Know your place­mat

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - PETER O’DONNELL

IT is our last night in Gi­jon. On the cafe’s bar is a dis­pos­able place­mat with a folkart rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the at­trac­tions of the re­gion of As­turias in north­ern Spain.

As­turias is cider coun­try. The place­mat high­lights the art of pour­ing cider the way the lo­cal bar­men do it. With a bot­tle held high above their head, they land a stream of cider in your glass, held be­low their waist, with­out a glance. This is said to bring the cider to life.

They de­cide when each re­peat per­for­mance is due; all we have to do is watch, drink and en­joy the ta­pas.

The place­mat also shows the lo­cal cui­sine. Ap­pro­pri­ate for the re­gion that claims to serve the big­gest meals in Spain, the spe­cial­ity is fabada, a white bean stew and a meal in it­self, even though it of­ten comes be­fore the main course. The wait­ers have been good to us with the fabada. Mor­cilla, or black pud­ding, doesn’t make our mouths wa­ter, so in­stead they in­clude ex­tra chorizo or ham hock to go with the oreja de cerdo, or pig’s ear.

Across the top of the place­mat there is a band of blue with a piece of plumb­ing stick­ing out. The blue is la playa, the beach. Our ho­tel, the Al­co­mar, looks out over the curv­ing golden playa of San Lorenzo, crowded even at pad­dling tem­per­a­tures. We can’t help won­der­ing why the Ro­mans deemed it nec­es­sary to build baths a few me­tres away.

The Santa Catalina hill guard­ing Gi­jon har­bour is home to the city’s mod­ern sym­bol — the plumb­ing on the place­mat, a re­in­forced con­crete open circle sup­ported by two con­crete slabs, called the Elo­gio del Hor­i­zonte.

Its artist, the Basque Ed­uardo Chill­ida, knew what he was do­ing. He has cre­ated a wel­come from the sea. Five me­tres from the sculp­ture we barely hear the ocean be­low, but inside the circle it roars in our ears.

Oviedo, the pros­per­ous and el­e­gant cap­i­tal of As­turias, is 30 min­utes in­land from Gi­jon. Its cathe­dral, with a flam­boy­ant gothic fa­cade and spire, is one of Spain’s best-known land­marks. In its ninth-cen­tury holy cham­ber, art meets his­tory, As­turian style. The Cross of Vic­tory, an enam­elled and be­jew­elled gold mas­ter­piece, holds be­neath its em­bel­lish­ments the wooden cross car­ried by Pe­layo in 722 at Co­vadonga, where he in­flicted the first de­feat on the Mus­lim army in Spain.

Amid the place­mat’s green hills, I look for Santa Maria del Naranco. Two days ear­lier, as our taxi pulled up in front of this small World Her­itage-listed church, I re­alised I was look­ing at some­thing ut­terly per­fect. It is the sur­viv­ing part of a ninth-cen­tury royal palace. How could stone look so light?

In the place­mat’s bot­tom right-hand cor­ner a man is shown hik­ing in the Pi­cos de Europa. There is a bear fol­low­ing him. No re­grets that we have missed that par­tic­u­lar at­trac­tion. So, in As­turias, throw away your guide­book. Just go to the Tras­tero in Gi­jon and pick up a place­mat. While you are there, I do rec­om­mend the fabada.

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