31.07.21 — Travel

Return to Asturias: El Descenso del Sella

As I was excited to mention at the end of my last blog post, I was soon to travel up to the gorgeous region of Asturias in the north of Spain to be reunited with Kevin and Cami, two friends who once lived in the area. I’ve seen Cami when she made a quick visit to Madrid and then again during a couple of trips I made over to her new home of Tenerife, but it’s been nearly three whole years since I last saw Kevin in person – in no small thanks to him being all the way over in the USA and then the ensuing pandemic!

Anyway, preamble over, let’s get to the juicy details. After recovering from a horrific stomach infection, I was thankfully well enough to drag myself up to the airport and onto the shortest (40 minute) flight I have ever been on. It really was a case of taking off, perusing out of the window for a few minutes, and then starting the descent!

I’d set off on this flight without a real solid plan of how I was then to get from Asturias Airport in the north of the region down to the city of Oviedo where I was to be reunited with Kevin and Cami. Relying completely on the accuracy of Google Maps, I practically sprinted from the plane out to the parking lot and then to the small bus shelter, as the bus was scheduled to leave at 21:15 and I was still on the bridge from the plane to the airport at 21:10.

The weather was typical of Asturias; grey, cool, and threatening to rain.

I had seemingly forgotten, then, that I was in Spain, and that things will go at their own pace whether it suited me or not. In this case it actually suited me perfectly well, as I had the opportunity to rest from my cross-airport sprint for a few minutes before boarding the bus and heading on my merry way as it began to rain.

As I approached the familiar Oviedo Bus Station, where I arrived for my first ever trip to the city back in 2017, I began to pass by many familiar streets along the way. The sight of the familiar buildings and even the unique overly-gothic style of Oviedo’s streetlights made me quite emotional, but I was soon snapped out of that one by the reality of the cold evening air as I stepped off the bus.

I then had a ten minute walk ahead of me to Calle Gascona, a street running through Oviedo’s centre which is famous for it’s many sidrerías (local cider restaurants). Kevin and many of his friends, Cami included, awaited me there, where I was met with many hugs and a plate full of pastel de cabracho, a light fish paté which went down a treat after such a journey!

Once we’d eaten, we headed back out onto Gascona, whose generalised stench of cider always makes me feel right at home. There we found a place to sit down for the evening and have a few more drinks, where I had a wonderful few hours catching up with old friends who I hadn’t seen since Kevin’s departure for the US.

As the bars began to close as per curfew rules, the group of us headed back to a friend’s car, who graciously gave us a lift back to Kevin’s flat out in the outskirts of the city. There, we were sure not to stay up too late, as we’d a rather unique and somewhat demanding plan for the day ahead…

That Saturday, it was time to bajar el Sella, or “go down the river Sella”.

The plan, as outlined above and hinted at in the title of this blog post, was to undertake an iconic Asturian tradition. The Descenso del Sella (literally, “the descent of the River Sella”) is exactly what it sounds like, consisting of a 15km kayak ride down the waters of the beautiful river.

It isn’t as demanding as it seems, however, as any given day in summer there are hundreds – if not thousands – of people joining you along the river. They’re all there for the excitement of the kayak journey, of course, but also because the entire route is peppered with chiringuitos, bars in fields which will sell you beer and cider and all manner of greasy sandwiches. Kevin sold me said plan by describing it as “kayaking, but drunk”. I was in.

The day begun with a somewhat rocky start, however, as I’d not bothered to kill a mosquito that was circling around the room I was staying in at Kevin’s flat. I’d thought that, because I’d covered up all of my body, the little bugger wouldn’t bother attacking my face so much. I was much mistaken, and woke up with bites on both eyelids which had left them massively inflamed.

I wasn’t about to miss the drunken kayaking, though, and so popped an antihistamine and headed downstairs, where we had a bite to eat before being picked up by Kevin’s friend Raquel. We managed to miss our exit on the car ride to Arriondas, the town representing the start of the route, but we were soon suited and booted (in some strange escarpines, a kind of pump designed for water sports) and ready to go.

Our first shock came with the way in which we were expected to enter the water in our canoes: down a rickety wooden slide! We thought it was a joke at first, but lo and behold, Kevin was soon sent flying down the ramp and into the waters of the River Sella. Me and Cami were up next in our double canoe, landing with an almighty splash which nearly capsized us!

After emptying the water from our canoe and having to hop out to drag the thing over a particularly shallow spot, we found ourselves being dragged downstream by the current, and soon managed to lose sight of everyone else in our party. We pulled over at a particularly busy mooring spot, opened a bag of sweets that we’d brought along for the energy, and waited for everyone else to show up.

This wasn’t an official stop along the way, but there was cider up for grabs, so it might as well have been.

When the others arrived, they headed off to grab a couple of bottles of cider, and Kevin opened a beer. I was still on antibiotics after a rough time with my stomach infection the week before, so I had to stick to a bottle of water, but we had a great time chatting and laughing and watching the world go by. A particular highlight was when a train passed by pipping its horn, to which everyone in the river and along the shore went absolutely wild – there was such a great buzz!

After a good while chatting on the shore, we headed back to our canoes as the clock ticked on. There wasn’t any huge rush, but everyone had to be out of the river by 6pm, so we’d to hit the 10km mark at least before 5pm in order to be allowed to carry on.

As we rowed our way along to the first official stop along the route, the sun made a rare appearance, and I dared to take my phone out of the watertight barrel that we’d been provided with to keep our phones, snacks, and beers in during the trip. This meant we could take some photos and videos as we went along – here’s a snippet of me rowing my way down the river!

A while later, and thanks to him going it alone whilst the rest of us headed along in pairs, we managed to lose Kevin. Me and Cami pulled up on the shore once again, waiting for the others to catch up, and we managed to contact Kevin via WhatsApp and let him know where we were waiting.

The views of the landscape along the way were as breathtaking as the journey was fun.

Once he arrived, drink in hand, we decided to have a quick rest, and got talking to the groom-to-be from a stag do that had him dressed up as Ariel from the Little Mermaid. After Kevin traded a couple of cigarettes for another can of beer, we headed back on our way and to the first official stop – yes, we still hadn’t got to that first checkpoint!

We eventually arrived at that first stop at 8km, where we dismounted as it was about 3pm and so time to grab something to eat. Cami and I headed to the chiringuito, grabbing some sugar-filled fizzy drinks and a sandwich each (bacon and cheese for me – I needed the energy!) before heading back down to the riverside.

Even the views from this little makeshift bar in a field were pretty captivating.

With everyone wined (well, cider-ed) and dined, we headed back off again for it was now getting late and we’d still another 2km to make in just under an hour. The weather had also started to turn again, so me and Cami decided to try to paddle full-steam ahead in order to make the penultimate stop in time to be allowed to continue and finish the full 15km.

After navigating some rather perilous rapids, we waited for Kevin to catch up as he’d fallen behind once again. He eventually floated by with his freshly acquired beer in hand – he was truly living the life!

Another patch of rapids soon followed, but then the river began to ease out into a much calmer section. As most people had sped ahead or given up at the first checkpoint, the journey then became much more tranquil, and we found ourselves surrounded by fewer and fewer boats as we powered ahead.

Just under an hour after leaving the first checkpoint, we arrived at the second and penultimate, where we made the executive decision to end our trip down the River Sella. The weather was looking a bit unpredictable, our arms were aching nicely after so much rowing in the latter section, and we’d seen on the group chat that the girls in front of us had also made the same decision.

Swerving over to the shore, we hauled our canoes up onto the shore, took off our life vests, and waited for the last person in our party to show up. Three guesses who it was who was lagging behind…

Our trip down the River Sella ended here, amongst the green mountains of Asturias.

Kevin finally showed up just before the 5pm cutoff point, and we noticed that he was drenched to the skin – it turns out that he’d managed to capsize in a section of rapids! After having a good laugh at his expense, we then hauled our tired bodies into a minivan and were driven back to the start point of the whole trip.

After changing back into our clothes and buying some souvenir photos – which I’ll scan and post on here just as soon as I can – we headed back to Raquel’s car and left for Oviedo once again, where we were keen to take a nap after such a long day. We arrived completely knackered but in great spirits, having decided to reconvene later and have a traditional Asturian meal at a new restaurant just down the road from Kevin’s flat.

The Descenso del Sella, as I’m sure I don’t need to reiterate after such stories as told above, was an absolutely great experience that I would urge anyone to have a go at if they ever get the chance! There’s tonnes of operators who will provide the complete package – canoe, life jacket, hermetically-sealed barrel, transport, and a mini introduction on how to row – for just 30€ for a double canoe or 20€ for a single.

The Descenso del Sella is a local tradition and an absolute blast no matter how good (or bad) you think you are at rowing!

Anyway, back to Oviedo, where we woke up revived but still half asleep and champing at the bit for a proper heavy meal which would send us back to sleep again for the night. We tottered down to the restaurant that we’d arranged to meat at, and tucked into an absolutely divine series of dishes after having to ask for the bread to be delivered as quickly as possible as we were practically gnawing the edges of the table with hunger after such a busy day!

The meal included a series of my favourite Asturian plates, from cachopo (a classic from the region consisting of a fried mass of beef, cured ham, and cheese) to tortos con picadillo y huevo (a fried maize bread topped with spiced minced pork and fried egg), and with little bites including chipirones a la plancha (little squids in a garlic sauce) and croquetas de jamón (cured ham croquettes). This was all finished off with a selection of desserts which we nearly didn’t manage to finish!

Needless to say that we all had the best night’s sleep of our lives that night, with the physical exertion of the descenso and the heavy local food sending us off to dreamland mere minutes after arriving back home.

The next day, Cami and I were awake before Kevin, who’s alarm had been going off for ten minutes with no signs of life. We decided to head out for a spot of breakfast whilst he had a well-deserved lie-in (10km rowed by himself!), and Cami knew just the spot. She took me to a local bakery which had a selection of pastries and fancy fruit juices, and we enjoyed a lovely relaxed breakfast outside on a terrace.

Whilst there, Cami mentioned that a friend of hers lived nearby, and so we headed off to meet her and her lovely dog Newton, who was very excited to see Cami after not having seen her for quite some time! The three of us got chatting, eventually perching ourselves on a terrace for a quick drink.

Once we’d heard from Kevin, we headed back to his flat, and packed our bags ready to leave Asturias whilst he headed off to grab some lunch to accompany a Chilean wine that Cami had brought as a gift from her dad who’d recently visited Chile. As I learned in Tenerife, you can’t beat an authentic Chilean wine!

The three of us enjoyed a relaxed lunch at home before grabbing our bags, closing the flat up, and heading off to the centre of Oviedo to have one last cheeky drink in the city before boarding a bus back up to the airport. “And just why were the three of us headed to the airport?” I hear you ask – and I can now reveal that my return to Asturias was only part one of this little reunion trip, as Cami and Kevin were then to spend a couple of days with me in Madrid before Kevin headed back off to the US and Cami back to Tenerife!

Once we’d finished our last beer up north, the three of us were then whisked off to the airport and, no sooner had we arrived, we were at our gate and being called to board – Asturias’ airport is only a small affair!

And with that, I’ve to cut the story short, as I’m going to have to leave the second part of the trip – our two days exploring in Madrid – for the next blog post. I’m sure there’s no need to mention again that I had an absolute blast in Asturias after so many years without seeing Kevin and without returning to these lush lands where I feel so at home. I couldn’t have had any more fun or had better company – it really was a much needed high after a year and a half of pandemic-related doom and gloom!

Stay tuned for the next post!

This post represents the first time I’ve experimented with embedding videos as well as photos. If you have any feedback or you’re having trouble viewing the videos, let me know!