Explore Cantabria and Asturias
High in the northern Picos, the pilgrimage site of COVADONGA is renowned as the place where the Reconquist of Spain began. Squeezed between enormously steep slopes, it’s a stupendous spot, centring on a cave set into a high cliff face, from immediately below which a powerful waterfall spurts forth. It lies 5km up a spur road that parallels the Río Reinazo south into the mountains, 4km east of Cangas de Onís, or 28km west of Arenas de Cabrales.
According to Christian chronicles, in 718, the Visigothic King Pelayo and a small group of followers repelled the Moorish armies here at odds of 31 to 400,000. While the reality was slightly less dramatic, the Moors being little more than a weary and isolated expeditionary force, the symbolism of the event is at the heart of Asturian, and Spanish, national history, and the defeat allowed the Visigoths to regroup, slowly expanding Christian influence over the northern mountains of Spain and Portugal.
Although overwhelmed with tourists in summer, Covadonga remains a serious religious shrine. There’s no village here, just a cluster of buildings dominated by a grandiose nineteenth-century pink-granite basilica that’s more impressive from the outside than in. Alongside, the Museo de Covadonga (daily 10.30am–2pm & 4–7pm; €2.50) displays assorted paintings and engravings.
A short walk leads through cliff-face shrines to the cave itself (Mon–Fri 10am–6pm, Sat 9am–6pm; free). Daily Mass is celebrated in the stone chapel at the far end, next to Pelayo’s sarcophagus.