Phil and I have been on very few group tours, only three to be exact, including the one I’ll be telling you about here. The first was a free tour of St. Peter’s Basilica in 2004, that we happened upon, while in progress. The guide was so informative that we booked his evening walking tour later that night. It ended up being just us and an older couple from the UK that evening for an amazing two plus hour tour around the city.
The second time we took a group tour was at the Doge’s Palace, in Venice, in 2019. The guide was also great and we even visited a few rooms not open to the general public, one was the cell of the famous Casanova, which was super cool. We were part of a relatively large group and, moving through small corridors, by the end of the two hours, we were ready for it to conclude.
This past Tuesday we took our longest group tour yet, an almost 12 hour day, start to finish, to Lagos de Covadonga (Lakes of Covedonga) in the Picos de Europa national park, and then to the nearby town of Cangas de Onís. We booked this group tour through a travel agency (a what?). You heard me, travel agents and travel agencies are still alive and well in Spain, or at least in Asturias. There are many travel agency offices in Gijón that we walk by regularly. They post available group tours in their windows and they offer everything from an afternoon jaunt to local attractions to a two-week European tour. The day trips around Asturias were appealing to us because 1) We don’t have a car 2) necesitamos practicar español (we need to practice speaking Spanish) and hanging out with a bus load of Spaniards kind of ensures we’ll speak at least a little Spanish and 3) we want to explore more of Asturias and do fun stuff.
After looking at the flyers posted in windows of travel agencies many times, we finally decided to go in and book a trip. It was easy and the fact that we speak limited Spanish did not phase the travel agent at all. We told her the trip we wanted and the days we were available to go. The tours require a minimum number of people to join so the agency calls folks on the list the day before the trip if it’s a go. We got a call Monday evening stating they would pick us up the next morning at eight in Plaza del Carmen. We winced a bit at the pick up time (we haven’t had to be anywhere by 8 am in quite a while) and confirmed we were in.
We’ve seen a few different tour buses and vans around so weren’t sure what size of vehicle to expect. I was a little surprised to see a full sized bus pull up. We boarded with a few other couples and headed on to the next stop. The tour guide was personable (a must for the job, I suppose) and spoke decent English. He explained to us that he would be giving all information for the day in Spanish but if we had any questions, he would be happy to answer them in English. We pulled out of Plaza del Carmen and headed to the next stop. There were two more pick up spots in Gijon and one in Oviedo as well. By the time we were finally headed to Covodonga, the bus was full.
We rode through the rolling green hills of Asturias. I will never tire of looking at them. The tour guide provided information about Covadonga and the Picos de Europa as we neared the park. We understood a good bit of what he said, which felt good. Winding up the mountain, I was glad we didn’t drive. Buses and cars narrowly squeeze by each other on the road leading up. Luckily there was plenty of beautiful scenery to occupy my attention.
We passed a goat herd and SO MANY VACAS (cows). In fact, as we disembarked the bus, it smelled like Missouri. It was a challenge to avoid the giant cow pies that covered the ground, as far as the eye could see. The cows roamed free, paying no mind to of all of the tourists that surround them. Phil and I joked with the tour guide about all of the folks taking photos of the cows. With breathtaking views of the mountains and lakes, the first thing they did was walk up to the cows and start snapping away.
We passed lake Enol in the bus on our way up to lake Ercina. After we stopped, our tour guide suggested we climb the hill a bit (escalar, escalar) between the two lakes for some great views and photo ops. We took his advice, hop-scotching over cow pies as we climbed. We had about an hour and half of free time to check out the lakes as we pleased. The views between did not disappoint. There were a LOT of people there. August is the most popular month for Spaniards to vacation and why not get away to the beautiful green mountains, mild temperatures, and unlimited vaca sightings that Asturias has to offer?
After taking in the views, we descended the hill and grabbed a can of beer at the bustling cafe near the bus parking lot. We stood outside and drank our cold ones, observing all of the people and once again, simply soaked in the views and beauty of nature. We boarded the bus at 12:45 to make our 1:30 lunch reservation in Cangas de Onís.*
Lunch was not included in the price of the tour (some tours offer this) but for an extra €15, you could reserve a spot through the tour company at a local restaurant for the menu del dia. Fifteen euros is a bit more than we’d pay for a weekday menu del dia in Gijón but given that Cangas de Onís is a high traffic tourist area, it seemed reasonable. The food was good, nothing amazing but you can’t go wrong with fabada (Asturian bean stew with chunks of porky goodness) and albóndigas (Spanish meatballs) in tomato sauce, served with fries of course and vino tinto (red wine). For desert we had arroz con leche (rice pudding). The star of lunch wasn’t the food but our lunch companion, Peter. Peter, a security guard from Barcelona, was on a 12-day vacation in Asturias, staying in Gijón in a hotel near the bus station. He had already been to Oviedo, Cudillero, and Aviles. His father had been from Catalonia and his mother from Basque country. Peter is not a fan of Asturian sidra but loves vino tinto. I tell you all of this about Peter, not because I’m writing an unauthorized biography but because Peter did not speak any English. We were able to have a simple conversation with him, completely in Spanish! We understood most of it at least, enough to get the gist. What’s more, we were able to tell him information about us and he understood, sometimes after a few tries on our part and some simple pronunciation corrections from him but we did it. Poco a poco (little by little) we are getting better.
After lunch, the bus took us up the hill a bit where we had an hour to check out the sites. As we got off the bus, Phil asked the tour guide what we should see. He obliged, sending us toward the Church in the Holy Cave in the Mountain of Covadonga (AKA The Cave of Our Lady) then La Basilica de Covadonga. He said seeing both would only take about 30 minutes and then we’d have another 30 minutes to grab a coffee or a beer at the cafe or bar nearby. We took his advice and followed that itinerary exactly. The chapel in the cave was very cool but there were a lot of people in a small space, so we didn’t dawdle. Lining the cave leading to the small chapel were shelves of lit candles that people had left as prayers for others. As we excited the chapel we noticed four candle vending machines! Handy, I suppose for those who didn’t have a candle in their day-pack at the ready (but really, who doesn’t?).
We then headed to the basilica which was really something to behold with the stunning mountains behind it. After the basilica, we had time to grab a beer before heading back to the bus and down the road.
We were only on the road for about ten minutes or so before stopping again. Now we were in the town proper of Cangas de Onís. We had an hour and a half to wander around and were advised as to the highlights; the Roman Bridge (not actually Roman at all but built in the 12th century), the river beach along the Rio Sella, and the museum; Aula Del Reino de Asturias. We easily hit up all three. The museum was tiny but pretty cool, containing information all about the early history of the Kingdom of Asturias and the fighting off of the Moorish invasion.
We had just enough time to grab a quick caña (small glass of beer) before heading back to the bus. It didn’t take long before I was asleep, waking up shortly before we excited back at Plaza del Carmen at 7:30pm, ending another glorious day in Asturias.
*So, I’m still a bit confused about Covadonga and Cangas de Onís. Initially, I thought Cangas de Onís was a town within the municipality (like a county) of Covadonga but upon researching a bit, apparently it is the other way around (Cangas de Onís is the municipality). So, if I switch back and forth between the two, that is why.