Under a Spanish spell
'Come with me to Oviedo," insists the handsome Spanish artist.
"We'll eat well, drink good wine and make love. Hopefully the three of us." Gulp.
If there was ever a city determined to test a girl's morals, it's Oviedo, the capital of Asturias in northern Spain.
Truth be told, I've never received such a proposition, and would probably blush like a nun confronted by a flasher if I did, but in Woody Allen's 2008 romantic comedy-drama, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Scarlett Johansson shows no such reservations.
Filmed in Barcelona and Oviedo, the movie tells the tale of two 20-something girlfriends involved in a love triangle with a smooth-talking painter who whisks them away from Barcelona to Oviedo for the weekend. Throw in Penelope Cruz as a deranged ex-wife and you have Allen at his tangled, tortured best.
Allen first visited Oviedo in 2002 to receive the prestigious Principe de Asturias Award (Spain's Nobel Prize) for his contribution to the arts. In his acceptance speech, Allen described Oviedo as a "delicious, exotic, beautiful, clean, pleasant, tranquil and pedestrianised city . . . Oviedo is like a fairytale."
While it's hard to forgive Allen for his overuse of adjectives, Oviedo is like a fairytale, from the turquoise peacocks roaming the Campo de San Francisco to its leafy parks with exotic trees, frothing fountains and well-tended gardens. Add in dozens of open-air sculptures, sherbet-coloured buildings and squares lined with baroque palaces and you have something Hans Christian Andersen and Walt Disney might have dreamt up over a round of Asturian ciders.
Allen was so smitten that he returned to use the beguiling city as a backdrop for Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The love affair was reciprocated, with the city honouring him with a life-sized bronze statue opposite Oviedo's central park.
I find Allen in Calle Milicias Nacionales, looking as confused and lost as I am. Hands in pockets, trademark glasses and worried brow firmly in place, he strolls along the leafy boulevard like a man permanently out of place.
The plaque includes more of Allen's praise for Oviedo.
"It is as if it did not belong to this world, as if it did not exist."
But exist Oviedo does and it has since the eighth century when two monks established a monastery on its green hills in 761.
Protected by steep mountains, Oviedo is the only Christian kingdom in Spain that did not fall to the Moors. Consequently, it is one of the few regions with pre-Romanesque architecture and the most significant example of this is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation heritage-listed San Julian de los Prados, a humble little church on a quiet hill not far from the city centre.
Stepping across the threshold on a chilly winter morning, I exhale with a gasp, sending clouds of condensed air into the dimly lit space as the faded frescoes slowly come into focus. The church was built about 830 and the interior is covered with hand-painted frescoes, believed to be some of the best pre-Romanesque art in the world. About 70 per cent are original, all applied with natural pigments such as vegetable oxides, blood and animal bones.
"That's why, in here, there can be no photos, no videos, no sex, no nothing," says my guide, Rene, with a grin, "unless you're Woody Allen and you're here with Scarlett Johansson."
Oviedo's main cathedral is also notable, because it houses the Shroud of Oviedo, a blood-stained cloth said to have covered the face of Jesus after he was crucified. On display for only three days each year (Good Friday, the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross on September 14 and on the feast's conclusion), the cloth and the chest in which it is stored are popular sights for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago.
As Allen noted, Oviedo is pedestrian friendly, with 80 per cent of the city (more than 110 streets) designated for pedestrians only. It is also squeaky clean, declared, every year since 1997, the cleanest city in Europe by the European Union. Rubbish is allowed to be put out for collection only between 8pm and 10pm and only in small plastic bags. Any earlier or later and residents risk a €300 ($496) fine.
For Allen to call Oviedo his favourite Spanish city, I know it must have a quirky, off-kilter side somewhere. I find it back on the pavement among the street sculptures. From the row of naked, larger-than-life-sized men and women holding hands at a busy intersection to a rather striking derriere on legs at the entrance to a busy mall, Oviedo is a veritable open-air gallery of boobs and bums.
The town's sculptures (more than 100) also include poignant statues of pregnant and nursing mothers, horses for children to ride, a traveller surrounded by luggage, even a milkmaid and donkey based on a local character from the early 1900s.
As a university town, Oviedo also sports a wild side. In Calle Gascona, cider houses rule, with an entire boulevard dedicated to cider bars (siderias). Just look for the words "Bulevar de Sidra" in neon lights about the street.
Bar after sticky bar serves the sweet concoction, poured by hand into glasses from a great height by skilled bar staff.
"The contents of the bottle must be separated from the drinking glass for 1 minutes," says Rene.
"That way the molecules are smashed and oxygen added."
Only two fingers worth is poured and it must be drunk immediately, and in one go, like a tequila shot. The bar snack of choice is chorizo in cider, or perhaps la fabada, a savoury bean and sausage stew.
Before the cider trail, I opt for a meal at La Mar del Medio, one of Oviedo's popular seafood restaurants. Tucking into a rustic stew of octopus and potatoes cooked with garlic and fresh tomatoes, I raise my glass to a familiar face behind the bar. Allen is a regular and his photograph graces the wall.
On my final evening, I have time to reflect. Oh, Oviedo, I've eaten well and drunk good wine, but where is the handsome stranger you promised?
The writer was a guest of Insight Vacations.
Insight Vacations offers an 11-day tour of Northern Spain, starting and finishing in Madrid, from A$3199 ($3397) per person. This includes transfers, premium accommodation, daily buffet breakfast, restaurant dinners, tour director and guided city tours 1300-237-886.
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Sydney Morning Herald