It’s like two cities for the price of one. In northern Spain, Gijón both occupies and straddles a small peninsula jutting out into the Cantabrian Sea. On either side of the headland you will find separate waterfront and beach scenes, and therefore distinct vibes.
The peninsula itself was home to a Roman settlement called Cimavilla and culminates in a hilltop park where families and dog walkers today stroll past a massive concrete structure with a space age edge. The famous Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida designed his Elogio del Horizonte in homage to the large number of emigrants from the Asturias region who long ago took to sea from here. So, make three beautiful cities in one.
With a quarter of a million inhabitants, Gijón may be the largest city in the Asturias region, but the old Centro district, a few blocks from the waterfront, is so compact it’s easily accessible. walk and is full of pedestrian streets. And a double benefit is that Calle Corrida, among other streets, is full of magnificent Art Nouveau buildings. So do that four cities now.
You can turn one of the finest Art Deco examples into your temporary home. the Modern El The hotel is a 1931 residence in the Zig-Zag style. You can imagine this brooding gray stone building with its turrets and many chimeras in Paris or Wall Street, or maybe something that was conjured up for a German expressionist film.
A few minutes from the promenade on the west side of Gijón, the immense Asturias Railway Museum in the town’s original station, and with original steam engines on display, serves as a chronicle of a once-extensive rail system that served the region’s extensive mining works. You might be surprised to also find a bagpipe museum in town, a branch of the larger Museum of the Asturian people, where you’ll discover Gallic roots here in northern Spain (clearly reflected in the name of the neighboring region, Galicia).
In several squares at the foot of the Cimavilla peninsula, where all these sectors of the city converge, you will find many simple taverns with terraces. The huge seafood platters at Restaurante El Palacio for one of them will have bulging eyes.
You can’t help but stumble upon the traditional Asturian cider houses in the small streets of the city. Logically, you will want to go to the source. Directly south of Gijón and accessible by winding roads through hilly terrain, the Casa Trabanco is an almost century-old cider house. The orchards all around will leave no doubt that Asturias is Spain’s main cider-producing region, with some 76 varieties of apples with official denomination status. A visit to llagar, the cider house, will prepare you well for lunch in their restaurant where the cachopo, a kind of cutlet which is also stuffed with ham and cheese, is the size of a small car.
Located in the chic suburb of Gijón, the massif Universidad Laboral de Gijón is often considered the tallest building in Spain, built around a courtyard the size of a football field with a steeple and a church, all of which hint at a setting from the Harry Potter movie. This university / school / cultural / research center is a curiosity in itself for its history as a school for orphans from mining families which was built under the first Franco regime (the dictatorship under which many Asturians suffered greatly. ).
To the east of Gijón, several seaside towns are immensely popular with Spaniards, and for good reason. The old craggy stone fishing village of Lastres is full of red-tiled houses and verandas which are accessed by narrow stairs. For centuries, warm people have climbed these slopes from the breakwater after a day of mullet, anchovy, hake and eel fishing. What many are still doing, when the heyday of whaling is thankfully over.
From the small chapel of San Roque which overlooks the town and the nearby Cantabrian Mountains, three enormous dark domes stand out against a clearing on top of a hill. The domes represent three-toed footprints and belong to the Jurásico de Asturias Museum (MUJA), a museum that is exactly what you might think it is, one dedicated to the rich geological and paleontological past along this coast. A half-mile walk around a promontory outside of Lastres brings you to a set of sauropod footprints, while an entire dinosaur coastal route can also be followed by car (Asturias is also rich in cave paintings).
Further east along the coast, Llanes is another fishing village with a beautiful marina running through town, all located behind a promontory on the grassy clifftop path called Paseo de San Pedro. The locals love long, slow walks. The view from top to bottom of the steep cliffs coast may make you think you are in Ireland, with the added highlight of a number of bufones, or oceanic geysers, which gush out like vents between the rocks. Many beautiful beaches are also nestled in coves all around the city.
In and around Llanes, you will see mansions in this region of Asturias particularly rich in casas indianas. Typically square with eclectic facades of noble wood, these typically three-story houses sometimes feature towers and interior courtyards with cast iron balustrades. For good reason, their gardens are full of palm trees and other trees and plants from the New World.
From the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th century, millions of Spaniards emigrated to the Americas, including only 350,000 Asturians, many of whom were illiterate. But many came back rich and happy to build their casas indianas.
The town of Colombres, near the Cantabrian border, has a dozen examples, including the magnificent Quinta Guadalupe house from 1906 which is today the Emigration Museum. The stereotype of indians were of those who walked around in their white sheets and Panama hats and other attributes of the nouveau riche, while some of their wealth in mines, textiles and plantations today could be considered of dubious origin.
Returning to Gijón, you will increasingly appreciate how, at the turn of the last century, the railroad boom, the early use of electric lighting, a strong promotion of education and the expansion of the towns of their old walls to new neighborhoods with all these modernist gems were partly funded by these same returnees.
Note: For those who fly to Madrid Barajas Airport, it’s just another hour’s flight to Asturias, with Avilés airport located about 20 minutes outside of the city. The flight model takes you directly over the rugged mountains of Cantabria where the hamlets below appear like so many miniatures, a sight that provides a great introduction to the heart and soul of this region.