We had been avid watchers of the Tour de France for a number of years. Afternoons in July are often unbearably hot, so what better than to relax on the sofa and watch the peloton streaming through the beautiful French countryside. However, we wanted to see it in the flesh. Well the next best thing - the Spanish tour or "La Vuelta" and it was going through Asturias when we were due to go for our annual holiday. Asturias was already near the top of our list of places to visit so it was a done deal. We would watch the Vuelta and explore Asturias at the same time.
Although Asturias is not that far away from our home in Portugal we never like to drive for too long so we decided to split the journey and stop off in Leon. As we were camping in Asturias we decided to splash out a bit and we stayed in the Hotel Real Colegiata San Isidro in Leon. I can't really put it better than their tourist literature: Located in Leon’s historical centre, in the heart of one of the most outstanding Romanic complexes in the Peninsula, the Royal Collegiate Church of Saint Isidoro Hotel is a restful sojourn in the Saint Jacob’s pilgrimage route, offering clients an experience they won’t easily forget. The hotel is basically one part of a medieval complex consisting of a church, museum and the funeral chapel of the Kings of Leon and staying there, you could feel the history of the place seeping out of the ancient stones.
Once the centre of Christian Spain, Leon's old quarter is packed with fine monuments but all are dominated by the fine Romanesque cathedral. I often grumble at paying to enter places of worship but the Cathedral was well worth the entrance fee as it includes one of those hand held self guided tour things, which in this case was very informative and was like having a personal tour guide with you the whole way, but one which you could turn off at any time.
We left the plains of the Castilian heartland and headed north into the Sierras of Northern Spain or specifically, the Picos de Europa, and even more specifically the Parque Natural de Somiedo, the last stronghold of the Cantabrian Brown Bear. The road twisted and turned, climbed and descended until finally we turned up into an old glacial valley - the Valle de Lago and not far up here we found our campsite Camping Lagos de Somiedo.
We had chosen this site because the following day's stage of the Vuelta was finishing at the top of the neighbouring valley and we thought it would be a good spot. We were surprised there weren't many other campers given the remoteness of the area and the lack of alternative places to stay so close to what was billed as "the queen of stages" of this year's Vuelta. We were also a bit surprised that the camp staff didn't seem to know much about the following day's activity either. Anyway, we had a good meal at the village restaurant and settled in for the night.
The following day we were up early, tingling with excitement. We really did not know what to expect. How many people would be there, would they close the roads and when and would we be able to get a good spot to see the race? Anyway, we got to the base of the final climb of the stage and thought we would just drive on until we were stopped. This final climb was about 20kms and we got just over half way until we found a huge impromptu campsite in a field. This is where all the spectators had holed up for the night and this is where the police told us was the end of the line.
Fortunately we found a spot to park and then were able to walk up the road to the finish line which was 7kms away. Just as well we arrived in plenty of time. Although the climb was quite hard it was beautiful and in fact we found the perfect spot. It was about 1.5kms from the end but a place with great views right down the valley. Because we had arrived so early, we were able to watch all the other spectators come up after us - most of them cyclists. All day long there was a steady stream of people coming up and police and officials going up and down until, finally, we caught a glimpse of flashing lights down the valley which signalled the leading riders. In no time at all, Froome and Contador sprinted past (despite the steep gradient) and shortly after the peloton whizzed through. And that was it, over in a flash!
No sooner had the leading riders gone past than the crowd started walking back down the hill. It was a little disturbing as the crowd were going downhill while some of the remaining competitors were still coming up! And then later, as there was no room for the tour buses at the top, all the competitors came down the hill after us. It was all a bit surreal.
Later in the evening, we went back to the local restaurant for a well deserved hearty meal. Of course they had the TV on and of course they were showing the final moments of todays' stage of La Vuelta. It was an opportunity for us to experience it all again and actually find out what had happened as we didn't even know who had won. Never mind that (it was Contador) because the best bit came about a kilometer from the end. The leaders came round a corner, and were being cheered on by...Jackie! She'd sneaked in front of the cameras and got her 2 seconds of fame.
And here is the video of how the day unfolded: Jackie's moment of fame happens at 15 mins 29secs with 1.5kms to go. She's wearing the orange top.
Now the Vuelta was over for us, we stayed for a couple more days simply to enjoy the countryside and do some walking. In fact we came back to the same spot we had seen La Vuelta the previous day. The small carpark at the top of the hill which was the finish line was now deserted. The only evidence that remained was the road, painted with the names of the top cyclists. We walked on past the carpark and up to the Somiedo Lakes which were at the head of two glacial valleys. About a 3 or 4 hour walk amongst stunning scenery.
After our sojurn in the mountains we headed further north to the coast. Here our base was Pravia, more specifically Casona del Busto, a 17th Century town house. There is nothing much to see in Pravia itself but it provided a good central location for other places we wanted to see. We were keen to get to the coast so we spent a day exploring the pretty village of Cudillero and environs.
Before heading home we also spent a day in the provincial capital of Oviedo which was actually much nicer than we had anticipated and had plenty of interest including an old quarter with a busy market and a really impressive cathedral