Part of my program here in Spain involves several different excursions within León as well as outside the city in places in the northwest of Spain. Last week, we traveled to the Spanish province of Asturias, the province just north of León, in the northern most part of Spain. Leaving León at 830 a.m., we visited several places throughout the day within Asturias and arrived back in León at 10 p.m. An important aspect underlying each of these excursions is the historical framework and background of each location (our guide is a history professor) and Asturias is extremely important in Spanish history.
León is about 30 minutes south of the province of Asturias
Iglesia de Santa Cristina de Lena
Our first stop was a small town right off the highway known as Lena. Here we hiked to the top of a small hill to see La Iglesia de Santa Cristina de Lena, a Catholic church no bigger than a small house. Visiting this church was quite the contrast with the massive Cathedrals and Iglesias we had been visiting on other excursions. The church was built in 850, one hundred years since the Muslims had begun conquering the Iberian Peninsula. Thus, the size and simplicity of the church was due in large part to the lack of resources and money the Catholic church in Spain had during this time. As our guide pointed out, this church serves as a way to demonstrate the difference between the Christian kingdoms' prominence during and after Muslim rule. Obviously, this church shows how little resources the Church in Spain had in 850. The Muslim presence eliminated the Catholic Church's aid to this region for over 700 years.
Asturias is considered to be the only part of the Iberian Peninsula that remained Christian throughout all of history. More importantly, however, Asturias was where the Reconquista began following the important Christian victory at Covadonga. The Muslims, of course, invaded Asturias but were never able to fully reach the northern coast or set up a stable presence in the region due in large part to the natural barrier, Picos de Europa. This beautiful mountain range within Asturias allowed Christian forces to combat the Muslims or hide away without being conquered. Naturally, fighting a war in the mountains is never conducive to winning and the Christians were able to capitalize on this fact.
The important battle of Covadonga in a northern portion of the Picos de Europa is believed to be the sight of the first Christian victory against the Muslims and thus initiated the Reconquista.
Charles Martel's victory for Christianity in Tours in 732 is considered by most historians as the decisive battle that stopped Islam from spreading throughout Europe; but, the victory by Pelayo in 722 in Covadonga, Asturias is the Christian victory that stopped Islam from conquering the entire Iberian Peninsula. Even today, Asturias is considered to be the most authentic and pure Spanish region due in large part to the lack of Islamic influence in the region. It would take Christian forces over 700 years from Pelayo's victory to completely eradicate the Muslims; however, the Battle of Covadonga plays a huge part in Spanish history.
As the legend goes, prior to his victory, Pelayo retreated to a small cave in Covadonga (today known as La Cueva de Santa Marina) where a hermit had hid a statue of the Virgin Mary. Pelayo apparently prayed to this statue for divine intervention and subsequently his forces defeated the Muslims at Covadonga. Today, there is a shrine at this cave to commemorate this historic divine intervention.
La Cueva de Santa Marina
Our Lady of Covadonga
On a more historical basis, the Muslims were fighting on two fronts at this point and had devoted more troops to the front in France. In addition, the mountainous terrain of Covadonga allowed Christian forces to hide away and ambush the Muslim forces. In the end this sight is visited quite frequently as a crucial part of Spanish history and even Pope John Paul II visited the sight to bless the Lady of Covadonga during his Papal reign.
Statue of Pelayo
And in 1886, a beautiful Cathedral was built to commemorate the importance of Covadonga. Today, the word Covadonga is used for many military units in the Spanish army and is also a very popular name for girls in Asturias.
Picos de Europa
Traveling through Asturias, we immediately were confronted with these beautiful, snow-covered mountains. In fact, in the city of León you can actually see the southern most portion of this mountain range from a distance. However, once you drive through the region it's a completely different experience. I visited Yosemite National Park in California this past summer and was in awe of those mountains; and, the Picos de Europa produced the same surreal feeling. The following pictures won't do them any justice but enjoy!
Costa Verde (Bay of Biscay)
Hasta la proxima.