Visiting Covadonga – 6 Tips to Enjoy One of Spain’s Sacred Sites
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For years we heard that visiting Covadonga was a must-have experience for anyone who appreciates and loves Spain. Just hearing the revered stories of its ancient significance conjured up images of miraculously won battles amidst its magical, green forests.
So last fall we finally visited and experienced first-hand why it’s so loved by visitors and Spaniards alike. We had such a beautiful time, that we already want to return one day, especially now that we know more about what to keep in mind for a great visit.
If you’re interested in visiting Covadonga or doing a return trip, we’d love to share with you our six tips for truly enjoying one of Spain’s most sacred sites.
Visiting Covadonga – Its Epic History
Covadonga has an intriguingly mystical background as a very distinct and special place. Going back to an ancient history of paganism, it later evolved into the Catholic religion of the Medieval ages. Located in Spain’s northern region of Asturias, it’s especially loved by the Asturians because of its significance to the history of the area. And it is even claimed to be the birth of Spain as a kingdom.
In 722 AD, King Pelayo of the Kingdom of Asturias (considered historically to be the first title of the king of Spain), fought and drove back the Moors at the Battle of Covadonga. The victory was considered a miracle and Pelayo gave credit to the Virgen Mary, claiming that when hiding in a cave (today the Santa Cueva), he prayed to a statue of the Virgen Mary that a hermit had hid there.
The Moors were never able to take back the Kingdom of Asturias and it was considered the only Christian kingdom in the peninsula for some time, and the origin of what later became Spain as we know it today. Pretty cool, huh. This is considered to be the first rebellion of Christianity against the Moorish rule of the Iberian Peninsula at that time. So it’s no surprise that King Pelayo and the miracle of how that battle was won, are to this day a big deal in Spanish history.
Visiting Covadonga – Its Gorgeous Location
Another key thing to know is that Covadonga is made up of two areas. There’s the parish, which is where the Sanctuary is, and there are the Lakes of Covadonga.
The parish, which is even smaller than a village, is at the northern edge of the Picos de Europa, Spain’s first national park. Here, several exquisitely crafted monuments are tucked cozily into the deep, green forests of a narrow mountain valley. There is the Santa Cueva, a chapel carved into a mountainside cave, the Monastery of San Pedro, the Basilica of Santa Maria la Real de Covadonga, and the Esplanade, which includes several sites. Each of these provides an array of architectural eye-candy that you just have to witness in person.
Continuing further up into the mountains, you reach the Lakes of Covadonga. These two alpine lakes are stunningly beautiful and set in a gorgeous backdrop of verdant green terrain and spectacular views. Very near each other, the lower lake is Lake Enol and the higher lake is Lake Ercina.
You won’t be alone up there. There are even big-eyed cows and fluffy sheep that are herded by shepherds. You’ll get to share the stunning surroundings with these sweet creatures. So let’s not forget, they were there first and you’ll be on their turf, literally. When close to the lakes, there are no fences between you and them. Oh, and um, watch where you step.
Now that you know the basics about Covadonga, let’s give you some tips for your visit.
Tip 1 – What Time of Year to Go
Above Image – The Santa Cueva chapel carved into the cave in the mountainside.
We visited Covadonga during the fall, in the first week of October. It was also on a weekday. And even then, there was a decent amount of other people visiting as well. The weather was gorgeous, with clear blue skies and temperatures that were cool in the shade and warm in the sun. We highly recommend visiting at this time of year and on a weekday, since it means less crowds.
The other time of year we recommend is the late spring and early summer, like May and June. Of course, the busiest times are in July and especially August, although it can still be worthwhile to visit even then. Just expect more traffic and people.
No matter what time of year you go, be prepared that the weather can be unpredictable and changes quickly. Remember, this is a mountainous, northern terrain and many times it can be rainy or foggy. But that can lend its own beauty to the experience as well.
Tip 2 – What to Wear and Take
Being from Colorado, we had this one down. Make sure to take layers appropriate for being in the mountains and at high-alpine elevations. Some examples of great layers are a breathable tank top, long-sleeve shirt, a vest, and a windbreaker or parka, all layered on top of each other. And seriously, even in the summer, you may need a light windbreaker. The wind can really get intense up there and when it does, it’s cold.
Light gloves, or Amalia’s favorite – hobo gloves – can also come in really handy, and a beanie or hat for your head. This is more likely in the spring and fall months. Make sure to have some rain gear, whether that be your trusty umbrella, raincoat, or a good ‘ol poncho.
And last, but not least, don’t forget your camera and some water and snacks. They’re essential! Well, the water is probably even more key. Remember that you’re in the mountains, and even if you’re not going to ‘hike’, you’ll be at a higher altitude, so staying hydrated is key.
Tip 3 – When to Arrive
The simple answer is, in the morning. When visiting Covadonga and its lakes, give yourself the entire day, especially if it’s the only day you have there.
If you’re planning on doing some serious hiking, get up to Covadonga early in the morning and hike first. There are trails that start at the Sanctuary and go all the way up to the lakes, such as the moderate Ruta de la Reconquista, which takes just over ten miles (one way). If you don’t want to do the trail round-trip, have friends drive up so you can ride back down. But in the summer months and Easter, you can’t access the area by car and only buses are permitted to drive up to the lakes, so look into getting a one-way ticket for the way down.
Above Image – Lake Enol, the lower of the two lakes.
Also keep in mind that once you’re up at the lakes, there are great, easy hiking trails that loop around each lake. People of any age can do them and they don’t take that long. Allow for time to enjoy this, because it’s a fantastic way to take in the natural beauty of the lakes.
Interestingly enough, we can’t find any accurate information online about park hours or when they stop running the public buses each day. But we’d say it’s safe to assume that you don’t want to be up there after dark.
Tip 4 – When and How to See the Sanctuary
Now, if you’re not planning on doing a long hike, then we recommend going to visit the Sanctuary and its monuments first. Before lunch is a great time. But really, any time during the day is great.
Make sure to visit the emerald green pool of spring water that flows out of the mountain just below the Santa Cueva (holy cave). There is a short, rocky path along one side that you can take to a large fountain that collects the water. It’s said to be a sacred spring that is healthy to drink from. Then head up the stairs to enter the chapel of the Santa Cueva itself, carved into the rock itself and perched overhanging the natural pool below.
From there, walk through the tunnel of the monastery, which takes you to the Esplanade. This promenade-type area stretches out along a small ridge, which ends at the star of the show, the Basilica of Santa Maria la Real de Covadonga. Built entirely of pink limestone, its neo-Romanesque style of tall steeples and stone arches lend a splash of color to the verdant surroundings. To be in the presence of this majestic structure rising up out of this mountain valley will feel like you’ve entered a fantasy world.
Preceding the basilica, and part of the Esplanade, is a long, regal building that is home to the Chapter House of the monastery (its library and reception hall). This area also has the museum of the Royal Site of Covadonga, the Campanona bell, an obelisk, and the bronze statue of King Pelayo, which stands just before the Basilica.
Tip 5 – Where to Have Lunch
Time to get to one of the most important parts of any trip in Spain – lunch! We hope we don’t have to tell you to make sure and prioritize having a good lunch, because throughout Spain especially it’s a major part of the experience and having a great time. Covadonga is no different.
From our experience, we feel like we would do lunch differently the next time around and have a great picnic put together to take up to the lakes. If you want to enjoy the lakes the most and the weather’s nice, this definitely recommend going the picnic route.
Or, better yet, there’s a bar at the highest lake, Lake Ercina (so European to have a good place to eat high up in the mountains). This place is charming with its rustic, wood chalet style and views of the lake. They serve up hearty Asturian food and good drinks, like local beers, wine, and the local sidra. Even if you don’t eat here, it can be a great place to relax and enjoy a drink.
Above Image – Lake Ercina, the higher of the two lakes.
Now, if you want to spend more time by the Sanctuary or don’t like picnics, you still have several nice options in Covadonga itself. We ate a nice lunch at the restaurant in the Arcea Gran Hotel. This is located right in the midst of the Sanctuary monuments and has a beautiful view of the basilica. The only thing we didn’t like was that it was a bit of a more formal and longer lunch, so when we made it to the lakes, we didn’t have as much time there.
Extra Travel Tip: Since we were visiting in the fall, there were very few other restaurants opened in the Sanctuary area of Covadonga, so fewer choices. You may want to bring that picnic as a backup plan.
Tip 6 – Where to Stay
Above Image – The roman bridge in Cangas de Onis.
Or, you can do what we want to do on our next visit, which is to stay in the nearby town of Cangas de Onis. This is a proper town, or more like a Spanish village, which you pass through on your way up to Covadonga. It’s only about 30 minutes away by car and in the summer you can take the public bus system up to Covadonga for only €2 and it runs every fifteen minutes.
When we left Covadonga, we passed through Cangas de Onis and parked to see its historical Roman bridge that dates back to the medieval era. We were so pleasantly surprised at the wonderful vibe in the town. It was just before sunset and people were out in the town-center park, walking along the beautiful River Sella, and sipping on drinks in local bar terraces. Its buildings were charming and it reminded us a little bit of a Colorado ski town, but Spanish style.
Cangas de Onis has more life to it year-round, and additional historical sites and monuments to see. Not to mention amenities like grocery stores and plenty of more options for where to stay and eat well.
Visiting Covadonga, First and Returning Time
Above Image – A small, stone shepherd’s hut sits above the Lake Ercina.
Do you know how certain places you visit remain with you and draw you back? Visiting Covadonga is that kind of place for us. And it may be for you too. To whatever extent you love nature, it’s a superb place to visit.
Eager to experience Spain on an even deeper level? Then it’s especially one of the most important sacred sites that should be on your list.
Whether you’re visiting for your first time or making that return trip, Covadonga is a very special place. So plan your time there to enjoy it to its fullest.
Have you been to Covadonga? If so, what tips do you have to share? Let us know or ask any questions in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!
Written by Amalia & Eric
Founders & Producers of Move to Traveling
We’re Amalia and Eric – a traveling couple who are living a traveling lifestyle. Do you love to travel? Perfect! Come along…