Cantabria is a region of constrasts, of lush green valleys and high peak, long sandy bays and beaches and rocky cliffs, of tradition and modern.
It is easy to move around Santander through public transport.
The Spaniards themselves like to holiday here and they and the locals know what is needed to make life comfortable: numerous inexpensive restaurants to discover, fresh produce in colourful markets, a good supply of Spanish wines and seafood a speciality.
Bilbao (1 hour away), in the neighbouring Basque country, is a lively city of great contrasts, with the amazing futuristic Guggenheim Museum and its rich collection of modern art, the historic old quarter, the Casco Viejo, the busy port and dock area, excellent shopping, innumerable tapas bars and restaurants - well worth a day trip.,
Or go inland to the ancient cities of Burgos (2 hours away), León (2 & 1/2 hours away) or Oviedo (1&1/2 hours away) with their splendid cathedrals, to the Roman camp at Julióbriga, near Reinosa ... and you don’t have to go far to find yourself in very different landscapes and climates.
But you’ll probably find that your time is most enjoyably spent in a peaceful corner of the real Spain, enjoying its beaches, countryside, towns, and people.
The prehistoric caves at Altamira with their magnificent paintings were slowly on their way to fame. It’s almost impossible to gain admission nowadays, but a new museum includes a superb replica. Booking may be necessary at busy times. It is still possible to visit the original caves at Puente Viesgo (no children under twelve are admitted).
The beautiful golden stone “palacios” and Romanesque church of Santillana del Mar put it in all the guide books and it shouldn’t be missed – a harmonious balance of grandeur and simplicity, the farming locals working as the visitors admire.
Comillas, a growing seaside resort, is a delightful architectural mixture, with, among traditional streets and squares and modern villas, a medieval church, a fine display of grand “Modernista” Art Nouveau summer mansions including Gaudí’s El Capricho (now an elegant restaurant), and a strong sea wall around its little port.
San Vicente de la Barquera is an attractive port, with an imposing church containing fine 15th and 16th century monuments. The ancient village of Barcena Mayor, although now on the tourist map, takes you back in time, while a trip to Santander is a reminder of a modern sophisticated Spain.
But don’t forget the less obvious or well-known places – you’ll find all sorts of treasure from interesting old palacios and churches (you may have to track down the key) to fascinating glimpses of rural life. Tudanca is one old village that is worth discovering, as among its “casas rusticas” is La Casona, formerly the home of the writer José Maria de Cossio and now a little museum with his rich collection of books, manuscripts, paintings and drawings.
On clear days the snow-capped Picos de Europa appear beyond the hills; this stunning mountain range stretches west into Asturias, where the adventurous might like to undertake the Cares Gorge hike. In Cantabria there’s the excitement of the cable car at Fuente Dé, which swings the intrepid up to the peaks. Those who prefer to keep their feet on the ground can explore the little town of Potes, the mozarabic church of Santa Maria de Lebeña, the Deva Gorges...
For those to whom summer holidays mean the beach, Cantabria offers a superb choice, from tiny rocky coves to wide stretches of firm sand, from the family atmosphere of village beaches like Cobreces to the sophisticated “playas” of Santander. Clifftop walks with stunning views or shrimping down among the rock pools, sipping ice-cold vino blanco on a cafe terrace or splashing through the choice is yours.
Part of the fun of a holiday abroad is doing the shopping. The hypermarkets stock everything from sugar to shoes and can be a major expedition; supermercados and open or covered markets will keep you well supplied, but don´t forget the villages shops - often a bar as well, seemingly open all hours, and stocked with a fascinating mixture of basics and extras, its usually a very friendly, handy place. And do venture into the ferreterías, where in among the garden implements are earthenware dishes, pots and pans, baskets, toys…
Eating out is very popular and in general is excellent value whether you’re at a simple village mesón or a more elegant establishment.
Choice is the only problem! Children are made welcome, and small or shared portions easily available.
Eating times are later than you might be used to. If hunger strikes early a delicious meal can be made from the assorted tapas served in most bars. Why not try a cafe breakfast with sweet squares of sobaos (sponge cakes -a local speciality) or a pile of deep fried churros?
For cooking at home, there’s a wide choice of local produce, including a tasty range of cheeses, alongside which you’ll find ingredients from all over Spain and nowadays from further afield.
Outdoor activities: There’s a wide choice for those who want some action on holiday - from a game of ‘bolos’ on a village pitch to a hair-raising hike through the craggy Picos.
Swimmers are spoilt for choice - surfy sea, fresh mountain streams, various swimming pools. There’s golf at Oyambre, Pedreña, Mogro, Comillas and Santander, and Santander too is a good place for sailing and windsurfing. Tennis courts can be tracked down in most towns and bikes (including mountain bikes) can be hired.
You don’t have to be an expert with a canoe to enjoy a quiet paddle through the backwaters of the Pechón estuary, or an expert on horseback to go for a ride in the countryside. Birdwatchers and nature lovers will find a rich variety of wildlife to enjoy.
You can also find rafting, hidrospeed, bungee jumping, speleology, paintball, gymkanas, vias ferratas, horse riding … and much more.
HOW TO GET THERE
Ryanair operates cheap daily flights from London (Stanstead), Edimburgh, Dublin, Berlin, Dusseldorf, Brusels, Rome and Milan to Santander airport.
Brittany Ferries operates a route between Plymouth and Santander: it is not cheap, but you can take your car and treat the ferry journey itself as a kind of miniature cruise.
Santander is easily reached by bus or train from Bilbao, in turn well connected by air to most cities in Europe.Get the full listing »