It is almost as if Asturias was designed by a clever algorithm to keep everyone happy. You don’t have to choose between beaches or mountains, or between a city break or an activity holiday – this compact region in northern Spain has the lot. So it’s no wonder so many Spanish people have second homes there. Personally, I’d go just for the cheese.
Tourists might soon get the memo, too. The region has just become easier to reach by train, with a brand new high-speed railway line linking Madrid to Oviedo in just over three hours.
The Principality of Asturias describes itself as a ‘natural paradise’ and for once this is not just a banal marketing slogan. Between Cantabria and Galicia, it stretches for around 200 miles from east to west and 50 miles from north to south. This is a land where the mountains start just behind the coast, with emerald-green meadows and apple orchards in between.
Travelling around the region, you come upon pre-Romanesque churches but also startling contemporary architecture; you can hike through spectacular scenery in the hills in the morning and flop on an idyllic beach in the afternoon.
While it rains more here than in the south of the country, this is what creates those lush landscapes. It is less oppressively hot in summer than the south and east of Spain, which means you can actually spend more of the day on the beach – and Asturias has proper beaches, with crescents of white sand backed by cliffs. If you have only experienced the Spain of package holidays in big resorts, you’ll feel like you are in a different country.
Forming a triangle in the centre of Asturias, Oviedo, Gijón and Avilés have very different characters but each has its own charm. Elegant Oviedo, the regional capital, is unusually pristine for a city, with café terraces on pedestrianised squares in the medieval core. It gets lively at night though, with people spilling out of boisterous cider bars onto the streets. Stay in historic splendour at the five-star Eurostars La Reconquista (eurostarshotels.co.uk; doubles from around £100).
On the coast with splendid urban beaches, Gijón is the biggest city in Asturias with a large port and a dynamic gastronomic and cultural scene. Mooch around the old town on the Cimadevilla headland that divides the bay and don’t miss the Atlantic Botanical Gardens (botanico.gijon.es) and the vast Laboral cultural complex (laboralciudaddelacultura.com). The Santa Rosa hotel, with contemporary décor in a traditional building, is an unpretentious place to stay in a handy location (bluehoteles.es/santa-rosa; doubles from around £70).
After decades of being associated with the iron and steel industry, Avilés is now attracting a lot more tourists, both from Spain and beyond. Many come to see the Centro Oscar Niemeyer cultural centre (centroniemeyer.es), a futuristic white blob designed by the prestigious Brazilian architect when he was in his 90s, which opened in 2011 when he was 103.
The city’s medieval heart is remarkably well preserved, with opulent mansions, colourful fishermen’s houses, pretty little squares and porticoed streets lined with tapas bars. The five-star Palacio de Avilés occupies a palatial 17th-century building on the main square in the city (melia.com; doubles from around £70).
Prehistoric settlements have been discovered in caves in Asturias, with magnificent Palaeolithic art in Tito Bustillo (centrotitobustillo.com) near Ribadesella, Pindal in the cliffs near Ribadedeva, Buxu in Cangas de Onís and La Lluera in San Juan de Priorio.
Covadonga, in the Picos de Europa, is recognised as the birthplace of Christian Spain, as it was here in the early eighth century that King Pelayo triumphed over the Moors, kicking off the reconquest that would take another seven centuries to complete. The dramatic mountain location is now a shrine, marked by a pink granite basilica (realsitiodecovadonga.com).
In the ninth century, King Alfonso II based his court in Oviedo while he ventured to the place that would become Santiago de Compostela, to see the tomb of Saint James. He was therefore the first pilgrim and the catalyst for the now world-famous pilgrimage to the Galician capital. Oviedo cathedral (catedraldeoviedo.com) has particular significance as the starting point of the camino primitivo, as this original pilgrimage route is called.
Just outside the city are the extraordinary pre-Romanesque churches of Santa María del Naranco, San Miguel de Lillo and San Julián de los Prados and there are others around the region too (prerromanicoasturiano.es).
You could happily spend a week or two travelling along the coast, discovering unspoilt beaches – there are more than 200 to choose from – and staying in fishing villages and low-key resorts.
Cudillero, with rows of little pastel-painted houses packed onto the hillside above the harbour, is a great spot for a seafood lunch and is close to the Playa del Silencio, one of the region’s most dramatic beaches, which looks like the crater of a volcano.
The stretch from Villaviciosa to Ribadesella is known as the Jurassic Coast because so many traces of dinosaur and other reptiles have been discovered there. Head to La Griega beach to see gigantic footprints and fossils along the way, then stroll around nearby Lastres, where the Spanish version of the TV series Doc Martin was filmed.
The seaside town of Llanes in the east is a popular base, with colourful mansions built by wealthy emigrants who returned from the Americas at the turn of the 20th century. The many beaches in and around the resort include Torimbia, a truly magnificent sweep of fine sand that is one of the best in Spain.
Head inland from the coast and drive through bucolic landscapes of rolling hills, apple orchards and green meadows punctuated by hórreos, the raised granaries that you also see in Galicia – the difference being that in Asturias they are made of wood rather than granite. While this is a wonderful region to tour by car, you need to get your walking boots on or get on a bike to get the full impact of the experience. Asturias attracts a lot of professional mountaineers and cyclists but there are routes to suit all abilities and ages.
The three massifs of the Picos de Europa, Spain’s first national park, separate Asturias from the rest of Spain. With dramatic jagged peaks, lakes and flower-filled valleys, the scenery is nothing short of jaw-dropping and the mountain range is unsurprisingly one of the top destinations for nature lovers in Spain. Cangas de Onís is a good base for all sorts of activities, with a particularly attractive Parador in a former monastery (telegraph.co.uk/paradordecangasdeonis; doubles from around £80).
Asturias is also one of the few places in Europe where you can see brown bears in the wild. The best place to spot them is the Somiedo Natural Park, where you might also come across wolves, as well as griffon vultures, golden eagles and a huge variety of butterflies.
You can find out more at the Fundación Oso Pardo information centre (fundacionosopardo.org) in Pola de Somiedo, and book a bear-spotting excursion with Somiedo Experience (somiedoexperience.com). Stay at the family-run Palacio Flórez-Estrada (telegraph.co.uk/palacioflorezestrada; doubles from around £70).
Food and drink
With a wide variety of superb produce from the sea, mountains, rivers and lush countryside, Asturias is one of Spain’s top gastronomic regions. Stop off anywhere along the coast for a seafood lunch that might include clams, velvet crabs, hake or monkfish. Look out for sea urchins – erizos – which are one of the many specialities. If you don’t fancy tackling the spiky creatures, try the rich paté on a slice of bread.
After a morning hiking in the hills, you’ll be ready for your fabada – the region’s signature stew, made with a local variety of butter beans, pork, black pudding and chorizo. If you are really hungry, order a cachopo, which is two escalopes – often the size of a dinner plate – filled with ham and cheese, coated in breadcrumbs and fried.
I am certainly not alone in my passion for the cheeses of Asturias – there are around 40 to choose from. The most well-known is the pungent blue Cabrales, which is made in tiny dairies and matured in caves. You can visit some of them in and around Arenas de Cabrales – a must for turophiles.
Although some wine is made in the Cangas de Narcea area, cider is the regional drink, poured from a height to create a bit of fizz. Although it is served in chunky tumblers, you only get an inch or two at a time, which you knock back quickly before it goes flat.
Where to stay
Asturias was a pioneer of rural tourism in Spain and you can stay in small, characterful places all over the region. Rustical Travel (rusticaltravel.com) and Caminos by Casas Cantabricas (caminos.co.uk) have a good selection of self-catering properties. Casonas Asturianas (casonasasturianas.com) brings together hotels in traditional buildings, from farmhouses to grand Casas de Indianos.
By air: Vueling (vueling.com) flies from Gatwick to Asturias Airport, which is 10 miles from Avilés and 28 miles from both Oviedo and Gijón. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies there from Stansted. You could also fly to Santander with Ryanair, or to Bilbao.
By ferry: Brittany Ferries (brittanyferries.com) sails from Plymouth, Portsmouth and Cork to Santander and from Portsmouth to Bilbao. The drive along the coast to the Asturian border takes 45 minutes from Santander and one hour 45 minutes from Bilbao.
By rail: You can book tickets on the new Madrid to Oviedo high-speed railway at thetrainline.com.