Saturday, 14 August 2010


The "Eulegy of the Horizon" in Gijon

When I first set my English eyes on Gijón I thought “Wow, what an ugly city!”. The buildings are tall, the streets are narrow, and the one-way system is a nightmare. But cities are never best seen from their ring-roads or their bus-stations, and having not just scratched beneath the surface but actually lived there on and off for three years, I can now truthfully say “Gijón – it’s been a pleasure to know you”.
Plaza San Lorenzo Gijon
Gijón is a city with soul. It knows what it is and has no pretensions. It is the largest city in the Principality of Asturias, with 275,000 inhabitants, making it slightly more populated than Oviedo. In reality, Gijón is classified as a town, and Oviedo a city, a slightly skewiff way of looking at things. People from Oviedo look down their noses at Gijón, but I know where I’d rather live any day. The rivalry between the two is light-hearted and often comical, but can get more heated when it comes to Spain’s major obsession – football. Sporting de Gijón are currently just about holding their own in the top flight of Spanish football, which means that the big teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid visit Gijón once a year – whereas Real Oviedo are languishing in the depths of some lowly division, playing teams from the surrounding fishing villages.
Sporting fans pouring cider

One of the city’s main attractions is the beach of San Lorenzo, a long stretch of golden sand backed all the way by the high-rise concrete blocks of La Arena neighbourhood – “The Sand”. In winter the beach is smothered by shadows from these buildings, and in summer it is smothered by tourists. Many tourists come for the summer from the inland mining valleys, and others from the stifling plains of León, happily paying the tripled or quadrupled rents just for a glimpse of the cool sea. The city wraps itself around the beach, from the leafy suburbs of Somió in the east, past the sunspot of El Tostadero (“the toaster”), over the Piles bridge, all along the promenade of El Muro (“the wall”), past the big steps with their clock, past the old centre of Cimadevilla, San Pedro church, and up to the green ex-army-firing-range headland of Santa Catalina, now crowned with the city’s motif – a huge concrete sculpture by Chileda entitled “The Eulogy of the Horizon”. Stand inside the sculpture and the sounds of the sea and the waves crashing beneath are amplified.

Playa San Lorenzo full of sunbathers

San Pedro church was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, and rebuilt in the 1940s. Photographs of the period show tanks and bomb craters on the streets, and soldiers on the promenade. Hidden beneath the plaza at the front of the church are the subterranean remains of Roman thermal baths. A wall crossed the isthmus at this point, making the headland easier to defend. Now there is the city’s main square, where the Three Kings shower gifts in January, locals congregate to eat fish and drink cider at weekends, and the ecological and artesan market is held monthly. Beyond the main square is another square where King Pelayo raises his crucifix towards the setting sun, with the yacht marina at his feet, where a sardine is buried every Easter. The area north of here is the old fishing village of Cimadevilla, with its narrow cobbled streets and solid stone houses, now known more for its nightlife, especially in the square below the old cigarette factory, where cider is poured from great heights mostly onto the cobbles. There is a bar here, if you can find it, with a life-size cardboard cut-out of Leonard Cohen, and you can’t get more stylish than that.
Pelayo statue (for rent!)

Near King Pelayo is the Revillagigedo Palace, now a contemporary art museum. Also nearby is the Barjola art museum, part of which is an old chapel, memorable mainly for the three-storey-high fig tree growing from reception. Along the dock-front of the yachting marina is the old fish market (Antigua Rula) which also houses exhibitions. Whales were once hauled out of the ocean here to be cut up on the dock-side, using the stone ramp that rises from the water. The priest of a chapel just up the hill took his tithe from the whale-meat. Fragments of tram-lines are still visible in the pavement. Following the coast westwards we come to Poniente beach, a man-made beach on the site of old dock works, and a good spot for sunset watching. The railway museum and aquarium are also here.
Beach beyond Parque Providencia

Continuing west we enter the neighbourhood of La Calzada (“the road”), where the dock workers lived. La Calzada once had a reputation as the rough end of town, on the wrong side of the train-tracks. Pitched gun-battles have been fought on these streets between striking dock-workers and police. Now the ship-building industry here has all but died, and even the controversially expanding port of El Musel is suffering cutbacks. Beyond the up-and-coming La Calzada is the city’s third beach, Arbeyal, also man-made, wedged between ship-building cranes and gas-towers to lend it that gritty edge. Arbeyal beach is where Semana Negra (“black week” – the annual festival of crime literature) 2010 is being held, with its fairground rides, beer tents, live music, fast food, and a few bookish things on the periphery. I prefer watching the old people from the nursing home playing petanca (boules) in special pits just behind the beach. Look up from here and you will see big blue balls on the near horizon – to the right of these gas-holders is the headland of Campa Torres, with its mix of Roman and pre-Roman remains, settlements of the first Gijónese.

Semana Negra

The cultural highlight of the year is the Gijón festival of independent cinema, which invades the city for ten days every November. Six screens or more are simultaneously full, four times a day, with cinemarati feasting on offerings from around the world – forget Hollywood and Bollywood, this is the real stuff! Last year I saw an Armenian film about life on a farm from the point of view of a water-buffalo – fantastic!! The festival is a good way of getting to ask directors and actors about their work.

Young Campesina

Beyond the squares, museums, shops, streets, theatres, and pavement cafes of the city, are more attractions still. Out past the football stadium of El Molinón (“the big mill”) and the folk museum (renowned for its collections of buildings and bagpipes) is the Rastro, a sprawling weekly market held on Sunday mornings, where just about everything can be purchased (including all the useful things that the people of Gijón have thrown out over the week, handily recycled and providing a livelihood at the same time). Further out are the botanical gardens, and nearby, the “City of Culture”. Dictator Franco built an enormous boarding school on the edge of the city, known as El Laboral, chockablock with fascist symbolism and architecture, and this fascinating sprawling labyrinth is re-inventing itself as the “City of Culture”. Stone eagles glare powerfully across the large square once used by inmates for PE, to the domed church, above which looms the clock-tower, which affords views of all Gijón and the surrounding green hills. The complex now houses sports fields, an outdoor ice-skating rink in the winter, a theatre, workshops, art exhibitions, a café complete with mural of Asturian folk life, musical events, an hangar of industrial art, a theatre academy, a school of music, and there are plans for artists studios and low-cost apartments for young people.

Laboral Tower

I haven’t mentioned the café by the duck-pond in the park, or the museums of Nicanor Piñole or Evaristo Valle or Jovellanos, or the neighbourhood cultural centres, or the university, or my favourite sculpture “Mother of the Emigrant”, or the cocktail festival, or the walk along the coast for 10km, etc..etc..etc…
Mother of the Emigrant

Thank you, Gijón and your inhabitants!

Entrance written by Hugh Taylor who worked on the hotel farm for 3 years from August 2007 till July 2010


barryaxford said...

An interesting insight, personal and passionate. The best kind of 'comment'; how else are we able to glean information that is not tainted by commercial importunisim? I follow you blog Nigel, from time to time and am amazed at the lack of 'comment!' Keep ploughing your particular furrow and take solace in the undoubted truth that many read and enjoy but are not moved to 'comment'.

Nigel and Joann Burch said...

Hi Barry
Glad to hear you follow the blog and it’s nice to know people are following the blog even if we don’t get so many comments. Don’t worry we will keep ploughing our particular furrow and if you look at the entrance Inspiring Asturian Dream (written today) your see it’s slowly paying off. Looking forward to seeing you again shortly.


Hotel Posada del Valle is a small hotel in Asturias Northern Spain surrounded by its own organic farm and where we are passionate about organic farming, food, and sustainable livelihoods. In this Blog those of us who live and work at Hotel Posada del Valle open a door to share with all of you who are interested in what we are doing.