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Regional route Asturias | Spain

It would be difficult to find something further from Spanish tourism clichés than the discovery of industrial heritage of Asturias, yet there is nothing more authentic and surprising: In the northern part of southern Europe – where the mountains kiss the sea and a green, ecologically diverse blanket ... more

Industrial heritage in Asturias. History of mining, iron and people, but also nature

It would be difficult to find something further from Spanish tourism clichés than the discovery of industrial heritage of Asturias, yet there is nothing more authentic and surprising: In the northern part of southern Europe – where the mountains kiss the sea and a green, ecologically diverse blanket covers the landscape – are the scattered footprints of a valuable mining legacy that connects us with neighbouring mining lands.

It all started at the end of the 18th century, when the future was bright with the Age of Enlightenment. “Brilliant” Jovellanos (a distinguished writer, lawyer and politician) was a major figure of the Enlightenment in Asturias. He sensed the great potential of the coal deposits under our soil and the transportation and infrastructure growth needed to exploit and export it. Administrative delays, wavering politicians and tariff policies slowed down the industrialization process. And although we cannot refer to this process as an English-style “industrial revolution,” it was similar to Franco-Belgian industrialization.

The detonator (pun intended) was the transfer of labour-union armourer workshops from Navarra and Euskadi to Asturias, a safer region that was further from the border. Asturias could supply the raw material required for production and provided a new labour force. As was common in our country at the time, the factories promoted by the crown put an end to the old putting out system and favoured functional integration, worker concentration and task centralization: with the Royal Factories of Oviedo (portable weapons) and Trubia (heavy weapons), Asturias dived head first into contemporary capitalism.

The influence of these changes soon took effect, and the mining basin came alive with the picks and shovels of thousands of men, adolescents and children who spent their days loading the mine carts of the first narrow-gauge railways that steamed through the valleys of the central mining basin (Caudal and Nalón rivers and its tributaries). Although minerals such as copper, cobalt, iron and mercury were also mined in Asturias, coal has always been the main mining focus in the region. And the first stories about coal extraction took place on the mountain: the system was based on our rugged terrain and large workforce, with few technological investments, and was sustained by the subsequent development of the mining pits (which followed the same pattern as the ones used in the great European flatlands).

World War I put Asturias on the global map of modern industry: our production capacity and neutral stance transformed us into a strategic region in a very convenient way. This brought about large and smart investments from well-established and experienced companies to open deep pits in the region. Spain was the metallic mining power of Europe, and Asturias was at the heart of the country’s coal industry: we are identified by that metaphor.

The roaring 20’s laid the foundations for the tumultuous 30’s, when the Spanish civil war put an end to a whirlwind of activity. During the first post-war autocracy, the need for energy self-sufficiency expanded our mining activity and the pits spread like wildfire: Old pits were made deeper and thousands of workers brought about a need for housing,  facilities and services (which largely explains the current appearance of this area of Asturias). The arrival of the 60’s came with the end of protectionism, triggering a recession that ended with the absorption of a large part of the old, private companies by a new public company called HUNOSA (Hulleras del Norte S.A., still in operation today). At the same time, the already obsolete method of traditional steel working transitioned into modern and comprehensive methods with the company ENSIDESA (Empresa Nacional Siderúrgica de España S.A., now Arcelor – Mittal). In summary, all of this set the foundations of a complex industrial scene that was dependent on coal and steel, combined with a communication deficit that has burdened our recent history.

Tourist resources linked to this mining history reflect how coal has influenced our industrial history: routes that take you through majestic valleys where you can discover how infrastructures coexist harmoniously alongside the rich natural environment (Asturias is home to six biosphere reserves and the first national park in Spain: Picos de Europa) and valuable cultural assets (UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as cave paintings from the Paleolithic age, Asturian monarchy art from the early middle ages and the Camino de Santiago [St. James Way], which originated in Oviedo). The area also features remnants of the important role of the Catholic Church and nobility during the modern age, and the lively return of locals who had emigrated to the Americas. But make sure you look beyond the museums and interpretation centres: they represent a turning point in the shared heritage of a hard-working society, in the landscapes steeped in history (such as the mining valleys) and in the green paths, which seem like railway stitches on the landscape. Yet the leading role was always played by the people, not by machines. It was always more about teamwork, union struggles and political fights than it was about a collection of tools or unique technology. That is how we know that these landmarks, which connect the landscape, its people and its communities together, will move you.

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