I walked over to the Colegiata de Santa Juliana, a Romanesque church built on a monastery that houses the relics of the village’s patron saint. The church was still closed but a cake shop just a few steps away was open. A man sold me two squares of leche quesada, which he explained was made with milk, eggs, sugar and flour. All the basic food groups baked into two blocks I could stuff into my purse – just as compact and sweet as Santillana del Mar.
As we drove the narrow roads of the Picos de Europa mountains in Asturias, I looked toward the sun and saw, high above the trees, the grey spires and rose-tinged facade of the Basilica of Santa Maria la Real de Covadonga.
Up there in a mountain cave, Aguilar told us, is the tomb of Don Pelayo, the eighth-century king whose first major victory against the Moors kickstarted the Christian reconquista in Spain.
Visitors on pilgrimage often get to Pelayo’s tomb by climbing, on their knees, a set of steps located just below the cave. I chose the easy way in, through a candle-lit tunnel. The tomb itself is a modest affair – basically an alcove with a stone inscription. The true star is the view: blue sky, mountains and the basilica.
Built with pink marble from the region, the basilica is part of a mountaintop complex that includes the 16th-century San Fernando Collegiate Church, a statue of Pelayo, a 5,000-kilogram bell and the Fountain of Seven Spouts. The latter promises crystal-clear water and marriage within a year to any female who drinks from it – a nice treat for thirsty travellers without commitment issues.
I’ll always remember the Asturian capital of Oviedo as the place where I saw a man stick his finger into the nose of Woody Allen. Well, a bronze statue of the director in the city centre. I understood the impulse; the life-sized likeness begs to be messed with.
“Woody Allen filmed part of Vicky Cristina Barcelona here in Oviedo,” said Rene, our Oviedo-based guide. “Actually, he filmed a scene right here in this church.”
We were inside the San Julian de los Prados church, also known as Santullano, in the suburb of Pumarin. Rene pointed to the frescoes on the walls, discovered in 1912 and considered to be among the world’s best examples of pre-Romanesque paintings. About 70 per cent are original.
“That’s why, in here, there’s no photos, no videos, no sex, no nothing. Unless you’re Woody Allen and you’re here with Scarlett Johansson,” Rene said
Being neither, I left with no interior photos and followed Rene to the Cathedral of San Salvador. He took us to a small, 12th-century chapel inside, where we descended into another chamber. Here are a number of religious artifacts, including the Sudarium of Oviedo – a piece of cloth believed to have been wrapped around the head of Christ after he had died.
“I have a question,” said someone in my group. “At what point after Jesus Christ died did they take off his face?”
Woody Allen would have loved that.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay
Barcelo Costa Vasca San Sebastian This is where James Bond would stay if he were to visit San Sebastian. Yes, it’s that cool. Rates start at €72 ($100) a night.
Melia La Reconquista Hotel Oviedo This elegant hotel, built around a light-filled courtyard, is a national monument. Rates start at €105 ($140) a night.
Where to eat
Bar Goiz Argi, Zaporejai and La Vina – all located in the old part of San Sebastian – are great bars to hit for Basque-style tapas, also known as pintxos. In addition to its delicate pig’s ear, La Vina serves a wicked cheesecake – all fluffed up with sides browned to a toasty caramel flavour. You can arrange a guided pintxos tour with San Sebastian Food at sansebastianfood.com.
Zapiain From January to April, this cider producer near San Sebastian opens its dining hall and serves up a traditional cider house menu: bacalao (salted cod) and caramelized-onion omelette, cider-cooked chorizo, steak, idiabazal cheese and walnuts. Kale Nagusia 96, Astigarraga.
Restaurante 180ºC in Oviedo serves up modern international cuisine with a nod to traditional dishes. Calle de Jovellanos 25, Oviedo.
Insight Vacations offers 12-day Northern Spain itineraries that either start and finish in Madrid, or start in Madrid and end in Barcelona. Prices start at $2,635 a person.insightvacations.com
The writer travelled courtesy of Insight Vacations. The company did not review or approve this article.