Time for church! During our time in Asturias, we visited quite a few of the most historic churches in the region. While you can read about one of these in our post about Covadonga, we’ve got a few more here for you that are all located within or near our main base of Oviedo.
After spending quite a bit of time in my life exploring Europe in school, on vacation, and otherwise, I honestly grew sick and tired of visiting churches all the time. I mean, how many can you see before they all become a blur of pale, dirty stonework and ornamental gaudiness?
Churches are definitely not number one on our radar when we hit a new place. Inevitably, though, you and we will run into one, as they are the centerpieces of most towns. Not to mention the fact that they are essential to the fabric of history that weaves most old places together.
And so it is, you go see a church. It could be for five minutes, or you could end up on a tour, or you could find out that there are a bunch of churches that were built before the year 1000, and you think to yourself, “Holy cow, these places were built when years were still in the triple digits!”
So, you obviously have to check them out. And while neither of us are very interested in religious history, we do recognize the importance of these places, and their own status in the history of any given location we happen to be.
All you need is a car and a vague reason to go. Besides our curiosity at these landmarks’ ages, we had family and/or friends in town at various times while in Oviedo, so those were excuses to drive up a mountain and see what’s happening.
Speaking of driving up a mountain, Oviedo is also home to Monte Naranco. It’s a mountain with a Jesus statue on top. If you’re in Oviedo and your view is not obstructed by an apartment building or the city’s daily dose of fog and clouds, you can occasionally see dude up there, looking down on all his peeps.
Most of the places we’re showing you here are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which is pretty nifty and also a given…given the age and importance of these places to the history of Asturias.
And in summary of this long intro, this post is about our visit to several churches and the great Monte Naranco. With food, of course. Because food. Let’s get it on…
This church is actually not outside of the city. It’s directly in the city, and it was probably a 10-minute walk from our apartment. You can’t really tell from the pictures here, but it’s surrounded by a highway on one side and apartment buildings on two other sides. There’s a park to its back, and then more apartment buildings.
Every picture I saw of this place had me believe that it was outside of town somewhere, because you only ever see the grass and the church in those photos. That’s a lie! But that’s okay, because the juxtaposition of this 9th century church entirely surrounded by modern architecture is fairly interesting.
Did you see that I said 9th century up there? Whoa. Yeah, all of these places are crazy old. Alfonso II of Asturias ordered the construction of San Julián de los Prados in the early 9th century. Old. Olde, even.
Visiting hours for the church are few and far between – or just too early in the morning for us – so we did not get to go inside on any of our occasions to visit. It was still interesting to poke around the grounds and look at the architecture, imagining what it must have been like in the year 830. Sheesh!
After our brief tour(s), we hopped in the car and headed toward the mountain.
We zoomed past the other churches on this list, heading up the winding roads to the top of the mountain in order to have a look at the Sagrado Corazón de Jesús (Sacred Heart of Jesus) monument at the top and get views of the surrounding area while the sky was clear.
It takes a little while to get to the top, as the nearly one-lane road snakes its way back and forth on the mountain before eventually leading to the tippity-top of the whole shebang.
Jesus has quite a good view. The problem with taking photos up here, though, is that they never really give a proper impression of how it really looks. I’m no National Geographic photographer, and because of that, our mountains are tiny and everything is hazy.
I like to imagine that my dad is trying to use his exceptional powers to see beyond the haze and to the bay to the north in that photo. Either that, or he just conquered Asturias.
Either that, or he’s looking for his flock of fluffy Asturian sheep.
In reality and despite the haze, the mountains to the south, and east, and west of Oviedo are striking. It’s crazy to see the city backed by these huge peaks that have protected it from invaders and outsiders for generations. (It’s still crazy to drive through those mountains.)
But, for you, they’re just tiny baby hills in our photos. That just means you have to go to Oviedo and experience it for yourself.
So yeah, Jesus is behind those photos, looking down at all his ovetenses (denizens of Oviedo). The original sculpture was erected in 1950, and it was redone and amped up a bit in 1992.
What’s up, dude.
After having a look-see at Jesus and his killer views, we hopped in the car for food. Food!
Why yes, we do smell your grill from the road and we certainly will stop for a bite. That’s pretty much how it happened, and how we ended up at Parrilla Buenos Aires, a grill restaurant that hangs off of Monte Naranco.
On our first trip here, we thought we’d stop for a snack. Sit on the patio and stare at the views. The grill wasn’t having any of that, and instead filled us with an assortment of delicious, juicy, grilled meats and cheeses.
We “tried” not to eat too much, but let’s be honest with ourselves and just say that “trying” not to eat too much was more of a joke when faced with racks of that goodness. Come on, who can resist grilled cheese?
We ended up here on one occasion with family and one occasion with friends, and highly recommend it. Just avoid the combo/sampler grill plates. The single dish we had on our first trip was eons better than the mixed grill on our follow-up.
Through exhaustive investigative reporting during our time in Asturias and lands beyond, we have found that it’s always better to order one or two single items than to jam a half-dozen different meats onto a plate. Pictured below are the first (ribs only, amazing) and the second (mixed grill, average).
Do you know how hard it is to get that many meats correct, on one plate? Trust us on this one. Pick one or two meats and have at it, no matter if you’re in Savannah, Georgia, or Oviedo, Spain. Lesson learned, happily and during good times.
Oh, here’s a salad in case you’re not a meat lover. (Eggs and tuna are basically considered vegan in this land, folks.)
And dessert. Obviously.
Right then, let us move along to more churches!
Coming down from Jesus and the restaurant, we stopped at a church we’d previously flown by on our way to the top of the mountain. This one is San Miguel de Lillo, also constructed in the early 9th century. Olde!
While I’m no historian, the story goes that Ramiro I ordered this church built around the year 842, to serve as part of a larger palatial complex that would connect this with the next building in our post.
That didn’t ever happen, but it’s still a wonder that this place stands all these years later. We unfortunately could not visit the inside, as it’s basically susceptible to crumbling due to its age. And, the more people that go in there, the more chances there are that things get screwed up.
There are guided tours once a day or so, so it can be done, but we weren’t in for that. So, we were stuck looking at the outside, but that doesn’t mean it’s not impressive from an external point of view. The fact that this architecture was pulled off over 1,000 years ago will always be amazing to me.
After some photos and some awing at the finer details of the building, we hopped in the car and headed a few hundred meters down to visit the other side of that ill-fated palatial complex.
Often called a church, Santa María del Naranco is actually an old palace. I’ve seen houses larger than this in cities and suburbs across the globe, but it’s certainly more impressive and palatial than most all of those.
And, none of those were built in the 9th century, either. I have no idea when it went from “palace” to “church,” but the architecture of it is extremely unique and I have never seen anything like it.
Its entire design may very well have you confused at everything you were previously taught about churches and/or palaces. And I dig it for that.
We couldn’t enter this building either, due to the aforementioned fragility of the whole thing and that single tour you have to take, but we did get a peek inside through the gates.
I really like the little balcony-patios on both ends of the building. That’s what I call them, anyway. I’d like to just sit up there, drinking a coffee and watching the sun rise. Or set.
Alas, I’m not a 9th century Asturian king, so I guess that’s not going to happen. Regardless, it’s a really nifty structure to check out while you imagine what it must have been, like, over a millennium ago.
- Catedral de San Salvador de Oviedo
This is the wild-card of our post, as it really has nothing to do with any of the pre-Romanesque buildings above. But, Santa Iglesia Basílica Catedral Metropolitana de San Salvador de Oviedo – SIBCMDSSDO for short (I kid!) – is part of the UNESCO center of town and the focal point of Oviedo.
The church was founded in 781 – whoa! – and a walk around its complex or a tour of the inside immediately allows for the realization of how many churches were originally constructed as smaller sanctuaries, only to get larger and larger and eventually turn into important basilicas over the centuries.
Speaking of tours: You shall not pass! Sorry guys, but there’ll be no popping in and out of this church for you, whether on a stroll or a stop on your walk of the Camino de Santiago.
This church is tour-only, which makes it the first open and functioning church I’ve ever been to that will not allow you to walk in and have a look around without paying the piper, and possibly grabbing an audio guide while you’re at it. You might as well since it’s included in the price.
As long as the money’s going to a good place, I guess that’s okay. I just found it odd that this is the case, but it’s not apparently the only place like this in Spain, so friends have told us.
I imagine that members of the church can roam freely here, as they surely don’t want or need an audio guide to sit down and have mass.
But, we are not members, so it was maps and audio guides and tour receipts for us. Of course, the audio guide is plentiful with information about the church, its history, and how all of the different artifacts and sections of the church got to where they are over the course of centuries.
Inside, you can see many of the aforementioned older areas of the church, as well as a museum, gardens, and other treats along the way.
To be honest, though, this self-guided audio tour gets a bit exhausting and I found myself ready to leave after being in the museum area for way longer than I wanted.
Ah well, it is what it is! The church as a whole is a beautiful centerpiece to Oviedo, and if you’re not a religious person, it should still be visited and admired for its history.
While there are many, many more churches in Oviedo and the surrounding area, these are some of the most historic and important.
These churches and places also give a fine initiation to the long and storied history of Asturias, which is very interesting in its own right, and something that is virtually unknown to any non-Spaniard.
As I didn’t get into the deeper history of these places, and we didn’t get to go inside most of them, I highly recommend that you read this post by fellow expat/traveler Trevor Huxham if you want to learn more and see the interiors of some of these churches. He’s got a lot more knowledge for you, something we can’t even get touch.
8th and 9th centuries. Honestly, that’s just nuts.
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Have you ever been to any of these places in Asturias? If so, what’d you think? If not, what say ye? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!