Boring Diary Details
Asturias: lush green mountains, the harsh Cantabrian sea, constant rain, narrow streets, colorful houses, fabas, and of course sidra. Hands down, Asturias is the most beautiful place I have been in Spain. I also had the best kind of tour guide, a Spaniard who was born and raised next to the pueblo in which we stayed.
Near the beginning of my time in Spain, one of the first grade teachers invited me to spend the weekend with her in her hometown. At the time, my Spanish was terrible and her Asturian accent was a mystery to me. I thought she said “estudias” and I first thought she wanted to study at the library with me and then realized she was talking about her pueblo. As my Spanish has improved, I understood that she meant Asturias and as my knowledge of Spain improved I realized that Asturias isn’t a town. Like Catalonia, Euskadi, Castilla y Leon and Cantabria, Asturias is its own autonomous community. It borders Castilla y Leon and the pueblo that I stayed in was about a two hour drive from Aguilar de Campoo. This teacher drives back to her home in Asturias almost every weekend to see her family and her boyfriend. She is renting a place in Aguilar and hoping to someday work in the school in Infiesto, the town where she was born and raised (we stayed in her rural houses in a town close to Infiesto).
I am going to take a moment out of my weekend to talk about Spain (not like my weekend isn’t in Spain). Here in Spain, the school system is organized very differently. Once a teacher goes through their examinations and applies to work for the public school system, the government chooses where to place them. Younger, less experienced teachers have less say over where they will be placed. This means that in my school in Aguilar, my guide is from Asturias, the other teacher travelling with us is from Salamanca, two teachers are from Valladolid, and three are from Palencia. Some of these places are up to two hours away and the teachers live two lives. Every weekend they pack everything up to go stay in their homes in their cities to see their families, significant others and friends. The teachers who live in Palencia choose to carpool and make the hour long drive (one way) every day in order to not have to rent a place in Aguilar (plus one of them has a wife and kids). As a teacher accumulates more “points”, they are more likely to be placed in the school that they want to work in. My guide has applied to change to a school in Leon that is closer to her home and is anxiously awaiting news that she might have received it. Someday she hopes to work in her hometown. This is an interesting method of placement. It guarantees diversity in the small pueblos but it is also very difficult on the young teachers.
I feel like we saw and did so much this weekend. My guide is an energetic woman and she and her boyfriend wanted us to see the best of the area both in landscape and in cuisine. I left school an hour early with my guide (because she works less on Friday so that she has more time to go home) and ate lunch at the Aguilar apartment of our traveling companion. Over lunch, my guide and our traveling companion were discussing the worker’s strike that is occurring Thursday, March 29th. The Spanish government is currently trying to make some reforms that a large number of people disagree with and so a nationwide strike is being organized. A few of the teachers in my school plan on participating and the school will support them in that by giving the kids extra recess time during the hours when those teachers would be teaching them. The attitude in my area seems to be divided. I haven’t heard someone express a positive attitude about the current reforms but many people feel that something has to change and at least the government is trying to do something. I am following it all with interest.
After we headed to Asturias, the route we drove was basically north to Santander and then west along the coast to our first stop. This means that I have driven the coast from a small town in Asturias all the way to San Sebastian because when I went to Euskadi we went north to Santander and east to San Sebastian.
Our first stop was the ocean at a town called Llenas. The area of Asturias that we were in is full of tiny towns that are 5-10 minutes from each other and each town has at least one pretty thing to see (info from guide). She took my companion and me to her favorite beach and the port in the town. The town has a total of two beaches and we did drive past the other but we actually got out and explored la playa del toro – the beach of the bull. The sea was “as calm as a pool” which meant there were mild breakers, something I had to laugh about. Like always, the sound of the ocean is soothing to my soul. My guide told me, “When I am by the sea, I am home.” I feel the exact same way. This is the fifth time I have traveled to a coastal area since coming to Spain. The coast and the sea are a part of my heart.
After we stopped in Pria to see the bofundas – geysers but because of the tranquil sea we only saw the holes and some cute looking cows. The countryside in Asturias is the most beautiful that I have seen in Spain with Euskadi and Aguilar as a close second and third. Everywhere we went I couldn’t take my eyes of the lush green mountains and the bright colorful houses. My guide told me that because the sea was quiet we would have great weather that weekend. Her prediction came true. It isn’t as cold in Asturias as it is in Castilla y Leon (coastal weather is always better – I experience that in FL) but it rains all the time. This is why everything is so green. I was very fortunate in my weekend in Asturias because there was no rain and an “August sun with a March wind”.
After the bofundas, we went for a walk along a street in a town I can’t remember the name of that had tons of houses built for “Indianos”. These are Spaniards who went to the Americas a long time ago, made their fortune there and came back rich. In many pueblos in the area it is still a custom that the Indianos throw a huge party once every year and the entire village is invited to come and celebrate. The houses are large and luxurious even by US standards and many of them are now in partial ruins or have been converted into hotels.
Our next stop was Orriendas to pick up some criollo (chorizo that is stuffed into a sausage but hasn’t been cured) for the next day. We then went to the tiny area that is minutes outside of Orriendas to see where we would be staying. It is called Soto de Duenos and it is about twenty or thirty houses with two bars. Between my guide and her boyfriend, they own six houses: an apartment in Infiesto, an apartment in Llenas and four rural houses in a tiny pueblo outside of Orriendas.
Rural houses are a form of industry here in Spain. Their four rural houses are apartment style next to a pool and a garden. They didn’t invite us to sell us on renting out their houses (they let us stay for free) but they managed to sell me without trying. When I live in Spain, this is where I’m vacationing. There is nothing “special” in the town itself but you are moments away from the mountains and the sea. What more could you ask for?
As always I was blown away by the generosity of my guide. She and her boyfriend welcomed us and spent the entire weekend trying to make sure we saw the most and the best of Asturias. After settling in and admiring the houses, we went to Infiesto to pick some stuff up. In Infiesto is the apartment that they spend most of their time and where most of their stuff is. Having more than one house is not a rare thing in Spain. Spain has a very high rate of home ownership and tend to invest extra money into property instead of other things. After collecting stuff we went out for my first experience with sidra in the best sidrería in Infiesto.
I learned a lot this weekend thanks to my guide and my improved Spanish enabled me to understand her. Sidra is a hard cider made from apples. It is not typical of Spain; it is typical of Asturias. You might find it in bigger tourism spots in other regions but it is not a part of their culture like it is in Asturias. Almost everyone in Asturias drinks sidra; it is more common than beer or wine. It has no carbonation so it has to be poured in a special way. Many Asturians especially tall ones know how to pour but not all do. My guide did not know how but her boyfriend did. In a sidrería that isn’t a concern though because within the cost of your sidra is the pouring. It has to be poured from a long distance from the cup and the stream has to hit the side of the cup. The sidra should foam and the amount poured should not be very large. It has to be drunk in one sip and a little bit is left to dump out (under the bar is a drain) to clean the glass because the glasses are shared among a group. Once a bottle is opened it has to be finished because it doesn’t last. I think I tried at least five brands of sidra. This was the closest I have ever been to getting drunk. Sidra has a very low alcohol content but it is drank very fast. They say that sidra wants to find something in your belly when it arrives but I was with Spaniards accustomed to drinking it all the time so a few times I had to speak up and get something to eat. The cost of sidra in Asturias is close to nothing. 2.50 euros will get you a bottle of sidra and one bottle when poured correctly should yield 6 glasses (about a shot’s worth of sidra each) with some left over at the bottom of the bottle. The last bit in the bottle is not drunk because that is where all the apple bits have settled.
After drinking sidra, we went to Ques, the small town that my guide grew up in. Her parents still live there with chickens and a garden. We dined with them and her boyfriend at around 10:45. Even for older people this is not a strange time to eat dinner especially on the weekend. Her parents were very kind welcoming people and I was pleased that I could understand them because my guide had warned me that her father was difficult to understand because he mixed his Asturian with his Spanish. I didn’t take pictures of the meal but it was big and wonderful: fried eggs, cheese, chorizo (made in house), stewed beef, and salad with a cheese tart and walnut pastries afterwards. My guide told me afterwards that her mother loved to bake and always served one dessert if not two on Friday night.
Saturday we began our morning by eating breakfast in the garden. It was a beautiful day that got almost hot by midday. Breakfast was the same as what I eat at home every morning here in Spain: hot milk with Nesquik or Cola-Cao (Spanish brand of Nesquik) and galletas. If you ask a Spaniard what galletas means they will tell you “biscuits” which is the British word for cookie but in Spanish there are two words for cookies – one for cookies that are dry and crunchy (eaten at breakfast) and one for cookies that are soft and chewy (I only see these in pastry shops).
After breakfast we went to Orriendas to wander around the market and see a bit more of the town. We also stopped in at the best sidreria in Orriendas before lunch.
Lunch was an outdoor affair in Soto de Duenos. My guide’s boyfriend had offered to cook for us and outside of the criollo, she prepared the entire meal. This was one of the best paellas I have eaten and the sidra was made by my guide’s boyfriend’s uncle. My guide’s boyfriend’s sister also ate with us. I loved the pate and they were kind enough to write the recipe out for me.
After lunch we went up into the Picos de Europa to see this. We went up so high that my ears popped. We explored Covedonga and were in Congas de Onis in time for the bagpipe competition. The outfits (and the bagpipes) are traditional to the area and bagpipe players are highly respected. The music institutes in Infiesto start teaching children how to play when they are as young as 5 year old.
More sidra and dinner were back in Infiesto. This was my first experience eating octopus although my host mother later told me I had eaten it before and she had told me it was something like a calamari. The restaurant we ate at is a family owned business with the mother cooking and the grown up kids serving and pouring sidra. Each of the plates was shared between the four of us and they insisted that we finish every plate. Take out boxes are not typical in Spain and they don’t like to waste food. Waiters will give me a hard time if I don’t finish the food on my plate. I have learned that especially in self-serve situations, take less than I want because leaving food on my plate is considered rude.
Saturday night was Spain’s time change so we slept in a bit later on Sunday. After breakfast we went to Oviedo, the capital of Asturias. Like everything else in Spain, Oviedo has its superlative. It is constantly voted the cleanest city in Spain. Because of the humidity in Asturias, the government pays a lot of money to have the green stuff scrubbed off of everything. We explored the older area of the city and drank sidra along the street of sidrerías. I was surprised at how tranquil Oviedo was. There were crowds but overall it was a very calm city even with the Asturian elections which were held that Sunday.
Before lunch we went to two monuments outside of Oviedo that had a great view of the city.
Lunch was at a restaurant in a small industrial town outside of Oviedo. There were two great restaurants in this town that my guide and her boyfriend love so we went to the more expensive prettier one for sidra and then went to the other for lunch. This meal cost 15 euros and it was absolutely incredible. This restaurant is very famous and very busy. We had called the day before to make a reservation. Just to put things in perspective, your average restaurant here in Spain charges 9-15 euros for a three course meal with bread and your beverage of choice (wine, beer or bottled water). This 7 plate meal didn’t include the beverages but it was also very high quality food. FYI, you don’t tip in Spain!
Afterwards we went to yet another small town nearby to drink coffee and let our food settle. It was then time to pack up and drive back to Aguilar. If I had to pick my favorite traveling weekend, this would have to be it. Everything about it was good: food, company, countryside and I didn’t come home exhausted (nor did I have any mishaps). Spaniards have really taught me how to travel – how to stop, relax, breathe and eat.