Oviedo Travel Guide
Uncover the soulful allure of Oviedo - an enchanting city nestled in the heart of Asturias, Northern Spain
Oviedo, a lively university city, is undoubtedly the cultural and commercial capital of the Asturias region. Although it lacks Barcelona and Madrid’s renowned and globalized agenda, Oviedo warrants a detailed investigation. Its beauty lies principally in its relative anonymity – as of yet undiscovered, Oviedo feels like the real deal. An authentic and charming northern Spanish city packed full of Pre-Romanesque buildings, a vibrant gastronomic scene, and glamorous boutiques, Oviedo will not leave one cold.
The Iberian Peninsula, first inhabited around 800,000 BC, has been subject to foreign influences. Indeed, from the 11th century BC, it was colonized by powers from the Eastern Mediterranean, culminating with the arrival of the Romans in 218 BC. As a result, the Roman way of life was implanted across Spain in the next few hundred years. Their rule endured until the 5th century AD, paving the way for Spain to be conquered by the Visigoths, who invaded from the north. However, they were politically disorganized and offered little resistance to the Moors, who arrived in 711.
Enter Asturias. Until the 8th century, little historical mention of this corner of Spain exists. However, the Reconquest of Spain is said to have begun in 722 when Christians defeated a Moorish force at Covadonga in the Picos de Europa. After that, the Christian Kingdom of Asturias was founded in the 8th century – history records that Oviedo was founded by two monks, Maximo and Fromestano, in 761. Unlike most of Spain, the settlement was built on an uninhabited hillside and had no Visigothic or Roman heritage. Therefore, this was an Asturian province in its own right, something that even contemporary Asturians are very proud of.
Many beautiful churches were built around Oviedo during this period, some surviving today. However, relations with the southern Moorish Kingdom remained fractious, and the settlement was attacked by Caliph Hisham I in 794.
By the early 10th century, Oviedo was a thriving town, prospering under the rule of King Alfonso III. In 908, he commemorated the victory at Covadonga by commissioning the creation of a gold and jeweled cross known as the “Cross of Victory.” It can be seen today in Oviedo’s handsome cathedral. Nevertheless, the constant skirmishes with the Moors took their toll on Oviedo’s inhabitants. In 901, an army tried to take the town of Zamora, which would be the final city that Alfonso III ever saw. He was overthrown by his sons and buried in Oviedo.
After Alfonso’s death, the Royal Court was moved to Leon, and the importance of Oviedo would sadly diminish. Kings spent less and less time in Oviedo, so Leon surpassed the city in terms of architectural splendor and development. Meanwhile, the infant Christian Kingdoms in the north – Leon, Castile, Navarra, Aragon, and Catalunya – advanced south gradually in the 11th century, fighting to regain land from the Moors. After the fall of Toledo in 1085, the struggle became increasingly a holy war. However, Oviedo was largely removed from the fighting and continued to prosper quietly, albeit its former glory had been significantly reduced.
In the late 15th century, the two largest kingdoms in developing Christian Spain – Castile and Aragon – were united following the marriage of Isabel and Fernando in 1469. Uniting Spain in military, diplomatic, and religious matters, the Monarchs won back Granada, the last Moorish kingdom, from Boabdil. The subsequent Inquisition gave Spain a reputation for intolerance, yet in art and architecture, brilliant progress was made. At the same time, Columbus’s discovery of the New World opened up Spain to new riches.
Meanwhile, Oviedo grew as a medieval city with the construction of city walls, although a significant fire on Christmas Eve 1521 caused much damage. Nevertheless, the creation of the Arts College by Fernando de Valdes Salas at the beginning of the 1600s was a great boon for the city. This was Spain’s Golden Age, a time of outstanding artistic and literary achievement led by the painters – El Greco and Velazquez – and writers, especially Cervantes. But unfortunately, this brilliance occurred against a backdrop of economic deterioration and ruinous wars with other European nations.
The 18th and 19th centuries were a troubled time for Spain. The War of The Spanish Succession ended in triumph for the Bourbons, who made Spain a centralized nation. A subsequent invasion by revolutionary France led to the War of Independence – the Carlist Wars soon followed. Yet, amid all the turmoil, Oviedo expanded its industrial growth and was mainly unaffected by the political and social upheavals of the 19th century.
However, the 20th century was a different story altogether. Oviedo played a significant role in the Spanish Civil War, a conflict caused by Nationalist Generals rising against the Second Republic in 1936. Before the onset of the War, left-wing forces composed of 50,000 workers, mostly miners, captured Oviedo after heavy fighting. Yet their victory was to be short-lived, as General Francisco Franco retook Oviedo and killed over 3,000 rebels. Two years later, the Siege of Oviedo would become a defining moment in the conflict; the stationed army garrison supported Franco and resisted Republican forces until a Nationalist relief force arrived in 1937. After the War, thousands of Republicans were executed in reprisals. As a result, Spain was internationally isolated until the 1950s, when the United States brought her into the Western military alliance.
Franco’s death in 1975 left Spain’s delicate political future hanging in the balance; although few people wanted to preserve the old regime, the country made a peaceful transition to democracy.
Oviedo greeted the 21st century with an understandable sense of pride – increasing numbers of visitors are discovering the charms – both sedate and lively – of this unspoiled corner of Spain. From the clean sandy beaches and deep green landscapes to the magnificent examples of Pre-Romanesque architecture and excellent gastronomy, there are many good reasons to visit Asturias.
Wine & Gastronomy
Where to start? The sensationally beautiful land of Asturias has all the bases covered; some of the most delicious seafood in Europe comes from the Atlantic coast of Spain, while cattle, sheep, game birds, wild boar, and deer roam in the mountains of the Picos de Europa National Park. Seafood specialties include lobster, spider crabs, scallops, hake, and monkfish. Salmon fishing is also a big business in Asturias – the area is full of freshwater rivers, making Asturias the largest salmon-producing region of Spain.
If you forgive the cliche, the net result is a gastronomic paradise. Indeed, chefs rarely have cause to complain about the abundance of fresh and seasonal produce in this part of the world. And so whether you’re searching for gourmet tapas, simple, wholesome cooking, or Michelin-starred gastronomy, Oviedo will not disappoint. Your first port of call should be one of the many excellent sidrerías – a bar specializing in locally made cider – that fill Oviedo. Tierra Astur is one of our favorites. Meanwhile, Mar de Llanes is the place to search for exquisite seafood. Gloria is another must-visit, run by two-Michelin-starred Asturian chef Nacho Manzano.
While you’re there, you may want to try one of the excellent local cheeses Asturias is famous for – this is an artisan cheese paradise – known as ‘El Pais de Los Quesos’ (land of the cheeses). The most notable are the pungent and strong-tasting blue Cabrales, traditionally matured in mountain caves. It is either made from pure, unpasteurized cow’s milk or blended with goat and sheep milk, lending the cheese a distinct spicy aroma and flavor. Michelin chefs naturally adore it, as do all lovers of excellent food and drink. Other cheeses you must try are Los Beyos, Gamoneu, Penamellera, and Afuega ‘l Pitu.
However, the delights of visiting Asturias don’t end at the dinner table. Apple orchards are a noticeable feature of any trip through the region, so it’s little surprise that Asturias produces the finest cider in Spain. It is typically made in a dry, still style using sweet and acid apples. In the traditional cider houses, the cider is poured from on high so that it aerates as it splashes into glasses and onto the floor. But it’s not just a delicious drink; cider is used in various sweet and savory dishes, our favorite being Merluza a la Sidra (hake cooked in cider).
The only thing Asturias ‘lacks’ to a certain extent is wine – the region is one of the few in Spain with no widespread vine-growing tradition. Nevertheless, a rising number of family-owned vineyards are forging a reputation for themselves, using mainly indigenous varieties grown across the idyllic landscape of Asturias. Bodegas Obanca is one to look out for in tapas bars; using 10 hectares (25 acres) of old vines, they produce only local wine styles, including Carrasquín and Castro de Limes. Of course, every restaurant in Oviedo will have a great selection of wines from across Spain. Rioja tends to feature most prominently.
Ca Cuso is a highly recommended Michelin-starred restaurant in Oviedo, passionately run by two enthusiastic brothers, Vicente and Iván. Their exciting and modern cuisine takes inspiration from traditional flavors, resulting in a remarkable dining experience. The à la carte and set menus, including the Bistro menu priced at 35 Euros and the Gastronomic menu with pairings priced at 70 Euros, offer a diverse selection of delectable options.
Among the standout dishes, to name but a few, the exceptional salad with Cantabrian Anchovies and Gamonéu cheese, the “Arroz Negro con Chipirones,” a flavorful dish featuring rice cooked in squid ink and served with tender baby squid. For dessert, the “Quesos Artesanos de Asturias” is a delightful option. This selection showcases the finest local cheeses, including Cabrales (a bold blue cheese), Gamonéu (crafted from a blend of cow, sheep, and goat milk), and Vidiago (a mild and creamy cow’s cheese)—these cheeses paired with Pedro Ximénez (PX) Sherry, providing a harmonious balance of flavors.
Santa Maria del Naranco
A beautiful building, Santa Maria del Naranco is aptly situated on Mount Naranco and was initially built as a summer palace for Ramiro I in the 9th century. It is one of the finest examples in Spain of Pre-Romanesque architecture, a style characterized by the slender proportions of its buildings and their original ornamentations.
Museo de Bellas Artes
Located in the spectacular 18th-century Velarde Palace, the museum boasts many Asturian and Spanish paintings, such as Carreno’s portrait of Carlos II. Leave at least half a day to enjoy all the exhibits.
Plaza del Fontan
Representing the soul of Oviedo, the Plaza del Fontan is right at the heart of the Casco Antiguo (old town) and buzzes with revelers in the summer months. So many delightful cafes and restaurant terraces fill this pretty square – there’s also a great farmers market on Thursdays that is a gourmands dream come true.
On a Friday evening, visiting one of the traditional cider houses in Oviedo is de rigueur. Delicious tapas and more substantial plates accompany only the best local cider, often served from a great height. Tierra Astur, Gato Negro, Alberto, and Fartuquin are the names to seek out.
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