Though not actually located on the sea despite its name, Santillana del Mar is one of northern Spain’s loveliest hidden spots. In fact, it is nicknamed the ‘Town of Three Lies’ as it is not on the sea (mar), nor is it flat (llana) or a saint (santo). More accurately, the name is a slightly-mangled derivation or Santa Juliana, whose final resting place is tucked away here in an ancient monastery. The cultural hub of Cantabria, don’t expect to have this medieval masterpiece to yourself – not that that diminishes from the sheer beauty or culinary pleasures! A medieval marvel, Santillana del Mar is a charming stone village in the north of Spain that exudes beauty on every street. Known for its cider, Santillana del Mar, like most of Spain, is a place to slow down, relax, and enjoy the finer things in life such as food, drink, fresh air, sunshine and conversation. Whether you’re people watching, spending time with friends or loved ones, or simply admiring the architecture, Santillana is a place to lose yourself, leaving the busy real world behind.
Pro tip: Just outside of the town is the famed Altamira Cave Painting site, rich with prehistoric art. And as stated above, be sure to try some of Santillana del Mar’s local cider while in town!
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain conjures up images of a strange and futuristic community, a space-age society perhaps found in the cartoonish Meet the Jetsons or the comedic Fifth Element. Certainly among of Europe’s strangest architectural icons, the Guggenheim was designed by futuristic Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry who was encouraged to “design something daring,” and adorned with artwork such as Puppy (a giant dog made of flowers), and large metallic balloon animals created by American artist Jeff Koons. Erected in 1997, the Guggenheim Museum houses a collection of modern and contemporary art as part of both permanent and revolving exhibitions across various medias. Bilbao may seem like an odd place for such a museum. Built in the seedy, dilapidated docks district of Bilbao, the Guggenheim Museum was commissioned by the Basque government as a way to bring tourism into this little-visited region, rejuvenating not only the now-abandoned docks but also the under-appreciated Basque country. Today, it routinely makes lists of most important and admired contemporary buildings not just in Spain or Europe, but worldwide.
Faro de Caballo (Horse Lighthouse), Cantabria, Spain
Cantabria is a little-visited region on Spain’s north coast. Though on one side of the region is Basque Country and Bilbao, and the other, the famous Santiago del Compostela, few people know of the region’s existence much less add Cantabria to their Spanish itinerary. It is an out-of-the-way place categorised by mild temperatures, regular rainfall, quiet harbours and green hills. The ocean is the region’s constant companion, supporting a bustling fishing industry – notably, the anchovies of Santoña, which are world-renowned. Not far from Santoña is the rugged Monte Buciero on a spit of land that juts out into the Cantabrian Sea. At the end of the point, at the bottom of hundreds of steps carved into rugged rocky pinnacles is the squat little Faro de Caballo (Horse Lighthouse). Erected in 1863 on this forlorn outcrop of the Spanish coastline, the steps and foundations of the Faro de Caballo were placed there by prisoners of Santoña’s jail. From the 1800s to 1993, the light of Faro de Caballo shone through the waters, warning ships of the Cantabrian Coast. Today, the Faro de Caballo is part of the Las Marisma de Santoña, Victoria and Joyel Nature Park. To get there, start your hike in Santoña and walk along the coast, passing the forts of San Martin and San Carlos and following the rough path through the woods until you arrive at the steep staircase (the route is said to have some 600-700 steps, so wear good shoes!). Be sure you bring your swimming gear as well, as there are several diving ledges of varying heights as well as a swinging rope for the less-adventurous!
Pro tip: The whole hike from Santoña is about 7km, though there is another way (from the other side of the peninsula, by Berria Beach – though I feel that it is more accessible from Santoña. Don’t try to kayak there from Santoña unless there are low winds and you’re an experienced kayaker, as the winds past the headland on the way back can be rough; better to access the lighthouse on foot, bringing all necessary swimming or snorkelling gear with you!
The exotic-sounding words Zubri Zuri simply means ‘white bridge’ in Basque, the local language of Bilbao and the surrounding Pais Vasco(Basque Country). Euskara, or Basque in English, is a fascinating language that, interestingly enough, has no ties to any other Indo-European languages! Bilbao and Basque Country are truly unique. Connecting the more modern side of Bilbao with the more historic side since 1997, the bizarre modern design of Zubri Zuri sports a curved walkway, overhanging arch, translucent glass bricks, and zigzaging ramps. Built as a pedestrian route to allow tourists to reach the even more bizarre Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao, Zubri Zuri Bridge has become a tourist attraction in its own right. Though a convenient way to get to the Guggenheim Museum and certainly worth the experience of crossing this unusual bridge, at some point be sure to walk along the River Nervion opposite of the Guggenheim for phenomenal views of the iconic museum’s strange futurist architecture! One of the things that Bilbao does best is the melding of old and new – Bilbao’s extensive Old Town’s meandering streets, beautiful churches, quiet alleys and quirky shops contrast well to the shining skyscrapers, quirky futuristic architecture and intriguing street art of the West Bilbao. Wander from Bilbao from west to east as you slowly go back in time in this strange but enticing Spanish city (is it really Spanish? Some would disagree…but that’s a discussion for another day) in northern Spain.
Abandoned warehouse (Former Albo Cannery) in Santoña, Spain
Arrested decay, elegant crumbling, slow fall into ruin. This little port-side town is generally off the tourist maps – and the economic charts as well. Little Santoña is known for one main export: anchovies. Its port is lined with little warehouses and canneries dedicated to anchovies such as this one – yet somehow, the warehouse district of Santoña doesn’t seem like a place to avoid. In fact, the warehouse district is actually snuggled into the ‘hip’ part of town, across from the marina and a sort of ship monument with a restaurant and look-out point on top. Though Santoña may be off the beaten path, hidden in a corner of northern Spain (which is ALSO off the beaten path!), a quick stopover on a northern Spain trek is a must. Not only does it have some of the best anchovies and affordable tapas, but it also has some of the best beaches (such as Playa Berria), ancient forts (San Carlos and San Martin), and wondrous nature (El Fraile Peak, the point with the El Caballo Lighthouse).
Magical blue seas, waves lapping against rocky cliffs with hardy trees clutching to the sides and disused lighthouses perched on their edges. Northern Spain is often overlooked, and even when it is visited, places like Bilbao get all the attention. But hey, head out of the city to the countryside, to the forest, to the sea! And what better way is there to see a rugged coast such as that of Cantabria than by water? Rent a kayak and follow the coastline while searching for hidden coves or silent lighthouses. Maybe if you get lucky, you’ll find trails leading into the forest, old forts from bygone eras of sea invasion, or even a diving platform from which you can jump into the sea!
A little-known part of Spain is the northern coast running from Bilbao on one side to Santiago de Compostela on the other. One of the rainiest parts of Spain, it is also one of the greenest! Little towns like Santillana del Mar and San Vincente de la Barquera hug the coastline, famous beaches such as the one at Noja dot the coast (ironically this frequented surfers’ beach is located just next to a large prison…), roads sporting the shiny, yellow “El Camino” signs connect the towns (Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage). Winding grey roads, large green fields, limitless blue waves and bright orange roofs weave the patchwork quilt that is northern Spain. This is a region of tranquility, rarely frequented by tourists, colorful, happy and green. Whether you’re doing the Camino, surfing the waves, biking the coastline or merely soaking up the history and culture of Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia, you’ll fall in love with northern Spain in moments.
As today is my final day working in this small city in northern Spain, it seemed only appropriate to share an image of this charming seaside Spanish town. Santoña, located in the Spanish province of Cantabria, is a quiet town where one comes to hike to the top of the nearby mountain, enjoy relaxing days on the beach, drink a proper coffee on a Spanish terrace and discover the ruins of forts hanging off local cliffs. The weather more closely resembles the UK or northern France than the south of Spain, as it tends to rain a lot more than one would expect. As a result, there is life ; everything is green. Palm trees line the beach, blue skies rise over terracotta roofs. Fortresses crumble into the sea and next door, steep rugged cliffs rise out of the sea. Magic lingers on these rocky shores, and even though I’ll be gone tomorrow, the memories that follow me are magic enough.
Seaside towns and medieval villages. Northern Spain is not much like the (southern) Spain we all know and love. For one, it actually rains here…so expect a lot more green than you’d see in Andalusia or Madrid. Expect small stone towns with orange roofs…most towns even have their own little beach! Expect palm trees and cobblestones and cheerful people at seaside bars. Even the “big cities” aren’t that big! This particular little town, Santillana del Mar, is one of the most famous towns in Cantabria. Santillana del Mar is sometimes called The Town of Three Lies…as it’s neither named after a Saint (Santo), nor is it flat (llana), nor is it by the sea (Mar). Regardless, this popular tourist stop in Cantabria is a charming fairy tale village!