It’s almost as if Asturias is designed by an intelligent algorithm to keep everyone happy. You don’t have to choose between beaches or mountains, or between a city break or an activity holiday – this compact region in northern Spain has plenty. So it’s no wonder that so many Spaniards have second homes there. Personally, I would just go for the cheese. The only conundrum is why so few Brits choose it for their holiday.
The Principality of Asturias describes itself as a ‘natural paradise’ and for the first time this is not just a banal marketing slogan. Between Cantabria and Galicia, it stretches for about 200 miles from east to west and 50 miles from north to south. This is a land where mountains start just behind the coast, with emerald green meadows and apple orchards in between.
Traveling through the region, we come across pre-Romanesque churches but also with surprising contemporary architecture; you can hike through spectacular scenery in the hills in the morning and take a dip on an idyllic beach in the afternoon.
While it rains more here than in the south of the country, this is what creates these lush landscapes. It’s less hot in the summer than in southern and eastern Spain, which means you can spend most of the day at the beach — and Asturias has proper beaches, with white-sand crescents backed by cliffs. If you’ve only experienced the Spain of vacation packages at large resorts, you’ll feel like you’re in a different country.
Forming a triangle in the center of Asturias, Oviedo, Gijón and Avilés have very different characters, but each has its own charm. Elegant Oviedo, the regional capital, is unusually pristine for a city, with esplanades in pedestrianized squares in the medieval center. It gets lively at night, though, with people pouring out of the noisy cider bars onto the streets. Stay in historic splendor at the five-star Eurostars La Reconquista (eurostarshotels.co.uk; double from £100).
On the coast with splendid urban beaches, Gijón is the largest city in Asturias with a large port and a dynamic gastronomic and cultural scene. Stroll through the old town on the Cimadevilla headland that divides the bay and don’t miss the Atlantic Botanical Garden (botanico.gijon.es) and the vast Laboral cultural complex (laboralciudaddelacultura.com). The Santa Rosa hotel, with contemporary decor in a traditional building, is an unpretentious place to stay in a practical location (bluehoteles.es/santa-rosa; double from £70).
After decades of association with the steel industry, Avilés is now attracting many more tourists, both from Spain and abroad. Many come to visit the Centro Oscar Niemeyer cultural center (centroniemeyer.es), a futuristic white spot designed by the prestigious Brazilian architect at the age of 90, inaugurated in 2011, at the age of 103.
The city’s medieval heart is remarkably well preserved, with opulent mansions, colorful fishermen’s houses, pretty squares and porticoed streets lined with tapas bars. The five-star Palacio de Avilés occupies a palatial 17th-century building on the town’s main square (melia.com; doubles from £70).
Prehistoric settlements have been discovered in caves in Asturias, with magnificent Paleolithic art at Tito Bustillo (centrotitobustillo.com) near Ribadesella, Pindal on the cliffs near Ribadedeva, Buxu in Cangas de Onís and La Lluera in San Juan de Priorio.
Covadonga, in the Picos de Europa, is recognized as the birthplace of Christian Spain, as it was here at the beginning of the 8th century that King Pelayo triumphed over the Moors, beginning the reconquest that would take another seven centuries to complete. The mountain’s dramatic location is now a sanctuary, marked by a pink granite basilica (realsitiodecovadonga.com).
In the 9th century, King Alfonso II established his court in Oviedo while venturing into what would become Santiago de Compostela to see Santiago’s tomb. He was therefore the first pilgrim and the catalyst for the now world-famous pilgrimage to the Galician capital. The cathedral of Oviedo (catedraldeoviedo.com) has a particular significance as the starting point of the primitive path, as this original pilgrimage route is called.
On the outskirts of the city are the extraordinary pre-Romanesque churches of Santa María del Naranco, San Miguel de Lillo and San Julián de los Prados, as well as others in the region (prerromanicoasturiano.es).
You can spend a week or two traveling along the coast, discovering pristine beaches – there are over 200 to choose from – and staying in low-key fishing villages and resorts.
Cudillero, with rows of pastel-painted houses huddled on the hillside above the harbor, is a great spot for a seafood lunch and is close to Playa del Silencio, one of the most dramatic beaches in the area, which looks like the crater of a volcano. .
The stretch from Villaviciosa to Ribadesella is known as the Jurassic Coast because many traces of dinosaurs and other reptiles were discovered there. Head to La Griega beach to see giant footprints and fossils along the way, then stroll nearby Lastres, where the Spanish version of the Doc Martin TV series was filmed.
The eastern seaside town of Llanes is a popular base, with colorful mansions built by wealthy emigrants who returned from the Americas at the turn of the 20th century. The many beaches in and around the resort include Torimbia, a truly magnificent stretch of fine sand that is one of the best in Spain.
Head inland from the coast and cross bucolic landscapes of rolling hills, apple orchards and green meadows dotted with hórreos, the high granaries that you also see in Galicia – the difference is that in Asturias they are made of wood and not of granite. While this is a wonderful region to drive around, you’ll need to put your boots on or ride your bike to get the full impact of the experience. Asturias attracts many professional mountaineers and cyclists, but there are routes for all levels and ages.
The three massifs of the Picos de Europa, Spain’s first national park, separate Asturias from the rest of Spain. With dramatic jagged peaks, lakes and flower-filled valleys, the scenery is nothing short of jaw-dropping and the mountain range is unsurprisingly one of the top destinations for nature lovers in Spain. Cangas de Onís is a good base for all sorts of activities, with a particularly attractive Parador in a former monastery (telegraph.co.uk/paradordecangasdeonis; doubles from £80).
Asturias is also one of the few places in Europe where you can see brown bears in the wild. The best place to spot them is the Somiedo Natural Park, where you can also find wolves, griffins, golden eagles and a huge variety of butterflies.
You can find out more at the Fundación Oso Pardo information center (fundacionosopardo.org) in Pola de Somiedo and book a bear watching tour with Somiedo Experience (somiedoexperience.com). Stay at the family-run Palacio Flórez-Estrada (telegraph.co.uk/palacioflorezestrada; double from £70).
Food and drink
With a wide variety of superb products from the sea, mountains, rivers and lush landscapes, Asturias is one of the main gastronomic regions in Spain. Stop anywhere along the coast for a seafood lunch that can include clams, crab, hake or monkfish. Keep an eye out for sea urchins – erizos – which are one of the many specialties. If you don’t like facing the spiky creatures, try the rich pâté on a slice of bread.
After a morning walk in the hills, you’ll be ready for your fabada – the region’s signature stew, made with a local variety of butter beans, pork, black pudding and chorizo. If you’re really hungry, order a cachopo, which are two escalopes – usually the size of a plate – stuffed with ham and cheese, covered with breadcrumbs and fried.
I’m certainly not alone in my passion for Asturian cheeses – there are around 40 to choose from. The best known is the pungent blue Cabrales, which is made in small dairies and matured in caves. You can visit some of them in and around Arenas de Cabrales – a must for tourphiles.
While some wine is made in the Cangas de Narcea area, cider is the regional drink, served from a height to create a bit of effervescence. Although it’s served in thick glasses, you only get an inch or two at a time, which you quickly drop before it goes flat.
Where to stay
Asturias was the pioneer of rural tourism in Spain and you can stay in small and characteristic places throughout the region. Rustical Travel (rusticaltravel.com) and Casas Cantabricas (casas.co.uk) have a good selection of self-catering properties. Casonas Asturianas (casonasasturianas.com) brings together hotels in traditional constructions, from farms to grandiose Indian Houses.
Vueling (vueling.com) flies from Gatwick to Asturias Airport, which is 16 km from Avilés and 45 km from Oviedo and Gijón. You can also fly to Santander with Ryanair (ryanair.com) or to Bilbao.
Brittany Ferries (brittanyferries.com) sail from Plymouth, Portsmouth and Cork to Santander and from Portsmouth to Bilbao.
The journey along the coast to the Asturian border takes 45 minutes from Santander and an hour and 45 minutes from Bilbao.