Pelayo – The Last King of the Visigoths

Although my planned route is to follow the coasts of Spain and Portugal, I am easily tempted inland. The lure of the Picos de Europa National Park takes me into the mountains to the pilgrimage site of Covadonga. It’s such a popular place that the road up the valley is lined with souvenir shops, restaurants and overflow car parks but October is a quiet time of the year and I am able to wind my way to the very top and park in front of the grand museum building.

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The dominating feature of Covadonga is the Neo-Romanesque 19th century basilica, built on the site of the ancient battle between the Asturians and the Moors in 722. Legend suggests that Pelayo and his 300 followers were outnumbered 1000 to 1, but they defended their land and kept their freedom.

The basilica is impressive from the outside but rather plain and boring on the inside. Below it sits the huge grey Gran Hotel Pelayo with its overpriced restaurant catering for the coachloads of pensionistas. Beyond the hotel, through a long carved tunnel created in 1901, is a small cave (actually, more of an overhang) where Pelayo and his wife are entombed. Water cascades from below it, into a deep pool where the waters are said to have magical properties ensuring that you will marry. I didn’t bother to test that theory!

12km below Covadonga is the town of Cangas de Onis, which Pelayo established as the first capital of Asturias, but the site was inhabited at least 4000 years before that, given the bronze-age dolmen housed in the crypt of the Santa Cruz chapel. The chapel was founded in 733, though the present building on the site dates from a much later period.

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Nearby, the Sella River and Guena River meet, the former being spanned by a high-arched 13th century mediaeval bridge – strangely referred to as the Puente Romano (Roman Bridge). The main street offers souvenir shops selling brightly-coloured T-shirts with humorous slogans and expensive delicatessens providing local cheese made from three milks (cows, goats and sheep) and DIY kits for making the Asturian speciality of Fabada – a slow-cooked, bean stew with ham, black sausage and chorizo. Sadly, I’ve missed the local cheese festival, which was held last weekend, but in a few days they are holding the honey festival, yet another local delicacy.

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