Today’s blog post is heavy on words and light on pictures – because it’s from a trip almost 10 years ago and I could only find so many pictures! However, it’s another part of Spain definitely worth knowing so, better late than never, I will write about it.
In 2008, I traveled to Spain with my fellow geology students at the University of Victoria to complete my second geological field school. It was my second visit to this glorious country and I only continued to fall further in love with it during this trip. Unlike the previous (and following) trips, which were mostly city-based, this trip was almost entirely in the remote countryside, a totally different picture and experience. It’s definitely a trip requiring a rental car – many of the sites and towns were otherwise pretty cut-off.
Below was our route – flying into Madrid, and then continuing by car to the Picos de Europa national park, the towns of Ribadesella, Barrios de Luna, and Espasante, the city of Salamanca, and finally back to Madrid to fly home.
I had another whirlwind city tour in Madrid and managed to squeeze in a visit to the Prado museum. “The Crucifixion” was beyond words – with colors so vivid and brushstrokes so talented that the fabrics looked like you could reach out and feel them. The evening brought an outdoor Opera at Plaza Mayor, followed by Chocolate con Churros in the early morning.
The next day we were off to the North, visiting some preserved dinosaur footprints on the way to our hotel Derli Sella, in Ribadesella in the Asturias region.
The hotel cooked us a feast, our first taste of traditional Asturian fare, Fabada Asturiana. Fabada is a stick-to-your-ribs stew, composed of gigantic white beans simmered for hours with pork shoulder, chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage), and saffron. Delicious. This was followed by fried cod and creamy homemade slabs of chocolate tart. The people of the Asturias are traditionally farmers, fishers, and shepherds, working long hours in the often harsh climate and steep topography of the region. Nights by the fire with a big bowl of sausage stew was a necessity.
The next day we made a detour to a very important site indeed – the Cave of Altamira in Santillana del Mar. The cave itself is ancient limestone, its subterranean marvels emerging slowly during the Pleistocene period, via water which slowly eroded the rock away. Today it is a World Heritage Site – that slow dripping water revealed Paleolithic cave drawings, dated between 35 000 to 11 000 B.C. Incredible! The caves were chillingly frigid with 99% humidity – icy water occasionally dripped down our backs while we descended, lending a spooky feel to our journey underground. The petroglyphs are of a horse, reindeer, and man, drawn with ink made from iron and magnesium oxides. Today photographs are not allowed, as the flash would activate bacteria on the walls, degrading the artwork. A truly astonishing site to see.
The following day, we moved our home base to the tiny municipality of Los Barrios de Luna, spending long hours working and mapping in the Picos de Europa national park. While the field trip was meant to teach us about the earth, we learned an awful lot about the culture and food of Spain as well. Perhaps this is what I love most about this country – the land, the history, the food, the religion – everything is so fervently respected and intertwined that it is simply impossible to visit and not experience everything as a whole. The mountains with their complex geology are the same mountains where farmers craft local cheeses. The river running by the town cathedral is the same river which feeds the rich soils of the local vineyards. Every little thing is appreciated and respected and it is a feeling utterly missing in North America. And utterly refreshing to experience. Our family run simple hotel in Los Barrios was probably the best example of this experience. The owners, an elderly couple with constant smiles on their faces, were so happy and eager to share the best of their region with us. Rooms were simple but immaculate, with homespun warm blankets to keep away the chilly nights. Hearty traditional dinners were a welcome sight after our long days in the sunshine, wind, and somewhat fresh temperatures of late spring. Our regular dinner hour was 9:30 PM – getting used to late dining hours is something anyone who has visited Spain knows about! Tables were laid out with baskets of crusty bread and local red wine upon arrival, a starter for the feast to follow. Meals were always kicked off with a hearty soup, followed by delicious Spanish tortilla or fish fried in egg batter. I will never forget our last evening there, with our lovely host struggling to carry a mammoth shallow pan of steaming paella to the long table, where she was met with much fan fare and ooing and aahing from the guests. So much love was in that pan and you could definitely taste it.
Another fun cultural experience was learning about the religion of cider here. Though cider from North Spain is hardly well-known or respected, it should be. Entirely different from the fizzy applejuice-like stuff we are used to, the cider here is tart, cloudy, non-carbonated, and delicious. Similar to the cider served in the Basque region, it is traditionally poured into the glass from an arm held high above the head, to fully oxidize the beverage on its way to the glass. A particularity of this cider is its acidic edge – known as acetification. Though it’s a natural part of the fermentation process most other regions consider the taste a mistake, whereas here it is fully embraced. The acidic and fresh beverage is a perfect accompaniment to the region’s earthy and homey food.
We moved on to Espasante, a livelier town full of modern chic bars. Our hotel was fancier than the previous pensions , with a French theme (right down to Steak Frites for dinner) and thoroughly hot showers. Here we did more field work along the coast, marvelling at the gorgeous beaches and imagining them in the heat of the summer.
Long days in the field were made more lively by our mountain helpers.
Onwards we went, from Espasante to Salamanca, a proper city in the northwestern portion of Spain. Home to the second-oldest university in the world, bested only by Cambridge, the city has a vibrant and lively student culture. It’s also the only university in the world to be open every year since it’s beginnings. A tour of the university grounds made me green with envy – I think it would be hard to imagine a more beautiful campus.
Two cathedrals stand proudly in the town center, with the second being completed only in the 20th century. As such, it has some unique touches, such as a dragon eating ice cream and an astronaut carved in strategic places. That evening, the last of the trip, involved some heavy wine and tapas consumption in the many bars dotting the city center.
If you are interested in nature and a truly different cultural experience, the Northwestern provinces of Spain are unique and stunning. I would go back in a heartbeat 🙂