Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Exploring and Birding Oviedo

For us Oviedo marked both an ending and a new beginning. We took a rest day here after finishing the Camino San Salvador and before beginning the Camino Primitivo.  Oviedo is the capital of the Principality of Asturias, and it is the administrative and economic center of the region.  Despite its importance to modern Spain, it retains an older, medieval feel which we very much enjoyed. 

There are a great many things to do and see in Oviedo, including a large number of historic churches to visit.  However, the point of a rest day is to give the body a bit of a break, and in our case to catch up on blogs, so we mostly limited our exploring to the Cathedral of San Salvador and its immediate surroundings. 

The Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of the Holy Saviour, or Cathedral of San Salvador, is a Roman Catholic Church located in the heart of Oviedo.  There is a frequently repeated Spanish saying on the Camino San Salvador that "He who goes to Santiago and not to San Salvador visits the servant and not the Lord."  This is because inside the Holy Chamber, or the Camara Santa of the Cathedral of San Salvador is the famous Shroud of Oviedo.  This Sudarium is believed to be the cloth that was wrapped around Jesus' face after his crucifixion.  It was found in his burial chamber, and is mentioned in the Holy Bible. 

The chapel where the shroud is kept was built in 840 AD by King Alfonso II of Asturias.  Little is known about the original building, but the Cathedral was founded by King Fruela I of Asturias in 781 AD.  It was enlarged in 802 AD by his successor, Alfonso II, who was also known as Alfonso the Chaste, and who made Oviedo the capital of the Kingdom of Asturias. 

 
The Cathedral was extensively restored in the 12th and 13th centuries and today displays a variety of architectural styles, ranging from pre-Romanesque to Baroque, and including Romanesque, Gothic, and Reneaissance.  When we went inside for a visit, we discovered that the inside was just as interesting and elaborate as the outside.  

The main alter was very ornate, and the central nave was surrounded by numerous side chapels, including one dedicated to Saint James.  It took quite a while to explore all the statues and artwork.  The cathedral also featured a beautiful cloister surrounding a small green space, which as always was one of my favourite parts.  I found the small, cool, dark crypts located off the cloister to be particularly interesting.   

The Camara Santa was located on the second floor of the Cathedral, and when we visited a very large tour group was inside.  The Shroud is located within the chamber along with various other treasures, but it can only be viewed by the public on certain Holy days each year.  The third floor of the Cathedral houses a museum which contains a great many artifacts and relics which are definitely worth exploring.

There was a lot of art and history on display, but there was also a large school group doing an assignment that seemed to involve doing a kind of treasure hunt through the museum to answer questions.  They were energetic and enthusiastic, but it was a bit difficult to stay out of their way, so we didn't end up spending too much time exploring the museum.  I would definitely say it is well worth a visit, and it is included in the price of admission to the Cathedral. 

After visiting the Cathedral we stopped for a coffee at one of the cafés that line the plaza out front.  Although this plaza is by no means as busy as the one in Santiago, there was a small but steady stream of pilgrims filtering in, and some sat down in the square to look up at the impressive facade of the Cathedral. A bronze plaque embedded in the ground at the side of the Cathedral marks the end-point for the Camino San Salvador and the beginning point for the Camino Primitivo.  The spot can also be a stop on the Camino del Norte, and perhaps it can be other things as well.  In any case, it feels like a special place on the Caminos. 

After visiting the cathedral we wandered some of the winding medieval streets of Oviedo.  We made a stop at the Mercado El Fontan, a covered market in a large Victorian style building which was built between 1882 and 1885.  It houses numerous stalls featuring local produce, fresh meat, fish, and veggies, and local Asturian delicacies like chorizo, cheeses, and large colourful beans.  We spent some time exploring and purchased a few things to send home to family members.  As it turned out, mailing things out of Spain without a Spanish address is extremely complicated, but the very patient and nice staff at the post office guided us through the process.

 

After finally leaving the post office we continued our exploration of the city, ending up at the Campo San Francisco, a large, central park with a canopy of huge old trees.  We purchased two ice creams and wandered the stone pathways that criss-crossed the park.  Many statues of important historical figures were displayed throughout the well-landscaped, lush, green space.  There was also a small pond in the middle, which was filled with interesting birds.  We spent quite a bit of time enjoying the birds in the peaceful, shady park before eventually making our way back to our room.

In the late afternoon we headed back out, and took the opportunity to stop at a small cidereria in a quiet, enclosed, out-of-the-way courtyard.  A couple locals were at the surrounding tables, and we joined them under the shade of the umbrellas.  As is traditional, the waiter poured the first sip of cider, making an impressive presentation.  Asturian cider is strongly tart and a little sour, and unlike typical hard apple ciders produced in North America.  I can't say I particularly liked the taste, but we enjoyed trying a local delicacy, and sitting in the quiet Asturian courtyard, at the heart of the ancient Asturian city felt like a fitting ending to our Camino San Salvador, and a promising beginning to the Camino Primitivo.


Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Accepting the Way : Pola de Lena to Oviedo

We headed down to breakfast at the bar associated with our hotel just after 6 am to begin our final day on the Camino San Salvador.  After reading several accounts of other people's experiences of the last 30 km of this hike, we were heading into it with very mixed feelings.  Although the San Salvador route is short, it is a physically demanding Camino, which I think leaves many pilgrims exhausted, injured, and or at the very least feeling less than at their best by the last day. 

The guidebooks suggest the last 30 km are an easy, downhill walk that is mostly on pavement. Writing this at the end of a long, strenuous day I can say this is in no way an accurate description of today's walk, and I can fully appreciate the despair felt by others who were struggling to finish and whose expectations of an easy walk were dashed. 

We joined Mick, Jacques, and Fernando for a huge and delicious breakfast of cafè con leche and toastada, and then set off a few minutes behind them into a foggy, overcast, and cool morning.  We headed out to the edge of town on sidewalks, seeing a lot of somewhat confusing arrows pointing in several directions along the way.  At the edge of town the sidewalk ended, and we began following the edge of a narrow, winding paved road that seemed to be mostly blind corners. 

For the first 6 km or so we followed this winding road, passing through the tiny communities of La Vega and Villallana along the way, their colourful homes stretched out along the road.  Children were just heading out to school from many of the houses as we passed, boarding school buses or getting onto the commuter trains that frequently passed by, heading for Mieres and Oviedo.  Feeling sore and unenthusiastic about walking into a larger town, the frequent bus and train stops we passed throughout the day seemed like seductresses, trying to convince us to yield to their screeching cries and let them take us in the final kilometers. 

Between the smaller towns we were mostly surrounded by countryside.  Small pastures were occupied by horses, donkeys, cows, or a couple sheep, and well-tended garden plots surrounded by low stone walls were just beginning to thrive.  Beyond the small fields and tiny orchards the lush green hills rose up into the clouds beyond. In some ways the scenery was quite beautiful.  However, the constant noise of civilization made it impossible to forget that we were essentially walking between a major highway and a train line, and we constantly had to watch for traffic on the narrow winding road which left us nowhere to step off. 

 
Around 8:30 am we reached the larger town of Ujo, and had two options.  One was a paved cycling trail that led directly past the town along the river, or we could divert into town to see the church and have a second breakfast in the town square.  Being Hobbits at heart, and since a light rain had begun to fall, we decided to take the longer route through town, and see if we could find a second café con leche and a place to shelter for a few minutes. 

Along the way we stepped inside the Church of Santa Eulalia de Ujo, a 12th century church that was moved in 1922 to the spot it now occupies in order to make way for the railroad.  The door was open, and when we stepped into the shadowy interior we were met with a magical sight.  The old priest was slowly making his way around the church, lighting candles in the darkness.  It smelled of beeswax and matches, and the soft light made the quiet interior of the solid stone church feel like a sanctuary.  The priest saw us come in and quietly stand in the back, and very kindly offered to take us across to his office to stamp our pilgrim credentials, which we greatly appreciated.  

After sitting in a crowded and bustling café to enjoy our coffees we headed back out of town, following the paved bicycling path along the edge of the large, fast-flowing Caudal River.  There were quite a few locals out walking and jogging, despite the cool, damp weather.  We essentially followed this bike path for the next 10 km to Mieres, walking in a green corridor of trees beside the river.  To our delight we spotted a few new birds fishing in the waters below.  Somewhere in this stretch was passed Fernando, our Spanish pilgrim friend with a friendly wave.  Sadly, this turned out to be the last time we saw him.

Mieres is a relatively large town of around 38,000 inhabitants, and is the heart of the coal mining industry in Spain.  As we followed the river into town the path became increasingly busy.  Across the water we could see the brown brick buildings of the campus of the Oviedo University, while we passed various auto repair shops and small businesses on our side of the river.  Eventually we crossed over the waterway on a pedestrian bridge and found ourselves in the downtown proper. 

We had been thinking of stopping for something to eat, but as we made  our way along the streets, we found ourselves overwhelmed by the midday crowds.  Like Pola de Lena, the buildings that lined the streets were mostly 6 or more floors tall, unlike most of the other cities we've visited along the Caminos.  All the cafés and shops were open, and the sidewalks were full of people, many of whom seemed to be in a great hurry. 

 Instead of stopping, we ended up making our way as quickly as possible through the town, pausing only at the Iglesia de San Juan, which sadly was closed as we passed.  Just beside the church in Plaza San Juan Mieres was a bronze statue of a man pouring the famous Asturian cider.  The apple cider is fermented, and to give it the proper amount of aeration the person pouring it stretches their arm full length above their head and holds the glass down as low as possible.  Even with the special splash guards that are used in the process, it must take quite a lot of skill not to make a huge mess while doing this! 

Shortly after the church we came to a tiny parkette tucked under a roadway, which had the remains of an old brick lavanderia. We took a short break at the benches, and then continued on towards the outskirts of the town. It was at this point, with 18 km of walking left, that the strenuous portion of the day began. 

At the edge of town we began a 7 km long climb up to El Padrun, mostly walking on the edge of narrow, winding, paved roads.  Lush green countryside, which almost had a tropical feel and included everything from ferns, to palm trees, to eucalyptus trees bordered the road as we climbed.  We periodically passed homes with panoramic views down the valley below.  

We climbed steadily through five small communities, many of which featured colourful homes, well-tended hillside gardens, and beautiful stone churches. To one side the valley stretched out below, and we could see the highway, railroad tracks, river, and pathways running along far below us. Large factories and several mines were also visible in the valley, giving us a sense of the industrial heritage of the area.  In the background the lush green hills receded into the distance, creating a truly magnificent view.  Sadly, the noise from the city still reached us, even at those heights.  

As we neared El Padrun we could see Mieres stretched out in the valley behind us.  We passed the covered Fuente de Santa Maria tucked into the lush vegetation at the roadside, it's terra cotta roof providing momentary shelter from the sun.  

When we finally reached the summit of that first climb, we discovered that the cafés, bars, and multiple sidererias in the small community were all closed.  The guidebook had warned of this, but it was still a disappointment, as we were ready for something cold to drink in the warm, humid afternoon. 



The descent from the summit was on an extremely steep track that cut across the fields.  The first part was paved, but covered in mud and running water, which made it incredibly slippery.  The Way then became a grassy track running between hedges and lush green vegetation, but it soon devolved once again into slippery, sticky, mud.  Eventually we emerged back onto the steep, paved road. 

We passed through a small collection of homes in the tiny community of Casares, where a highlight was seeing two small goats sitting on the roof of their shelter in someone's garden.  After that it was a short descent to Olloniego, where we finally stopped for a café con leche. 

From this point we still had 10 km and two very large hills to climb over before reaching Oviedo.  This last portion of the walk seemed to take forever. 

At one point we had been climbing up and up and up on a winding paved road and we came to a street sign for Oviedo pointing off to the right, where we could see the town spread out in the valley below us.  At this point our track pointed off to the left and began descending into the fields.  In our current state we found this highly frustrating. 

The next stretch of walking offered some really spectacular views out over the mountainous countryside, and we passed some beautiful homes with colourful flower gardens and renovated horreos along the way. However, by this time we were tired, and it was difficult to appreciate the grassy trail bordered by hedges and picturesque moss covered stone walls, with its stunning views when we felt like we were going in the wrong direction. 

We stopped at a rest area with a panoramic view down the lush valley before continuing the climb up to a truly amazing property.  It was absolutely covered in potted flowers that were in full bloom, and it featured several horreos which were decorated with pumpkins, squash, and drying corn. The cluster of buildings were beautiful and they enjoyed a stunning view out over Oviedo. 

We continued the descent down lanes shaded by huge chestnut trees.  Finally we found ourselves at the edge of Oviedo, heading through the suburbs, with the city stretched out below us.  We crossed under the busy ring road, and then began the final climb back into the city centre. 

As we wove our way through downtown streets increasingly menacing storm clouds gathered overhead.  We passed an impressive and very large municipal pilgrim albergue, but it was closed until 4:30 pm, which was still a few hours away.  We continued on towards the cathedral, entering the old town, and making our way down busy winding streets to the central square.  

Finally we reached the courtyard in front of the cathedral.  As we stood there looking up at the fancy, white building we were surrounded by other pilgrims, making us realize we were no longer 2 of 5 pilgrims together on the San Salvador route, but rather 2 in a sea of other pilgrims who had come from the Camino del Norte and were likely heading off on the Camino Primitivo next. 

 
As the storm clouds gathered we made our way back to the hotel, checking in only minutes before the deluge began.  We had our showers and did a few chores while it rained, and then just as it cleared up a little we headed back to the Cathedral to get our certificate of completion and the final stamp in our credentials. 

While we waited in line at the Cathedral we ran into Mick and arranged to meet again in front of the Cathedral at 7 pm for a celebratory drink.  Two hours later we made our way back to the courtyard outside the Cathedral just as the clouds began to gather again.  When it began to rain we took shelter in the nearest bar, ordering a pint while we continued to wait.  As we sat there Jacques showed up, so we flagged him down and he joined us. 

Although it was nearly 7:30 pm we still hadn't met up with Mick, but we soon learned this was because he and his friend from the Camino del Norte had been waiting in a different bar on the square, and hadn't seen us where we'd been waiting. They soon emerged through the rain looking for us, and we commenced an evening of celebration, which began with a few pints and ended with a huge plate of delicious paella.  

 
It was a wonderful evening spent with new friends that we'd just shared a very challenging adventure with.  I wish Fernando could have joined us, because although there were suspicions that he'd taken a taxi for the past two days instead of walking the full stages, he was very much a part of our group, and we do all walk our own Caminos.  I can hardly say I blame him for needing some help on this trail at the age of 78!  In any case, I hope he had his own celebration. After all each of us hikes our own hike!  So tonight we celebrate those we are with, those we trekked with and those who are absent!

So ends our walk along the beautiful, challenging, and rewarding Camino San Salvador. I think to date it is one of my favourite routes. 

Distance: 31.7 km
Accommodations: Hotel Fruela

Exploring and Birding Oviedo

For us Oviedo marked both an ending and a new beginning. We took a rest day here after finishing the Camino San Salvador and before beginnin...