Luarca: la Villa Blanca de la Costa Verde
Despite our resolve to stay at home for as much of August as we possibly can, there comes a point when even we have to admit it’s time to venture out to take care of business matters or stock up on food. In order to reduce journeys, we tend to leave things to mount up as long as possible then head off to Luarca, some 16 miles (26km) away, to get everything done at once. With a population of 4,800, Luarca is our nearest ‘proper’ town and the principal settlement in the municipality of Valdés . . . and we are seriously guilty of not giving it anywhere near enough attention. We go there to visit the bank or post office, do things at the town hall, have new tyres put on the car, whizz round the supermarket, see a doctor or dentist; it was there in the National Police station we were issued our residency permits and in the hospital we had medicals for our Spanish driving licences. We’ve been to the carnival and run in the annual 5K race – but when do we ever take the time to simply wander and wonder around those pretty streets?
It’s not that we aren’t interested; part of our problem is that we’ve never been town mice, so wilder, quieter spaces will always beckon first. When our car was due a service recently, we dropped it off at the garage and walked for several hours, not round the town but exploring the dramatically stunning coastline instead.
One of the places we visited was Playa de Portizuelo, a favourite haunt of Luarca’s most famous son, Severo Ochoa, who won a Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1959. Spending time on that beach, experiencing the raw wild beauty of it and marvelling at the wealth and diversity of life contained in the simplest of rock pools, inspired his lifelong passion for science. I can understand that sentiment completely.
So, back to civilisation and this week, with a trip to Luarca necessary once again, we decided to allow ourselves time to explore a few parts – and views – of the town we have never seen. There is something quite lovely about those clusters of buildings layered on the hillside above the harbour; for me, they always bring to mind a sumptuous sugar-crusted, many-tiered wedding cake. No wonder it is known as the Villa Blanca. It’s as pretty as a picture.
Starting the climb up the steep hill to the view point of El Chano, we were afforded another wonderful view, this time looking inland. The mountains make a gorgeous backdrop in dusky greens and blues, and if you look beyond that vivid magenta bougainvillea, you can see the viaduct carrying the railway across the valley. That north coast line follows a spectacular route, and riding a small section of it is something we would like to do one day.
Higher still and the panorama opened into a wide sweep . . .
. . . and a most incredible bird’s eye view of the town. The building on the right is the ayuntamiento (town hall), standing elegantly in the recently refurbished Plaza Alfonso X el Sabio, now resplendent in pink! Those eucalyptus trees on the left dwarf everything around them; they are unbelievably tall.
There is formal tree planting throughout the town but what struck us on this wander was the sheer amount of wilder places, spaces large and small that are left to nature and are abundant in native plants and wildlife. It’s a perfect balance. Look closely at the photo below and you will see an entire stretch of stone wall (and most of a lampost!) draped in the rich indigo trumpets of morning glory. Is it a weed? Not in my book, and I’d have it over a formal bed of salvias or begonias any day.
I’ve never been a huge fan of towns set out on grid systems, all straight lines, square corners and military precision so I love the way the roads and lines of buildings follow the sinuous, serpentine curves of the río Negro (Black River) as it winds its way to the sea. In full spate after torrential rains, it’s a terrifying sight hurtling through the town but in its summer colours, it’s almost languid. Nearly there, the sea is just around the next corner . . . there’s really no need to rush.
When we reached El Chano, the view in every direction was breathtaking. Far, far below us people were setting up for the day on the beach and testing the water, some quite tentatively, others just plunging straight in. The sea may have been a bit on the chilly side but it was beautifully clear, rippling gently like a gorgeous bolt of shot silk.
There are in fact two beaches here; they aren’t the most picturesque in the area but are hugely popular and serve the town well. The harbour walls help to keep that famed Asturian surf at bay and the bright beach huts wheeled out for the summer season bring a cheerful splash of colour to the neighbourhood.
Turning to our right, there was a good view of the promontory of La Atalaya, setting for one of the most famous and most visited cemeteries in Spain. There is nothing morbid about that; the cemetery, cut from the rock by pickaxe in the 1800s and overlooked by the charming Atalaya chapel, is a place of perfect peace and tranquility where the interplay of pure white stone against the vivid blues of sea and sky is quite dazzling.
Luarca is a friendly, welcoming sort of place; it strikes me as a town that’s totally at ease with itself, completely comfortable in its own skin. Naturally, it’s a popular holiday destination and at this time of year it buzzes with tourist activity, whilst being on the Camino, there are footsore pilgrims drifting through much of the time, sticks in hand and iconic scallop shells dangling from their backpacks. What I’ve always liked, though, is the feeling that this is a town that is there for its inhabitants, not a seasonal place but one which has a healthy buzz all year round. The port is decidedly pretty but it’s still a commercial, working one; the fishermen may no longer live in the historic cobbled Barrio de la Pescadería through which we wound our way down from El Chano, but they are still upholding the proud seafaring tradition on which the town was built. The streets are packed with thriving independent businesses, their colour and quirkiness a refreshing change from the predictable monotony of chain stores, and the weekly outdoor market is a hive of activity.
Having walked back almost to our starting point, we crossed the river using the Kissing Bridge. You’d have thought there was a lovely story to accompany a name like that, but sadly it’s quite the opposite. Legend has it that a local lord, catching his daughter in the act of absconding with her pirate lover, decapitated the unfortunate pair on the spot; the bridge was built to remember the place where their final tragic kiss was exchanged. Happily, today it is a much-used crossing, a pretty setting for holiday snaps and a good place to watch the shoals of silvery fish busy in the shallows below.
A quick wander around the harbour brought our little excursion to an end; the nutty smell of freshly-ground coffee drifting out from beneath the café awnings was a tantalising temptation to linger a while longer but we still had several errands to attend to. What I know for certain is that we will go back: there is still so much to discover in this gem of a town . . . and who knows, maybe we’ll even stay for coffee next time? 🙂