The Editor encounters epic mountain ranges, prehistoric cave paintings, rugged coastline and pretty towns on his travels in Northern Spain, as Cantabria proves to be the holiday that the weather can’t spoil…
The whole of Green Spain is a paradise for nature lovers, but nowhere in my journeys across these four northern coastal regions did I encounter more natural beauty than in Cantabria. And I say that despite the fact it rained every day of my visit.
Whether it was encountering a herd of goats on a lush green coastal path, the males’ majestic horns begging for a photograph, or hiking the misty peaks of the Cantabrian mountains amongst wild flowers, thistles, bracken, meadows and forests, this was a landscape that the weather couldn’t spoil. It was magnificent even in the grey and drizzle.
Nowhere in my journeys across these four northern coastal regions did I encounter more natural beauty than in Cantabria… It was magnificent even in the grey and drizzle.
Whilst there were plenty of urban highlights to explore, such as the regional capital of Santander, and the charismatic towns of Castro Urdiales, Comillas and Santillana del Mar, I will remember Cantabria more for the stunning mudflat estuaries, wild windswept beaches (popular with surfers), unspoiled green coast and the winding roads that cut through the mountains, alongside crystal clear alpine streams.
Dotted around this idyllic land were also plenty of interesting things to see and do, including prehistoric caves, sacred monasteries and hiking trails… so without further delay, let me share my favourites!
Highlights of Cantabria
Eight of the best attractions and activities in the region…
Camino del Norte
The Northern Way of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage stretches across Cantabria offering pilgrims, and other travellers who take up this trail, plenty of spectacular views as it clings, more or less to the rugged coastline. I hiked a stretch between Castro Urdiales and Guriezo, and even though my feet got a bit wet, I was delighted to be able to photograph a flock of wild-roaming sheep with their bells tinkling and a herd of goats with savage-looking curved horns, as well horses grazing in meadows. The path was deserted except for our party, and the steely grey sea washing in at the shore and low clouds hanging over the grassy cliffs created a ominously beautiful landscape.
The highlight of this walk was actually stopping off at the Albergue de Guemes, one of the traditional hostelries catering to pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, for a hearty lunch of chicken fillets, pasta soup and fruit. This particular hostel was run by a priest and a team of unpaid volunteers, who accept voluntary contributions for bed and board from those on their way to Santiago de Compostela, and it was fascinating to chat so some of the volunteer workers – all ex-pilgrims themselves – about the power of this pilgrimage and how it had effected their lives. Check out my feature article for more.
The regional capital sits on a huge natural harbour, and is perhaps most famous for the early 20th century Palacio de la Magdalena given as a gift by the local populace to the Spanish Royal Family. Today, the building is back in the public domain and guided visits of the gorgeous interiors cost only €3. Also built around the same period is the city’s Gran Sardinero Casino, a belle epoque beauty which sits just behind a gorgeous 1.3km stretch of blue flag beach by the same name. Overall Santander boasts that intriguing mix of city diversions in an area of great natural beauty, and well worth stopping off for a day and night to feel the atmosphere of the place. More info here.
One of the most significant towns in Cantabria, Castro Urdiales is quieter than Santander but still with a couple of worthy sights, namely the Castle of Santa Ana, with its modern lighthouse attached, and the distinctive tier-structured Gothic church of Santa María de la Asunción which creates a dramatic impression as its set on rocks overlooking the Atlantic ocean. There are some impressive beaches in and around the town, and the port itself is a pleasant place for an afternoon stroll, its colourful boats bobbing in the swell.
The Altamira Cave is legendary amongst historians. It was here that prehistoric paintings were first discovered by the amateur archaeologist Marcelo Sanz de Sautuola (with a little help from his young daughter), a discovery that caused massive controversy when it was made public in 1880, with many calling Sautuola a fraud and hoaxer. However tests proved Sautuola right, that the paintings of bison, antelope and horses were really done by prehistoric man, around 14,000 years ago, and the cave became one of Spain’s foremost tourist attractions. Unfortunately the cave became so popular with visitors that the carbon dioxide produced by many people started to cause the paintings to deteriorate, and so the caves are now closed to the general public. The good news? The powers that be have built the Altamira Museum, which illuminates the lives of our subterranean dwelling ancestors, as well telling the story of Sautuola, and providing a paintstakingly accurate reconstruction of the cave ceiling with every crevice and contour and of course the paintings themselves, reproduced using the same techniques of old.
Santillana de Mar
Jean Paul Sartre once described Santillana de Mar as le plus joli village d’Espagne (the prettiest village in Spain), and it certainly has a fine claim for the accolade. Fine and robust brick houses are capped with attractive terracotta-tiled roofs and decorated with wooden balconies and iron lanterns, whilst cobbled streets lead you into pretty squares graced with squat powerful churches, the most impressive of which is Collegiate Church of Saint Juliana. Look closely at the top of certain pillars in the church and you’ll see the spots where depictions of zoophilia were forcibly erased by sensitive souls. For such a peaceful town, it’s also the incongruous setting of a Torture Museum.
Camino Lebaniego (Mountain Hiking)
The Camino Lebaniego is a pilgrimmage through the Cantabrian mountains, starting at San Vicente de la Barquera and finishing at the holy Monasterio de Santo Toribio (more on that below!). I was not here on a religious mission, but to enjoy the gorgeous landscapes of the region. You know you’re in the countryside when a herd of goats blocks the road, and we were lucky enough to see a group of tough-looking local farmers herding them into their pen and wrestle with one or two who needed to be tagged (they didn’t enjoy that much!). As our hike got properly underway the full majesty of the mountains revealed itself in a mix of rocky, cloud-kissed peaks, and greener slopes covered in forests and meadows. From some of the higher viewpoints we could look down and see the interlocking masses cut through by a zigzagging road and river. The whole of the mountain range is dotted with exceptionally pretty redbrick towns, and here and there you’d see hikers stopping off at a local bar for some rest and recuperation by a mountain stream.
Monasterio de Santo Toribio
This attractive monastery in the mountains is worth visiting on aesthetical grounds alone, but for the religious it is a must. For this sanctuary is home to the largest surviving piece of the True Cross known to man, making it an important side-pilgrimage for those on their way to Santiago de Compostela. Too cynical to believe that? Well in 1958 a scientific investigation carried out by Madrid’s Forestry Research Institute, deduced that the relic is made of Mediterranean Cypress wood, very common in Palestine, and is around 2,000 years old. The relic is now encased in an ornate silver cross and visitors are (amazingly) allowed to touch this fragment of the crucifix.
Probably my favourite place in Cantabria is Comillas. This picturesque little town on the sea stood out at something special, for a number of reasons. The first was that it is the home of one of very few of Gaudi’s works that can be found outside Barcelona. El Capricho, is just that, a caprice of the architect’s fancy, a summer villa decorated with sunflower ceramic tiles and a green and red Persian tower. Intriguing though El Capricho is, the most impressive building in town is undoubtedly the palatial Pontifical University, one of Spain’s most prestigious academies, which sits up on a hill overlooking the town. Another feature of the town I loved was the cemetery overlooking the sea. A winged angel sits on top of its crumbling mossy walls and and vast Atlantic spreads out silvery and blue behind it. Aside from these photogenic features, the town centre itself is also very pleasant with colourful facades, squares and village church, whilst a large urban beach adds even more to Comillas’ appeal.
A Boutique Hotel
Situated just outside Comillas, from the grounds of the Posada Torre del Milano hotel you can see the red brick Pontifical University across the valley, and a band of light and dark blue Atlantic ocean behind it. The Posada has 14 old fashioned style rooms, all decorated with turn of the century furniture, as well spa facilities, a lovely book-filled salon and a great restaurant. For a romantic getaway you could hardly do better!
I hope that gives you plenty of inspiration for planning your trip to Cantabria. If you’re visiting other regions of Northern Spain then do check out my post on the best things to do in the Basque Country, and forthcoming articles on the highlights of Asturias and Galicia (join 40,000+ readers a month and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss them!).