Asturias, a walk through the cradle of the Reconquista

Asturies

In Asturias, white sandy beaches mingle with mountainous terrain. And in the midst of these magnificent landscapes lies a most fabulous story…

The Spanish royal family and Asturias have been linked for over forty years. Both male and female heirs to the throne bear the title of prince or princess of this autonomous province. But why is this small territory so important?

Generation Voyage invites you to discover this region on a micro road-trip. After 3 days on site, you’ll finally have solved the mystery!

Pelayo, alone against all

Day 1 :

  • Departure city: Oviedo
  • Arrival town: Cangas de Onis, at Covadonga cave
  • Places to visit: Convadonga cave, Picos de Europa, Enol and Ercina lakes
  • Recommended time: full day

1,300 years ago, the battle rages on. The Umayyad Caliphate had completed its invasion of North Africa and was crossing the Straits of Gibraltar to reach the European continent. The Visigoth kingdom, unprepared for such power, found itself overwhelmed.

Military defeat followed military defeat, and nothing remained of the lands of the German monarchy. Well, almost nothing. In the North, a few unaware souls decided to resist the invaders. At the head of these Germanic diehards is Pelayo. His history is unclear. Some writings say he is of royal lineage, others that he comes from a people who sailed the sea. To end the debate, the Asturians finally decreed that he came from their region.

The conqueror organized the Asturian resistance, but the upper echelons of the Umayyad Empire wanted to put an end to this guerrilla warfare as quickly as possible. Part of the army was therefore dispatched to the area. The balance of power is unbalanced, and the pocket of resistance is in danger of being crushed.

Fortunately, Pelayo has a plan. He heads for the Covadonga cave, where an Iberian version of the Battle of Thermopylae takes place. But unlike the valiant Spartans, it’s the outnumbered side that triumphs. In the end, not all the credit goes to Pelayo’s tactical genius.

Vitrail Pelayo et Omeyyade

Photo credit: Shutterstock – jorisvo

Mysticism around Covadonga

Divine protection is said to have surrounded Pelayo’s valiant soldiers. Where does it come from? The cave and the Victory Cross. It’s this mystical environment we’re about to immerse ourselves in.

Long before the Christians sanctified it – Covadonga comes from the Latin Cova Dominica, literally « Lady’s Grotto » – the Visigoths had already captured the spiritual essence of the place. Impressed by the waterfall, the barbarians worshipped the water.

Be sure to listen to the sound of the water flowing into the lake to feel the exhilarating atmosphere of the place. Not far away is the famous « Fountain of the 7 Spouts ». Legend has it that any unmarried woman drinking from each of the spouts would end up married within the year. Now it’s time for a visit.

Chapelle et Fontaine

Photo credit: Shutterstock – TamaraLSanchez & lunamarina

The most important monuments are higher up in the cave. Accessible by stairs – which the most devout promise to climb on their knees – the chapel and Pelayo’s tomb each have their own particular history. A statue of the Virgin Mary is hidden inside the small religious building.

Vierge de Covadonga

Photo credit: Shutterstock – jcfotografo

When it was made, only paint was used to dress it. Although it retains all its symbolic aura, this statue is not original. The first version suffered a fire in 1777, and was replaced by the Spanish Fine Arts Department, before being stolen in 1939 and finally recovered in… Paris!

Continue your pilgrimage through the cave’s damp galleries. You’ll come across the tomb of Pelayo and his wife Gaudiosa. Their bodies were originally located inside the Church of Saint Eulalia, in the nearby municipality of Albamia. But the local authorities wanted the hero and his beloved to be laid to rest at this highly symbolic site. Since then, the place where this symbolic couple is buried has become a veritable mausoleum.

Tombe Pelayo

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Marques

Next to the cave is the Covadonga Basilica. Although built in the late 19th century, the building retains the neo-Romanesque inspirations typical of Asturias. This imposing structure towers above the landscape, its red stone contrasting with the surrounding green.

Venture inside to admire a representation of the epic battle and the valiant knight. And after admiring the painting, you can contemplate Pelayo in bronze form, topped by the Victory Cross he brandished during the battle, the original of which is on display at Oviedo’s Cámara Santa.

Photo credit: Shutterstock – edu_photographer_arg & Jorge Alves

Covadonga’s natural treasures

A break from nature is a must on this historic journey. Take advantage of the area’s natural riches by venturing a short distance from the site you’ve just visited. The limpid blue waters of the Enol and Ercina lakes, combined with the green of the local flora, give this area a truly bucolic charm.

Lac

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Miguel Maccas

And for those of you who want to get away from it all, there’s always the Pics d’Europe hiking trail. This mountain range stretches across 3 Spanish provinces – Asturias, Cantabria and León – and is home to the must-see sites of the Hermida Pass, Liebana and Cares Trails. Wind your way through winding paths to reach the heights for a breathtaking view of the region.

After enjoying the beauty of these landscapes and the cave, you’ll set off again in the footsteps of Pelayo. The warlord was not content to contemplate the treasures of his lands and, determined to reconquer the Spanish lands, he headed for Cangas de Onis.

Cangas de Onis, the first capital city

Day 2 :

  • Departure point: Cangas de Onis
  • Arrival city: Oviedo
  • Places to visit: Cangas de Onis bridge, Nuestra Señora de la Asunción church, Santa Cruz hermitage, the Asturian villages of Ribadesella, Llanes and Lastres.
  • Recommended time: half a day maximum at Cangas de Onis, the rest of the time to visit Asturian villages

Despite the defeat, the Umayyad Empire preferred to focus on invading the Kingdom of the Franks rather than dwell on the revolt of such a small territory. This tranquility allowed Pelayo to build the Kingdom of Asturias. He made Cangas de Onis his capital and established his court there.

The Asturians took advantage of this to give their city the unofficial title of « First Capital of Spain », as the whole country had been invaded. However, after Pelayo’s death in 737, the city was quickly abandoned. Its strategic location left much to be desired, and it came as no surprise when León overtook it as the kingdom’s capital in 774.

Pre-Romanesque remains

Today, a few traces still bear witness to the town’s past. Although built during the Roman era, its famous bridge bears a new replica of the Victory Cross. In fact, despite the importance Pelayo attached to Cangas de Onis, none of his successors erected a monument in his honor here.

Pont de Cangas de Onis

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Lukasz Janyst

The mistake was rectified in 1970 by Asturian artist Félix Alonso Arena. Muscular and ready to wield his sword, the Asturian hero stands on his pedestal, where an inscription reads « Pelayo first king of Spain ».

It is presented in its best light, and is enhanced by the building just behind it, the Nuestra Señora de la Asunción church. Its three-storey bell tower, characteristic reddish stonework and stained glass from the Mauméjean workshop leave visitors breathless.

Eglise et Pelayo

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Alfonso de Tomas & David Acosta Allely

Another landmark of this era is the Hermitage of Santa Cruz. Built by King Favila in 735, the chapel was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War. Fortunately, artist Luis Menéndez Pidal made a point of restoring it in the 1950s.

It was supposed to house the Cross of Victory, but the Asturian relic was moved to Oviedo. It does, however, contain another treasure. As you pass through the gate, you can see an opening in the floor, revealing a dolmen (circa 5,000-3,000 BC).

Ermitage de Santa Cruz

Photo credit: Shutterstock – KarSol

Asturian villages

Take advantage of the stopover at Cangas de Onis to get closer to the Asturian coast. Three villages typical of the region await you: Ribadesella, Llanes and Lastres.

Ribadesella

Each of these three fishing villages has its own special features. In addition to its sandy beaches, Ribadesella is famous for its Cueva de Tito Bustillo and Cuevona de Argüelles caves.

There are no references to the Reconquista here, but the cave is adorned with 14,000-year-old cave paintings.

Ribadesella et Grotte

Photo credit: Shutterstock – alvaher / Wikipedia – Falconaumanni

Llanes

As for Llanes, after a stroll through its historic center to discover its medieval remains, head for the port. In the distance, shimmering colors catch your eye, and as you approach, you come face to face with Los Cubos de la Memoria. With this atypical work, artist Agustín Ibarrola paid tribute to the history of Asturias.

Los Cubos de la Memoria

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Marisa Estivill

Lastres

Finally, there’s the charming town of Lastres. Built into a natural amphitheatre, it’s the ideal place to lose yourself in its cobbled streets and enjoy incredible panoramic views.

Lastres

Photo credit: Shutterstock – Jon Chica

It’s time to turn back, but don’t head for León. Like Cangas de Onis, it won’t remain the Kingdom’s capital for long, as it will be dethroned by Oviedo, symbol of the region’s greatness.

The noble Oviedo

Day 3 :

  • Departure city: Oviedo
  • Arrival city: Oviedo
  • Places to visit: Santa Maria del Naranco church, San Salvador church, Camara Santa and Fine Arts Museum
  • Recommended time: full day

Defeated by Charles Martel in 732, the Umayyad Empire gave up its European expansion. However, it did not linger to retake the Asturian territory. He felt that the region had few resources and, above all, the harsh winters didn’t suit them.

Another important point is that internal quarrels began in their homeland. And despite a few annual battles here and there, the Asturian kings kept control of the kingdom and even managed to expand it.

An almost random construction

In 761, two monks named Máximo and Fromestano were strolling along the Roman road linking León to Pajares. They stopped on a hill and, seeing the green pastures surrounding them, set about building a modest farm.

Prairie Oviedo

Photo credit: Shutterstock – saiko3p

Legend has it that King Fruela I stopped here after a hunting trip. Sufficiently satiated, the monarch fell in love with the place and, overcome with emotion, declared that he wanted to build the largest city in Asturias here.

A true property developer, he decided to build several edifices, including a church that would be the birthplace of his son, Alfonso II. In return, the heir would make his native region the capital of the Kingdom when he ascended the throne.

On the way to the Cross

Before venturing into Oviedo itself, start by visiting the church of Santa Maria del Naranco, 3 km to the north-west. This is the former royal palace, whose function was changed when the court left.

It’s one of the jewels of pre-Romanesque art that you should take the time to admire. It is one of the first buildings to use the « double arch » technique. This technique consists of placing a row of exposed stones on the inner curve of a vault, mainly for decorative purposes. 200 years later, the builders of the Romanesque period would also decorate their buildings with this ornament.

Santa Maria

Photo credit: Shutterstock – StockPhotoAstur

Finally, in Oviedo itself, you’ll easily come across San Salvador Cathedral. Its Gothic style might mislead you as to its pre-Romanesque origins, but it’s not. The bell tower dates back to the 8th century, as does the Camara Santa next door.

San Salvador

Photo credit: Shutterstock – StockPhotoAstur

It’s not the most impressive building in Oviedo, and you could almost walk past it without paying any attention. On the other hand, it’s certainly the one most steeped in history. Without realizing it, you’ve embarked on this adventure for its sake, as it houses the real Victory Cross.

Having seen her many replicas in Covadonga and Cangas de Onis, here she is at last! If you approach her, you’ll notice that her heart is made of oak, but that the blacksmiths of the time managed to cover it with gold and then set it with jewels.

Croix de la Victoire et Camara Santa

Photo credit: Wikipedia – Sitomon/ Shutterstock -Joaquin Ossorio Castillo

Despite the presence of other treasures such as the Angel Cross, the Agate Box and the Book of Wills, your eyes remain riveted on the precious relic. You feel like Indiana Jones rediscovering the Corovado Cross years after it escaped his grasp.

Put yourself in Pelayo’s shoes and imagine yourself with a sword in your right hand and the cross in the other? A feeling of invincibility runs through you, and you now understand why the Asturian hero envisaged nothing less than victory.

But that doesn’t mean your adventure in Oviedo is over. If you still have time, now’s the time to discover a little more of the city on foot and take a tour of the Fine Arts Museum. 15,000 pieces are on display in what is Asturias’ largest art collection. Thanks to them, you’ll be able to admire other aspects of this region than those mentioned above.

Musée des beaux arts Oviedo

Photo Credit: Facebook – Museo de Bellas Artes de Asturias

You’ll surely discover that the kingdom ended up being absorbed by that of Leon in 925. However, despite only 2 centuries of existence, you’ve discovered why Asturias has been so important in Spanish history. Without the tenacity of Pelayo and his successors, the Umayyad Empire would eventually have annexed the entire Iberian Peninsula, and the Reconquista would never have taken place. This epic was well worth a royal title!