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Covadonga – The Spiritual Capital of Asturias

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Oviedo may be the political center of the Principality of Asturias, but Covadonga is its spiritual heart. This mountain sanctuary near Cangas de Onís is where King Pelayo led a ragtag bunch of Christians to victory over a much larger Muslim force in the 8th century. It was Christianity’s first triumph since the Moorish conquest of Iberia, and marked the beginning of the 800-year Reconquista.

covadonga asturias

The Catholic church wasted no time in claiming Covadonga as its own, and declared the area a religious mega-site. You see, Pelayo’s men didn’t just use the mountainous terrain and their knowledge of it to turn back the Moors, the Holy Virgin of Covadonga assisted them.

Visiting is an odd experience. The grotto of Covadonga is undeniably beautiful, and does have a magical feeling about it. Supposedly, it rests on a ley line. But it’s also a solemn, strange Catholic Disneyland. Step right up kids, and see Pelayo’s final resting place! No talking please, this is a church. And now right over here, folks, we have the Fountain of Marriage! That’s correct, ladies, one drink from this enchanted water and you’ll be at the alter in no time! Pictures are allowed here, since it’s just kinda holy.

Oooh, only brave souls this way! That’s right, we’re entering the Holy Cave! Please no horseplay, kids, this is a holy cave, after all. And who’s this lovely lady, to your right? Why it’s our friend, the Virgin of Covadonga. NO PICTURES! She is most sacred! But if you’ll follow me right this way, we’ll enter the gift shop where you can buy pictures of La Santina and all manner of fabulous religious paraphernalia!

If you’re Catholic or superstitious or new-agey or into kitsch, you’re going to love Covadonga. But for cynics like myself and Juergen, it was a little much. The Basilica is gorgeous, set against the mountains, and it was fun to walk around a bit. There’s also museum on the grounds, which wasn’t very interesting; instead of history, I got artless portraits of archbishops and their robes.

But no trip to Asturias is complete without visiting Covadonga. Regardless of your views on religion and spirituality, it’s a haunting and interesting place.

Visit the Lakes of Covadonga

Covadonga Bell
Cruzes Covadonga
Covadonga Shrine
Covadonga Chapel
Virgin Covadonga
Cueva Silencia
Wedding Fountain
Covadonga Snake
Pelayo Perro
Lost in Covadonga
Organ Covadonga
Cruz Asturias
My Covadonga
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October 22, 2010 at 5:16 pm Comments (0)

Oviedo and the Camino de Santiago

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The Way of Saint James, or the Camino de Santiago as it’s called in Spain, is one of the oldest and most famous Christian pilgrimages, probably right behind Jerusalem. Ending in Santiago de Compostela and starting from any number of spots, though usually in France, the pilgrimage requires a commitment of months.

Santiago Shell

The symbol of the Camino de Santiago is the scallop shell. The shell’s multitude of lines which all converge in a single point symbolize the many different paths which pilgrims can take to reach Santiago. And although Oviedo doesn’t lie on the most well-known route (The Camino Francés), it’s become an important stop nonetheless. In fact, for centuries during the middle ages, a detour to Oviedo was considered obligatory, to pay tribute to the relics in the Cámara Santa.

The shell symbol can be found all over the city, on the sidewalks, on signs and engraved in stone within the Cathedral, and demonstrates the importance of the Camino to Oviedo. Alfonso II the Chaste was the king of Asturias when the remains of Saint James were originally “discovered” in Santiago, and is well-known as the first pilgrim to the city. Old Alfie got the ball rolling.

Calle Magdalena, near the park of Campillín, used to be the way pilgrims would enter Oviedo. Within a small niche in the stone facade of one of the street’s buildings, you can still find an ancient statue of Mary Magdalene, whom the pilgrims would pause to revere. The street today is still full of activity, as a popular pedestrian zone with a lot of great little shops.

Amazingly, the Camino de Santiago is gaining steadily in popularity. I doubt it has anything to do with growing religious fervor. Most of the pilgrims we’ve seen on the roads have been young hippies looking for a “life experience”. We were always amused to notice that almost every town in Asturias claims to be on the Camino. The tourist dollars are awfully tempting, and you’ll find the shell sign on every street, in every tiny town.

Have any of our readers done the Camino de Santiago? I can see the appeal — any grand undertaking like this is sure to be an unforgettable experience.

Books on the Camino de Santiago available here: USA, UK, Deutschland

Camino Asturias
Camino Oviedo
Santiago Pilgramage
Pilgrim Spain
Santiago Camino
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October 22, 2010 at 3:04 pm Comment (1)

The Cámara Santa – The Cathedral’s Holy Chamber

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Accessed through a passage on the southern side of the Cathedral, the Pre-Romanesque Cámara Santa dates from the 9th century. It was originally King Alfonso’s private chapel, and today houses some of the most important relics in Asturias. In 1998, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site.


Three treasures stand out in the collection of the Cámara Santa. The Cross of the Angels is the symbol of Oviedo, a Greek-style cross crafted by two angels in the guise of pilgrims, or so the legend goes. The cross suffered massive damage during the Miner’s Strike of 1934, and was stolen from the Cámara Santa in 1977. The robbers took it apart, meaning to sell the individual pieces, though the cross was mostly recovered.

More well known is the Victory Cross, which features on the Asturian flag. The wooden cross is covered in gold and ornamented with precious jewels. It was given to the Cathedral in the 10th century, and legend maintains that this was the cross carried by Pelayo during the history-altering Battle of Covadonga, when a rag-tag group of Christians defeated an overwhelming Moorish army at the beginning of the Reconquista.

Another treasure of the Cámara Santa is the Agate Casket, a beautifully ornate golden box from the 10th century. Like always, the legend about the box’s origin is far more colorful than the likely truth. Many moons ago, a great Moorish king arrived on the shores of Asturias bearing the Agate Casket, insisting on handing it to the priest of Luarca. After he departed, the Asturian villagers watched in terror as a pack of wolves emerged from the woods and surrounded them. But rather than attack, the wolves simply knelt in front of the casket and howled. SUCH IS THE POWER OF THE AGATE CASKET!!

The Cámara Santa is cool, for both its age and architecture. Above the entrance door, float the disembodied heads of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, surely the room’s weirdest feature. The sacred items on display may be more interesting to Asturians who grew up with the legends than to clueless foreigners, but the chamber is still worth the price of entry.

Related posts: The Cathedral in Oviedo fist impressionInside the Cathedral of San Salvador

Entrada Camera Santa
Entrance Camera Santa
Camera Santa
Floating Jesus
Treasure Oviedo
Cruz Victoria
Agate Casket
Jesus Treasure
Camina Santiago 2010
Da Dudes
Hungry Beasts
Holy Head
Hungry Mega Beasts
Stairs Camera Santa
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October 3, 2010 at 3:52 pm Comments (6)

Fernando Valdés Salas – Inquisitor, Educator, Fanatic

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In the middle of the University of Oviedo’s courtyard is a statue of its founder, Fernando Valdés Salas. The statue’s expression is fatherly; benevolent but stern. The sense conveyed is that Valdés was a serious educator dedicated to learning, and a kindly, wise man. But a little research reveals that a loathsome monster reigns in the University’s courtyard — rarely does history provide us such exquisitely evil characters as the Archbishop Fernando de Valdés.

Valdés was a heavyweight in the 16th century Catholic hierarchy; a politically-motivated self-promoter who rose to power via the Inquisition. He was named bishop of Oviedo in 1532 and eventually established himself as the Grand Inquisitor, gaining infamy as a particularly fanatical judge with a special hatred for Lutherans. He hated them so much, that he successfully petitioned the pope for permission to burn groups alive on giant bonfires. All in the name of the Church, of course, because that kind of thing is what Jesus loves most.

Massive piles of burning, living flesh; yes, Salas was an inventive thinker! But he did found a University, so he can’t have been all bad, right? On the other hand, he compiled history’s most draconian List of Prohibited Books. His Index Librorum Prohibitorum even included works from venerated Catholic scholars like Saint Francis Borja.

Salas was terrifying. Knowing his history throws a different light on the handsome statue in the University courtyard.

Location of the Statue of Fernando Valdés Salas

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September 19, 2010 at 11:57 am Comments (4)

A Concise History of Oviedo

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Possibly because I’m from the USA, where a building from 1910 is considered ancient, I’m fascinated by European history. A city like Oviedo, with centuries engraved into almost every corner and churches over one thousand years old… well, it’s too much for my little corn-fed American mind to fully comprehend.

Without getting too in depth, here’s a guide to the history of Oviedo. Later, we’ll publish specific articles about the more important people and happenings.

761 AD On a hill the Romans called Ovetao, two monks build a monastery consecrated to San Vincente (the Valencian martyr). This is considered the founding of the city.
812 The King of Asturias, Alfonso II the Chaste, brings his court to Oviedo, making it the capital of Spanish Christendom until 924, when the capital is moved south to León. Alfonso II The Chaste
Middle Ages No longer the capital, Oviedo loses much of its importance and wealth, and turns into an intensely religious city. Most famous for its catholic relics, it becomes an obligatory stop on the pilgrimage to Santiago.
1388 After being absorbed into the Spanish Kingdom, the Principality of Asturias is established with Oviedo as its capital, returning it to glory. From now on, the heir to the Spanish throne will be known as the Prince of Asturias.
1521 A fire on New Year’s Eve destroys the inner city, sparing only the cathedral, which escapes almost undamaged. Which didn’t do much to curtail the citizenry’s religious fervor.
1608 A catholic inquisitor, Fernando Valdés Salas, founds the University of Oviedo. When he’s not furthering educative goals, Salas is known as one of Spain’s most fanatic inquisitors, claiming many lives in the name of the Church and compiling an infamously broad list of banned artwork.
1808 Oviedo is one of the first Spanish cities to rise up in armed resistance to the French invasion. French troops assault the city for a year, but will eventually relent against the stubborn defense.
1884 La Regenta by Clarín is published. Set in Oviedo, the novel is considered among the greatest of the 19th century.
1934 Oviedo descends into chaos during the Miner’s Strike of 1934. In the resulting battles, the Cámara Santa is dynamited and over 3000 miners are killed. A couple years later, 75% of the city will be destroyed during the Spanish Civil War.
1985 UNESCO recognizes two city churches as World Heritage Sites.
2000 – Now Oviedo dedicates itself to livability, becoming one of Europe’s most pedestrian-friendly cities, and one of the safest and cleanest in all of Spain. With the city in tip-top shape, it’s attempting to be named the European Capital of Culture in 2016.

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August 5, 2010 at 3:46 pm Comments (6)

The Cathedral of Oviedo – First Impressions

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Oviedo’s most celebrated monument is the Catedral de San Salvador, found in the middle of the city and visible from miles away. Closely linked with the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage leading to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, the cathedral is also known as Sancta Ovetensis in reference to the abundance of important artifacts stored inside.

The location has always been the religious apex of Oviedo. In 765, four years after the founding of the city, King Freula the Cruel choose the spot for a modest church, which was soon destroyed by a Moorish raid. Shortly afterwards, King Alfonso II ordered the construction of a basilica. It wasn’t until 1377 that work began on the Gothic cathedral which we recognize today.

The bell tower dominates the cityscape. Despite being massively damaged over the centuries by lightning, tornadoes and war, it’s a thing of beauty. Over 80 meters tall, the five levels of the tower resemble joints; Oviedo’s most famous author, Clarín, described it as a “stone finger pointing to heaven”. The best place to photograph the tower is from the Calle Santa Ana, where it exhibits its least-damaged side.

The cathedral’s interior is austere, very dark. I suppose all churches are serious places, but somehow this one seems more so. The detail in the engravings and artwork is difficult to make out, especially within the chapels. There’s not much information, let alone an audioguide, for visitors, which is slightly disappointing. But the cathedral is mightly impressive, and we visited many times during our stay in Oviedo, devoting time to the Cámara Santa, the Gothic Cloister and the bell tower.

Location on our Oviedo Map

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August 4, 2010 at 8:04 pm Comments (10)
Covadonga - The Spiritual Capital of Asturias Oviedo may be the political center of the Principality of Asturias, but Covadonga is its spiritual heart. This mountain sanctuary near Cangas de Ons is where King Pelayo led a ragtag bunch of Christians to victory over a much larger Muslim force in the 8th century. It was Christianity's first triumph since the Moorish conquest of Iberia, and marked the beginning of the 800-year Reconquista.
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