It’s like two cities for the price of one. In northern Spain, Gijón both occupies and straddles a small peninsula that juts into the Cantabrian Sea. On either side of the headland you’ll find separate waterfront and beach scenes, and thus distinct vibes.
The peninsula itself was home to a Roman settlement called Cimavilla and culminates at a hilltop parkland where today families and dog walkers stroll past a huge concrete structure with a space-agey edge to it. The renowned Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida conceived of his Elogio del Horizonte in homage to the Asturias region’s enormous number of emigrés who long ago took to the sea from here. So, make that three fine cities in one.
Sculptor Eduardo Chillida’s Elogio del Horizonte dominates Gijón’s peninsular hilltop.
With a quarter million inhabitants, Gijón may be the largest city in the Asturias region, but the old Centro area just several blocks from the seafront is so compact as to be easily walkable and as a plus has loads of pedestrianized streets. And a double plus is that Calle Corrida among other streets is chock full of gorgeous Art Nouveau buildings. So, make that four cities now.
You can turn one of the finest Art Deco examples into your temporary home. The El Môderne hotel is a 1931 residence in the so-called Zig-Zag style. You can imagine this brooding grey stone building with its turrets and plenty of chimera in Paris or Wall Street, or maybe something that was conjured up for a German Expressionist movie.
Minutes away on Gijón’s west-side promenade, the huge Asturias Railway Museum in the city’s original train station and with original steam engines on display serves as chronicle to a once well-extended railroad system that served the region’s vast 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 learn of the Gallic roots up here in Northern Spain (reflected clearly in the name of the neighboring region, Galicia).
On several plazas at the base of the Cimavilla peninsula where all these city sectors converge, you’ll find plenty of low-key taverns with outdoor seating. Huge seafood platters at Restaurante El Palacio for one will have your eyes bulging.
A tank room at the Casa Trabanco llagar, or cidery, in the Lavandera hamlet outside of Gijón.
You can’t help but bump into Asturia’s traditional cider houses on small streets all around town. Logically, you’ll want to go to the source. Directly south of Gijón and reached by windy roads through hilly terrain, the Casa Trabanco is a nearly century-old cider maker. Orchards all around will leave no doubt that Asturias is Spain’s leading cider region, with some 76 apple varieties having official denomination status. A tour of the llagar, the cidery, will prep you well for lunch in their restaurant where the cachopo, a sort of schnitzel that is stuffed as well with ham and cheese, is the size of a small car.
Located in upscale Gijón suburbs, the massive Universidad Laboral de Gijón is often said to be the biggest building in Spain, built as it is around a football field-size courtyard with a bell tower and church, all of which hint at a Harry Potter movie set. This university/school/cultural/research center is a curiosity alone for its history as a school for mining family orphans that was built under the early 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 steep, old stone fishing village of Lastres is packed with red-tiled and verandaed houses that are reached via narrow stairways. For centuries, hearty folk have trekked up these slopes from the breakwater after a day of fishing mullet, anchovies, hake, and eel. Which many still do, while the grand days of whale hunting are thankfully over.
The old fishing village of Lastres is thirty minutes outside of Gijón.
From the tiny chapel of San Roque that overlooks the town and the Cantabrian Mountains, in the near distance three huge dark domes stand out on a hilltop clearing. The domes represent tridactyl footprints and belong to the Museo Jurásico de Asturias (MUJA), a museum that is just what you’d think it is, one dedicated to the rich geologic and paleontologic past along this coast. A half-mile walk around a headland 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 rich in cave paintings as well).
Further east along the coast, Llanes is another fishing village with a fine marina that laces through town, all situated behind a headland upon whose grassy clifftop pathway called the Paseo de San Pedro locals enjoy long, slow walks. The view up and down the coast of sheer cliffs might make you think you’re in Ireland, with the added highlight of a number of bufones, or ocean geysers, that shoot up like blowholes between the rocks. Plenty of fine beaches are tucked into coves all around town too.
The Puerto Deportivo is a leisure marina winding its way through the town of Llanes.
In and around Llanes, you’ll spot mansions in this area of Asturias that is particularly rich in casas indianas. Typically square with eclectic facades in nobles woods, these usually three-story homes sometimes come with towers and inner courtyards with cast iron railings. For good reason, their gardens are full of palms and other New World trees and plants.
From the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, millions of Spaniards emigrated to the Americas, among them 350,000 Asturians alone, a large number 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 gorgeous 1906 Quinta Guadalupe house that is today the Emigration Museum. The stereotype of indianos were of those promenading in their white linens and Panama hats and other trappings of the nouveaux riches, while some of their wealth in mines, textiles, and plantations might be considered of questionable origin today.
The Quinta Guadalupe mansion houses the emigration museum in the town of Ribadedeva,
Back in Gijón, you’ll appreciate ever more how at the turn of the last century, the boom in railways, the early use of electric lights, a strong promotion of education, and the spreading out of towns from their old walls into new districts with all those Modernist gems were financed in part by those very returnees.
Note: For those flying into Madrid’s Barajas Airport, it’s just another hour-flight to Asturias, with the Avilés airport located some 20 minutes outside of town. The flight pattern takes you right over the rugged Cantabrian Mountains where hamlets below appear as so many miniatures, a view that serves as a great introduction to the heart and soul of this region.


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