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Sun, Sea and the Perfect Fabada – Gijón, Asturias.

When it comes to last-minute weekend trips, it’s often best to throw caution to the wind. Ignoring the stack of work due in for Monday, and the fact that I had only just met my travel companions, I loaded my rucksack and headed off to the Plaza Mayor. As much as I loved Salamanca, I was itching to get out and explore another part of Spain.

At the plaza I met up with three others from our Spanish grammar class, and with suitcases zipping along the cobblestones we trekked towards the bus station, where the rest of the group was waiting. Our destination was the Principality of Asturias: land of Celts, cider and quite possibly the best dairy products on the peninsula.

Like the rest of northern Spain, winter in Asturias usually means overcast skies with plenty of rain. But that weekend the sun shone with a warmth that recalled the late days of summer. Though we were based in Oviedo, we took the advice of the hotel and spent much of Saturday in the nearby port city of Gijón. And for a 20-30 minute bus ride, the destination was a real gem.

The best way I can describe Gijón is as an unpretentious and handsome city that has a little bit of everything: concrete towers jammed up against brightly painted townhouses, monumental industrial structures, a lovely seaside promenade, and several beaches to boot.

Sandwiched between the recreational port and the Bay of San Lorenzo lies the old town, a jumble of colours, roof tiles and dignified stone façades. At Marqués Square we stumbled across the emblem of the city – a monument to Don Pelayo, the Asturian King who led a successful revolt against the 8th century Islamic occupation. Having defeated the Moors at the Battle of Covadonga (722), he established the first Christian kingdom in Iberia after the Moorish conquest, laying the foundation for the 800 year-long Reconquista.

Within kicking distance of the monument an inviting stone archway beckons us into the Plaza Mayor. It is lunchtime but all is quiet, save a bar and restaurant where groups of people are crowding around the entrance with beers in hand.

Beyond Gijón’s understated city hall, the street opens up to a sweeping promenade leading right around the Bay of San Lorenzo. In the glorious 20-degree weather we stopped to watch the incoming waves as they foam beneath the solid stone balustrades and white-washed lampposts. It’s said that the Bay of Biscay has some of the Atlantic’s nastiest winter storms, so that explained the sheer power of the churning surf.

Like many of Spain’s major cities, Gijón was once a Roman town. It’s not terribly obvious, but there are a couple of indications by San Lorenzo Bay, not least the archeological remnants of the baths and a commemorative statue of Emperor Augustus. In front of the Church of San Pedro a plaque marks the end of the Ruta de La Plata, an ancient north-south route built to connect the cities of Emerita Augusta (present-day Mérida) and Asturica Augusta (Astorga).

Passing the Royal Club of Regattas and its seaside pool – the city’s first – we hiked up a windswept headland, the Cerro de Santa Catalina, home to a sprinkling of curious sculptures and a 20th century coastal battery. Fitted out with bunkers and magazines, this fortress was used for military exercises until 1989, when it was converted into a public park.

By the time we finished our walking tour it was just after 4 in the afternoon and we were starving. With tired feet and hunger pangs all around, the plan was to wander down to the old port in search of food, but we ended up getting distracted by a ship-like playground and the ruins of the 17th century fort. Thankfully for us, they did a magnificent 4-course menú del día at the restaurant Las Ballenas (“The Whales”) for only 15 euros.

For starters I decided to have the mysterious zamburiñas, which turned out to be succulent small scallops, cooked with a white wine sauce inside their shells. After that came the first main course – a steaming plate of Fabada Asturiana. Made with large white beans, chorizo, pork shoulder and morcilla (black pudding), Fabada is a rich stew and a source of pride for many Asturians.

Having polished off my delicious and deceptively large fabada, I was faced with the prospect of eating a plate of grilled chipirones (small squid) served with potato, followed by profiteroles doused in cream and chocolate sauce.

We had no idea at first, but the menú del diá included free-flowing drinks. Between the 9 of us we shared 2 bottles of red wine, 2 large bottles of water and as many as 4 or 5 fizzy gaseosas – a cross between sparkling water and 7-Up. And the icing on the cake? We had the ingredients to make Tinto de Verano, my favourite drink ever since I discovered it in Madrid last June.

By the light of the setting sun we tottered out of Las Ballenas, feeling bloated but ultimately satisfied – with the food, the day’s events and Gijón itself. Within the matter of a long afternoon, we had fallen for its Asturian charms.

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