Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Off the Beaten Tourist Track in Spain: Oviedo and Santiago De Compostela

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Off the Beaten Tourist Track in Spain: Oviedo and Santiago De Compostela

Article excerpt

NORTHERN SPAIN * When the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra embarked on a four-concert tour of Spain in February, the group went to Mediterranean Valencia, where orange trees grow along the streets; to Madrid, the capital; and to the unexpected, the northern city of Oviedo. From Oviedo, the Camino de Santiago, leading to one of Christendom's greatest pilgrimage sites, beckoned.

A few miles south of the Bay of Biscay, Oviedo has a temperate climate. Founded in 720, it's the capital of the Principality of Asturias, in one of the few parts of Spain that was never conquered by Moorish invaders, and is filled with UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Oviedo is a small city with some notable architecture and lots of statuary. It's set in a mountainous landscape, overlooked to the north by Monte Naranco.

Many buildings in use today are examples of the creative recycling of structures whose original purposes are now obsolete. My friend Linda and I stayed with the SLSO at the centrally located Eurostars Hotel de la Reconquista.

Located in an imposing onetime orphanage constructed in 1752, the Reconquista has its own chapel; it's noted for a starry clientele that includes Spanish royalty and movie stars. It needed updating, and the service was slow, but the breakfasts were outstanding.

The orchestra's final concert was a sold-out triumph at the striking Auditorio Principe Felipe. Built atop the remains of the city's 19th century reservoir, it incorporates its predecessor's brick arches and vaulting in its public spaces with a modern auditorium upstairs.

The next day (and the last day of the tour), a Sunday, was a free day in Oviedo. We started out with a walking tour of the city led by a knowledgeable guide, Begoa Villa. Starting at the hotel and wending our way past the impressive San Francisco Park, we went by a host of historic sites, as Villa shared interesting facts and fun anecdotes.

Oviedo is a city of statues; one is of Woody Allen, who filmed a part of his 2008 movie "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" here. Another, with suitcases, is "The Traveler," a monument to the emigrants who left for other shores, made their fortunes and returned to their homeland.

The old town is a really old town, filled with medieval buildings still in use, an open-air market and attractive vistas. The mostly Gothic Cathedral of San Salvador, begun in the 14th century on the site of the Romanesque original, is closed to tourists on Sunday, but its museum is filled with treasures and relics.

The Museo de Bellas Artes de Asturias, the Fine Arts Museum, is housed in three connected buildings, two historic and one modern. The collection isn't large, but it's well worth seeing, with works by Goya, Murillo, Picasso, and an entire set of El Greco portraits of the apostles, a rarity.

Don't miss the chance to experience Asturian cider, or sidra. Calle Gascon, in the old town, is lined with siderias. On Villa's recommendation, we visited Tierra Astur and ate on the lower level. You won't hear much English spoken here, but the employees are good at figuring out your order.

The floors are covered with sawdust. That's a necessity because the special art of pouring sidra involves holding the bottle as high as possible in one hand, and pouring the contents into the glass, held as low as possible in the other, supposedly to cut down on gas consumption. Splashing is inevitable, and, besides, the servers just dump the remains of one pour onto the floor before refilling the glass with fresh drink. Customers are welcome to try pouring.

For scenic views, it's hard to beat Monte Naranco; there are two important pre-Romanesque buildings on the winding way. Some tourists walk up, an all-day affair. We took a taxi, with a friendly woman named Ins at the wheel. She didn't speak much English, but she had an excellent translation app on her phone.

After a visit at the windswept peak, where we admired the views next to a large statue of Jesus, she drove us back down, with stops at two ancient churches, Santa Maria del Naranco and San Miguel de Lillo. …

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