Northern Spain: from the Bay of Biscay to the Peaks of Europe

Santander is home to a Renzo Piano-designed arts centre and a regenerated waterfront. But the region is more than its metropolis: find alpine landscapes where pastoralists lead lives that have changed little in centuries.

By Gavin Haines
photographs by Ben Roberts
Published 20 Aug 2019, 17:56 BST
Playa de los Bikinis beach.
Playa de los Bikinis beach, Santander. Wedged between the Bay of Biscay and the snow-capped Cantabrian Mountains, the port city is the capital of the Cantabria region.
Photograph by Ben Roberts

“Vamos,” says a weathered old man to his horse, a silky bay that clearly wants to stay right where he is, grazing in the shade of a tree. “Vamos,” he instructs more assertively, pulling the animal’s reins. The horse, six feet of pure reluctance, soon relents and walks begrudgingly with his master along the beach and into the afternoon sun.

A charming rural scene, you might think — except I’m in Santander. “I ask tourists what they can tell me about the city and it’s usually just the bank,” sighs my tour guide, Eugenia Faces. “A Google search ranks it higher than the city.”  

Wedged between the Bay of Biscay and the snow-capped Cantabrian Mountains, the port city of Santander is the capital of the Cantabria region. During its heyday in the 18th century, it was a prosperous mercantile centre thanks to imports from the colonies — mainly tobacco and coffee.

The multinational bank, on the other hand, was founded in and named after the city and is still headquartered here. Its owners, the Botín family — perhaps attempting to atone for their search engine dominance — helped to finance the redevelopment of the city’s seafront near the ferry terminal, which previously had a reputation for traffic congestion and prostitution. Now the area is home to leafy public gardens and the Renzo Piano-designed Centro Botín, an €80m (£72m) arts centre. It looked like an arrival from the future when it opened in 2017. “It was totally ugly here before — and you couldn’t walk around at night,” recalls María Cagigas, Centro Botín’s director of communication and development, who walks me through the gardens. “Now there’s life here. The city has been linked with the sea.”  

Centro Botín, which sits on stilts on the seafront, has been described as ‘Santander’s Guggenheim’ — a nod to nearby Bilbao, home to a Frank Gehry-designed outpost of the New York museum. The Turner Contemporary in Margate would probably be a more apt comparison, though. “It’s not been the same as the Guggenheim effect in Bilbao,” admits Amaia Barredo, the centre’s exhibition coordinator. “But we’re definitely seeing more international visitors.”

My visit coincides with a surreal exhibition by the British artist Martin Creed, whose multidisciplinary show brings together the unlikely bedfellows of live music and wall paintings. Wearing back-to-front suits and plastic bags on their heads, performers even play outside the toilets at one point. “What the fuck am I doing here?” two female artists sing, much to the amusement of the largely young crowd. Some visitors seem to be asking themselves the same question. 

View towards Picos de Europa from Mirador del Zorro. The peaks were the first thing European sailors saw when they returned from their nautical adventures — hence the name ‘Peaks of Europe’. 
Photograph by Ben Roberts

But Creed’s show is perfect for Centro Botín, which was conceived to inject artistic verve and youthful swagger into Santander — a city that, for all its urbane sophistication, has hardly been at the cutting edge of contemporary culture. “Santander is like a bourgeoise older woman, who was beautiful once,” explains Eugenia, who claims the Centro Botín has helped the city look forward rather than trading off past glories. 

But its past is glorious — apart from the 1941 Fire of Santander, which turned much of the medieval centre to ash. For this was the city where Spain’s bourgeoise summered during the belle epoque — a trend originated by a British royal.   

“This will seem like home to you,” explains Eugenia, as we arrive at the leafy Magdalena Peninsula and overlook sandy beaches and rocky headlands at the entrance to the Bay of Santander. Eugenia, perhaps not realising I’m from the West Midlands, hardly renowned for royal residences, is referring to the magnificent Palace of La Magdalena, which sits at the heart of the peninsula. 

The sprawling pile was built in 1909 as a summer residence for Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg, the British Queen of Spain, and her husband, King Alfonso XIII, whose tumultuous married life got off to a fiery start when an anarchist tried to blow them up on their wedding day. “In homage to Eugenie, they built the palace in the British style,” explains Eugenia, as we stomp around the estate, peering up at towering turrets and mock-Tudor gables.

The royals were followed to Santander by Spain’s chattering classes, who needed hotels to sleep in, restaurants to eat in and casinos in which to flutter away their considerable fortunes. A construction boom followed and a seaside resort was born. 

The estate has a whiff of the National Trust about it and I suddenly find myself craving a cream tea. Instead, Eugenia and I head into town to participate in the local lunchtime tradition of bar hopping for pinchos: mini, open sandwiches with various toppings that are held together with a cocktail stick.   

“People come here for pre-lunch, before going home for their actual lunch,” explains Eugenia, as I scan the busy stalls in the Mercado del Este covered market, marvelling at the two-hour Spanish lunch. Long may it continue.

Bar El Jou in Potes, an alpine town with the River Quiviesa running through it. Along its banks are a string of restaurants, serving stick-to-your-ribs Cantabrian fare such as cocido lebaniego.
Photograph by Ben Roberts

The simple life 

Eugenia assures me Cantabrians “don’t do siestas”, but I break with local tradition and take a 10-minute commuter boat to Somo, a seaside suburb on the other side of the bay, to snooze on the beach.

Somo is dormouse-quiet, save for the church bells. Essentially a village, it has beautiful sandy beaches, where the smell of manure from out-of-town farms mixes with the salty sea air: surf and turf. I sit on the sand, warm from the day’s rays, and watch lizards scurry through the grass, while crickets sing unseen. It’s on the beach I see the old man and his horse, an odd pair who contrast wildly with the regal city beyond.

Santander’s highfalutin royal history seems at odds with much of rural Cantabria, where the simple life prevails. On the city’s regenerated waterfront, Eugenia and I had looked across the bay towards the misty Cantabrian Mountains in the distance, where, she told me, the Pasiegos live.

These semi-nomadic pastoralists, she explained, herd livestock between high-mountain pastures in summer and valleys during winter, spending much of their time living in rustic cabins with few mod cons. “They have no electricity or running water in the cabins — it’s a hard life.” It’s also dying out, apparently. “Young people don’t want to do it anymore,” she claimed, adding that rural depopulation is a growing concern in Cantabria.  

Eugenia, who comes from an agricultural family herself, regaled me with a story about her great aunt, who lived in Treceño, a Cantabrian village five miles inland from the coastal town of Comillas, which, incidentally, is home to one of the few Gaudí-designed buildings outside of Catalonia. 

“The first time she saw the sea she was 73,” explained Eugenia, whose family had insisted on taking the old lady for a seaside trip in her twilight years. “We asked if she liked it and she said it was worse than Hollywood.” It was her last visit to the ocean.  

My next destination is this village of Treceño, where I’ve arranged to meet Catherine Ferron, daughter of the First World War poet Edmund Blunden, a six-time Nobel Prize in Literature nominee.   

The view above the village of Valle.
Photograph by Ben Roberts

The drive to Treceño leads me along country lanes that meander through fertile hills and timeworn villages. Cows graze on verges, bells jangling as they chew. Dusty Andalucía seems a world away; the Costas another land. I’m struck by how verdant it all is, hence why it’s called ‘Green Spain’. I understand why — as I put the wipers on — in Spain, the rain mainly falls in the north.

I meet Catherine and her partner, Luis, in a rustic restaurant near Treceño, where we share a steaming pot of venison soup and a bottle of red. Catherine was born in Hong Kong, where her father worked as a university professor after the Second World War. She fell in love with Cantabria after visiting three decades ago and has lived here ever since. On a continent where her father found violence on an unprecedented scale, Catherine has found peace.

It was the traditional rural life and sense of community that Catherine fell for, she tells me. “When I first came here the place was full of dung heaps, there was cow shit everywhere,” she merrily recalls, proving you can be nostalgic about anything. “I remember waking up in the morning to see farmers going past with their carts full of grass. Everyone met for drinks at lunch.” 

Catherine explains that scenes like this can still be found today but — echoing what Eugenia had told me earlier —they’re becoming rarer as more and more people abandon rural life for the city. 

Catherine and Luis, who run a tour company called Casa Cantabricas, are trying to arrest the decline by encouraging owners of rural dwellings to convert them into B&Bs. It remains a work in progress. 

Bidding farewell to the pair, I drive further inland and almost immediately encounter a traffic jam. Not cars but a drove of slow-moving horses — all wearing cowbells. The animals are a sweet disorder, jangling discordantly as they’re herded down the road by a weather-beaten shepherd. He waves as I pass in my hire car, which probably has less horsepower than his herd.

Cantabria’s rural scenes continue to unfold. In tiny villages, men with white hair and walking sticks march determinedly to their local bar for aperitifs. Rolling hills and rugged farmsteads gradually give way to jagged, limestone mountains. I soon find myself driving through the spectacular Hermida Gorge, following the Hermida River as it meanders dramatically through the rugged peaks, where long-haired mountain goats graze on vertiginous flanks. One misplaced hoof and they’re goners.  

The stone ruins of a watermill along verdant sea cliffs, Bolao.
Photograph by Ben Roberts

Going underground 

Glistening against the slate-grey sky, the snow-capped Picos de Europa catch me completely by surprise. Spain is not synonymous with dramatic, alpine scenery and I find myself taken aback by the frosty tops of the mountains, stabbing the sky at the end of Hermida Gorge. The peaks, I learn later, were the first thing European sailors saw when they returned from their nautical adventures — hence the name ‘Peaks of Europe’. 

I pull over and admire the scenery in Potes, a charming alpine town with the River Quiviesa running through it. Along its banks are a string of restaurants, serving stick-to-your-ribs Cantabrian fare such as cocido lebaniego: a stew consisting of chickpeas, black pudding, chorizo and… a lump of fat.

“It’s typical mountain food,” enthuses Ivelyse, who runs a nearby bar called El Jou. Ivelyse was born in Venezuela but settled in Cantabria because the scenery blew her away. “In Venezuela, people think Spain is flamenco and bullfighting and the coast,” she says, peering at me over her purple-rimmed spectacles. “I think the mountains are more beautiful.”

I spend the night near Potes, waking the next morning to the call of a cuckoo. The intention is to view the Picos de Europa range from a cable-car, but because the weather has turned — as it often does in Cantabria — it’s closed for safety reasons. 

I hike the foothills instead, under the watchful gaze of vultures. They soar on thermals, scanning the valley for something to scavenge. The mountains are also home to predators, including wolves and bears. Today, alas, these creatures aren’t to be spotted. 

The wind picks up, becoming so strong a nearby waterfall starts flowing sideways. I’m soon back in the car heading somewhere the wind definitely can’t get me: a cave. Beneath Cantabria’s lush scenery is a network of grottos that harbour some of Europe’s oldest cave art — said to be up to 40,000 years old, the most famous belonging to the Cave of Altamira. Their discovery in the 19th-century triggered a rancorous debate among academics, many of whom claimed they were fake, on the basis that prehistoric man lacked the sophistication to produce such works of art. 

Visitors at the top of the Fuente Dé cable-car in the Picos De Europa.
Photograph by Ben Roberts

The main controversy nowadays relates to visitor numbers at the cave, which permits just five people a week — chosen by lottery — into the subterranean gallery. As I’m not one of the lucky few, I head instead to the Cueva de El Castillo, where visitors descend into chilly dampness and marvel at the mysterious handiwork of our ancient ancestors for just €3 (£2.70). 

It’s here I meet Marta Fernández, a local guide, who leads me into the gloomy grotto, where water drips from stalactites and the temperature suddenly dips. The artists behind the paintings, she tells me, lived outside the caves and came in only to exercise their creativity. How, I ask, did they see what they were doing? Their solution, it turns out, was ingenious. “They filled animal bones with dry grass, which they lit,” explains Marta. “We call it the lamp of marrow.” 

Marta trains her own torch on the primitive paintings. There are deer, bison and a horse, as well as dozens of eerie handprints, which almost appear as though they’re trying to reach out and drag us into the underworld. We have to crane our necks towards the ceiling of the cave to view some of the paintings, which are surprisingly high. I imagine their creators up there — perched perilously on slippery rocks, charcoal in one hand, marrow lamps in the other — risking it all in the name of self-expression, like graffiti artists on inner-city train tracks.


Getting there & around
Brittany Ferries sails to Santander twice a week from both Portsmouth and Plymouth. Return fares from £470 and £560, respectively, for two adults and a car, including en suite cabin. 

Average journey time: 24h (from Portsmouth); 22h (Plymouth).

Ryanair has direct flights to Santander from Stansted and Edinburgh.

Average flight time: 2h.

Travelling by car is the easiest way to get around the countryside. Cycling is also rewarding but hard work, particularly in the Picos de Europa. 

When to go
Cantabria has a mild climate, with an average high of around 19C in summer and 10C in winter. While rain can occur all year, summers are generally wetter than winters. 

How to do it 
Caminos by Casa Cantabricas
offers a seven-night self-drive itinerary in Cantabria from £700, which includes ferry crossings and accommodation. 

Published in the September 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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