Lush hills and cows flanked either side of the road as we drove towards Covadonga, Spain – the site of the Christian ‘reconquest’ where the legendary battle of 722 (or thereabouts) was won over the Moors. Fortunately for us it was a brilliant day in what’s often rainy, green Spain and the sun fell over autumn trees and their residue, colouring the edges of our journey in shades of carmine and rusted gold.
We alighted at the carpark in Covadonga, which is about 15 minutes drive from Cangas de Onís – a sizable town which makes a good base to explore the cragged peaks of the Picos de Europa in Asturias. One of the many things I love about the far north of Spain is how green and rugged the scenery is.
Following the path to the Holy Cave in the mountain known as Auseva, we wound our way beneath glistening forest, up a few stairs, past small dwellings that stood in front of spectacularly steep hills. Our path was now in shadow while the surrounding green hills, flecked with granite, were bathed in sunlight. After about five minutes walk we arrived at a spring, a waterfall and the old cave.
The Holy Cave
Reaching the foot of the cave, a waterfall plunged some 15 metres into an olive pool known as “the big well”. Here people throw coins and make a wish. A little above the pool is a spring, which, as legend has it, bestows happiness and even marriage to all those who drink from it. Of course I supped the waters and so did my partner and so far we’re still living in sin (I’ll keep you posted).
To the right of the pool are over 103 steps named the Stairway of Promise which lead to the Holy Cave. The afternoon light bounced off the cliff face, water fell steadily, tourists trudged from here to there and candles flickered gently within the cave.
The Holy Cave was the site where the victors of the legendary battle against the Moors took refuge. When the Christians defeated the Moors (who then controlled much of the Iberian peninsula) around 722, many believe the great Christian reconquest began.
It’s a proud site for Spain and Asturians, and the Holy Cave is also the place where the patron saint of Asturias, the Virgen de Covadonga, is kept. Legend has it the Virgin Mary appeared to aid the victory and a shrine, La Santina, resides here in her honour. The cave also contains the tombs of Don Pelayo, the victorious leader and his wife, as well as King Alfonso I.
Many pilgrims who come here to visit the cave ascend the steps on their knees. I travelled the conventional way and confronted a sign at the top which said no cameras, videos, etc.
What surprised me – and I’ve seen this in Granada’s cathedral – was that people of all ages were wielding mobile phones and cameras while others sat in pews amidst the sacred space, candles and holy garbs in silence. Maybe I missed something but such behaviour annoys me and I probably take more pictures than most. There’s a time and place people!
Continuing through a tunnel in the cave, we came to the hilltop where stands the Basílica de Santa María la Real de Covadonga, whose lofty spires and walls of pink limestone look striking against the rugged scenery. I could have sworn I was in Switzerland. Construction on this building, which was dedicated to the Virgin of Covadonga, began in 1877 and it wasn’t opened until 1901.
Even though it’s quite a recent addition, the basilica’s neo-Gothic style makes it appear much older than its 130 plus years. It looks pretty groovy and coupled with the surroundings it may certainly challenge your notion of ‘typical’ Spanish scenery.
In front of the basilica lies the statue of Don Pelayo, where we were overwhelmed by a posse of cyclists who had just ridden from goodness knows where to get there. We happily let them admire it first, as they looked rather pleased with their efforts and I suspected they’d earned it.
Making our way back down to the carpark, I decided to take a shortcut through the forest with my four-year-old son when my in-laws remarked, “does he know where he’s going?” As soon as we began to disappear behind an old wall, down an unkempt trail through wet forest, my son said “anything’s possible right Dada?” Which made me smile all the way back to the car.
The Holy Cave of Covadonga is 10 minutes drive from Cangas de Onís, which is about an hour’s drive east of Oviedo in Asturias. The drive is most certainly worth it and even though Covadonga is much smaller than Cangas, which is well worth visiting, I found it prettier.
You can walk to the Holy Cave with a moderate level of fitness and enjoy the spring, waterfall and basilica without ascending the Stairway of Promise. You can even drive to the basilica, although the walk there is beautiful. You can also catch the bus to Covadonga, Spain’s historic and religious treasure.