Asturias: Spain’s best-kept secret

The land where E’s are I’s, O’s are U’s and the Present Perfect is posh talk.

In January 2002 I made a quick decision that would have an enormous impact on the rest of my life. I didn’t know that at the time, obviously, but as a result, this incredible part of the world would become an enormous part of my life. I had been living and teaching in London for four years at the time, after having spent a couple of years working in Madrid. I had returned to England when Tony Blair became prime minister, believing that cool Britannia was on its way and that London would be at the centre of something wonderful and exciting. Sadly, the dream wasn’t quite realised and living on TEFL teacher wages in one of the most expensive cities in the world finally caught up with me and I decided to move to the coast. I replied to an advert for a job in Brighton, England and went for an interview only to be told that they didn’t need a teacher for themselves but for the brother of the family, who ran a small language school in a small village in northern Spain. He was looking for a teacher to take on a short 3-month contract to help cover a busy period and they had read on my CV that I had spent time in Spain and might be an ideal candidate. Feeling somewhat duped, but with no better options on the horizon, I accepted and was offered the job there and then. I would be leaving for Spain the following week.

My Spanish wasn’t great due to living with other English teachers in Madrid and socialising mostly with English speakers, but I had started to pick it up. I could certainly get served a beer and from the day-to-day experience of living there felt familiar enough with the sound of the language to say, like many a language learner will, “I understand more than I can speak”.

I’d never heard of Asturias! The north of Spain for me was Catalonia and the Basque country, which I had a vague knowledge of through them both having famous football teams and a historically fierce shout at autonomy. Spain is a deeply divided country where politics is concerned, and it is one of the 2 topics all foreigners are urged not to debate too heavily if you don’t want things to get heated (the other being religion). Sticking to the 3 F’s is always good advice in Spain. Food, Football and Family and you’ll not go far wrong!

So, I arrived, by car, accompanied by a friend who had joined me on a road trip down through France, turning right at the border and heading halfway across the northern coast of Spain into the green, mountainous hobbit world of Asturias.

Blessed with some of the most stunning countryside and scenery I have seen in Europe, let alone Spain, this largely unknown province is like Tolkien’s middle earth, with rolling hills and valleys, quaint bustling villages full of the iconic wooden grain storage sheds called ‘Horreos’ and pinned in between the foothills of the awe-inspiring ‘Picos de Europa’ mountain range and the rugged, Jurassic Atlantic coastline. 

It's the land that legend claims was the birthplace of the reconquest of Spain from the Moors. A land they never reached as they assumed the ‘Picos’ were the end of the world, so Asturias sat, hidden in plain sight for centuries, a Celtic based culture steeped in the old folklore of goblins and witchcraft. A land rich in minerals, fertile soil, pastureland and great fishing waters that provide for a hearty cuisine that the rest of Spain now believes to be the best in the land. 

The quality of the meat and the fish is second to none, with monkfish, king prawns, octopus, and baby squid among the most eaten fish here. A pork belly, chorizo, black pudding, and bean stew called ‘Fabada’ is the regional dish and is so heavy and rich that it should only be eaten at lunchtime as one needs many an hour to digest it. Mentioning living in Asturias to anyone in Spain will always elicit the reply “ah, so you eat well then”. The regional drink is cider, thousands of gallons of flat, fermented apple, poured from a height into a wafer-thin glass to give a momentary fizz are drunk here every year. It’s a shared experience where the glass is poured for each person and turns are taken in drinking from the same glass. The pouring (escanciar) of the cider is considered a great skill and bar staff practice for years to be able to do it without looking at either the bottle or the glass as they pour. It’s really a sight to see!

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When I said the school I worked in was in a small village, it turned out to be not just any old village but a place called Cangas de Onis, where despite its population of only a few thousand inhabitants, it is famed for being the first capital of Spain (as part of the aforementioned reconquest) and the locals insist on calling it a City! Cangas is the gateway to the mountains and the road through it leads up to a monastery at Covadonga where, in the rocks, by a waterfall, the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared to King Pelayo and instructed him to begin the reconquest of Spain. His remains are buried there in the grotto in the rocks to this day, and it attracts thousands of visitors a year. Pope John Paull ii said mass there in 1989.

The Asturians are fiercely proud of their culture, and they are famed for their generosity, which I can attest to. After 20 years of coming and going from here, I can honestly say they are a very special group of people that I have a real affection for.

These days there are more foreigners living in this part of the world as it has grown to become a centre for outdoor activities and a thriving tourist destination during the summer months, but 20 years ago, the day I started work there I was only the second English person in the area, alongside my boss, who was older, married to a local and seen as being semi-Spanish. So, I, ponytailed and in my early 30s, stuck out like a sore thumb. To say I was the talk of the town would not have been an exaggeration. I taught classes to the local kids who came to the academy in the afternoons and adults in the evenings, four of whom ended up becoming lifelong friends. I didn’t leave after 3 months as I’m sure you have gathered. I stayed 6 years, bought a traditional Asturian house on a hill, and became an honorary Asturian. In the years since I left there, I have kept the house, rent it in summer and my wife and I spend about 3 months a year there. It really is a second home now and my heart soars whenever I see the Picos on the horizon as we drive down from England as I did all those years ago.

I realised very quickly on arrival that not only was my Spanish nowhere near as good as it needed to be to survive in a place where no one spoke English but that they most definitely spoke a form of Spanish that I was not familiar with. So, I learned, I had no other choice and I guess, demonstrated that being thrown in at the deep end really can be an effective way to ensure one learns to swim quickly.

I hadn’t given much thought to the regional accents in Spain, let alone dialects. I knew they spoke rather differently in Andalucía in the south, that Basque was totally unrelated to European languages and that Catalan was a mix of French and Spanish but naively, I guess, hadn’t expected to find the way the Asturians speak to be so different from the Spanish I had picked up in Madrid.

Listening to my students and new friends speaking soon made me aware of the peculiarities in the way they pronounce words and the tenses they use.

In Asturian pronunciation, the last vowel in a word is pronounced (and written) differently: 
The letter E (e) is pronounced as an I (ä)
.
‘Viste’ (2nd person of the verb to see) would sound like ‘Visti’.
The letter O (o) is pronounced as a U (u).
‘Lo’ (it) would sound like ‘Lu’.
So, the question; Did you see it?
“Viste lo”? would sound “Visti lu”?
A (æ) is often pronounced E (ɛ).
Gracias (thank you) would sound Gracies.
For consonant sounds the traditional ‘Y’ sounding LL in Spanish is replaced with the letter Y and both the letters G and J are replaced with an X and pronounced with an ‘Sh’ sound.
The Asturian town of Gijon (pronounced as hihon in Spanish) is spelt Xixon and pronounced as ‘Shishon’.

As I learnt my Spanish I found myself absorbing these pronunciation patterns and when I’m in other parts of Spain it’s often commented on that I have an Asturian way of speaking Spanish.

In addition to the pronunciation of words, there is a whole raft of dialectal vocabulary that comes from ‘Bable’ which is the regional language. I’m often unaware of whether I’m using the Asturian or the Spanish word for something.

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Grammatically, Asturian word order can often feel more akin to the English subject, verb, object structure than standard Spanish, which makes it easier for me to speak as at times I still semi translate when speaking. However, it does very little for me when answering my wife’s questions as she learns a more standard form of Spanish.

Finally, and for me, the most curious of all is that the Asturians have a dislike of the Present Perfect Tense. They express themselves in a more black and white way when relating to time. It’s either finished in some form or it’s not. There are no vagaries around connecting the past and present and, rather amusingly, they consider this tense to be a very posh (Pijo) form of speaking. The students would often mock me for using it and so I ended up also using past structures far more often when speaking with Asturians.

Regional Spanish identity under Franco was repressed, often brutally, and so for nearly half a century, the rich tapestry of the United States of the Iberian Peninsula was denied its opportunity to shine and flourish. In recent decades this has changed, and today regional dialect, lexis and syntax are embraced alongside all other aspects of regional identity. It’s not uncommon to see menus in restaurants and road signs in both standard Spanish as well as regional spelling. In fact, one will often see a signpost that has been written only in Spanish written over in the local dialect by an overzealous Asturian.

Spanish regional autonomy is still a very hot potato but seeing how this glorious little kingdom embraces being both once Spanish yet proudly Asturian at the same time shows that it is possible to have a micro and macro view of the world without either one being of detriment to the other.

I titled this article Spain’s best-kept secret and I kind of hope it forever stays that way. However, if you have never been and want to see a part of Spain that’s nothing like the one normally associated with dusty, hot landscapes, tapas and sangria then head north and check out Asturias ‘Patria Querida’ ….just keep it sshhhhhh, don’t tell everyone about it.

Written by Trevor Kelly 

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