The bourgeois culture of Oviedo is a contrast to the working-class ethos of its neighbours. As the Asturian capital, it has long been relatively wealthy, a history that can be traced through the grand, lovingly restored administrative and religious buildings that render the city among the most attractive in the north. The old quarter, all the better for being largely pedestrianized, is a knot of squares and narrow streets built in warm yellow stone, while the newer part is redeemed by a huge public park right in its centre. Throughout the city are excellent bars and restaurants, many aimed at the lively student population.
Oviedo also boasts three small churches that rank among the most remarkable in Spain, built in a style unique to Asturias. All date from the first half of the ninth century, a period of almost total isolation for the Asturian kingdom, which was then just 65km by 50km in area and the only part of Spain under Christian rule. Oviedo became the centre of this outpost in 810, as the base for King Alfonso II, son of the victorious Pelayo.
Around the cathedral, enclosed by scattered sections of the medieval town walls, a compact, attractive quarter preserves the remains of Old Oviedo. Much was destroyed in the Civil War when Republican Asturian miners laid siege to the Nationalist garrison; the defenders were relieved by a Gallego detachment when on the brink of surrender.
The greatest Asturian church, indeed the architectural gem of the principality, is Santa María del Naranco, majestically located amid the fields on a wooded slope 3km above the city. It’s an easy signposted drive, or a 45min walk from the train station through the quiet suburb of Ciudad Naranco. The one drawback is that its impact is inevitably diminished by the huge tour groups that descend upon it in summer.
The initial glimpses of the warm stone and simple bold outline, in perfect harmony with its surroundings, led Jan Morris to describe it as “formidable beyond its scale”. If you don’t think it looks like a church, there’s a good reason for that – it wasn’t built as one. Instead it was designed as a palatial hunting lodge for Alfonso’s successor, Ramiro I (842–52), and only converted into a church at the end of that century. Architecturally, the open porticoes at both ends predate later innovations in Byzantine churches, while thirty or so distinctive decorative medallions skirt the roof.