Most visitors to Spain would not envision the Iberian Peninsula as a lush green and mountainous place. Yet the Northern part of Spain rivals Austria and Switzerland in terms of alpine-like scenic beauty, boasting rich pastures and forests on lower elevations as well as mountain peaks reaching almost 10000 feet inside the “Picos de Europa” National Park. Here in the Autonomous Communities of Cantabria and Asturias visitors are surprised to find landscapes unlike anywhere else in Spain along with relatively low numers of visitors compared to the tourist areas along the Mediteranean.
Among the most enchanting villages in Nortern Spain we find the town of Santillana del Mar, just outside Cantabria’s attractive capital, Santander. A quaint and picturesque community of 1500 inhabitants, Santillana has become a boom town in recent years attracting mostly local Spanish visitors on weekends and during holidays. The town’s name, in fact, implies two lies, as St. Juliana is no longer regarded a saint, and the village is not located directly by the sea but rather ten miles inland. Santillana’s original claim to fame are the cave paintings in the Cuevas de Altamira, testimony of the earliest life on the Iberian peninsula going back to pre-historic times. While the caves themselves are no longer open to the general public, Santillana has a highly interesting museum dedicated to the Altamira caves and their role in the earliest settlements on the Iberian peninsula.
The town itself boasts beautiful stone houses typical of Cantabria along with local specialty shops selling handmade goods and Cantabrian specialties. Near the village center we also find the Order of the Sisters Clarita with a small bakery that sells homemade cookies to the general public to support the local community. The order also houses the area’s Diocesian Museum featuring vast examples of religious art and artifacts. Museum lovers will equally appreciate the Inquisition Museum with its interesting display of medieval torture instruments.
By far the nicest ensemble of architectural uniform stone houses may be found around Santillana’s central square PLAZA RAMÓN PELAYO with the stone palais of Aguila-Parra, nowadays the local Parador. The square is equally embellished by two impressive medieval towers, las TORRES MERINO & DON BORJA respectively. Exploring this gem of a Cantabrian small town off-season and preferably mid-week would provide an ideal introduction to the local charm and authenticity of Santillana, which fortunately has so far resisted overdevelopment and yet remains to be discovered by most international visitors.