Quickly: what are the first three words that come to your head the instant I say, “Spain”? Don’t think about it. Just do it.
Okay. Got your three words?
Great. Now, how many of them were anything like “green,” “mountains,” “farm,” “bagpipe,” “goats,” “rain,” or “natural paradise”? No? Huh, that’s weird.
Let me guess: you picked “siesta,” “bullfighting,” and “flamenco.” Does that sound about right?
Don’t worry, I don’t blame you for choosing that way. The fact is, you didn’t actually get it wrong, it’s just that your answers only covered maybe a quarter of the country.
Asturias, tucked away behind a smattering of mountains with its northern end descending out of sight into the cold Cantabrian Sea, isn’t your typical Spain. Though of course the better news is that there is no “typical Spain,” but that’s another story. Where bulls are more commonly seen sequestered in barns than in bullrings, where siestas are taken not because it’s too hot to leave the house but because the blasted rain hasn’t stopped, and where you’re more likely to hear a hearty drinking song over a round of sidra than the delicate plucking of a Spanish guitar, is where we’ve been spending the last four months of our lives. This weekend we went as a group to make what for most of us was a grand farewell trip, to immerse ourselves a bit more deeply in the culture that’s been surrounding us, in the monumental Picos de Europa.
Though only a 30-minute stop, our brief peak at Cangas de Onís was worth it just to see the tiny little mountain town that was once the capital of all of Spain.
For one of the provinces least trodden by the feet of tourists, Asturias lays claim to some of the most historically and culturally significant landmarks. Boasting the one-time record of “least-conquered place in Spain,” Asturias accumulated a great deal of items as they were moved there to be guarded while Muslim armies inhabited most of the rest of the country, like the cloth alleged to have covered part of Jesus Christ’s body which remains in the cathedral of our very own Oviedo. Also, the alleged largest piece of Christ’s cross just so happens to be kept in Santo Toribio de Liébana, which we appropriately saw on Sunday.
Though if pretty bridges and gilded wood aren’t your thing, then you might at least have liked the food. We spent our Saturday afternoon in the small pueblo of Cabrales, the unassuming birthplace of a world-famous cheese. The Ruta’l Quesu, or the “Cheese Tour” in Asturian, took us past farms and through caves under the direction of a guide who is also responsible, along with his brothers, for turning Cabrales into a tourist destination. After our walking lesson on the town, we were welcomed to a traditional Asturian meal called la espicha, which in English must mean “eat until you explode,” because that’s exactly what we did. An espicha is served in a succession of small plates to be shared in a manner somewhat similar to the definitively Spanish practice of tapas, but the kinds of foods placed before you are undeniably Asturian. Cabrales cheese, chorizo, wild boar, and hard-boiled eggs were just some of the dishes served to us amidst an endless supply of sidra cascading from the a pipe in the ceiling.
Notice how I said La Ruta’l Quesu isn’t Spanish? The surprising truth is that Spain is overflowing with other languages that aren’t Spanish. The sister languages of Basque, Galician, Catalán, Valencian, and of course, Asturian, can be found in their respective provinces. Rarely crossing territorial boundaries, these languages can add a touch of local pride to those who live in their native regions. In the case of Asturian, you won’t find it spoken too openly in the capital city of Oviedo, but in the mountains and smaller pueblos it still thrives.
After Cabrales we moved deeper into the Picos and closer to the province of Cantabria to pass the afternoon and evening in Potes. I often find it all too easy when soaking in a new location for the first time to note what feels familiar. Potes is the kind of comfortably small mountaineer-and-tourist’s paradise that could be swapped out with several towns in Colorado or Arizona without anyone noticing the difference. Couples walking briskly by with walking sticks and massive backpacks, earth-colored t-shirts in store windows, and more off-road vehicles than you can count (actually, fellow student Peter counted about 6 in an hour) all add up to something you think you might have seen before. That is, until you see something that draws you right back to your present location. Everything from the trees to the waterfront cafes reminded me that Potes doesn’t have to be compared to something I already know—it is its very own beast. The automatic tendency to search for something to which we can relate may keep us from feeling totally lost, but it’s observing the things that distinguish places that make each one more interesting.
For example, never in my life have I seen views like those from the mountain in Fuente Dé. Our last big stop, on Sunday afternoon, brought us up in a cable car to set our feet in snow once again. I’ll let the photo do the talking:
And then, for one final time, we came home to Oviedo. Our weekend immersion in Asturian culture will be the last for many of us, at least for awhile. With only a week left of classes, the return date to Philadelphia draws nearer for most. Some of us are staying, while still others will be on trains and planes for a week or two to tour and make one final desperate grab at European culture, but the “Study Abroad experience” is reaching its finale.
To my fellow Temple students: let’s make this last week count.