Know your placemat
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.