A Tale of Six Plazas – Oviedo, Asturias.
To be honest, I didn’t quite know what to expect when we got to Oviedo. Between reports of the city being “super bonito” (“very beautiful” in colloquial Spanish), I had also heard that much of it was destroyed during the turbulent years of the 20th century.
We arrived late on a Friday night, in view of the cathedral’s spire rising above the surrounding buildings. It had been a long journey and I was happy to be back on the ground after 2 hours of motion sickness. The hotel wasn’t too far away from the bus station, so we checked in and had a break before venturing out to take care of our hunger.
It was nearing one in the morning but we decided to try our luck with one of the restaurants along Calle Gascona, more famously known as the city’s “Cider Boulevard”. Every watering hole along this street specialises in the local sidra, so much so that it has become one of Oviedo’s top tourist attractions.
By this hour the restaurant had stopped serving food, but because there were 9 of us the kind waiters had the kitchen reopened. Over plates of steak, fish and pulpo a la gallega (Galician octopus), we cracked jokes, shared bottles of cider and laughed till we cried. By the time we left at 2am I knew that this little trip was going to be a blast.
Two days later we returned and ventured into the heart of the old town. Because it was Sunday most of the attractions were shut, but I was more than happy to spend the day wandering its colourful streets.
Somewhere behind the cathedral lies the Corrada del Obispo, a shaded haven that is home to the archaeological museum and the noble music conservatory. There is always a time to do silly things – especially while waiting for someone – and I ended up taking a picture of Xian taking a picture of Fernando taking a picture of the aforementioned building.
Not far away the sounds of children can be heard down a narrow lane. Following the traces of bright sunshine on the cobblestones, we emerged in the offbeat Plaza de Trascorrales, full of energetic families and a multitude of café tables, all brimming with conversation over tapas and glasses of wine.
If there was one thing we noticed while strolling the pedestrianised streets, it was that Oviedo was full of random statues. When Woody Allen won the prize for arts at the 2002 Prince of Asturias Awards, he extolled the lovely qualities of the city in his acceptance speech. As a response the municipal government erected a life-size likeness in his honour.
No less than 10 minutes afterwards we glimpsed a supersized set of legs and a bottom, a curious centerpiece for what was otherwise a typical commercial street. And then there was the countess in period clothing, frozen in mid-movement as she sauntered on a corner of the cathedral square (in long-speak the Plaza de Alfonso II El Casto). Such was its resemblance to a mime that we almost expected it to burst into life at any given moment.
For a compact historical centre, Oviedo really does pack in quite a punch. Not to be missed is the beautiful Plaza de la Constitución, with the handsome arcades of the city hall crowned by a decidedly simple clock tower. Here too, is the old Jesuit Church of San Isidoro, whose cloister was torn down and converted into a market building.
And speaking of markets, the Sunday rastro of Oviedo is quite the surprise. 10 times more atmospheric than the one in Madrid, the market stalls are concentrated around the Plaza Daoiz y Velarde and its adjacent streets. Although many of its buildings are from the modern period, the old town still retains its medieval charm.
Just next door is the charming Plaza del Fontán, so named because this was once the site of a natural pool that supplied the city with water. As Oviedo grew beyond its former boundaries the fresh water source was drained and replaced with a fountain. Successive generations of farmers and artisans came here to sell their wares, and by the 18th century the square had become the city’s main market.
Despite the plaza’s long history there is no denying its brand new appearance. Practically the entire complex was torn down and rebuilt as recently as 1997. Nowadays it is ringed by restaurants and artisan shops selling local products, including cider, meats and cheese.
As was the case in Asturias, the icing on the cake was an incredible meal just up the road from the city hall’s clock tower. A friendly policeman had suggested this stretch of restaurants for good paellas at reasonable prices, and we were not to be disappointed.
While I was busy wolfing down my plate of paella we passed around two impossibly large bowls of bean and vegetable stew. Fernando and Felipe had ordered them as a first course, and after a while it became evident that they were going to need everyone else to help.
For mains I had a plate of well-balanced chips and an entire fish grilled to perfection. All this was followed by a creamy brazo de gitano – a delicious traditional cake – and the best bowl of natillas (custard) I had ever tasted in Spain. Even in February, it seems, life is sweet in the Asturian capital.