Gijón, Asturias, Spain.
The View From Gijón
My first exposure to the Northern Spanish region of Asturias was from Anthony Bourdain's journey into the mountains surrounding the capital of Oviedo. His trip would eventually be detailed in an episode of his show, Parts Unknown, but unfortunately this would only come to be aired a few months after his much-too-early death. What marked this episode apart was the complete lack of characteristic narration that always accompanied his other work, which in any other context would have dispensed the chef's sharp wit and cutting, insightful musings on the nature of place and people. In its absence was an unusual, peaceful silence, a stillness within the episode that while lacking factual insight allowed the apparent atmosphere of the region, at least as experienced by Bourdain, to endure. Something sobering, well-lived, and always hard-worked, even without a voice, shone through.
My understanding of this region, limited only to what I knew from this single episode, was more a montage of tone and feeling, heavily swayed by both the editorialised, if (I'm sure) fairly placed, focus of the show and inevitable sombre context that surrounded its production.
I felt I knew at least some semblance of how the place could have felt, but I also knew I lacked a lot of detail, a swathe of information that would help me piece together in my own mind this rugged and genuinely ancient place, a deeply and unfairly untold area of an even broader misunderstood region. Frankly, the more I learned suggested that Green Spain, Cornisa Cantábrica, was just but one within a country whose history and relevance is seemingly and increasingly becoming diminished within my language's sphere of influence. Its relevance, known through fun-if-exaggerated stereotype, only acknowledged as it pertains to the interests of tourists.
It was immediately apparent that a great deal was different in the north, not just limited to its decidedly mountainous, Celtic-landscape, but also if not more so to its people and culture. How different from the rest of its country, I didn't and, frankly, continue to not know. But this place was distinctively and decidedly its own.
In September of 2021 I took a leap of confidence and travelled to the verdant and always hilly north of Spain. First stop; my girlfriend's home in the more easterly region of Cantabria whose more gentle rolling central landscape reminded me of the hills I'd seen in Wales during childhood trips to see my grandparents.
Soon after, and then more regularly, my time was spent in the industrious port city of Gijón, a surprisingly high-rise, densely-packed yet invariably-easy-going cultural centre of 1970s city-planning. Spilling out into the sea from the mountains, the city is the largest municipality of Asturias, and its Centro district would be my basecamp for the next month and a half.
We stayed a short ten minute walk from Paseo de Begoña in the centre of town, a mosaic-laden upmarket cluster of Sidrerías and coffee shops paving a southern foundation for Centro's grid system. To the north, more visible at night, an up-lit Christ overlooks the city.
Over the next few weeks I familiarized myself with the web of streets. Eventually it wasn't too hard, and it was obvious that most roads in the centre of town either lead to a distinctive public square or would take you further towards the coast where the journey would end for all but fish. At the head of the city, the old town, Cimadevilla. A statue of the Asturian King Pelagius stood facing the sea wearing a face mask.
In some evenings we'd head south towards a shop to get weekly groceries, a supermarket adjacent to the city's Plaza de El Llano. The park, bordered on all sides by arterial roads feeding off or into the regional highways, stood filled with the sort of public art I would have previously associated with Soviet satellite states. Tall, jagged blades of steelwork and glass amongst concrete prisms less hinting and more dragging into view the city's heavily industrial past and present. We end up buying far too much for us to carry, and walk back with bags strewn over us.
Mid-October light in Gijón is the same as New York. It's more saturated than I'm used to in London, more colourful, with heavy yet soft shadows. It's never too warm, and the tone always has a hint of blue.
The height of the buildings helps to sell the atmosphere, propelling the city out of the normal European medieval-fare and into something slightly more new world, a bit more like the east coast's urban developments. It's friendly, and especially towards the early evenings the streets come alive. Siestas aren't necessary, but the region follows the same culture of long lunches, and so the city shuts down when I'm most awake around 13:30. But 18:00 is prime time, and both cafes and butchers, whose purple light and chromium panelling can be seen blocks away, all heave with people. Everyone wears masks. Even Pelagius has a fresh one, this time around his arm.
An hour and a half later and the sun sets low enough for the sky to still shine while the streets are dark. Walking down the pavements, green lights blast around corners. Pharmacies are everywhere, and all are immaculate. Never once in the UK did I ever pay notice to the regularity of a local Boots, but here it's different. Each is glossy white, floor to ceiling. Even the pharmacist appears to be very slightly luminescent. My girlfriend, while deeply appreciative of the country's healthcare, didn't seem to grasp how unusual I found this video-game-checkpoint-levels-of-frequency, where it seemed every ailment could be quickly and efficiently treated by a singularly-staffed, seemingly expertly yet effortlessly trained medic. One provided me with the most effective medication I have ever received for an excruciating and permanent condition I've had since I was 15. She handed it over, I remember, very casually. The magic still hasn't worn off, and I miss them greatly.
Back at the apartment, and while the UK never adopted them, Europe's multi-directional swinging, leaning windows meant opening up a door-like hole in the Kitchen window out onto the street far below. Nightfall, sixth floor. I don't smoke, I barely drink, but movie me would sit side saddle, feet inside, face in the barely-present breeze, the dim orange tip of a fictional cigarette glowing with a drop of 20 meters below and clouds obscuring the night sky a few hundred meters above. A glass of water, if I had it, would suffice. Occasionally I'd read Bourdain again. From this perch I'd see the slightly Viking-themed pub below was bustling, but always quiet. Another unusually themed establishment a few miles away towards the football stadium, Cafe Gales, named after Wales. I'm still not sure of the connection, but they certainly didn't serve Clarks pies. They definitely served Sidra though, hand above head, poured into a glass below. Escanciar un culín.
I never had a good opportunity to try Sidra. Despite most of my time in Spain being taken-up in Asturias, I rarely got to directly experience much in the way of food or the specific cultural qualities of the region bar Cachopo and Fabada. Those experiences were left for Cantabria.. My time in Gijón was spent quite frequently on my own, walking around as a man who continues to struggle with Spanish more than any other language I've even passingly attempted to learn. I functioned mostly as a mute, say for the occasional and rather pitiful 'los siento', 'perdón', and 'hola'. It was time where attention spent listening and looking was much more important than an unachievable moment of talking.
I couldn't order a coffee, knowing even if I rehearsed the line, that a long-present anxiety would take over in a city generally less familiarised with the bilingual, and on presentation of a follow-up question by a well-meaning waiter I'd likely be unable to properly complete the transaction. Eventually, after a few weeks, shopping on my own went okay. Once or twice I'd not even have to return to English, and my visible confusion was slightly less overbearing. Coffee was drunk at home. I'd noted my incompetence.
I'd walk up towards the old part of town, zig-zagging through streets I now felt, unlike with the language, generally very at home with. They were always spotless in the day, the nights, after bars spilled out into the streets either in the form of populated tables and chairs or simply crowds approaching the twilight of the evening, less so. They were always much cleaner than back home though.
Those walks helped build a picture, beginning to contextualise my experiences growing up in the South East of England from my short time spent in the upper regions of Spain. The north, including Gijón, had both many more abandoned buildings yet significantly fewer abandoned shops, even after a global pandemic. My years in the UK were frequently punctuated by the centres of towns ever-verging on some sort of collapse, a constant, headline-driven decline affecting even the largest of cities, especially at the start of this decade. Here, somehow, high streets and side streets were much less sad, and the mainstreet in town was bustling. Even still, you'd occasionally still find the odd somewhat ornate apartment building from the turn of the previous century bordered up. One in particular, sandwiched between Begoña and an adjacent, picturesque park named Plaza de Europa always caught my eye when I passed by. The building, the size of a city block, painted in an ever-fading and always-crumbling red and white, stood there mostly unused for clearly some great time. Exceptions included a lingerie shop and what seemed to be a single restaurant, all on the ground floor. Grass peaked out from the gap between its gutter and the terracotta roof. Various panes of glass in timber frames were cracked. If a 50s Chrysler New Yorker parked outside, the combination of the architecture and its condition would been straight out of Havana, yet, back home and this would have been the site of a multi-million pound renovation project, a gentrification for the types of folks who had the means but rarely the motivation to live in those types of buildings.
The picture continued to grow outside the city limits. The bi-weekly drive from Asturias to Cantabria, mountains to one side, the beginning of an ocean to the other, was heavily populated by ramshackled farm houses, many of which had collapsed roofs. Despite a giant silhouetted Toro de Osborne sculpture near Llanes on the drive there and back, the bullish real estate market had clearly far from fully reared its head yet. Once again I knew that in a different situation these would have been second homes, the types of well-romanticised villas you'd see in Italy, and ever increasingly in France.
Asturias though, much like most of the north of Spain, is cow country. So while one bull of sorts was currently subdued, Spain having suffered much more than most during the mortgage crisis and its subsequent years, the same couldn't be said for the muscular animals previously destined for the city's Plaza de Toros, who I'm sure were much happier now that the bullfighting ring had closed its doors just weeks before I arrived. A newly abandoned building of very different sorts and reasons.
Yet, soon after I arrived, I left. I had one weekend remaining in the country, and with it I journeyed further up the coast towards France, stopping short of the border in a region of the planet I've wanted to visit for years: Basque. My Spanish never really improved, if only ever to the extent that now I'd walk around reading the names of shops somewhat more correctly. V's became B's, C's and Z's became TH's. X's, ever present in the local dialects and languages of the north, Asturias' being Bable, became the same as J's, which were hard H's. More guttural. The tongue often arching in the mouth. Air rushing over the top abrasively.
To some extent maybe some of my assumptions had been correct, I did 'know', if very roughly, some of the general atmosphere present in Asturias. At least in Gijón. This is Spain, but earthier, a little more Celtic, greener and damper, industrial. The seasons are more present in not just weather but colour too. In timbre and tone. There's a lot of history, and all of it is very subtlety and earnestly living next to each other. Its not flashy, it's all extremely honest. If there was one thing the town lacked, it was pretence.