Oviedo and Bilbao, Spain

The Asturias region of Spain may be the best kept secret in Europe. Famous for its cider, fresh local seafood, over 40 varieties of cheese (like Cabrales, Gamoneu, Afuega’l Pitu, Los Beyos) reflecting the finest flavors the countryside has to offer, gorgeous beaches and lush green parks and hills, we should all get on a plane right now and head to Bilbao or Madrid, the two closest major airports.

We rolled into town on an ALSA bus, the only efficient way to traverse the Spanish coast by public transport, and it has forever changed the way we think about bus travel. Essentially, imagine an international flight with stewardesses, TVs, meals, and free beverages, and bring it down 30,000 feet to the middle of rolling hills and the edge of the Atlantic.

We left  San Sebastian a day early to arrive in Oviedo in time for dinner with the bride and groom’s family at a traditional sidreria, an ancient Celtic tradition found in parts of northern Spain where it is too wet and dark to grow nice grapes. This is not cider as you would traditionally think of it. Rather than the sweet ciders we tend to enjoy in the US or Switzerland, Asturian sidra tastes more like a sour beer – no sugar and extremely dry, but very refreshing with an apple finish.  Cider pouring is also more of an art form than anything else.  The pourer (generally a tall man) must hold the cider bottle as high overhead as possible with one arm, while holding the cider glass down at waist level with the other. Then, with a look of utmost concentration, they slowly tilt the cider bottle until a steady stream cascades down to the glass target below, which allows for aeration and is done both to create carbonation in the drink (poured normally it ends up flat) and to release its full flavor.  Once your “culin” is poured, about two inches of liquid, you must drink it all in one swig before your neighbor gets their culin.  This continues all night long, with the waiter doing laps around and around the table until dinner is over. You may not then be surprised that the average Asturian drinks 54 Liters of cider per year, the highest rate anywhere in the world!

Oviedo, the capital of Asturias, is a charming city of about 300,000. It has a very insulated feeling, pinned between the green mountains and the coast on a narrow stretch of land that is largely an undeveloped, rustic landscape. It is often ranked as Europe’s cleanest city and has a wonderful inviting air about it. Oviedo is well-known as Woody Allen’s favorite European city, in his words, “A delicious, exotic, beautiful, clean, pleasant, tranquil and pedestrianised city…It is as if it didn’t belong to this world. Oviedo is like a fairy tale”, for which they have built him a life-sized statue as a tribute.  The other famous metal sculpture in town gets the award for best name…butt on the back, and a shimmering pair of matching cheeks on the front, this bizarre sculpture is called the Culis Monumentalibus.

 The weather is Asturias is very unpredictable, raining one second and beautiful and sunny the next. Because of this, one entire town square is now covered by a stone umbrella.

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 Our visit also happened to coincide with the town’s annual festival, which is basically a reason to party all night long for residents of every age, with lots of music stages and drink stations set up all around the old town. During the day, traditional bands march through the streets randomly, seeming to play for no other reason than their own enjoyment. Other sights included a nice indoor market selling regional specialties like cheese, sunfish and eels (by the way, here is a great video if you don’t know what a sunfish is),

And a wonderful little archeology museum within a restored 16th-century monastery with exhibits explaining the region’s archaeological riches from prehistoric cave art to castro (pre-Roman fortified village) culture, Roman times and the medieval Kingdom of Asturias.

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The real reason for, and highlight, of the trip was the wedding. This was both of our first non-American wedding, and it was incredible. Lucas, the groom, is Brazilian and worked in Chris’s lab at GT and his (now) wife, Sarah, is Spanish and came to visit him often. They are a beautiful, lovely couple who have been together forever, and have collected a fantastic group of international friends. There were about 40 of us at the wedding, and we represented at least 10 different countries. Though we sat at the “English speaking table” (there was also one for Spanish and one for Portuguese), one British guy was the only other native English speaker. The ceremony was short and sweet, and the festivities started immediately after. First came tray after tray of passed local specialties, wine, and a private cider-pourer.  This was followed by a many-course dinner starting at 9pm of salad, lobster, steak, fish, sorbets to cleanse the palate between courses, dessert, and wine pairings for each, that lasted until after midnight.  Then the real party began. We took the early bus home at 3am, but the dancing went all night long.  At a goodbye brunch with the families the next day we all headed home early because so many people were nodding off at the table.

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We decided to head to Bilbao well before our flight to catch a glimpse of the dazzling “starchitecture” going on on the riverfront. Bilbao is the only really industrial city in the area, with a similar economic situation to Detroit for a while, before it was resurrected as a “destination”.You may have heard of The Bilbao effect; if you build it, they will come, or the idea that attracting a world-class cultural institution – in Bilbao’s case, a branch of New York’s Guggenheim art museum, opened in 1997 – will put your city on the map  and in turn attract more investment, brands, tourism and cultural energy. This tactic certainly worked on us, and we were mesmerized.

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This captivating coast deserves so much more exploration than we could give it this trip, so we will be back to explore the beaches and national parks, and would love to share it…

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