At sundown, bronze ripples lapped Gijón’s small harbour as the locals came out to play.
Holding dark green bottles filled with sidra natural, natural cider, they poured the amber coloured liquid from great heights, splashing a mouthful into cylindrical tumblers before downing in one and tossing the rest onto the ground.
This was my last road trip in Spain. I lived in Madrid for seven years, but all my bags were packed ready for my move to Budapest. I wanted to do one last trip before and there was one place on my Iberian bucket list I had not yet ticked off – Asturias.
Seduced by promises of Gijón’s lively streets, cider, Celtic heritage and local flavours offering, in my opinion, some of the best food in Spain, me and my friend Sara hopped on a bus taking us to the northern green coast. We arrived on a June evening and a chill wind cut through the air, a pleasant relief from the dry heat of Madrid’s dusty streets.
Gijón sprawled out into the suburbs, appearing dull and industrial after travelling through the forests and mountains en route from Madrid. The heart of the city is warm, where the stone houses of the old town meet the moss-covered cliffs, lapped by the waves sweeping in from the Bay of Biscay. Although Gijón is Asturias’s largest city, I felt that during the day this coastal town slumbers in a daylong siesta, readying itself for its long cider-filled nights, in which we were keen to participate.
In a bar close to the harbour, the bartender uncorked the bottle of the local special for us, explaining we need to drink it in one sitting. The local cider is unsweetened and naturally un-carbonated, however when poured from a great height, it picks up bubbles along the way, as I felt a distinct fizz in my mouth as I chugged down. The danger of Asturian cider is you consume it by the bottle and the taste, akin to a fine fermented apple juice with a tart complexity, made it too easy for the opaque green bottles to pile up besides the plates of discarded crab shells.
Strolling through Plaza Mayor late in the morning, which sits at the base of the Cimavilla peninsula in the old town, the saline air carried a slight waft of fish and we heard the clinking of glasses from the sidrerias tucked away under the arches echoes in the plaza. On one side of the peninsula neck, the water undulated under the yachts stored in the small sports harbour. And while the thundering waves that crashed at high tide against the promenade and drenched us both the other day had receded to reveal a sandy beach, we chose to search for Gijón’s architectural treasures instead of spending a lazy day in the sand.
An old lady approached us with a large smile and a curious glint in her eye us as I took a photograph of an art nouveau building on the promenade running parallel to Calle Cabrales. She asked if we spoke Spanish, we nodded. She inquired about our thoughts on Gijón and our plans. We showed her a map we tore out of a local travel magazine highlighting all the art nouveau buildings in the city. She nodded approvingly before pitching us her question.
“75?” I guessed. I’m terrible with ages. While decades of laughter marked her face, her demeanour was far from old. She gestured with her hands upwards until we hit the age of 95.
“What’s the secret?” we asked eagerly.
“Poco plato, mucha cama, mucho zapato,” she said, which literally translated as: Few dishes, lots of bed, lots of shoe.
She paused for a second as the wind drummed up a racket, knocking over a disused beer can near one of the benches. As the wind quietened for a second, she began to recite a piece of poetry, something neither of us recognised.
“That was lovely,” Sara said, “Who is it by?”
She pointed to herself, smiling before bidding us good bye and trotted into a nearby lane, disappearing from site.
We continued on our mission to explore Gijón’s eclectic mix of buildings and at first glance it was not a city that struck me with its beauty. I was very wrong. Armed with the map of monuments, we attempted to trace the old lady’s foot steps to the back streets, but we lost sight of her. Instead, we continued to explore Gijón’s architectural curiosities and began to look at the city more closely. We discovered façades decorated with painted plaster leaves, sculpted feminine faces that stare from behind wrought-iron work, stained-glass windows, parks and spacious squares. Gijón has that kind of beauty that you needed to peel back and uncover.
But it’s the city’s duality I love. At night, it transforms into a different personality. The streets fill up with locals and Spanish bachelor parties downing shots of sour, fresh cider. Youths sit side-by-side with men dressed as flamenco dancers and girls with feather boas tinsel about their necks on the steps at Plaza Periodista Arturo Aria in the old town. After sun sets the Celtic cold sets in, and we dash inside to neighboring El Lavaderi to enjoy bottle after bottle of cider accompanied by local catch – a true taste of Asturias.
All photos by Jennifer Walker unless otherwise stated.