April 27, 2010 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Travel, Travels in Spain

Ahh, Northern Spain, why do I love you so much? (I suppose I could say the same about Eastern, Southern and Western Spain as well, but never mind that) After my recent trip to Santander, I just couldn’t turn down another opportunity to head up north and discover some new cities and pueblos. So when my friend Sophia said she needed a road trip getaway, we quickly managed to narrow our sights on the provinces of León and Asturias (which is actually a community as well). León is a city that I’d heard of a million times, but had never actually been to, and therefore it remained one of my must-visit spots in Spain. Knowing little about it, we went there with pretty much no expectations – we had our bags packed, our reservations at the Parador of León booked, and a whole lot of road trip spirit.

Arriving in León we were greeted by the impressive facade of the Parador that we would be staying at. Its lengthy exterior is proceeded by a large plaza full of bubbling, small fountains that recall summertime and kids splashing through them in the hot sun. The Parador itself is housed in what is called the Monastery of San Marcos, which was originally built in the 12th century as a church and hospital to shelter pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago. Then during the 16th century, the building was demolished and reconstructed as a monastery, and since then has been used for a variety of other purposes, including as a prison. Then finally, in the 1960s, it became a hotel and also home to a city museum.

After admiring our new digs, we set off to discover a couple pueblos. We chose these pueblos based on an El Mundo article (one of the top newspapers in Spain) listing the top 30 pueblos in Spain – so expectations were high as we left León. Our first stop was Astorga, a city which was not only on the list, but one that received raving reviews from several people we’d spoken to. We arrived in the pueblo’s historic quarter and found it to be a near ghost-town, so we wandered its streets in search of the treasures that made this a top 30 spot in Spain. We eventually came upon its grand, baroque-style cathedral built in 1471. Then sitting right next to it was actually an Episcopalian Palace designed by Gaudí, which was an impressive castle-like building that bore pretty much no resemblance to his famous works in Barcelona. Other notable sites were its third century walls, in addition to a small exposition of Roman ruins. The rest of the town was of course charming, but admittedly nothing entirely different than any other historic Spanish city, and therefore left us a little bewildered about the top 30 title (how Astorga beat out places like Toledo or Segovia, just to name a few, is beyond me). We also managed to try the regionally famous cocido maragato (cocido being one of Spain’s famous garbanzo based stews), which featured seven mystery meats – and seriously, what the seven were was a mystery to me. It was yummy, but I wasn’t brave enough to try the meats (sorry Spain, I’ll eat just about any of your food, but I had to draw a line on this one).

Our next stop was also on the list of top 30, so given our previous experience, we set our expectations to “average, but optimistic,” and hit the road. This pueblo’s name was Castrillo de los Polvazares, and the minute we approached it, we knew we wouldn’t be disappointed. Rocky streets that looked to be cobbled together by green moss were bordered by equally stony looking houses trimmed with matching green doors, shutters and balconies. The village seemed vacant of people, but somehow bustling with pickup-truck traffic, which I’ve later learned is likely because the city is full of what they call “arrieros maragatos,” which are basically mercantile transporters specific to that region. The houses there are called “casas arrieras” because they were built to serve this merchant activity, and therefore have large doors making way for ingoing and outgoing transport. We made our way rather conspicuously through the pueblo, hobbling our way down the cobbled streets as we balanced on the uneven stones in our ballerina flats – we definitely got some sideways looks from the locals.

That evening, back in León, we enjoyed tintos de verano (a favorite Spanish beverage of mine) in the Plaza de Regla as we watched the sun set on the spectacular León Cathedral, and eventually as the lights flickered on to illuminate it. With my front row seat of the cathedral, I marveled at its oddly large number of windows and how radiant the whole building was – I was certain we had to see the inside before leaving, although that would have to wait a day or two.

The next day had a new journey in store for us – a drive north to the community of Asturias, which is known for its green, mountainous landscapes as much as its delicious foods. First we headed to Oviedo, where we took in the sights despite the unrelenting misty rain – the lush and gorgeously manicured San Francisco Park (what a lovely name!), the 8th century cathedral, and even the Boulevard of Sidra (cider) where we finally had lunch. During lunch we tried the famous Asturian dish fabada (a stew made of large white beans) as well as sidra, which is a regional beverage that is often served in a unique way such that the cider splashes in the bottom of the cup in order to oxygenate it (this requires expert skills, no joke, as one must pour into the cup from the bottle at a great distance – it’s an art, seriously). We also picked up some of the most divine pastries I’ve tried in Spain – especially the carbayones, which are typical from Oviedo (Santumede, Calle de Jovellanos 14).

From Oviedo, we moved up toward the northern coast about 15 minutes to the city of Gijón. We arrived knowing that it would be a big beautiful city on the coast, but without any set itinerary, so we immediately set out to find the office of tourism. When we couldn’t find it, we stopped in a pharmacy and asked the pharmacist for recommendations or directions, but he only proceeded to stare at us blankly before finally stating, “ummm, ummm, well you could go see this building that is down the street – it’s large.” We left there more confused than when we had entered. We finally found an old, jolly couple who pointed us in the direction of the historic quarter, but basically confirmed that there wasn’t a terribly large amount of sites to take in outside of what we’d already seen. So we did what any smart tourist would do – we shifted the focus from sites to food! We sat down at the first restaurant that we could find that would serve us some arroz con leche (also famous from Asturias). What a brilliant decision this was as this arroz con leche was surely the best I’d ever had – which is an especially big complement since I pretty much consider myself an arroz con leche expert at this point (Entreplazas, Plaza Mayor, 6).

On our drive back to Leon, we stopped in the outskirts of Oviedo so that we could see the church of Santa Maria de Monte Naranco. It was originally built as palace for King Ramiro 1 in 842, but was eventually converted into a church in the 12th century. Just up the street was the neighboring San Miguel de Lillo church, also built in 842, for King Ramiro I. Must be nice to have your own little palace and church with beautiful views of the valley below!

The following day, before departing León, I was intent on visiting the inside of the cathedral. Something about this cathedral fascinated me – I could tell it was different than any of the others I’d seen in Spain. So after a cappuccino and pastry breakfast (the breakfast of champions, of course), we showed up at the cathedral right as it opened. I was hypnotized by the abundance of stain-glassed windows covering every wall from top to bottom and casting colorful prisms of light in every direction. This wasn’t a Spanish cathedral(!) – Spanish cathedrals are dark, stony and low on stain-glassed windows. At the moment, the cathedral is being restored, including its more than 1,800 square meters of windows, so lucky for us, we were able to access one of the construction platforms to view the interior from a different vantage point (take note – the opportunity to do this won’t last forever, so if you’re anywhere near León, go check it out!). We were fortunate enough to have one of the cathedral employees join us and explain to us in great detail the construction and layout of the church, in addition to the fact that it has one of the largest collections of stained-glass in the world. It is different than other cathedrals in Spain because it’s just one of two legitimately Gothic cathedrals (the other being in Segovia), which therefore means it has a lower nave, and ultimately windows on more levels of the church. Anyway, long story made a little bit less long – the cathedral was absolutely captivating and made the trip to León more than worth it. I will for sure be going back!

I’ve finally just created a Facebook page for La Tortuga Viajera and will be posting pictures there soon from the trip – be sure to check it out!