Secret Santas

Far From Madrid, Ancient Farms and Friendly Faces

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2004

Pedro Martinez was driving my guide and me through the rolling hills around Santa Eulalia de Oscos when he spotted a familiar figure ambling along the side of the road. Unable to mask his excitement, he lowered the window of his pickup and greeted his silver-haired uncle. "Hola," he yelled. "I have guests!"

Ten minutes later, Tio Ernest and Tia Anita ushered me, Martinez and Carlos Linares into the kitchen of their 18th-century farmhouse. A glowing wood-burning stove provided comfort from the brisk evening air. Anita served mugs of rich black coffee. A neighbor, hearing there were strangers about, brought over small baskets he had woven from straw to offer as gifts. Never mind that we had met Martinez, who runs a restaurant and guesthouse in town, only earlier that day. We swapped stories like longtime friends. And when we got up to leave, our hosts seemed reluctant to part. "Visitors are a treasure," Anita said, tenderly. "You're always welcome here."

Later, over a glass of cider, Linares and I reflected on our first full day in this little-known enclave 300 miles northwest of Madrid in the Spanish state of Asturias. Marcos Nino, who serves as the town's mayor and director of tourism (as well as holding a job transporting schoolchildren in a van), had led us on a hike past centuries-old farmhouses, under wooden covered bridges and past abandoned mills. We visited the studio of weaver Irene Villar, who spins linen shawls and other clothing on an antique loom. Lunch at Casa Pedro had been a feast of local specialties: roast pork, locally made cheese, steak as big as a platter, a salad of freshly picked lettuce and tomatoes, and wine from the nearby Rioja region. And then Martinez had volunteered to take us to see Manuel Magadan, a craftsman carrying on the local custom of carving wooden knife handles.

"Life doesn't get any more unspoiled than this," Linares said.

Santa Eulalia de Oscos is the kind of destination adventurous travelers dream of discovering. Most guidebooks do not mention it. The National Geographic atlas doesn't even grant it a tiny dot. There are none of the architectural monuments that give Barcelona its grandeur, none of the dazzling showcases of fine art that are found in Madrid and Bilbao. The town's only museum is a 17th-century farmhouse where Antonio Raimundo Ibanez, a celebrated Spanish ceramics designer and manufacturer, lived as a child. Of the 26 hamlets under Santa Eulalia's jurisdiction, many have only one or two residents. English is rarely spoken, making it necessary for non-Spanish speakers to come with a good glossary and a lot of patience. All of my conversations with locals were in Spanish.

Nonetheless, in the past decade, Santa Eulalia, a town of 700, and hamlets scattered in the surrounding Oscos region have become a favored escape among well-traveled Spaniards. The biggest reason: Since the region's rise as a cattle-raising stronghold in the 1500s, time has left only a gentle mark on it. There are no trendy tapas bars tucked away on back streets, no serenading flamenco artists or bulls chasing hapless tourists through the streets. Madrid residents "come to remember what Spain would have been like if it had not been invaded, or urbanized," Martinez told us.

Linares, who conducts tours throughout the Spanish countryside, had picked me out of the crowd of weary travelers straggling off overnight transatlantic flights in Madrid's Barajas Airport one Sunday earlier this month. We headed northwest in a gleaming new steel-gray Audi, along the A-6 highway, then along back roads. Five and a half hours later, including a lunch break in the medieval town of Uruena, we reached Santa Eulalia. And there we stayed, for three glorious days.

Earthly bounty, I quickly learned, is what instantly endears visitors to this part of Spain. Oaks, birches, chestnuts and pines blanketed the hills in amber, blood red and other fall colors. A small river, the Agueira, so clear you can see salmon and trout swimming in it, trickles along the edge of town. Emerald-green meadows stretch in every direction. Although the nights are chilly, the days are sunny and almost balmy, even in early December. The Atlantic coast, 45 minutes away, makes for uplifting oceanside strolls. The dramatic Playa de los Catedrales -- rock formations that resemble a church interior -- are easily worth a side trip.

The man-made attractions add to the allure. Farmhouses constructed of slate and cherry beams in the 18th century dot the landscape. Every home has its own miniature barn. Perched on wooden stilts and covered with thatched roofs, the dwellings are used to store cured ham and other sundries. Drivers share the roads with the occasional farmer guiding a herd of cows to the next pasture. Townsfolk gather in tiny pubs, such as Casa Pedro and Meson la Cerca, for conversation over cider or beer. In all, Santa Eulalia combines the natural beauty of a hamlet in New England's Berkshire Mountains with the homespun charm of "Mayberry R.F.D."

The more time I spent here, it was clear that the real draw of Santa Eulalia -- and Asturias -- are the people who call it home. They embraced a visiting American with a sincerity I've rarely felt in other parts of Europe. This struck me first when I stumbled into the Tienda la Palma, Santa Eulalia's answer to Mayberry's general store. After a breakfast of toast, locally produced honey, pastries and fresh-squeezed orange juice at my nearby bed-and-breakfast, I walked through the town and followed the aroma of fresh cheese and ham inside the store.

Every imaginable type of goods -- shoes, batteries, candy, clothes, fresh produce -- lined the shelves. A bar serving coffee, local wines, beer, cheeses and snacks was tucked in one corner. A small group of locals clustered there instantly made way for a stranger. One customer who had come to buy lettuce nodded buenas dias and waved me ahead of him. Another man looked up from his paper to see what the commotion was about, and then came over to shake hands.

Pretty soon the owner, Jose Nino, was pulling out jars of honey, handcrafted knives and other regional products. The white-haired 69-year-old explained that the store, originally built by his grandfather, had been in his family for 90 years.

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