“Hey guys, we’re renting a car next weekend. Wanna come?”
My girlfriend and I received this message from some friends we made here through Airbnb.
“Sounds great!” I said. “Where to?”
“Dunno yet. We’re still thinking about it.”
A couple days passed. They asked if we wanted to go to Andalusia, and we said we loved Andalusia but we’d spent a lot of time there already.
“How about going north?”
“That would be excellent. We still need to visit the north.”
“Ok, the north it is.”
Finally we decided on three cities: León, Oviedo, and Gijón. The car was booked and the hotel reservations were made. We were off.
“See that?” D said. “That’s the Valle de los Caídos.”
D is a softspoken Spaniard who works in software development. He was our only driver, poor man, because none of us could drive a stick-shift. We were on the highway going north. D was pointing out the window at a gigantic cross in the distance; this was the famous and controversial monument erected by Franco after the Spanish Civil War: the Valle de los Caídos, or the Valley of the Fallen.
“Anyone want a piece of avocado?” T asked.
T is a lively Russian émigré, who teaches English here. We had a very international car.
Our first stop was León because it was the closest. The drive there took about four and a half hours, which is quite a long time when you’re sitting in the back and have long legs and achy knees. I was going into my typical hibernation mode, which I use for all long car rides, when a thought popped into my head.
“Hey guys,” I said. “I’m pretty sure I forgot to bring underwear.”
“Too late now,” my girlfriend said. (Call her GF from now on.)
“Yeah,” T said. “You’ll just have to buy some when we get there.”
I spent a few minutes panicking about whether any stores would be open; but the panic quickly passed, and within an hour I had fallen asleep, as I always do, with my head pressed against the glass.
I woke up. We had arrived. It was dark outside. My neck hurt the way it always does when I sleep sitting up, and my mouth was full of that disgusting taste I always get when I take a nap. D was trying to find a parking spot near our hostel. As we drove along, I looked out the window in the hopes of finding an open clothing store. There were several, and I tried to remember where there were as the car went along.
T really had to go to the bathroom so D dropped us off near the entrance to go find a parking spot by himself. The hostel was confusing. We pressed the buzzer to get in and walked up the stairs to the first floor. There we found two doors, one right and one left, each with a sign on the side of it. T went to one of the doors and knocked. No answer. She knocked harder. Nothing.
“What the hell?” she said. “Does nobody work here?”
She knocked again and we waited, but the building was absolutely silent.
“This is ridiculous,” she said. “I’m calling them.”
She took out her phone and dialed the number of the hostel.
I couldn’t follow the conversation, but after a minute T went over to one of the doors and dialed a number on the keypad. The door clicked and we pushed it open.
We walked inside and found an empty hallway with several doors along the sides. Each door had a keypad on the side of it. The hostel was completely automated, apparently. Pretty cool.
Soon D arrived from parking the car.
“We need codes to get in,” T said.
D looked in his phone and found an email from the hostel. They’d sent it just two hours before. We typed in the codes and went into our rooms. But I couldn’t relax. I had to buy underwear.
“Hey, would you mind if I went to buy some underwear real quick?” I said to T.
“What, are you embarrassed if we come with you?”
“It will only take a minute,” I said. “I want to go before the stores close.”
“Okay, go, go,” T said.
GF and I walked out into the street and started looking. On the next corner was a chino. “Chinos” are ubiquitous here. As the name suggests, they are a type of store run by Chinese people. Inside is every variety of product you can imagine, from a window fan to a white board. These products are normally of mediocre quality, but the stores are very convenient because they are open when most other stores are closed. We walked inside.
“¿Hay ropa de interior para hombres?” GF asked the woman standing near the door.
From the confused look on the woman’s face I could immediately tell that she couldn’t speak Spanish. It was really weird to have the shoe on the other foot, for once.
Thankfully, as soon as GF asked I noticed a bunch of underwear hanging nearby. I picked two of them, paid, and went back to the hostel, where D and T were waiting for us.
“Do you guys wanna go walk around and get something to eat?” D asked.
“Sure,” we said.
The four of us went down to the street and started walking. We passed the cathedral and several other building, but it was dark and everything was closed so I didn’t get a good look at anything. I’ll leave my description for the next day. This night, I was mainly concerned with eating, since we hadn’t eaten a proper lunch and I was hungry.
On our walk we passed a park, where there was a small metal model of what looked like a city.
“This is a Roman camp,” D said to me. “León was originally a camp for Roman soldiers. The name comes from the word for ‘legions’.”
(According to Wikipedia, this is true; the name comes from the old Roman name Legio. This is an interesting coincidence, since león is also the Spanish word for lion.)
After about fifteen minutes we found a restaurant and went inside. All of us ordered drinks first, to see what food would be included. Our drinks came with two small plates, one of chorizo, and one of mushrooms in a sauce made from queso de cabrales.
Queso de cabrales, or Cabrales Cheese, is a type of blue cheese that is native to Asturias. (We weren’t in Asturias, of course, but León is nearby.) Now I am not normally a fan of strong cheeses, but I was not prepared for the flavor of this cheese. I winced as soon as it touched my tongue. It did not taste sour or rank the way some blue cheeses do, but bitter and earthy. But it wasn’t the flavor that made me wince, but something else; as soon as it touched my tongue I felt an electric shock. I did not like it very much, but everyone else loved it.
We sat there and ate and drank, all of us a bit tired. After three rounds of drinks and three rounds of free food we’d had enough. I paid (the bill was very cheap) and we went back to the hostel. Once there, we agreed to get up early the next morning and said goodnight. I stayed up for a few hours reading Anna Karenina. Anna and Vronsky had just moved abroad to Italy where they were dallying in European art, and Tolstoy was satirizing them beautifully, with the lightest and most compassionate touch. There’s nothing like traveling with a good book.
We woke up the next day, bright and early, ready to see León.
“Did you do a new underwear dance this morning?” T asked as we met in the hall. (I hadn’t. The underwear was a little tight but still quite comfortable, in case you’re wondering.)
Our first stop was the cathedral, but on our way there we went past the Casa de los Botines, which is one of the few architectural works by Antoni Gaudí outside of Barcelona. I have to admit it has a Disneyish look to me. The style is theatrical neo-gothic. All the windows and towers are designed to be narrow, sharp, and tall; and combined with the somber grey color, the building looks like it belongs on a movie set rather than a city block. The building is now the headquarters of the bank, Caja España. Let it be known, by the way, that I don’t know a thing about modern architecture; nothing.
Soon we were at the cathedral. Now here was proper French gothic. The cathedral had that wonderful, foreboding grandeur of gothic architecture. Two large towers flanked the central section with the rose window, flying buttresses extending from either side. So much mass is concentrated in the front of the building that the final effect, for me, is that the edifice looks like it is about to charge right at you when you’re standing in front of it. All of the architectural elements are pushing and pulling against one another, giving it a feeling of tension and poise; the building has not the calm repose or harmony of parts of the classicist style, but a kind of calculated dissonance and strain. I’ve heard the cathedral at Burgos is even nicer.
We went in. It was quite dark inside. Unlike other cathedrals, the walls and the chapels were not ornately decorated. In fact, not even the main altar made an impression on me. All of the focus was on the cathedral’s stained glass windows. They must be some of the most beautiful in Spain. Standing in that dark room and looking up at the strained glass windows, with their deep greens and blues and reds, was deeply impressive. How could they have built such massive windows in a structure made completely of stone? It is an architectural feat so amazing that I cannot get used to it. Every wall of the cathedral glowed with colorful light and intricate patterns. I soon gave up walking around the cathedral and just sat down on the pews, admiring the windows.
Thirty minutes passed, and we were back on the street. Suddenly the sound of drumming and singing caught my ear. I looked over and saw a procession of about a dozen strangely dressed women. Curious, I started following the little parade. The women were dressed in colorful headscarves, dresses, and black shawls. A man was beating on a little drum and all of them were singing.
“What is this?” I asked D.
“I think it’s a procession for a religious holiday celebrating women,” he said.
We followed the procession for a while and then cut off to visit the Plaza Mayor. There, we found a farmer’s market. Tables were set up, covered in crates of fresh vegetables. The vegetable vendors were doing good business, too; the place was buzzing. Nearby there were parked several vans, with sides that opened up to reveal red piles of meat; they were meat vendors. D and T, who love buying food from these markets, went right over to one of these meat vans.
I wasn’t particularly interested in buying anything, but the meat vendor almost convinced me. He was giving away samples left and right, giving us a taste of anything we wanted. I was chewing on some particularly good chorizo when a very short man with a big blond mustache, wearing a plastic Viking’s helmet (with the two horns) and carrying about thirty balloons, walked up and started talking with the meat vendor.
They spoke really fast and I didn’t understand a thing, but apparently they were friends since both men laughed. I was afraid that the balloon Viking was going to try to sell me a balloon, so I was a bit wary. But then the man noticed a wineskin hanging from the meat van. He walked over, grabbed the wineskin, and said to T: “¡Mira!” Then he proceeded to squirt a stream of red wine into his mouth; and I couldn’t help noticing how it turned his teeth and his tongue a blood red, which I found a bit creepy.
“Aha!” he said as he finished, using the back of his hand to wipe off the wine that missed his mouth. (Some red specks remained on his blond mustache.) He handed the wineskin to T and commanded her to drink. She did, and then D did, and then it was my turn. A bit apprehensively, for the whole thing struck me as unsanitary, I squirted some of the wine into my mouth. It was very bitter, but otherwise good. And in fact it was so much fun drinking that wine that I momentarily considered buying one of the wine skins for sale. But then I thought about when I would possibly use it, and decided not to. T and D bought something (I forget what), and we moved on.
Since we had two more cities to see and not even two full days, we started to move back towards the hostel to check out. On our way, we passed by the remains of an old wall, which we climbed up. Unless I’m mistaken, the walls of León are extremely old. They were originally built by the Romans, but they may have been rebuilt and expanded by later generations. In any case they look old; and that’s what is most important to a tourist.
We got back to the hostel, paid the bill, and then got into the car. But we only got about a mile before we stopped to see something that caught our eye. This was the Hostal de San Marcos, a large, impressive building that was originally a convent, but is now a luxury hotel. (According to what I can find online, it costs €200 a night to stay there. I’ll wait until I publish my next bestseller.) Thankfully, they haven’t changed the plateresque façade of the building, so it’s still a lovely sight. Part of the building can’t be entered by tourists, since that’s where the fancy guests stay; but there is a church and a small museum you can visit. It was not an extraordinary experience, but certainly worth it if you find yourself in León. I was most surprised to learn that this building, one of the most important Renaissance structures in Spain, was used for political prisoners in the wake of the Spanish Civil War. According to Wiki, more than 20,000 prisoners went through the building, and many of them were likely tortured or killed. This beautiful building is thus a fair summary of European history: from religious piety, to fascist brutality, to high-end luxury.
After half an hour of peeking around, we got in the car and drove off again. This time I stayed awake, for the most part.
Over the Hills
The drive to Gijón was magnificent. It was a stormy, overcast day. The sky was gray and the countryside was covered in fog. The road wound its way through green hills. The land here was grassy, a big change from the parched area around Madrid. Little towns appeared and disappeared as we went, just a few shabby buildings huddled around the main road.
Running parallel to the road was the railway. It was perched a little bit above us on the hills. It must have been built long ago, for at several points it was sheltered by a concrete bunker that looked ancient. To me the bunker looked like it could collapse at any minute, and I managed to convince myself that this railway must not be used any more, for it was too dangerous. But a passing train told me otherwise. The road and the railway danced around one another through the hills; the tracks passed from our left and to our right as we drove over railroad crossings. Our radio began to flicker in and out, dissolving in a haze of static. The fog, the green hills, the tiny villages gave me that distinctly odd feeling, which I can only describe by saying it felt like I was in a movie.
Suddenly we found ourselves on the top of a mountain. That road had taken us up to 1,400 meters above sea level, and now we began a steep descent. Before us was an entire mountain range, their peaks covered in snow. The road led down into a huge green valley. Little towns could be seen, just mere specks in the enormous expanse. In such an big space the towns looked as fragile and insignificant as ant-hills on a sidewalk. The road twisted and turned around the mountain, into the very bottom of the valley. Horses roamed these fields, pure white and chestnut brown, grazing on the grass.
After ten minutes we stopped at a restaurant by the side of the mountain, to take pictures of the view. I tried to open the door, and immediately felt an intense pressure pushing from the other side. It was the wind. Strong gusts of cold wind blew constantly up there, forceful enough to make you lose your balance. The wind tore right through your clothes and chilled you in seconds. I had only felt intense wind like that once before, when I was standing on the top of Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania. I ran behind the restaurant building to escape the gusts. But there was one creature up there who didn’t seem to mind.
Sitting outside by the parking lot was an enormous dog. I don’t know what was the breed or whether it was a mutt. It had a big, slobbery face and a mottled, gray coat. He was clearly an old dog. But he was friendly. As soon as we got out, the dog raised itself on its creaky legs and started ambling over towards us. At first I was intimidated, because the dog was really huge and I wasn’t sure if he had an owner. But it was obvious from looking at him that he only wanted to say hello. I gave him a few pats on the head, and then GF did the same. Both of us were instantly covered in saliva.
I snapped some pictures and then got right back in the car. It was just too cold. But I felt bad to say goodbye to the dog. I miss having a dog; and this one seemed so lonesome up in that parking lot, sleeping in the cold wind.
We started driving again. But the cold had sapped my strength. I fell asleep almost as soon as I got in, and the next thing I knew I was in Gijón.
“Nice town,” I said, after I woke up and stretched my legs in the tight space.
We were driving through the city center, turning down narrow streets.
“When do you wanna stop?” I asked.
“What do you think we’re doing?” T said. “We’re looking for parking!”
“Ooohh,” I said. I have a habit of making mistakes like these.
Every street we saw was packed, so finally we decided to suck it up and pay to park in a garage. Soon we were out on the street, walking along the harbor.
It was an overcast but otherwise nice day. The harbor was full of little white boats. For the most part these boats were all of the same type: speed boats with two motors, big enough for four people. Were they all for recreation? I suppose you could fish from the boats, but only for sport. Do families go out on pleasure rides on the Bay of Biscay? If so, those are quite choppy waters for buzzing around in a little motor boat.
It was lunch time by now, and all of us were quite peckish. We walked along the harbor looking for a restaurant. Soon we came upon a large red sign that spelled out “Gijón” in stylized letters. Of course, we had ask a passing pedestrian to take a group picture of us.
“Are you from here?” D asked the impromptu photographer.
“No, no, we’re here for the football match.”
We would see more evidence of this football match later on.
We found a restaurant and decided to eat outside, for it was a pleasantly warm day. We ordered the menú del día, which came with the famous fabadas asturianas, or Asturian fabada stew. (Asturias is the name of the province.) This is a stew made with pork, chorizo, and fabada beans. From what I can tell, many regions of Spain have a dish like this, except that they use the local bean. Segovia, for example, has judiones, which uses the same ingredients but with judiones de la Granja, a locally grown type of large bean, instead of fabadas. In any case, all of these dishes make for a very filling meal. The entrée was pork chops in a sauce made from that same Cabrales cheese I talked about earlier. But this time the taste was mild enough so I didn’t mind it.
We sat, drink, ate, talked, and watched a couple of kids who were having fun pushing each other around in a stroller. Then we paid and left. I had no idea what to see or do in the town, so I just followed T and D along. They led us into the peninsula that forms the city center. This peninsula has quite a bulbous shape, and juts out rather impudently into the sea. At the end of this peninsula is a park, and quite a nice one. This is the Cerro de Santa Catalina. It used to be a military fortification, I believe, but now it is a rolling, grassy hill that overlooks the ocean. Once you walk to the top, you can see the whole town behind you, the coastline on either side of you, and the endless stretch of water in front of you.
In the center of the park is a large concrete sculpture that looks like a ring standing on two pillars. But the ring is oriented horizontally, hanging over you without any apparent support. The whole structure looks impressively precarious, as if it can totter any minute. Framed between the legs of the sculpture is the great ocean beyond. There you can sit, hanging your legs off a cliff, enjoying the view.
We walked around the park for a few minutes, and then paused to look at the other side of the harbor. It was filled with cranes, boats, and warehouses; it was the industrial port.
“What’s that?” GF asked, pointing.
I squinted, and noticed a strange, dark cloud forming over the port.
“Huh,” I said. “Weird. Maybe it’s coal or something.”
As we kept looking, the cloud grew bigger and darker.
“Wow, look at that,” T said, noticing the cloud. “Good thing the winds aren’t blowing towards us.”
But almost as soon as she said that, the winds changed. The cloud was moving towards us. I’ve never seen anything like it, a big, black mass of fog rushing over the open waters towards me. It was surreal and a bit terrifying.
“Let’s get out of here,” T said, and we began to walk away. The other park-goers had a similar idea, and we all started heading towards the town. But we didn’t go fast enough. The next minute, the storm hit. Terrible winds ripped through the park, bending trees, turning clothes into balloons, making people stumble as they walked away. It felt like I was back on that mountain.
“Holy shit!” I said to GF as we hurried back towards town.
Then it started raining. At first it wasn’t raining very hard, but the combination of water and rough wind was enough to chill me right through. So I couldn’t help being filled with pity when I saw a band of teenage girls struggling through the storm wearing tutus with bare legs. Poor creatures.
The rain kept intensifying. It was obvious that there wasn’t any more fun to be had in Gijón, so we skedaddled to the car. We passed street after street, and soon I could hear the sound of human voices in the distance, accompanied by a drum. Who was singing in this weather? We turned a corner and came upon a group of about 50 people, all wearing blue and white shirts. A girl was pounding a simple rhythm on a big drum and the rest of the people, mostly men, were singing at the top of their lungs. It sounded like a drunken, disheveled pep rally. These were the sports fans from Galicia; their team was playing against Asturias that day.
We got back to the harbor, but by now the wind and the rain had gotten too intense. The only comparable experience I’ve had was during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The winds were so strong that you couldn’t walk straight, and the rain was so heavy that you would be soaked in seconds.
“I’ll go and get the car, you wait here,” D said, like a true hero.
The rest of us took cover under the entranceway of a bank. The winds roared, traffic lights swung too and fro, and pedestrians ran for cover. After five minutes of waiting, a group of teenagers joined us in our little shelter. We talked and then lapsed into silence. More time passed. The weather only grew more vicious. It got so bad that I began to be afraid for D’s sake. What if a branch fell on him? What if he was knocked over by a gust of wind? Such questions didn’t seem unreasonable as I watched a man stumbling in the street, his hands raised to protect his eyes from the rain. And indeed, I later learned that this storm caused some significant damage to the town. It was a spectacular thing to see.
Ten minutes went by; then fifteen. I began to wonder if I should go out after him, when suddenly the car pulled up.
“He’s here!” we cried, as we ran to the car and hopped in.
“Let’s get out of here,” D said.
We retreated. Our next stop was our hotel in Oviedo, only 40 minutes away. By the time we arrived there, the weather had turned from a tempest to a calm night.
We dropped off our bags in the hotel and then went out to eat. All of us were tired and soaking wet, so we didn’t have a lot of energy to go exploring. We walked around for about ten minutes before settling on a bar near the hotel.
“Cider is the typical drink here,” D said. “Sidra.”
“Oh, okay,” I said, “let’s get some.”
The waiter came, and we got a bottle. But we couldn’t just pour it for ourselves. In Asturias they are serious about their cider, and you have to pour it in a special way: by holding the bottle high up above your head in one hand, and the glass as low as possible in the other. Then you try to aim the stream of the cider into the glass. I think the swishing around in the glass it supposed to do something to the cider, but I don’t know what. In any case, our waiter duly performed this feat for us, taking the glass and the bottle to a special pouring station so he didn’t get the floor wet. By the way, cider in Spain is quite different from cider in the United States. Here it is not at all sweet, but instead quite bitter. I like it, but not very much.
Two fellows in the bar were watching a soccer game on the television.
“That’s the game in Gijón,” D said, pointing to the screen.
“Really?” I said. “They’re playing in that weather?”
“Soccer fans are crazy,” D said.
“Yeah, I can’t believe all those people were standing outside and singing.”
“I heard of this one time, when fans of two teams used to meet up before the game and have organized fights. A man even died in Madrid in one of these fights. It’s crazy. Why would you do that for a sport?”
(I don’t know how to verify this information so I myself don’t know the incident in question.)
“I don’t understand sports,” I said. “I’ve never liked them.”
“Well, the Spanish do,” D said.
As a side note, it is true that I’ve never been able to enjoy team sports. And not only do I fail to enjoy them, but I can’t understand why other people do. I’m not going to condemn anyone who is a sports fan; there have been lots of intelligent and decent sports fans. But I will say that this kind of competitiveness and provincialism that sports draws on—the point is to win, and you support your team because they’re from your town—are among some of our worst qualities. Yes, of course there is a huge degree of skill, finesse, strategy, and athleticism in sports too, which are their redeeming qualities. I can enjoy watching Olympic gymnastics, for example, since it isn’t about winning or beating the other team (at least, for me it isn’t).
But the tremendous passion that drove those fans in Gijón to sing in the rain, or the fanatisicm that urges people to beat up supporters of the rival team—these displays of fandom give me the creeps and I cannot help having misgivings about the whole thing. Doubly so, when I consider how much time and money is spent on these activities that could be spent elsewhere. When I see people looking at a TV in a bar, their mouths open, their eyes transfixed, I cannot help thinking of the countless hours they have done the same thing. And how has it benefitted them? It’s like an addiction. Look, I know this has nothing to do with Oviedo, but part of traveling is forming your opinions about certain things in life, and this is my opinion about sports.
Well, we ate, we drank, we paid, and then we went to bed. We’d had a long day, and had another one coming up.
Our first stop the next morning was San Miguel de Lillo.
This is a little church situated a bit outside the city proper. At first glance, you wouldn’t think much of it. It is scarcely bigger than a house; and to an ignorant viewer, such as myself, it looks like it could have been built fifty years ago. But this is one of the oldest surviving churches in Spain. It was consecrated in 848, and is built in a pre-Romanesque style. It sits, rather lonesome, in a flat space by the side of a road. There are trails leading into the forest nearby, and quite a splendid view of the town as well.
If you mentally compare this little structure—scarcely big enough for a congregation of fifty—with the great gothic cathedrals, you can an idea of the architectural accomplishment of the latter. For to me it is apparent that the builders of this church couldn’t have made it much taller if they tried without risking a collapse. The construction is relatively simple and unadorned; straight, flat walls, right angles, and a few small windows. The gothic builders managed to make windows as big as this church; but the windows here are mere slits in the wall. There are, however, two windows with impressive lattice ornamentation.
From a sign on the door, I learned that there were tours of the building, but there wouldn’t be another one for several hours. I peeked inside some of the windows; it was dark, but it looked mostly empty. We took some pictures, wandered around, and then decided to walk along the road to see the companion of this lonesome structure: Santa María del Naranco.
Along with San Miguel de Lillo, this building once formed a part of a large complex commissioned by Ramiro I, king of Asturias. It was originally his palace, but was later turned into a church. The building is about as tall as San Miguel de Lillo, but considerably longer. Still, it is not a terribly big building; and in fact the idea that it had once served as a palace made me feel nostalgic for simpler times. According to what I can find online, the building is of considerable architectural importance, partly because it presaged many of the features that came to dominate the Romanesque period. Indeed, compared to its sister structure, this building looks quite advanced. Most notable, for me, are the open balconies on either side, formed by graceful rounded arches. The whole building looks much more open than the first. There are more than half a dozen rounded windows on either side, and quite large ones too. If San Miguel de Lillo struck me as claustrophobic and dark, this building was airy and light.
There wasn’t a tour available here either, so we had to content ourselves with taking pictures of the outside. The view of Oviedo from here was even better; and beyond the city were the snowy peaks of mountains. Spain is a place of expansive vistas. Everywhere I go, I see a view worth painting.
We took our fill of pictures and went back to the car. On our walk, we passed an old, derelict house. It’s windows were shattered and it had plants growing on the roof. Broken down buildings have a special charm for me, and I found this one especially pretty. There is a strange beauty in seeing nature reclaim a human structure. Normally, humans build houses to keep out the elements and the pests. Houses are barriers. But when houses are allowed to fall into disrepair, the barrier breaks, and the house begins to be reintegrated into the endless cycle of nature. In a way it is sad, for an abandoned house means that somebody had fallen on hard times and that a lot of work is being allowed to waste. But in another way it is hopeful, for it shows how easy it will be for the planet to heal once we’re gone.
We got into the car and drove into town. The first thing you’ll notice when walking around Oviedo are the statues. There are tons of them, sitting in every park and plaza. Most of them are metal sculptures of people: a mother nursing her baby, a young woman sitting on a bench, a scholar reading a book, a farmer with her donkey, an elegantly dressed woman of society, a traveler in a big overcoat with a pile of suitcases, a fisherwoman sitting amongst her fish, looking bored and tired.
Individually, these sculptures are no masterpieces; but the final effect is to give Oviedo a real charm. For me, the sculptures, with their prosaic subject matter, drew my attention to the poetry of everyday life; to the little dramas and excitements that play out each day on the streets of every city. I felt as if my attention was focused on the little moments of boredom, of anxiety, of tenderness, of enjoyable languor, the microscopic tugs of emotion that we feel every day as we go about our business.
These statues were scattered throughout a truly lovely town. The whole aesthetic of Oviedo is intimate and joyful. No building is too big or ostentatious; everything is on a human scale. The streets twist and turn, effortlessly leading you from one plaza to another. Every time you turn a corner you are surprised by another open space, full of people. Bright colors, blues and yellows especially, give a playful atmosphere to the city. It is a pleasure just to walk around.
The artistic focus on everyday life was matched by the abundance of life I found on the streets of Oviedo. It was a warm and sunny day, and the streets were full of people. Not tourists, but residents going about their day. Patrons crowded the restaurants; children ran through the streets while their parents chatted. An art gallery was open to the public, selling works by local artists—some of it quite good. Women and men of all ages filled the streets, having conversation with friends, carrying shopping bags, smoking, drinking, laughing, gossiping, sitting, standing. But most conspicuous was the market.
On this particular day, a Sunday, Oviedo was full of people buying and selling. Tables were set up in rows, filling several plazas and streets; and on these tables was every sort of thing you can buy. There were jackets, shirts, socks, pants, and a table covered in underwear.
“I’m gonna buy you some,” GF said. “You need new underwear.” She ended up buying three brightly colored pairs of underwear covered in tiny pictures of penguins. I’m happy to report that they are quite comfortable.
There was a lot more than clothes. One table was covered in tools of all sorts: pliers, saws, rakes, clamps, shears, picks, hammers, screwdrivers, levels, planes, axes, and even a meat cleaver—all of it old and rusty. It looked like the set of a horror movie. Moving on, I found electric drills and power saws, extension cords, old flower pots, metal chalices, target arrows, paint brushes, and tea kettles. There were old candelabras, sunglasses, wooden bowls, statuettes of bathing women, ceramic vegetables, floral tea cups, a bust of a woman wearing a bonnet, wooden serving spoons, hand mirrors, golden incense burners, old music boxes with handles to turn, bronze crucifixes, copper bells, tiny metal horse statues, old clothing irons. How had these people accumulated so much stuff? And who wanted to buy it? It was a flea market of the most charming kind, and every table brought to light unexpected mysteries.
Finally I got to the used books, and spent a quarter of an hour looking through the selection. There was a lot to choose from. Eventually I found something I’d long wanted to buy: a copy of Ortega y Gasset’s La rebelión de las masas, or The Revolt of the Masses, which is his most famous work. Happy in my purchase, I moved on, past a woman selling flowers and into a luxury food shop selling local produce. It was full of quality meats, cheese, vinegars, olive oils, and wines. GF bought herself a big thing of cabrales cheese, and D and T did the same.
It was 3 o’clock by now and we were hungry. D really wanted to eat a cachopo, another typical dish of Asturias. The dish consists of two fillets of veal, with ham and cheese on the inside. I suppose it is quite like veal cordon bleu. We tried one restaurant, but it was full; we tried another, it was full. With most restaurants in the center it wasn’t even worth trying; they were jam packed with people and there was no chance to find a seat.
“Let’s go outside the center to find something,” D suggested. “I think there was a place near the car.
So we walked all the way from the city center to the parking garage. There, D led us down a street to a restaurant. It was closed.
By now all of us were a bit tired, hungry, and cranky, so this repeated failure to find food annoyed us.
“We passed a restaurant on the way here,” T said, and began to march in the direction we came from. We followed, and in five minutes we were standing outside another eating establishment. T got there first; she walked in, spoke with someone, and then walked out again, visibly deflated.
“This one is full too,” she said. “And the guy was an asshole.”
“Let’s just go,” D said.
We went back to the car, got in, and drove away.
“It’s these damn northern towns,” T said. “You can’t find anywhere to eat. It’s crazy. They don’t care about the tourists at all. The locals here all have reservations, so it’s good for them. But what about the visitors? Nothing!”
Thus our trip ended on a slightly disappointing note. We didn’t get to try cachopo, but instead ate at an Italian restaurant in another town. Then we retraced our steps back to Madrid. This time the road led up the mountain, and the view was even more spectacular. Several times we stopped the car and got out to take photos. In the crisp air and the clear sunlight, you could see for dozens of miles. We arrived in Madrid after nightfall, dropped off right on our doorway. And so we were faced, once again, with the melancholy prospect of returning to work in the morning after a great weekend of travel.