Like its neighbouring costas (La Costa Vasca and La Costa Verde), the Costa Cantábrica is a wonderful mix of wild beaches, sandy coves, picturesque fishing villages and colourful ports. Running like a prehistoric spine parallel with the coast are the Cantabrian mountains, home of numerous unspoiled villages, and a refuge for several kinds of wildlife (e.g. bears, wolves).
The one large city on the coast is Santander (pop. 185,000), capital of the recently formed autonomous region of Cantabria. It was for a long time a modestly successful trading port, but became fashionable with Castilians at the beginning of the 20th century when the King, Alfonso XIII, visited it to “take the baths.” A major fire destroyed much of the old city in 1941, which explains why it seems a largely modern town. It has several fine beaches and now boasts a prestigious international summer school and a fine summer music and dance festival. It has also become a major passenger port for ferries from Britain.
Not far to the west of Santander is one of the most striking villages of Spain. Santillana del Mar is an ancient gem which has managed to maintain its charm despite the hordes of summer visitors.
Large stone houses bearing seigniorial coats of arms line the cobbled streets that lead to the beautiful Romanesque church, the Colegiata of Santa Juliana.
But you are advised to be cautious as you soak up the atmosphere and admire the buildings… you may well step onto a cow patty, for this is a working village in which the dairy industry is the backbone of daily life. Cows leave for the fields in the morning and return in the evening, meandering through the streets to and from their barns hidden behind the houses. [Fall 2017: Alas, the cows no longer meander through the village! Tourism has really taken over.]
If you think you can relax by the sea (el mar) after strolling through Santillana, you are in for a disappointment: Santillana is several kilometers from the nearest beach. The locals have an amusing anecdotal explanation. Santillana es la villa de las tres mentiras: no es santa, no es llana y no tiene mar. “Santillana is the town of three lies: it’s not holy (santa) or flat (llana) and it has no sea.” The name actually is a corruption of St Juliana.
Just 2-3 kilometres south west of Santillana is the Cave of Altamira, one of the many caves in the Cordillera Cantábrica containing prehistoric paintings. Altamira, however, is exceptional and is deservedly known as the Sistine Chapel of Paleolithic Art and certainly well worth the visit…unfortunately at present you can’t get in. According to the Museo de Altamira’s web page (in Feb 2010): At the present time, a study is being made of the conservation conditions inside the Cave of Altamira, so it is not possible to visit it (But see below!). The reason is that floods of visitors in the past changed the temperature in the Cave which threatens to damage the paintings. A museum and research centre nearby has a fine reproduction of the Cave, as does the Archeological Museum in Madrid.
June 2010: The Ministry of Culture has announced that restricted visiting will again be permitted beginning early in 2011. This goes against the advice of the Spanish government’s main scientific body, the CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificos), but has been greeted warmly by the president of Cantabria, who views the Cave of Altamira as essential for tourism in the region.
November 2013: The official site for the Cave of Altamira states the following:
From 2002, access to the cave of Altamira has been restricted to a small number of people in the fields of conservation and research, and visitors are no longer admitted to the cave. The Altamira National Museum and Research Centre Trust agreed, in 2010, to maintain these access restrictions and keep the cave closed to all visitors.
February 2014: For the latest regarding the opening of the cave, see http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/26/altamira-cave-paintings-open-public-spain-cantabria
A useful summary regarding the reopening can be found at:
Image of Santillana: http://www.vicmael.com