Telling fairy tales in Oviedo

by Sarah.Monaghan

With roaming peacocks, open-air sculptures and dancing on the streets, Oviedo, Woody Allen’s favourite Spanish city, is a wonderful place to let your imagination run wild

The first time I see Woody Allen, he looks confused. He has lost his specs again and he’s not in Manhattan. The director’s life-size bronze statue stands in Milicias Nacionales Street in Oviedo, where the locals can’t get enough of him. Literally. His signature glasses are welded on but fans keep prising them off his statue. “Guys come with blowtorches at night… I have been there when I’ve had half my glasses off!” Allen is reported as saying.

Allen first visited the capital of Asturias in 2002 to receive a prestigious Prince of Asturias Foundation Award (Spain’s ‘Nobel’ prize) – other winners include Stephen Hawking, Bob Dylan and Al Gore. Not that they had statues erected in their honour; Allen earned his special place in Oviedo’s heart when he called it “a fairy-tale city”. He was so enamoured that he returned to use locations in it and nearby Avilés for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, his 2008 film for which Penelope Cruz won an Oscar.

In it, Javier Bardem invites Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson to Oviedo to “see a wonderful piece of art” – a pre-Romanesque church. Oviedo has some of the finest in Spain, all with World Heritage Site status. The prettiest is the delicate Santa Maria del Naranco (842), originally a palace and built high on Mount Naranco, a peaceful wooded hill overlooking the city and offering superb views. Up here, you can’t miss Oviedo’s new Santiago de Calatrava-designed Princess Letizia Conference Hall, looking like a spaceship has just landed. Letizia, wife of Crown Prince Felipe, was born in the city and they are proud of it. So was Carmen Franco, wife of the dictator. They are less thrilled about that – she’s known locally as ‘Carmen Collares’ (Carmen Necklaces) because she used to drip with jewels.

There is something fairy-tale-like about Oviedo. Not least the turquoise peacocks that roam free, their shrieking cries echoing through the streets. They live in the Campo de San Francisco, the city’s green heart; a leafy park with exotic trees, bandstands and bubbling fountains: try one of the outdoor cafés here for a spot of people-watching.

Oviedo’s pedestrianised centre leads you from plaza to plaza, each hung with geraniums. The best for an al fresco drink is Plaza del Fontán, where cafés spill out across the square. The town market is here too and Restaurante El Fontán, overlooking it, serves up a hefty portion of Fabada Asturiana (beans and chorizo) for €11.

If you’re in town on a Saturday morning, sit and watch the city show off its Celtic roots. Traditional dancers and bagpipers perform free in the plazas, the men in pantaloons and red sashes; the women in long coloured skirts.

Nearby is the seriously decadent Hotel de la Renconquista, a baroque palacio where Allen and the cast stayed. I stayed at the central and modern-style Barceló Oviedo Cervantes, a restored townhouse, but I stopped for an evening cocktail in the Reconquista’s elegant Bar Americano to savour the old-style sophistication. In a nearby street is Bocamar, a great seafood restaurant to which Allen returned repeatedly, he so loved the lobster.

You’ll be hard pushed to find any litter on the streets of Oviedo – the city won Spain’s Golden Broom award three times – but you will find plenty of public art. Oviedo is one big open-air sculpture display. City mayor Gabino de Lorenzo, who took over in 1991, has overhauled this former industrial city by bringing “art onto the streets”, commissioning Spain’s most famous sculptors to create a collection of individual pieces for the pedestrianised centre.

There are dozens, but the most talked about is 'Culis monumentalibus' by Eduardo Urculo, known affectionately as ‘El culo de Urculo’, an enormous pair of buttocks that is four metres high. Overlooking it is the golden spire of the city’s Gothic cathedral, which supposedly holds a fragment of Christ’s shroud.

Cider (sidra) is the local drink in Oviedo, and you are going to get wet drinking it. One street, Calle Gascona, is known as the Boulevard de la Sidra, with apparently the greatest number of cider bars in the world. Inside them, the barmen practise the art of pouring from height to get the bubbles going. You then drink the entire glass while it is still carbonated, except for the lees, which you throw into gutters or the sawdust on the floor.

The cider is delicious with chunks of Cabrales, the local creamy blue cheese, made from a blend of cow, goat and cheese milk, and the best place to try both is the Sidrería Tierra Astur, where you can also sample a fantastical selection of chorizo made from boar, ostrich and venison. They’re all too good to be true…

Recommendations

GETTING THERE

Fly direct to Asturias Airport (Oviedo) from London Stansted with easyJet. Iberia and British Airways fly from the UK via Madrid.

WHERE TO EAT

Best seafood: Bocamar
Calle del Marqués de Pidal 20, Oviedo; +34 985 237 092
Lively restaurant and bar with maritime feel and extensive fresh seafood caught off the north coast.

Best traditional Asturian: El Raitán
Plaza de Trascorrales 6, Oviedo; +34 985 214 218
Go for individual dishes or the nine-course lunchtime tasting menu, served by waiters in regional costume.

Best view: Real Balneario de Salinas
Calle Juan Sitges 3, Salinas, Aviles; +34 985 518 613
This lovely Michelin-starred restaurant in the nearby seaside resort of Salinas overlooks the sea and featured in Vicki Cristina Barcelona.

Best value: Restaurante El Fontán
Arco de los Zapatos 8, Oviedo; +34 985 211 004

WHERE TO DRINK

Sidrería Tierra Astur
Calle Gascona 1, Oviedo
A bar and deli that has a wonderful stock of traditional Asturian cheeses and chorizos to take home.

WHERE TO SHOP

Jet jewellery is an Oviedo speciality: the local jet is such good quality that Queen Victoria bought lots of it for her mourning clothes. Try this jewellers: Santirso, at Rua 004, Oviedo.

CULTURE

Oviedo’s Teatro Campoamor (C/ Diecinueve de Julio) runs a lively programme of dance and musical performances, and its zarzuela (light opera) is said to be the best in Spain outside Barcelona.

WHERE TO STAY

Hotel Barceló Oviedo Cervantes: five-star, modern, minimalist hotel, with big spacious rooms in a restored 19th-century townhouse.

Hotel de la Reconquista: five-star, seriously opulent hotel in a 17th-century palace.

Hostal Arcos: two-star budget option with comfortable rooms, ideally situated (very central, just off Plaza Mayor).
 

Sarah.Monaghan

Sarah is a travel writer who writes for the national and international press. She is the former editor of Everything Spain, Emirates Woman, Living in the Gulf and Middle East Health magazines and currently edits an ecotourism magazine on the West African country of Gabon. A French and Spanish speaker, she’s a real Hispanophile: “Spain is such a colourful place to visit with so much variety, landscapes, languages, customs and languages, in one country – just compare Galicia with Andalucia, they are worlds apart.” Favourite places: Spain. Best rural destination for its views? The Alpujarras. Best city to get lost in? Palma de Mallorca. Gabon. Dreamiest spot? St Catherine’s Point in Loango National Park, where the waves literally lap up to your wood cabin.