The Battle of Covadonga: Best Spain History Facts

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While the name Don Pelayo, or King Pelagius in English, does not have much significance in America, it marked a man of exceptional importance in Spain, especially northern Spain. Much of his life has strayed away from historical accuracy and has been transformed to legend and myth over time, but what is still certain is that he was native to the region of Asturias, he lived as a member of the Visigothic court during the Middle Ages while the Moors (a term used to describe Muslims) conquered Christian Spain, he was the first king of Asturias, and when he died, his son Alfonso I continued to push back the Moors. Beginning in A.D. 711, the Moors seized almost the entire Iberian Peninsula except for a few small areas high up in the Picos de Europa (Pyrenees Mountains) in the Principality of Asturias.

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View of a river from the town of Cangas de Onis with the Pyrenees Mountains in the distance.

Concerning Spain history facts, there is much debate as to whether Spain in the Middle Ages was better off under Christian or Muslim rule. Some sources insist that Christian Spain, especially in the Visigoth-dominated region of Asturias, was still under positive influence of the Romans and when the Moors forced themselves into the region, the respected native groups transformed into meek, destitute communities left powerless against the Muslims.

Other sources press that Spain under Muslim rule was something utopian with the poor able to get an education, a mass of scholarly books about astronomy, mathematics, history, philosophy, fine poetry and literature being written, and Moorish women even able to become doctors and professors. Whatever the perspective, there is no doubting that the Moors in Spain had an exceptionally influential effect on the culture in Spain.

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The end of the Reconquista marked the fall of 800 years of Muslim rule lost with Moorish defeat at Granada in 1492, and yet Arab influence can still be seen in much of southern Spain in terms of music, traditional dress, and physical characteristics caused from a long history of the Moroccan Moors marrying and reproducing with Spanish women.

This intertwining of cultures never had the chance to occur in Asturias because while the groups in the mountains resisting the Moors were small, one of them was led by Don Pelayo who would neither surrender nor accept an alliance with the Moors, and instead only desired to push out the Moroccans from his native land.

Silhouette of the statue of Don Pelayo which looms before the entrance of the Basilica.

Upon entering the Covadonga Mountain National Park, one must drive up a winding road to arrive at the Basílica de Santa María la Real de Covadonga, a Catholic church built to honor Our Lady of Covadonga, the patron saint of Asturias. Before the basilica, there is a long avenue and a parking area packed with tourists. Despite the area being a tourist hotspot, surprisingly the crowds are not boisterous. Just outside the basilica, there is a statue of Don Pelayo with one arm raised in victory and the other wielding a sword, the Latin cross characteristic of Asturias is featured on its flag perched above the statue.

The Details

Upon entering the basilica, one is immediately overwhelmed with the smell of frankincense as well as the towering arched ceilings and dramatic, dark lighting provided by the few windows. While inside, people maintain quiet dispositions and, if they must speak, they tend to whisper to each other to respect the silence in the church. At the altar, again there is the Latin cross illuminated by a light which casts a large silhouette of the cross high up onto the background wall, giving the viewer a strong sense of the importance of religion and history enmeshed into the region.

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Inside the Basilica.

Across from the basilica, there are several buildings clustered into a single area, consisting of the Chapter House, which is a monastery and library; a museum of the site of Covadonga; a large bell known as La Campanona perched among the trees overlooking the buildings; and a popular hotel. From the end of the avenue opposite of the basilica, there is a picturesque view of the Santa Cueva, or Holy Cave, in which an altar, a small chapel, and the statue of Our Lady of Covadonga are held.

There are two ways to access the Santa Cueva: a staircase known as La Escalera de la Promesa, or the Stairway of the Promise, for quick access, and which religious pilgrims may also ascend on their knees; and a long tunnel.

Within the tunnel there are shelves of lit candles and a machine that distributes candles for people to make prayers. On the way through the tunnel and before the Santa Cueva, there is an opening where three tall stone crosses stand, and is the place where choir groups come to sing. Finally, at the end of the tunnel is the Holy Cave where a few wooden pews are located before the statue of Our Lady of Covadonga perched upon an alter brimming with brightly colored flowers, and the small chapel.

What to Know

The tomb of Don Pelayo is also in this area, his stone coffin resting in a deep depression in the cave wall and inscribed in old Spanish with notes of his legacy. The environment in this area is similar to within the basilica: very quiet with people maintaining respectful demeanors.

The Chapter House perched precariously over a cliff with La Fuente del Matrimonio below.

Descending down the nearby Stairway of the Promise, one is able to traverse a narrow, slippery pathway beneath the cave where glacial water spills out of the cavern wall into a small pond. At the end of the pathway there is La Fuente del Matrimonio, or the fountain of matrimony, which is a two-tiered stone fountain with seven faucets, the water supply pouring into the top from a decorated Latin cross drilled into a water channel in the cave wall.

Tradition maintains that those who drink from all seven faucets of the fountain will be married within the year, and it is one of the most popular points of interest for tourists. From this location in the park, the road continues upwards into the mountains, the path exceptionally narrow and curvy.

Farther up in the mountain, the environment changes in several ways. Shrubs replace trees, more rocks become prevalent, the grass is very short, the air becomes colder, and the soil is hard in some places and muddy in others. Animals such as horses can be seen roaming the valleys near to the ruins of abandoned shepherds’ homes made of stones and terracotta.

At the top of the mountain, there is a grand view of the Picos de Europa, and two glacial lakes: Enol and Ercina. While lacking in historical significance, the top of Covadonga remains an incredibly popular tourist attraction, as is evident by packed parking lots and crowds of people rock-climbing, taking pictures, and enjoying the view with their families. Now, you know all about the basic Spain history facts concerning this battle.

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