Dirty old town… not

You won’t escape Oviedo without hearing or reading the term ‘pre-Romanesque’. While mosques and minarets were mushrooming in the south, an entirely different kind of architecture was flourishing in medieval times under the Christian kings of Asturias, with the ball set rolling by King Alfonso II. Oviedo has several key sites to get the history geek inside you slavering.

If you couldn’t care less about the vaulted nave, soak up the ambience with a wander through the Old Town instead. You probably won’t get Singapore-style instant punishment for dropping your chewing gum – this is Spain – but one thing Oviedo prides itself on is its award-winning clean streets. One thing the place is littered with, though, is statues, the city’s other obsession. Look out in particular for the 4m-high arse and the one of Woody Allen (a big fan of the place, apparently). Try not to confuse the two.

How d’ya like them apples?
‘Women and apples should be Asturian’ – a local saying that may seem a bit random, but the latter is certainly true if those apples happen to be in liquid form. The famed Asturian cider, or sidra, is deliciously refreshing stuff that’s drunk young and with particular etiquette: poured from a height with the bottle held high above the head and the glass below the waist, the cider is served up in little gulps that should be drained in one (most important is that you leave a tiny bit in the bottom with which to sloosh out the glass and clean it for the next person). The highest concentration of sidrerias is on Boulevard Gascona – be aware that the locals tend to drink it more as an apéritif rather than the basis for a night-long bender. As for Asturian women, well, the heir to the Spanish throne married one, so they can’t be too bad.

Worth a look

San Julian de los Prados
Plunked beside the highway on the outskirts of town, the church is fairly unprepossessing from the outside. Yet what’s inside was considered important enough for Unesco to award the site World Heritage status in 1988 – medieval frescos dating from the 9th century, depicting a post-apocalypse ‘new Jerusalem’. Lost for centuries when a 16th century Vatican ban on apocalypse theories caused them to be painted over, the elaborate, colourful frescos are notable for their advanced use of perspective – it’s quite a body of work, considering its age.

Catedral de San Salvador
Whether you’re a pilgrim following the English route of St James’ Way, or just curious about what’s behind the Gothic edifice, there are a few reasons to poke your head in here. Have a close look at the rather famous altarpiece (look closely and you’ll see a bloke in a pair of shades), pay homage to the six out of a total of 12 Asturian kings buried here and visit the site of the Santo Sudario. Legend has it that this piece of material covered Christ’s face as part of his burial shroud, and arrived mysteriously in the region in an ark which was then kept hidden from the invading Moors at nearby Monsacro. The relic even has the Vatican seal of authority and only goes on show three times a year. Eat your heart out, Turin.

Mercado El Fontán
The restored food market is a good place to stock up on local taste sensations, particularly Asturian cheeses and handily vacuum-packed kits for making fabada (the hearty bean and sausage stew for which the region’s famous). Given the notoriously changeable weather here, however, a more practical souvenir might be one of the numerous umbrellas on sale outside.

Additional information supplied by Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com). The fifth edition of Lonely Planet Spain is out now.