Discover why this stunning region is Spain’s best-kept secret

Beyond Barcelona, Asturias entices with gorgeous landscapes and world-class cuisine.

Photograph by Chiara Goia
Read Caption

Sunrise warms the Picos de Europa, part of the Cordillera Cantabrica range that secludes Asturias from the rest of Spain.

Photograph by Chiara Goia

This is a meal I could eat nowhere else, it occurs to me around the seventh course. I’m in the mountains of Asturias, one of Nat Geo’s Best Trips for 2020, and I’ve been served a dish of sea urchin and ham that unites the coast and peaks of this northern Spanish province in a single bite. Two tables away, I see José Antelo raise his fork in triumph.

Antelo works as an air traffic controller in Barcelona. His brother, Luis, is a superior court judge in Madrid. They live in two of Europe’s top restaurant cities; they can enjoy memorable meals night after night without ever boarding a plane. But three or four times a year, they meet to eat in Asturias.

Asturias? This autonomous region of Spain lying along the Bay of Biscay, dense with trees that run up hillsides, dotted by wild marshland, and scalloped with tidy beaches, isn’t located between Madrid and Barcelona. It’s hundreds of miles from either. When I mention that, José laughs. “I’m sure you know why we come,” he says. “Nowhere else in Spain can you find so many flavors, such incredible variety, in such a small area. It is like an entire country.”

We’re dining at Casa Marcial. Housed in an old mansion, or casona, decorated with window boxes and topped by a barrel-tiled roof, the restaurant sits at the top of a winding road in La Salgar, a mountain village that smells of pine. The coast is six miles to the north, as the Asturian wood pigeon flies. But La Salgar remains so deeply embedded in the hilly, heavily forested interior of the region that, I’m told, many of its residents spend their entire childhoods without ever seeing the water.

The Manzano family opened Casa Marcial in the middle of the last century as a general store, selling olive oil, cider, cattle feed, even clothing. In 1993, 22-year-old Nacho Manzano, the son of the owners, returned from the coast to start a restaurant. Gastronomes such as the Antelos love Casa Marcial, which has been awarded two Michelin stars. So do locals, who don’t dress up to eat there. But nobody more admires its modern Asturian cuisine—fresh, briny seafood such as razor clams, but also the thick bean stews of the mountain villages so pure and perfectly rendered—than other chefs.

On this November night, half a dozen chefs from across Spain have gathered to celebrate the restaurant’s 25th anniversary. They aren’t just paying homage; they are actually cooking for Nacho and about 50 of us diners. We eat plate after plate of food: more ham, roasted rabbit from the hills around the restaurant, and the salty, rubbery sea cucumbers that I’ve only had along the Spanish coast. By the time I head back over the mountain to my hotel in seaside Gijón, we’re nearly five hours into tomorrow.

Walking in the drizzle by the seawall where on summer days surfers congregate, I pass a rowboat filled with predawn fishermen. When I look around at where I am, and remember the mountain village I just left, José Antelo’s description hits home. Asturias is like an entire country.

Returning to the region for the first time in years, I’d driven north from Madrid a few days before. By the time I hit the A-66 highway, the mesa around me had been flat and brown for hours. At the northern edge of the province of León, I entered the Negrón tunnel—and emerged somewhere else, a land all its own. The highway curved through a valley rimmed with tall pines, past bulbous rock formations atop vertiginous slopes. I saw homes with picture windows cantilevered over stone-paved streets and ancient granaries perched on stilts. At times what I was seeing looked more like Ireland than Spain. There had been no official sign of demarcation when I passed from León to Asturias. It didn’t matter. I hadn’t needed one.

Cultural capital meets fun-loving port

I was heading for the Asturian capital of Oviedo, a compact city of roughly 220,000 residents separated from the slightly larger Gijón by rapidly encroaching suburbs. Each city has a proprietary social scene; you can be a VIP in one and all but unknown in the other. Oviedo has the better museums; Gijón has the beach. Twice a year, the Sporting Gijón and Real Oviedo soccer teams bring the rivalry to life before a full stadium.

Most visitors come upon Oviedo first. They seek out some of the best pre-Romanesque architecture in the world, 14 preserved buildings, including the tall, narrow ninth-century palace-church complex of Santa María del Naranco. I make a pilgrimage there as soon as I arrive. I enter a vaulted room made of stones the color of milk-clouded coffee. Only one other person is here. The windows are cut thick into the walls of the building, their shutters flung open to the breeze. I peer over a grove of trees and see the city spread out below.

Within the hour I’m making my way through Oviedo and find sculptures, it seems, on almost every corner; more than a hundred adorn the capital. Before I reach my hotel, I pass “La Maternidad,” a rounded woman with an equally rounded child by Colombian sculptor Fernando Botero, then Miguel Ortiz Berrocal’s “El Diestro,” a metallic rendering of a bullfighter’s torso. Later, in a residential neighborhood, I’ll discover a conference center and office building designed by Santiago Calatrava that looks like a massive winged creature about to take flight. The next day, I’ll be transfixed by “El Regreso de Williams B. Arrensberg,” a statue of a trench-coated friend of artist Eduardo Úrculo, surrounded by suitcases and sporting a bemused expression as he gazes at the city’s cathedral.

View Images

The medieval town of Llanes is one of the top summer destinations in Asturias.

Oviedo’s artistic awakening has happened only over the last generation, just as Nacho Manzano started drawing international attention to his small restaurant in the mountains. The timing is no coincidence. “Before then, we didn’t think Asturias had much to offer the world,” explains Esther Manzano, Nacho’s sister, who has her own restaurant, La Salgar, in the center of Gijón. “We didn’t believe in ourselves. We didn’t have fantastic weather. We were very hard to get to—a long drive from anywhere, there were no flights. We just assumed nobody would want to come.”

Then two things happened: Europe’s new bargain airlines began flying intrepid tourists here in the late 1990s; and Woody Allen’s 2008 film Vicky Cristina Barcelona sent its characters to Oviedo for a weekend, causing filmgoers around the world to turn to each other in surprise. Why would anyone leave Barcelona to visit … Asturias? “Woody Allen told the world we exist,” Esther says. “He opened the world’s eyes, but he also opened our eyes.” A statue of the controversial writer-director stands off Calle Uria.

Tourism has helped raise the standard of living in Asturias, giving restaurants like those run by Nacho and Esther Manzano a way to thrive. But it hasn’t changed the nature of the place. Spain entertained more than 80 million visitors last year, enough to overrun many of its best known places. Barcelona has become a set piece, far from the raucous port town it used to be. Madrid seems like an international shopping mall.

Asturias, however, remains regional, strong flavored, authentic. Menus in English are hard to find in Oviedo, and until recently they were all but absent elsewhere in the region. José Andrés—the Asturian-born, Washington, D.C.-based chef who has become a global sensation—wants to open a restaurant not far from where he lived as a child. If he does, I’m betting it won’t have an English menu either.

Asturias’s two largest cities are polar opposites. Oviedo, like many inland cities, tends to be insular, conservative, overtly polite, and socially inaccessible. Gijón is a port town, working-class and occasionally profane, but open to the sea and new ideas. Oviedo has an opera house and a full program to fill it. Gijón prefers its series of avant-garde festivals. I’m pleased that one of those festivals, Jazz Xixón, is under way at the Teatro Jovellanos when I arrive. I buy a ticket to see the Portico Quartet, an experimental band that was nominated for Britain’s Mercury Prize; other headliners will include the playful Spanish group El Viaje del Swing (The Journey of Swing). It’s easy to spot the blazing neon sign for Teatro Jovellanos, mounted high above the pedestrian mall of Paseo Begoña. Inaugurated in 1899, the theater was renovated shortly after the fall of ruler Francisco Franco in 1975 and bought by Gijón in 1995. It has served as a cultural centerpiece since.

I find Tonio Criado, the festival’s director, standing in the lobby underneath an enormous crystal chandelier. Criado grew up in a small inland town near Cangas de Onís before moving to Gijón. Now he wouldn’t live anywhere else.

“It’s the youngest city in the region, and the freshest,” he says. “You find that in our music, our cuisine, and our way of life.” When I ask him whether he feels more Spanish or Asturian, he doesn’t hesitate. “Oh, Asturian,” he says. “But really, I am from Gijón. What we are doing here couldn’t happen in Oviedo.”

The following morning I visit the Museum of the Asturian People, which sits just east of downtown Gijón. It sounds like a Cold War tourist attraction in an Eastern-bloc capital, but actually it’s a re-creation of a traditional Asturian village. The grounds include a 17th-century peasant house, a covered alley where the recreational bowling game called cuatreada is played, a bagpipe museum (bagpipes are a common musical instrument in Asturias and Galicia), and several of the granaries—called hórreos—that are ubiquitous in the area. Inside the exhibition space, the topic of the day is food. I am astonished to see how rudimentary the kitchens were, even in urban areas, into the 1950s and 1960s.

Many of the dishes made in those kitchens are now served at Esther Manzano’s restaurant, La Salgar, named after the Manzanos’ hometown. A modern glass box attached to the museum, the restaurant isn’t officially affiliated with it, but their missions are aligned. If Casa Marcial is where the Manzano family adds an Asturian element to high gastronomy, La Salgar rewards Asturians with deliciously familiar food amid Gijón’s clamor. The idea was to have local diners taste quintessential versions of dishes they’ve been eating all their lives, such as arroz con pitu, a version of chicken, rice, and red pepper that every Asturian remembers from childhood. “Dishes of the home,” Esther declares, “served in a restaurant.”

Caves, wines, and more discoveries

Like San Francisco and Scotland, bad weather suits Asturias. I leave Gijón and head east along the coast under a steady drizzle. In August, Ribadesella attracts Spaniards who are desperate for a respite from oppressive heat. In November, with rain misting a cool morning, it becomes a particularly lovely local fishing village. Kids splash through puddles in the streets. Adults walk dogs. Shop owners stand in the doorways greeting friends.

Not far away is the Tito Bustillo Cave, site of one of the more remarkable discoveries of the last century. In 1968 a group of amateur spelunkers realized that falling rocks many centuries before had sealed an opening of a cave. They returned with full gear and managed to make their way inside. When they did, they were surprised to discover that one cave opened onto another, and then another. On the walls, they found a magnificent series of cave drawings, dating back more than 10,000 years. Another mysterious drawing was made some 30,000 years ago, according to carbon dating.

Although the site has been validated by waves of experts, its existence continues to raise more questions than have been answered. Why, I find myself wondering, were drawings made in precisely the same place some 20,000 years apart?

I ponder that over lunch 15 minutes to the north, on a spit of beach. Güeyu Mar restaurant is a glorified shack marked by a huge plastic kingfish mounted over the doorway. Abel Alvarez, chef and owner, has been grilling fish here since 2007.

His menu consists of whatever the boats have brought in that day, supplemented by seafood in metal tins that Alvarez has preserved himself. There’s no meat of any kind, nor rice or potatoes, just seafood and local vegetables and excellent bread rolls. I eat razor clams and sardines, then grilled cockles and kingfish. I drink Asturian wine, which barely existed a decade ago, from the inland winery Dominio del Urogallo, the best of the few producers clustered on the western side of the province. The blend of three local red grape varieties has the stony freshness that I usually associate with cool-climate whites. Crisp and salty, it tastes like the sea.

Rain is falling again; when I step outside I see a vivid rainbow arcing from the trees atop the steep hills down to the water. Then I pivot inland. I stop in the hill town of Cangas de Onís, where a much photographed Roman bridge spans an unhurried stream.

From there the next morning, it’s a short trip to Covadonga, which is one of the most historic spots in Spain. You could make the argument that modern Spain began when the advance of the Moors was halted here by the Visigoth nobleman Pelagius, the founder of the Kingdom of Asturias, in 718.

Spaniards needed nearly 800 more years before they expelled the Moors, but the Battle of Covadonga marked the start of the reversal. The natural setting is breathtaking, with a serpentine road leading up a canyon, past a waterfall and then a small shrine. At the top, shimmering above the mist, rises the majestic, pink-stone Basilica of Santa María la Real de Covadonga.

I’ve visited before, but hadn’t taken the time to drive to the lakes above Covadonga in the Picos de Europa (Peaks of Europe) National Park. Now up another winding road I go, bound for those lakes. Trees fall away, and the view opens to a wide sky of cotton ball clouds.

Then I hear bells. They start softly, but soon their metallic jangle has drowned out the car radio. I round a bend and see sheep, what looks like several hundred of them, painstakingly crossing the road in front of a line of stopped cars.

I park and walk into the nearby brush, inhaling air so fresh that it sends a jolt of sharpness into my chest. The spiky peaks of the mountain silently surround me from a distance; all I hear is the din of the sheep bells, sounding like church bells ringing at high noon. A driver honks a horn in frustration, but that only makes the sheep stop in their tracks. With great deliberation, they look around. Satisfied that they can proceed, they resume their shuffle.

Eventually the stragglers get across. By now, the traffic probably snakes around the bend and halfway down the mountain. I see the cars start to move, but I can’t walk back just yet. The bells clank and the air crackles and the peaks look like cathedral spires. Around me is a sea of sheep with no shepherd in sight. I’ve never been anywhere like this. I don’t want to leave.

Bruce Schoenfeld last wrote about the sparkling wines of Sussex, England, for National Geographic Travel. This was his third visit to the region of Asturias, and he is eager to plan another. Follow him on Twitter. Chiara Goia is an award-winning photographer who has captured images in Mongolia, Cuba, and Cambodia, as well as in her native Italy. Follow her on Instagram.