Journeys North - Cantabria and the Picos de Europa

© Marshall Carter-Tripp

Cantabria is a small green patch of the Spanish quilt, jammed with stunning mountains that stop only when they run into the sea; from shore towns such as Santillana del Mar (which, oddly enough, is not on the seashore) you can see the awesome mountain range that culminates in the grand “Picos de Europa.”  Turn your back and you are looking at some of Spain’s nicest beaches - keeping in mind of course, that the water temperature is that of the Atlantic, not the temperate Mediterranean!

A nice way to begin is in the capital, Santander, an easy four hour drive.  You can also go via Bilbao if you have the time (if you do, try the Iturrienea bed and breakfast in the old quarter, a charming restored 15th century mansion with every modern convenience).  And don’t omit the Museo de Bellas Artes in your rush to see the Guggenheim - there’s a fine selection here, including a fascinating collection of work by regional artists.  You’ll stay longer than you expect!  On your way out, between Bilbao and Santander, is one of Spain’s nicest restaurant/hotels, San Roman de Escalante, a Michelin one-star and well-deserved it is too; we had a lovely lunch for much less than an arm and a leg, and the restaurant overflows with art as well.  If you are feeling really luxurious, try out the hotel, which is part of the stellar “Relais et Chateaux” group.  The hotel buildings are historic and just across the road is a fine little Romanesque church.   Otherwise, on to Santander.

Santander is an old city with not much left of its historic buildings, thanks to wars and fires.  It does have a fine sweep of beach, El Sardinero, bordered by a splendid promenade whose parallel I do not know.  The Maria Isabel at the far end of the beaches would be a good choice for one of the autumn opera weekends, if not the internationally known music festival in August (if you visit in the summer, up into September, air-conditioned bedrooms as well as air-conditioned public facilities in the hotel are crucial - the mid-day sun is blazing hot and the rooms will never cool off).  A more modest choice would be the attractive Hostal Carlos III, right in the middle of the beaches but set back from the main street.  Many good restaurants can be reached on foot in the beach area - for example, La Sardina, a seafood place in a setting crafted to resemble a sardine trawler (and a sister restaurant to Cabo Mayor in Madrid).  La Cúpula del Rhin in the Rhin Hotel (hotel affordable in the low season) also offers outstanding contemporary cuisine.  More traditional fare can be had along the beaches or in the central area, for example at the Bodega del Riojano, set in a wine cellar whose barrels have been decorated by Spanish artists.  And if you have a car and are looking for something really special head for the Molino in Puente Arce, 12 kilometers out, where the setting in an old mill and the food, combined with a wonderful array of art, will knock your socks off.  The last two are also in the Cabo Mayor group - a bright constellation in the Santander dining scene.

A proper visit to Cantabria cannot conclude without a visit to the mountains that occupy most of its territory.  A combined autoroute/national road, the A67-N634, leads you along the coast, passing the villages of Santillana del Mar and Comillas, the former a lovely medieval town whose fame has, sadly, caused it to be truly over-run by visitors during the day, and the latter the home of one of the rare Gaudí buildings outside Catalonia.  You turn on the N621 at Unquera (stop for a pastry called the Unquera Corbata, which you will see for sale in gourmet shops all over Madrid).  Then up into the hills.  And what a change!  The road now leads through a narrow gorge, or desfile, where the village of La Hermida receives no sunlight at all from late October to late March.  It continues to rise steadily into the Liébana valley, where there are some of the oldest monuments in Spain.  At Lebeña is the tenth century Mozarabic church of Santa Maria, accompanied by an olive and a yew tree, both planted when the church was built over a thousand years ago.   Further into the mountains, past Potes (a jumping-off town for exploring the area), is the Santo Toribio de Liébana monastery, where the 8th century Abbot Beato wrote his great Commentary on Revelations; in the cloister you can see one of the illuminated copies, an extraordinary view of the end of the world at a time when large numbers of people believed that the end of the millennium would be just that.

Many small churches of great antiquity dot the hills.  The villages are largely made of stone, and when crowned with flowering plants they simply glow.  The winters must be ferocious here, especially anywhere off the principal roads; each year the mountains claim some lives.  At the far end of one road out of Potes is Fuente Dé, where a cable car makes a dizzy ascent to the mountain ridge above (and from which you can walk, carefully, to a small pension some kilometers away...)  Even those who have vertigo should not miss this incredible trip; you won’t believe you did it and you’ll be sorry if you don’t.  Down below is a parador, where we had a good dinner, and a small hotel, the Rebeco (named after Spain’s mountain goat), which has fine views of the cable car.  Along the road to Fuente Dé, at Cosgaya, are the Hotels del Oso (a two star and a three star pair) with a reputed restaurant attached; this is a lovely spot, with flower be-decked stone buildings along a creek.  The mountains are combed with walking trails of varying difficulty; if you want to wander along the magnificent gorges various companies are ready to assist with 4-wheel drive transport, and hang-gliding and the like can be arranged.  One firm’s slogan is “It’s never too late!”, which appeared to mean “you’re never too old!”

Retrace your steps to the coast, (take a detour into Asturias if you like, along the Deva River.  This road, the AS-114, should be called the Blue Cheese Route, as the great Cabrales cheese are made and sold here; the surroundings are quite beautiful).  Back to Torrelavega, where the N-623 will lead you to the N-II at Burgos, via some fantastic scenery such as the canyons of the Ebro - and that’s another trip! 

Practicalities:  Bilbao: Iturrienea Inn - 944 16 15 00;  Escalante, San Roman de Escalante, 942 67 77 28;  Santander: La Bodega del Riojano, Rio de la Pila, 5, 942 21 67 50; La Sardina, Dr. Fleming, 942 27 10 35; Rhin, 942 2274 300; María Isabel, 942271 850,  Hostal Carlos III, 942 271 616;  Puente Arce, El Molino, 942 57 50 55; Cosgaya, Hotel and Mesón del Oso, Ctra Potes-Fuente Dé, 942 73 30 18; Funte Dé, Hotel Rebeco, 942 73 66 01

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, Richard W. Tripp, Jr.