When Woody Allen went location scouting for his movie “Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona”, somebody recommended him Avilés. He thus went to the city to take a look. But as he left the highway towards the city and drove through the first streets, he quickly decided: “no, this is nothing”. Eventually he continued and reached the city center, where he frankly admitted to be mistaken: “it’s absolutely beautiful”. The historical center, which dates back to the 12th century, absolutely stunned him. And although the Plaza de San Nicolás de Bari, the Parque de Ferrera and the Santa María del Naranco serve as the center of Oviedo in the movie, the director fell in love with the place. Just like many other artists before and after him.
This anecdote is exemplary for Avilés. Due to its rich past, the city has many faces. One step outside of the historical quarter, the world looks completely different. The classy streets and buildings are changed for gray, dilapidated streets and an industrial zone where the typical big orange flames can be seen from afar and indicate the incessant activity in the factories. Docks of the port and mooring ships seamlessly connect to the area. The view on the steel factory of Arcelor-Mittal on the other side of the river Avilés is blocked by the Centro Niemeyer. It’s a special combination, the culture centre in the foreground and the smoke and light of the heavy industry in the back. Avilés’ most famous contemporary site characterizes the rebirth of the city. A city that has struggled, like so many others, with the transition between an industrialist and post-industrialist society. But which has found a new life as touristic and cultural destination.
Avilés’s rich history
Since the middle-ages, the port of Avilés has played an important role in the economy of Spain. The route to Santiago was the main trade route until the 12th century and the port of Avilés served as an important connection between the Atlantic ocean and the inland of Spain. The intensive economic activity turned Avilés into a wealthy place. In 1085 king Alfonso the 6th of León granted Avilés city rights through the Charter of Avilés.
At that time the Asturian city had the monopoly on the distribution of salt. The richness at that time also became visible in the architecture of the city. Especially from the 12th century on, when the ratification of the Charter of Avilés by Alfonso the 7th of Leon resulted in the building of a city wall, of which some remnants still can be found. Many rich merchants and nobles came to live in Avilés and built impressive villas and palaces. The city expanded across its walls.
The historical center “Villa del Adelantado”, named after the admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (“El Adelantado”), has become a collection of buildings which reflect the history of the city and its development from a medieval to a modern town. From the earliest buildings like the temple of the Franciscans, which original name is the church of Saint-Nicholas, to modern constructions such as the palaces Camposagrado and Ferrera.
How steel changed the city
During the modern times Avilés further developed economically and in the 19th and 20th century the port gained importance because of the increased trade with America and Cuba. The prosperity at the beginning of the 20th century also had its impact on the daily life. The railway, printing, tourism, leisure and culture changed how people lived in Avilés.
The biggest turnover had yet to come. In 1950, the Spanish public steel company ENSIDESA (Empresa Nacional Siderúrgica De España Sociedad Anónima) built an impressive plant in Avilés with four blast furnaces which received the names: Carmen, Joaquina, Rosario and Carmen 4. The site of the factory became a real city. By 1960 ENSIDESA was the biggest producer of steel and iron and employed 7000 people. The population of the city had more than doubled in 10 years: from 21.000 in 1950 to 48.000 in 1960, of which 65 percent migrants. This trend continued and in 1970 more than 80.000 people lived in Avilés. On its height, 27.000 people worked at ENSIDESA.
In the ‘90s ENSIDESA merged with other Spanish steel companies into Corporación de la Siderúrgia Integral, which was later privatized and renamed into Aceralia. A decade later, the factory became part of the larger group of Arcelor-Mittal.
But the worldwide phenomenon of deindustrialization also took place in Asturias. The economic crisis of the ‘70s, the restructuring plan of the government in the ‘80s and the increased automatization made a big part of the workforce redundant. The closure of factories and the lack of investment had other consequences too. Many young people in Avilés saw no opportunities in their city and emigrated massively to bigger cities like Gijón and Oviedo, the capital Madrid or even further. It was really a low in the history of Avilés: during the ‘90s there was an unemployment rate of 18 percent, the population was ageing rapidly and the deteriorating environment had negative effects on the city’s health.
Rebirth as a touristic destination
“When I was a young kid, there used to live more people in this city” remembers Rubén Morillo, “but many jobs moved to other countries and so people went away.”
“I moved to Avilés only one year ago, but of course I know the city already for a long time. Before I lived in Oviedo” says David Rionda. “What I notice the most in Asturias is the decrease in local radio and television stations. There used to be a lot of them, but most have disappeared.”
Rubén and David are the hosts of the radioshow Desayuno Con Liantes, which is broadcasted each morning of the week. They have witnessed the crisis of Avilés 10 to 20 years ago, but see some positive signals in recent years.
“Today sectors like culture, tourism and technology start to provide jobs, but it’s a slow process”, says Rubén, “the easiest way to find a job in Avilés is to work in hostelry.”
“For example, look at this rather calm neighbourhood. See how many bars there are”, adds David, “people always want to eat and drink.”
“But there’s also more tourism. And I think that’s in part thanks to the big cultural offer. Avilés has always been a cultural city, but there’s clearly a bigger offer than 10 years ago. There’s the renewed Teatro Valdez, the Centro Niemeyer, but also many small initiatives”, tells Rubén.
On the other side of the city is the bar Lord Byron located. In the small city Avilés this only comes down to a walk of a kilometre. Since 1991 Augustin “Guti” Gutierrez is running his place which he alternately calls coffeehouse, cultural local, bar,.. In these 27 years Guti has seen many things changing.
“It’s true, our city has converted from an industrial town into a touristic destination. Especially the historical center is much cleaner than it used to be and contains a pedestrian area, it was very grey and dirty before. The industry was forced to reduce their contamination, so I like our city more now.”
This has an effect on the attitude of the people in Avilés too. “We’re proud again to live here”, says Cani Vidal, a regular visitor of Lord Byron. “Avilés have been called the Athene of the North already 100 years ago, because of the many cultural organizations in our city. But today, there’s really an abundance of cultural activities. In 1992 the government took over the care of the Teatro Valdez, and really restored its glory.”
The symbol of Aviles’ revival is the Centro Niemeyer. The cultural center was designed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer and was finalized and inaugurated in 2011. It has an auditorium, exposition rooms, a hall for film presentations and a big square.
Many international stars have come here to present their movies to the public.
Like Kevin Spacey, who’s autographed picture decorates one of the walls of Lord Byron. Although his attendance is nowadays less something to be proud of, it’s the proof of the cultural image of Avilés. “Quite a lot of actors have been here, just to grab a coffee”, says Cani, who shows the pictures where local and national stars happily pose in front of the bar.
“The Centro Niemeyer has given our city a more international imago, many events are organised there and the opening of the building attracted a lot of attention from all over the world”, tells Guti, “It boosted our tourism, before people from Asturias came to visit Avilés, but now they come from much further. There’s only one Centro Niemeyer in Spain, that makes us unique. These days, even cruiseships moor in Avilés, it’s a special sight.”
But in a plagued region like Asturias, costly projects often cause resistance. The 44 million construction was not welcomed by everyone, many people thought this money should go to projects which better reflects Asturias’ culture. Like the restauration of old heritage. The modern design of the buildings also contrasts with the rest of the city’s architecture. But Lord Byron was in favour and always defended the project, even though it didn’t have only positive effects on the bar.
“Many people were against it, because of its price, but it didn’t cost a penny too much for me. I always thought it would be positive for Avilés”, says Guti.
“A lot of people stopped coming to Lord Byron, after that. It’s admirable that Guti kept supporting the Centro Niemeyer. And he proved to be right, a deteriorated site has become one of the biggest attractions of our city”, adds Cani.
Rubén and David also see the influx of tourists. “The government has done a good job, the Centro Niemeyer has become an emblem of Avilés. But their plan was broader than just that, it also included upgrading the riverbanks. Right now there’s a sports harbour close to the city centre. In the past, people from Gijón used to go to Oviedo in summertime, and the other way around. But now they also come to Avilés.”
An old city
But Avilés also has problems, problems which will likely further increase in the future. The migrants who massively came to work in the steel industry during the 2nd halve of the 20th century, have stayed and reached retirement age. At the same time young people are leaving, because the life in bigger cities like Gijón is more vibrant and the job opportunities in modern sectors like services are limited in Avilés.
“When you live here, you see that our population is ageing”, says Cani, “the people who came to work here in the ‘50s are now 70 or 80”. “We notice it too that few young people are left in Avilés. For beginning artists, a venue like this one is ideal to start. But then they look for something bigger.”
“There are few young people in Avilés”, admits David, “but that’s a problem of Asturias in general, except for maybe Gijon.”
Hopes for the future
But Aviles also has reasons to be optimistic. As said, the touristic sector is growing rapidly and the growing number of cultural activities provides the ingredients for a busy, enjoyable week. And then there’s the technology sector, Avilés trump card. “Today, the electronics and informatics sector is really developing itself here. A lot of people are working in the company CSC (now DSX) or starting their own business”, says Rubén. A similar story is told by Guti. “The government is really encouraging people to be an entrepreneur, especially in the technology sector. They really facilitate people who want to start something, for example with the centre La Curtidora. Our city will always be connected to the industry, but technology is the future.”
Avilés is an authentic city that has much to offer. It’s history of ups and downs has characterized the look of the streets and buildings. Visiting Avilés is therefore a real discovery. First you’ll see the grey neighbourhoods at the edge of the city and the big plants on the other side of the river, whose smoke and industrial lights blur the colours of the horizon. Then you will discover this massive white complex, which seems to come straight out of the future. And before you know, you will find yourself in one of the most beautiful historical centers you will ever see, where 1000 years of architecture is spread over a handful of picturesque streets and squares.
“We still like living here. It has a historical center, just like Oviedo, but Avilés is more progressive. And there’s these wonderful familiar atmosphere” (Rubén and David)