The aged N634 meanders leisurely across the top of Asturias, between sentinels of craggy mountains and deep valleys cloaked with a multitude of overgrown bushes and trees. It is said that the English countryside consists of forty shades of green. If this is so, the Asturias has twice that punctuated with subtle shades of earthy purples. Once the main thoroughfare, it’s now almost forgotten as most traffic bypasses this picturesque route that once the Celts and Romans probably trod some centuries before. The autopista now heralds a faster route that keeps many older hamlets and peoples forgotten.
This is a province that saw its first settlements back in prehistoric times and in passing men have left their mark in the dozens of caves, Celtic ‘castros’ and Roman buildings. Much of Asturias seems to me to be a land that time forgot. There are a multitude of hamlets seemingly hidden in the densely forested and rocky terrain. The inhabitants have managed to maintain their own unique cultures yet welcome outsiders with friendliness not often felt elsewhere.
People have always trekked this topmost route across the province. Nowadays the pilgrims walk the Camino Way aiming for Santiago de Compestela. Very few deviate off that beaten track.
One Saturday morning we left our village somewhere in the foothills of the mountains that tower over the pueblos scattered along the route of the AS222. We followed the Camino Way as far as Navia. Crossing the bridge over the river of the same name we turned onto the AS12. We passed Coana, one of the best preserved prehistoric sites in Asturias and known as a ‘castro’. It’s set in the hillside overlooking Navia and the river. Here can be found many remains of fortifications and stone foundations of oval and rectangular dwellings; some stand head high. Several can be seen from the road inviting one to take a proper look at a future date. It’s claimed Coana was first settled by the Celts and later the Romans.
The road turns inland. Eight kilometres along the road in a hamlet called Trelles a small red sign attached to the side of a building indicates it is a bar. I feel the need of a coffee. Pulling off the road we’re not sure if it’s open. The stonework is crumbling and the paintwork is peeling. The sign bearing the name Bar Las Vinas sways gently in the breeze. Peering in the window we see the bar is lit albeit by a sickly yellow light bulb hanging tentatively from the ceiling. We try the door. It opens. We are surprised to find one of the cleanest bars we’ve had the honour of visiting. An aged gent is perched on a stool puffing a Ducados ciggie whose smoke merges with the air forming a pea souper 19th century London would have been proud of. The Ducados hangs on the gents sole urine coloured tooth as he sips his cognac. His leathery, lined face suggests he was a founder member of the ‘castro’! He smiles. “Buenos dias,” he says and we feel at home. A young man around thirty appears behind the bar. “Digame,” he says. “Dos cafes con leche grandes,” I reply. Aiming to please, he efficiently kicks his ancient but spotless coffee machine into action. The contraption snorts and whinges.
Within seconds we are served with one of the best cups of coffee we’ve had in Spain. Behind the bar hangs a fascinating and historic collection of key rings; many rusting with age like the old man sitting there sipping the cognac that’ll last him all day. A darts board hanging pathetically in the corner suggests a connection with the twenty first century. Who plays in a village like this? We decide to make full use of the facilities whilst there. The barman grabs a huge key that wouldn’t look out of place at the Tower and unlocks the toilet door that is secreted in a darkened corner. Years of scrubbing has failed to keep the porcelain virgin white. Pee cream stains blend with the ochre light that is emitted from the single light bulb overhead. The pungent smell of bleach serves to remind users that cleanliness is an age old pride even in the most rustic communities. Suitably refreshed we bid farewell and follow the road to wherever it ends.
The road bends and turns as it follows the roller coaster road through this wonderful and unique landscape. Centurion trees sway majestically over their rich territory. Occasional gaps in the vegetation offer a glimpse of soil that is a rainbow of reds and oranges. The rock the soil hugs suggests a myriad of shapes. Did I see an old man’s face? A Roman helmet? An army boot? My imagination runs riot. The town of Boal appears on the horizon with a promise of civilisation. But on whose terms? An array of pastel coloured houses are stacked haphazardly on the hillside; each has an individual personality. Some reek of fresh paint whilst others reek of a poorer time. We easily find a parking space along the main road and are deafened by the silence. The emptiness is claustrophobic. We shiver despite the warmth. We walk the length of the elegant, grey tiled road. Coming across the butchers, we discover the epicentre of Boal. A dozen women all talk at once. I am intrigued to know if their voices and hands tell the same story. How long does it take to buy a fillet of steak? All the morning, I would think.
“Is it coffee time?” I ask Paul, who nods. He knows better than to disagree. A few doors away there is a bar. I am taken with the polished wooden poles that hold frilly, lemon drapes reminiscent of a Windsor tea shop. Inside menus display a list of Italian coffees and chocolate not seen outside Sorrento. Three well dressed senoras sit at the bar gossiping over martinis in delicately coloured goblets. The smell of their cigarettes mingle with the stale sweat of the local farmers sitting a few stools down. Estee Lauder perfume mingles with the aroma of the cow dung that still clings to the farmer’s wellington boots. “Ah, Chanel numero cinco,” as our neighbour would say. The atmosphere seeps into our pores as we sip the velvety coffee that leaves beads of thick cream on our upper lip. So, somewhere in Boal is heaven.
Leaving Boal we take the AS 22 that heads towards Vegadeo and the River Eo that is the boundary of Asturias and Galicia whose misty emerald countryside abounds with old granite villages and is dotted with old stone manor houses. Midway along the winding AS22 we discover a lay-by that beckons us to partake of our sandwiches we brought with us to ward away the pangs of hunger. The temperature gauge in the car registers five degrees. The wind outside is whipping the trees like a child’s top. We’re not man enough to brave the elements and satisfy our hunger sitting in the car. Cheese and tomato sarnies is a feast fit for heaven as we sit below the angry firs fighting the livid wind. Thank goodness we are dressed as Eskimos, ready to fight off anything the elements care to pitch.
The banks of the Eo has witnessed many civilisations over the centuries. The Celts, Romans, whalers and English pirates all founded settlements on its sandy banks. It is said that the last of the English pirates chased two Spanish war frigates back in 1719 causing them to sink under the waters of the Eo at La Atalaya before sacking the town. We saw nothing of this swash buckling history but much of the history of its people. Lone stone cottages stood dilapidated miles from the madding crowd. God only knows how they still stood. Gaping gaps in their walls and roofs bear witness to the elements. Women with grey craggy faces barely covered by delicate wisps of hoary hair wear well worn clothes seemingly handed down from their mothers before them. Their legs are as lined as our Michelin road map and their feet sit comfortably in wooden clogs their ancestors have worn for centuries.
Civilisation bears its ugly head at Vegadeo. The meeting of two worlds; primeval and contemporary. Factories line the road and cobalt smoke hangs lazily in the sky as it chokes the nostrils. We follow the road to Castrapol; the gateway back onto the N634 and homeward bound.
“Coffee?” Paul asks, knowing the answer even before he’s asked. I nod. We pull up in the car park of the Pena Mar Hotel next to an olive green hearse, its limp grey curtains open to show he was off duty; just a reminder of our own mortality. The spacious bar is almost devoid of life. A casually dressed barman asks “Digame?” “Dos cafes con leche grandes,” I reply automatically. Como siempre. The bar has an air of a museum about it. Brightly lit chandeliers shine down on peddle operated Singer sewing machines and, colossal,
discoloured cash registers probably used in ‘tiendas de comestibles’ in days long before even the peseta existed. Scattered between this paraphernalia are ornately carved articles that are somewhat out of place in rural Asturias. I wonder if perhaps an African explorer took the wrong turning somewhere south of Gijon....... I hear chortles of laughter at the thought but then Asturias is the country of yet undiscovered reality. We have all the time in the world.