Inquisition.
An outdoor lunch (numerous sidewalk cafes mean very few choose to eat indoors) and people-watching ended our tour of Potes.
We continued on our journey while every now and then gazing heavenwarads to thank the road gods for the nets above us.
We stopped in at the 10th century church of Santa Maria de Liébana. Unfortunately, we had missed the confusing signage citing opening hours but did appreciate the setting, situated below a rock climbing school.
Santillana del Mar
Our last destination before Santander landed us in one of the quaintest medieval villages we’d seen in Spain: Santillana del Mar. Thankfully, Linda mentioned this otherwise we might have missed it, which would have been a real mistake.
We paid a small entrance fee to access one of this village’s main sites: Santa Juliana Collegiate Church.
Another fascinating religious structure educated us on the connection of the French King Luis IX (1214-70) to this region of Spain via his father’s (Luis VIII’s) marriage to Blanca de Castilla (1188-1252).
A display describes this king as one of the most prestigious figures of the Middle Ages. No doubt this reverance came from Louis’ devotion to the Christian faith (he’s the only French king named as a Saint). He wanted to trade his crown for a monk’s robe but knew his duty was to lead his people, which he did in the 7th and 8th crusades while spending boat loads of public funds on Christian relics (he built Sainte-Chapelle to hold these special items). Considering he zealously suppported the Inquisition, his reforming of the French legal system and the presumption of innocence seems a bit hypocritical. Eventually Luis got his halo and became Saint Luis in 1297.
For all his monkhood he certainly enjoyed the conjugal bed, for his wife Margaret of Provence (1221-95) popped out 11 kids.
We wandered along the cloister noting elaborate columns decorated with religious scenes
and an elaborate storyboard depicting the life of Christ,
which jolted us when it suddenly sparked into animation.
On our way to this site Max noticed a potential MDT (Max Disaster Tour), the Torture and Inquisition Museum. Oh boy.
However, when we met at the cafe (I decided to sit this one out) he said the displays present these despicable practices in historical context, and notes which ones continue to the present day in particular countries.
Another very historical site we unfortunately missed: the Cave of Altimira with its 14,000 year-old paintings. But, hey, yet another reason to return to this magical region of Spain.
By 10pm we found ourselves standing in Santander’s small airport waiting for a special visitor to arrive. Soon we spotted my beautiful god daughter Maggie :) She had made the trek from Lyons where her French studies had just ended and was joining us for a too-brief visit.
Back on JUANONA we fell into berths and woke Sunday morning for another day of sight-seeing. We made the short drive to the capital of Asturias, Oviedo, where we posed for photos in front of its famous cathedral in the Plaza Alphonse II El Casto,
listened to traditional music while watching costumed locals dance,
enjoyed some tapas and some of tapas including shaved slices of jamón,
and appreciated one of the stunning sculptures scattered throughout out this city.
A circular route back to Gijón included some back roads to another small church, again whose viewing hours we missed; but, we did see one of this area’s traditional hórreos or granaries.
Raised onto mushroom topped stones,
this design supposedly kept rodents out of the stored grain; however, I’d like to see a test run of this for all of us thought rats could scale those pillars pretty quickly if they’re anything like the squirrels at our feeders.
A quick drive down to the small harbor of Cudillero found us amidst a flood of locals and tourists. Against a steep backdrop of homes, cafes, and shops locals and tourists alike basked in the hot sun
with some getting a respite from the water.
After a whirlwind of a visit Maggie boarded a bus to Bilboa to meet her friends as well as reacquaint herself with her luggage that hadn’t arrived on her flight to us.
A quick provisioning at a huge supermercado and a wash down of JUANONA’s deck to remove coal dust from the loading port next door prepped us for our next adventure: Galicia, which, to say it properly, start lisping!
I can’t leave this post without noting a favorite musician of mine who passed away July 16. Johnny Clegg, born 1953, was someone I discovered in the 1980s and followed ever since. Thanks to him, I have a wonderful memory of dancing my butt off with my cousin Cathy and friend Colleen in the early 1990s at a concert in Burlington, Vermont.
So, here’s to Johnny Clegg and the beauty of his music.