I was sitting inside the Honky Tonk Rhythm and Beer Bar in Gijón, Asturias, in northern Spain chatting to a local over a splendid dark stout. He was keen to improve his English and I was keen to learn more about Asturias. “Is Avilés worth visiting”, I asked. “I wouldn’t bother”, he replied, “nothing much to see”. A week later, while wandering down one of the city’s medieval alleys, I reflected I was glad I hadn’t listened.
Put off by the review, the in-laws and my family had gone to the Sunday flea markets in Gijón, while I’d grabbed my camera gear and taken the 40 minute train ride to the notoriously industrial city. Upon arrival, I was confronted with a charming, historic centre filled with vibrant parks and handsome buildings. I then managed to discover a leafy courtyard with beer and tapas, where I had a lengthy chat to the local proprietor.
We both agreed that Asturias was perhaps heaven on earth and Gijón was the centre, closely followed by Avilés, before I wandered back into the depths of the old town. It was here that I found Avilés’ oldest building, the Iglesia de los Padres Franciscanos (Padres Franciscanos Church). Within, lay the remains of Pedro Menéndez, the man who founded St. Augustine, Florida – the first city in the United States of America.
Passing beneath a medieval arch, I walked by candlelight and spied a well-dressed woman cleaning tiles beneath the tomb of Pedro Menéndez with furious attention. Feeling a tad awkward, I shuffled forward for a better look. I stood there silently for a few minutes before taking some shots and touring slowly throughout the remainder of the 13th-century edifice.
Pedro Menéndez, I discovered, had made a name for himself after persuading relatives to sail with him in search of adventure. On one such voyage, he successfully defended Spanish freighters against French corsairs off the Galician coastline. Pretty soon, his name was whispered throughout the royal courts and he was put in charge of the galleons of the great Armada de la Carrera (Spanish Treasure Fleet) during its voyage from the Caribbean and Mexico to Spain.
It was after returning, however, that he left for Florida to search for his son (who had been shipwrecked there), secure land and eliminate the Huguenot French, who were considered heretics by the Spanish Catholics. He never found his son, although he founded St. Augustine and according to locals there today, he held the first Catholic mass on continental United States. Discovering the deeds of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés – who was known as a “popular seaman” in these parts – was for me a nice little surprise.
Leaving the church, I explored more of the historical quarter, passing superb buildings before coming to Los Canos de Rivero Fountain and Christ’s Chapel on Calle Rivero (Rivero Street). Rivero is one of the oldest streets in Avilés, Spain and was once the Royal Path to Oviedo – the capital of Asturias which lies about 30km south. Today, it continues to be part of the world famous walk known as ‘the camino’, or the Way of Saint James.
Continuing, I arrived at Parque de Ferrera (Ferrera Park), the town’s largest park, which is divided into two parts: the “French garden”, which appears more like a palace garden, and the English part, which contains wide-open, wooded spaces. The park was inaugurated by the king and queen of Spain and was opened to the public in 1976. Being a brilliant day, a stroll through the vibrant, autumnal surrounds was just what I needed.
I sat and took in the stippled reflections in the park’s pond, which was patrolled by rather hefty looking geese. However time was running out, as Avilés is worth more than a day’s visit (particularly if you’re into history), so I decided to leave the verdurous parkland, head to the water and check out Avilés’ industrial side and its new precinct, the Oscar Niemeyer International Cultural Centre.
The centre contrasts with the industrial horizon of cranes and freight shipping, and the large square, auditorium, dome and tower (which functions as a restaurant and cocktail lounge) are testimonies to Avilés shedding its industrial reputation. It makes for an interesting place to explore and there’s plenty of space for kids to run around.
Don’t listen to the naysayers, Avilés is a Spanish city that’s well worth your time.