Travel 2017. Day 6. Bárcena Mayor. Saturday, September 30/17.
Still in Santillana del Mar, we woke up to rather damp, dismal weather, but since it wasn’t actually raining we decided that we would go ahead with our plans to take a trip inland up the River Saja valley to the village of Bárcena Mayor, set in the Saja-Besaya Natural Park. A distance of about 50 kilometres/ 30 miles.
After breakfast at Posada Araceli, we set out taking with us a load of laundry. No, we weren’t going to wash the clothes in the river nor in any of the lavaderos (covered stone water troughs where village women used to meet to launder and gossip) we were certain we would find in any of the villages on our route. No, we had been told that there was a lavandería (laundromat) in Puente San Miguel, on the way. Amazing! Like the lavandería earlier in Santona, this one was new and clean, and powder added to the washing machines automatically. However, we ran into a minor irritant: there were two washing machines which functioned perfectly but only one of two dryers was working. With only a few minutes left in our wash, a man entered and filled the dryer with clothes already washed elsewhere (probably at home), which meant that we had to hang around until the dryer became free (and make sure that no other newcomer jumped the line!). But we were pleased to get the laundry done.
Soon we were on the highway. We turned inland at picturesque Cabezón de la Sal, already known in Roman times as a centre of the salt trade (hence the descriptive sal: salt), and now popular with bungee jumpers. Nearby there is an unexpected forest of sequoias, evergreen redwoods more associated with California. Their presence is explained by a decision around 1940 to plant them on uncultivated land for industrial purposes. (Other species, e.g. spruce, eucalyptus, American oak and Japanese chestnut were planted at the same time.)
We followed the River Saja edged by green pastures with thickly forested hills rising on both sides.
Sand and gray-coloured stone farmhouses with wooden balconies and red-tiled roofs dotted the meadows. Cows –mostly black and white friesians and prolific milkers– grazed in the fields; their milk is turned into highly prized cheeses, butter and other dairy products. Beef and veal from Cantabria are also highly valued, especially those coming from the native Tudanca breed, which unfortunately is becoming increasingly scarce. The forests are home to wild boar and deer whose meat figures prominently in the local cuisine. The forests and mountains are also home to the endangered Iberian bears or wolves. As we travelled along the winding road, we wondered if any of them might be silently watching us from the upper reaches of the forests.
We passed through quaint, sleepy villages and branched off near tiny Correpoco to follow the River Argoza to Barcena Mayor. Here the road ends. Isolated where the Argoza valley narrows into a hollow, and surrounded by sloping pastures and forested hills, Bárcena Mayor’s agricultural economy has now given way to tourism as its main source of income.
If you want to get a good idea of traditional Cantabrian architecture, Bárcena Mayor is a very good place to start.
Most of the buildings have been renovated but retain the essential characteristics of typical, local architecture: two-storeyed stone houses, the lower level housing animals (or farm equipment now), the upper –with prominent wooden balconies- being the living quarters, warmed by the heat produced by the animals beneath.
Many balconies are festooned with flowers growing in pots hanging on or standing between the balcony railings. A few dilapidated houses remain whose exteriors convey a romantic notion of village life in the past, as do the two fountains and three lavaderos where people would meet and exchange gossip and local news.
Bárcena Mayor is a compact village with all buildings located on the north side of the bubbling River Argoza (which is really no more than a wide stream). A narrow, single span, stone bridge leads to a hermitage along a path on the other side. The path is now part of a series of hiking trails that radiate out from the village.
Predictably, the largest building in the village is the 12th-century church of Santa Maria. Even so, it is modestly sized and its squat, square tower only just surpasses the roofs of the houses in height.
It was relaxing strolling through the irregular, cobbled streets where only residents are allowed to drive; tourists park a few minutes outside.
There are hidden corners, small squares (plazas), and from almost any angle we could see the surrounding hillside pastures and tree-lined hills.
The largest square has a lavadero, now dry and unused, right in the centre. After a leisurely stroll, it was about 2.30 p.m. and time to eat. Like many of the villages that we passed through, Bárcena Mayor, has its share of restaurants. These are fundamental to the tourist economy, and if our experience is anything to go by, they serve excellent food. Of the three that we saw in Bárcena Mayor, we chose Restaurante Rio Argoza set alongside the river and close to the bridge.
The dining room is large with windows running along the river side; extending from the dining room is an open air section covered by umbrellas.
It was very busy and we had to wait a while for a table. But the wait was worth it. Inland Cantabrian food typically consists of hearty stews (cocidos), different cuts of meat e. g. veal (ternera) fillets, beef tenderloin, wild boar (jabali) sirloin or chops, suckling lamb (lechazo), roast venison (venado), accompanied by potatoes and peppers. Sea fish too is common and shouldn’t be overlooked if meat is not your thing. The sea is less than 40 kilometres/25 miles way, and they do know how to prepare fish in these inland restaurants.
I always go for a cocido montanes (mountain stew) when I am in the north, Margaret chose trout stuffed with ham (notes). We shared an excellent mixed salad. My cocido, filled with chunks of pork, white beans, potatoes was delicious as was the trout. With home-made bread, a glass of wine and dessert (arroz con leche: rice pudding), the bill for both of us came to Euros 40.
We were back in Santillana by early evening, relaxing in Posada Araceli’s little garden. A final stroll through the town, now far less crowded, and then it was time to call it a day.