It’s 8am, and I’ve hoofed it over to the bus station in Oviedo, capital of Asturias, so that I might get in a full day’s hike at the Picos de Europa, a 2500m-high mountain range renowned for its scenic walking trails. It’s meant to be the highlight of my trip.
“Why can’t I get a bus?” I repeat. Like all of the locals I’ve come across in Asturias, the agent is exceedingly friendly, offering warm smiles in place of articulated explanation. Finally, I’m able to decipher what she’s trying to tell me. “There’s a bus strike?” I ask. She nods vehemently.
I’m travelling with a friend here in Spain’s northernmost reaches. Her mindset is much more Spanish than mine, and she seems happy to go with the flow. “Let’s see where we can get to by train,” she suggests. I nod. A vacation should be about flexibility, a lesson Asturias is eager to teach me.
When we arrived in Oviedo the previous evening, I learned that I had to abandon my fantasy of walking the Garganta del Cares, a 12km-hike that’s meant to be the prettiest within the Picos, and indeed, all of Spain. It cuts through two giant mastiffs, winds through caves and passes underground waterfalls.
Alas, a landslide has made it impassable. In response, we charted an alternate route to other key hikes within the area. Now I’m abandoning those as well. However, as I soon learn, this is no bad thing. A change of plans means access to scenery no less pretty, just more off the beaten path.
We find ourselves on a train headed to the tiny coastal town of Llanes. A former fishing village with medieval roots, Llanes is the type of small, friendly, untouched town one imagines only exists in films (the type where the American or British protagonist wants to escape their mundane life for a little rural romance).
Granted, in the summer months, the tourists still file in, but the place is intimate enough to retain its character even then. The town is made up of narrow, cobblestone streets that weave around the main fishing port.
One of Llanes’ most distinguishing features is the Cubes of Memory, a series of concrete blocks that pave the harbour and were recently painted in a variety of swirls, shapes and patterns by Basque artist Augustín Ibarrola.
Floral and fruity themes abound, linking these now-colourful blocks to Llanes’ agricultural history, while the more figurative forms represent the artist’s personal memories. It’s a surreal work that invites exploring, and at times I’m so eager to lean in for a better look I almost lose my footing and sink into the sea.
Scrapping the Garganta del Cares, we instead walk the 7km Sevda Costera, or coastal route, which stretches west from Llanes along the beach – or beaches, for there are dozens of gorgeous ones from which to choose. En route, we’re stopped by a middle-aged backpacker with a peeling face.
He asks us for directions back towards Llanes. We oblige, and he enquires whether we want to skinnydip with him. “I have wine.” He ventures towards a large box in his hand. My flexibility has limits, and we politely demur.
The next day, we head back to Oviedo for a proper explore. The city featured prominently in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and as a result, a bronze sculpture of the neurotic director sits opposite the central park.
Later Oviedo’s sidrerias, or cider houses, beckon. Asturias is responsible for about 70 per cent of Spain’s cider production, and the drink can be swilled along Calle Gascona, a street lined with bars dedicated to the local brew.
The cider’s not carbonated, and to make up for this lack of fizz, the locals hold the bottle high above their heads and the glass down by their knees; by pouring from this great height, they are assured to give the drink a pleasant froth.
Halfway through our second bottle, we try pouring our own. Some liquid hits the glass, but most seeps into my sandals.
Ribadesella’s Tito Bustillo Cave, a Unesco World Heritage site containing paintings dating back as far as 22,000BC, is our final day’s destination. Stupidly, we hadn’t anticipated the tour would be conducted in Spanish.
While I fail to actually learn anything about the cave art, the surrounding stalagmites are a sight to behold, as are the millennia-old equestrian sketches that litter the walls.
I smile dumbly as our guide explains everything, then lean over to my friend and whisper: “You know, I think I’m getting the hang of this flexibility thing.”
Flights from London Stansted to Oviedo start around £159 with easyJet.
Photos: Thinkstock, Getty