Asturias doesn’t look like Spain, and it’s a far cry from the tackiness of the Costas. So it’s a natural choice for discerning British buyers
Zoe Dare Hall Published: 14 August 2011
Asturias is one of those places where you're continually reminded of somewhere else. The slate rooftops and fishing harbours look like Cornwall, its 125 miles of wild golden beaches and big Atlantic waves could be Wales, and many of the houses are straight out of the Alps.
One place Asturias doesn't look like is Spain, at least not the Spain that 99% of British tourists or property buyers ever see. This is a Celtic-inspired land of cider rather than sangria, bagpipes instead of flamenco and great gastronomy, not Costa-style paella from a packet.
It's "green Spain" - green, of course, because it rains a lot. That's not very Spanish, either. And there's not a white villa with a pool in sight. Instead, you will find rural houses, casonas, with long, galleried balconies that have been glazed for winter protection, and wooden grain stores on stilts in the garden.
Dotted around the coast and countryside are grand "colonial" houses, as agents call them, mini castles built by wealthy Asturians who made their fortunes in Mexico or Cuba. One particularly imposing example in the smart seaside town of Llanes - used as the setting for the Spanish horror film The Orphanage - is on sale for £5.29m through Asturian Property, Savills's partner agent in the region.
This is a land of cider rather than sangria, bagpipes instead of flamenco, great gastronomy, not paella from a packet Given the area's striking difference from the rest of Spain, it's little surprise that the kind of Britons who buy property there are a breed apart from those who buy in the country's most popular holiday spots.
"They don't come here to roast in the sun," says Miriam Malga-Smith, who runs Asturian Property. "British buyers in Asturias are adventurous in a way that no other nationality of property buyer is, and they want nature, really good food and to meet Spanish people.
"Sometimes they fly here having only seen photos of the region, then buy something within a weekend. Others are relocating from homes in hotter parts of Spain, such as Andalusia, as they want to be somewhere where the summers are less intense."
For Emma MacPherson, 47, and her boyfriend, Philip Bann, 64, both solicitors from Newbury, in West Berkshire, it was a cycling holiday across northern Spain in 2006 that ignited their passion for Asturias. "When I came home, I just kept staring at websites with run-down houses for sale," MacPherson says.
The couple returned the following year, set up some viewings with Malga-Smith and now own an old stone house in the tiny village of Llenin, half an hour's drive inland from Ribadesella. They bought it for £62,000 and spent £150,000 on completely rebuilding it, uncovering hidden stone shelves and alcoves.
"It was a huge job, but it has introduced us to all our neighbours, who have been incredibly friendly and keen to follow progress," says MacPherson, who is self-employed and can escape to her rural retreat every six weeks. "I've never been to any other area of Spain. There's something so absolutely magical about Asturias - the landscapes, rivers and waterfalls. It's relaxed and a great, authentic place to be, with the best of everything - apart from the weather, perhaps."
"We love walking, and we could never begin to cover all the signposted routes that surround our house, in the foothills of the Picos de Europa, which we can see from our terrace," she adds. "It's a breathtaking region. Every time I go, I discover new places. I could never get bored there."
The Asturians see their homeland, which was an independent kingdom between the 8th and 10th centuries, as pure Spain - the part the Moors didn't quite reach. As well as the dramatic Picos de Europa, the rugged chain of mountains that conceal the odd brown bear, Asturias is crossed by the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route that was exquisitely captured in the recent film The Way, starring Martin Sheen.
At every turn, the landscape throws up images that force you to stop and stare: the church in Niembro, perched on a tiny island surrounded by fishing boats; the vast golden sweep of Rodiles or Peñaronda beaches. Head along the Sella River - it looks like the Wye Valley - and you are in the heart of canoe country. Every August, several hundred thousand fans watch competitors paddle the 12 miles from Arriondas to Ribadesella.
Then there are the elegant towns, from historic Oviedo, the regional capital, and beautiful beachfront Gijon to small, sophisticated Llanes, one of the most desirable (and expensive) places for second homes in the region.
Emma MacPherson and Philip Bann With the natural surroundings playing such an immense part in Asturias's appeal, buying a house here feels like investing in a piece of local history and becoming part of the community. Just viewing houses, you are likely to be drawn into the vendor's family - and to leave with a big bag of lemons from their orchard, or a bottle of local cider.
As they compiled a collection of fruit from their orchard for my journey home, one elderly couple described how their eight-bedroom farmhouse, set in a stunning valley in Peon, near Villaviciosa, with a garden backing onto the Camino de Santiago, has been in the family since it was built in 1767. The original chestnut flooring, stone steps and even some of the furniture are still in place.
They are now reluctantly selling it for £1.05m through Asturian Property - at their age, a flat in Gijon, 15 minutes away, has become a more practical proposition.
"It's true, it's a very personal experience buying a house in Asturias," says Patrick Barth, 41, a freelance photographer from Dulwich, in southeast London, who trawled the whole of Spain with his Madrid-born wife, Mar Gonzalez, before they settled on Asturias. "It's all about buying a lifestyle here, not just a property."
He foresees a lifetime's work ahead on the 300-year-old, 900 sq metre country house the pair have bought in Navia for £210,000. It has acres of land, a grain store on stilts (the ground floor of which they plan to convert into a flat, leaving the top floor as an open-sided dining/party space) and a private chapel - the scene of both of their children's christenings.
"My first job was to restore the old bread baking oven, so we could invite the whole village to join us to celebrate over roast lamb for 60," Barth says.
His wife sees Asturias as the "Spanish Tuscany". She feels its big period houses are undervalued, because they are not well known, and claims the region is a good place to invest. "Asturias is one of the only areas that hasn't suffered much during the crash, as not much has been developed. It has great period houses, like the masias you find in Catalonia, which now sell for millions. When people latch on to it, they will become valuable properties."
There are bargain-hunters prowling all over Spain at the moment - but the bargains you'll find in Asturias aren't of the repossessed kind. "I've had buyers asking me about repossessions, and I've been in contact with all the banks, but there are hardly any bank-owned properties here," Malga-Smith says.
"Many properties are inherited and have no mortgages, so owners aren't in a hurry to sell. And most buyers are local, or from Madrid or the Basque Country, so the market is not reliant on overseas buyers." It doesn't need to be. Beachfront houses in prime locations such as Ribadesella sell for several million euros without Brits or Russians getting a look-in.
For bargains, forget the coast and head inland - and west. The further west in Asturias you go, the lower property prices tend to be.
Historically, that was because this side was less accessible, although that is no longer the case, with the final section of motorway across the north coast nearly complete. "Most British buyers want a detached house with at least 2,000 sq metres of land," Malga-Smith says. "If you drive 20 minutes from the coast, you can buy something really traditional from £50,000."
Jenny Mitchell, 33, a full-time mother, has managed to do even better than that. She and her husband, Stephen, who live near Reading, have not so far been able to afford a property in Britain, but they have found themselves an unusual holiday home - a mountain cabin in the village of Camarmeña, in the heart of the Picos de Europa, bought for £38,000 through Asturian Property.
Jenny had never been to Spain before buying, but Stephen, a keen cyclist, knew the country well from riding there.
"The village has a population of eight, and two bars, and our house sits on the mountainside overlooking the highest peak, the Naranjo de Bulnes. It was love at first sight," she recalls.
"The house needs a bit of work. It was originally used to store firewood and goats in the winter, so we're slowly converting it into a three-bedroom house with a basement kitchen.
"The people in the village think we're crazy, but they like the fact that we're doing the work ourselves. We see it as a good investment and somewhere we will use as often as possible."
As for the area itself, she is clearly smitten. "It's awesome, beautiful. The people are warm and friendly, the Picos have a stark beauty about them and the countryside looks like Devon or an Alpine meadow."
Ah, yes, Asturias - the natural paradise that constantly reminds you of somewhere else. It's up to you to decide where.
Asturian Property (07545 756152, www.asturian-property.com)