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More properly known as the Santa Cueva de Covadonga, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit this holy site in Asturias, northern Spain, this past May Day bank holiday weekend. It’s interesting to visit not just for its spectacular site in the Picos de Europa monutain range, but also because it’s tied to a Spanish founding myth featuring Pelayo, King of Asturias. I knew nothing of Pelayo before I visited, but I was instantly impressed by the chapel in the cave perched above a green pool and cascading waterfalls:

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The day we visited was perfect for a walk up the mountainside and then into the cave itself. The weather was mild -if a little rainy- although the sun kept showing through the clouds. Although it was also a fiesta for some local people, the early season meant that we were able to enjoy the natural beauty of the spot without the crowds which apparently descend in high summer.

Still reasonably fresh from Semana Santa in Seville, I have to say I was a little disappointed when we finally reached the holy cave via a rocky passage: the image of the Virgin was tiny, and she wasn’t surrounded by mournful music, clouds of incense, or dozens of gently flickering candles. Apparently this image is popularly known as La Santina, the little saint, due to her diminutive stature. Here she is:

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Something I was impressed by, however, was the entrepreneurial spirit of the cave’s caretakers. As a devotional site, there’s no fee for entry, but there is -naturally- a gift shop, and even a vending machine selling candles imprinted with the Virgin’s picture (I did spend the required €1.20 to buy one because I love Catholic iconography and had been hankering after a holy candle for a while). I’m kicking myself that I didn’t get a photo of that vending machine.

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While stories surrounding the origins of the shrine here differ, I was initially told that Rey Pelayo, the very early Spanish king, was sheltering with his troops in this mountain cave when they had a miraculous vision of the Virgin. Seeing her, they were inspired to fight bravely and went on to win an important battle against the Moors, which then began the Christian Reconquista of Spain, and the conquering Muslim North Africans were finally driven out. A bit like King Arthur, it seems that Pelayo is a figure more based in legend than true history, but nevertheless his story is an important one relating to national identity.

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Once we had visited the shrine and taken a walk to the church a little higher up the mountain, it was time to get some lunch and enjoy some local sidra in nearby Cangas de Onís. Covadonga is quite isolated, and there isn’t a village as such surrounding the cave. There are some small religious buildings, a large hotel with a restaurant and bar, a church, and some ruined cottages and souvenir stands, and that’s pretty much it. There were a few isolated houses by the roadside a little further down.

Cangas de Onís, a few kilometres away, is a small Asturian town with a marketplace, shops, and restaurants, many of which cater to the shrine’s visitors. We ate in a small place serving local Asturian food which I picked out due to its appealing name (Restaurante El Abuelo – Grandad’s Restaurant).  We each had a very tasty and filling menú del día, which, as is usual, included 3 courses with bread and wine for a very reasonable price. While it was better for my omnivorous novio than for me, the same can be said of eating out in most places in Spain. Sadly, vegetarianism/pescatarianism still seems to be a little-understood concept, and meat-free meals are not so common.

The most famous landmark in Cangas de Onís is the puente romano.  While it’s thought that the current version is actually a a restored/reconstructed one from the Middle Ages, the bridge makes a dramatic arch over the river where fishermen wait patiently on the banks for wild salmon, and it quickly becomes clear why so many people reach for their cameraphones as soon as the bridge comes into view.

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Once we’d explored the town and crossed the bridge, we had a sidra sitting in the sunny garden of a bar on the right bank of the river. While the north of Spain might not get the endless sunny days of Andalucia, the charm of moodier northern regions continues to attract me more and more. Galicia, Cantabria, Asturias and the Basque country have a different feel to them, and it’s a welcome change from some of the resorts and more heavily touristy areas to the south, which I remember from family holidays when I was young.

During the long weekend we were away, I think I only heard one other English speaker, and combined with the fact we were staying with my suegros, I got to speak a lot of Spanish. I definitely recommend the Santuario Covadonga and Cangas de Onís as places to visit to get a closer look at Spanish culture.