If there is one district in Gijón that defines its history, that is Cimavilla, the ‘high quarter’, the fishing quarter. Sheltered by Santa Catalina Headland, the Romans established a settlement here that they called Gigia, which, according to chronicles, was –along with Lancia, in León– the most important city of the Astures. These are the reported origins of Gijón.
If you look on a map, the district of Cimavilla is perfectly demarcated. “This land is fortified by powerful natural elements, mountains of rugged terrain and a mighty sea that crashes against its coasts. All this land is of exuberant beauty, where a whirlwind of constant struggle rages, a continuous fount of life that is born of the very entrails of the earth and of the waters that enrich it,” was how Roman historians put it. Raised on a peninsula that is joined to the mainland by a small isthmus where the town square is nowadays located and which links the marina with San Lorenzo Beach, the ‘high quarter’ is surrounded to the west and the east by the Cantabrian Sea, as the Bay of Biscay is known locally, and to the north by Santa Catalina Headland. This scenic balcony overlooking the whole city is home to Eduardo Chillida’s sculpture Elogy of the Horizon, which has become one of Gijón’s most distinguishing symbols. It is also where the remains can be found of the bastions which in their day defended the city and the port from legendary privateers, Vikings and Normans, as well as from the English and the French.
It is this constant presence of the sea that has marked the character of Cimavilla. Fishing has been one of the activities of the “playos”, as the local residents are known, since Roman times. This tradition can be seen again on any route around the old quarter. “Mariñana” houses, so typical of Gijón, with their running balconies, wooden galleries and stone fire walls, flank streets and plazas such as Plaza de la Corrada, Calle del Rosario, Atocha, Los Remedios and so on.
Cimavilla has always been a very family-based neighbourhood –a fishing quarter in which everybody knew one another, a district where the city’s best fiestas took place. At the present time, the voices of the fisherwomen have fallen silent and have given way to the murmur of its many cider taverns, restaurants, cafes and bars. Nonetheless, the smell of the sea air and the cawing of gulls still call to mind the fishing and maritime traditions that prevailed for centuries on the peninsula.
Back in Roman times, fishing was already an important activity in Gijón. We know this to be so from the fish preserving factory, which, together with the baths, the walls, the cisterns and the drains, were witness to the Roman presence in the city. The fish warehouses were located outside the walls, in Plazuela del Marqués, at a distance from the population to avert the bad smell. The ruins of these buildings can still be appreciated on a stroll through the lower part of the quarter.
Entering through the reconstructed gates of the city walls, we find ourselves in a different, tranquil Gijón, with painted houses and palaces in every plaza: Revillagigedo Palace, in Plaza del Marqués; Valdés Palace, opposite the perennially photographed Church of San Pedro; and Jovellanos Palace, with Los Remedios Chapel attached. This last palace is worth a visit to view the Sea Tableau by Sebastian Miranda. This work of art extols the fishing and maritime tradition of Cimavilla, representing a commonplace scene in the quarter: the auctioning of fish in the rula, or local fish auction house. It contains 156 likenesses of people from the neighbourhood who were paid 1.50 pesetas by the artist to sit for the tableau.
A little higher up, an ample space opens up that seems to dominate the life of the neighbourhood: Plaza de Arturo Arias or Campu les Monxes (The Nuns’ Field). At the feet of the enormous convent and church of the Augustinian Recollect Sisters, which after its confiscation was used from 1842 onwards as a state-owned tobacco factory, the locals meet up to spend the afternoon accompanied by some bottles of cider and tapas, almost always produce of the sea. Worthy of note in the plaza surroundings are two traditional fishermen’s houses, symbols of the maritime flavour that still characterises Cimavilla. They are distinguished by their small size and by the existence of stone stairs outside to provide entry to the dwelling. This element indicates that these houses were built before 1844, as outside stairs were prohibited by city by-laws from that date on.
The side streets invite you to wander freely and discover small northern nooks and crannies with the flavour of the sea. Alvargonzalez Palace can be found in Plaza de la Corrada, where public events and bullfights were formerly held. The façade of the building, of noble origin as can be appreciated from its heraldic coats-of-arms, displays clear influences of the mariñana building tradition in Asturias, i.e. of the typical houses in the region’s coastal areas, especially in the detail of the wooden running balcony. The eaves of the tiled roof, which project so far out and which are highly ornamented thanks to the wooden coffering, served to preserve the façades –or, in this case, the balconies– from the elements in an area like that of the Bay of Biscay, where it often rains.
Before reaching the marina, a visit to La Soledad Chapel is a must. This small oratory was erected in 1674. In the mid-19th century, the images of Santa Catalina and of La Virgen de las Mareas (Our Lady of the Tides) were transferred here from the Chapel of Santa Catalina, which existed on the headland and where the Seamen’s Guild had its seat. La Virgen de la Soledad (Our Lady of Solitude) is the second most popular object of religious devotion to be found in the district, after La Virgen de los Remedios (Our Lady of Remedies). The high quarter of Gijón has always been divided into two groups based on the guild to which a person belonged. The stone masons venerated Our Lady of Remedies, while the seafarers and fishermen were devoted to Our Lady of Solitude, with the rivalry between them being renowned.
The Seamen’s Guild was responsible for financing and organising the capture of whales in the port of Gijón. The lookouts on Santa Catalina Headland sighted these valued cetaceans from the top of Cimavilla and let the whalers know by means of bonfires so that they could set to sea in pursuit of them. Once the whale had been dragged ashore, it was quartered and shared out. Tradition commanded that the belly go to the Chapel of Solitude, one fin to the fisherman who had killed it, while the other was shared out among the entire community of fishermen. Although the last whale was caught in 1722, the quarter’s whaling past lives on in names like the Tránsito de las Ballenas (the Whales’ Passage), on the hill down to the port next to the bustling Cuesta’l Cholo