Tag Archives: Cantabrian Mountains

Northern Spain – Santillana del Mar

Santillana de Mar Cantabria

“Le plus joli village d’Espagne”  Jean Paul Sartre

Having visited Santillana del Mar once before, we were fairly confident of the directions and we arrived in the town and made our way to the free car park at the edge of the medieval centre. This place is overwhelmed by visitors in peak season and is entirely pedestrianised but it was quiet today and the summer restrictions didn’t appear to apply quite so rigidly but even so I wasn’t prepared to risk a fine so we then carried on by foot into the labyrinth of streets into the centre.

Santillana del Mar is a most picturesque town and often appears in any top ten of best villages in Spain along with Cudillero, Almagro, Ronda, Trujillo and Alcala de Henares.  This may of course have something to do with the fact that the French writer, philosopher and all-round clever dick, Jean Paul Sartre declared it to be the prettiest village in Spain in 1938, although I am not absolutely sure just how much of Spain he visited and just what he was comparing it with or how he came to this rather sweeping judgement.  Perhaps it was just a lucky guess!

Actually, I might be inclined to agree with him because the route to our hotel took us along uneven cobbled streets past yellow stone buildings with terracotta pantile roofs, stone walls, hidden gardens and tempting twisting alleys.  I may have been inclined to follow them but Kim wasn’t because, and I have to agree with her, it was a bit of a chore dragging our luggage over the bumpy surface and it made sense to go directly to our accommodation.

The Hotel Altimira was a delightful old seventeenth century grand house with stone walls, wooden floors and creaky rustic furniture and, unlike in Burgos, we were allocated a room at the front with a stone balcony and iron balustrade which allowed excellent views in both directions along the main street.

Santillana del Mar Spain

It was mid to late afternoon and we were both rather hungry so we went straight away to a restaurant that we had used previously, the Castilla, selected some tapas dishes and waited for service – and waited and waited and waited!  I realise that it was the end of the lunch time shift and the staff were looking forward to a short break but these guys were really rude and showed no enthusiasm to serve us.  As a result we abandoned the idea of food and a single drink and moved on.

Santillana is not an especially large town and there are only a couple of streets running from top to bottom so we walked slowly to the bottom of the town past half timbered houses and stone colonnades and to the well at the very bottom outside the Church of the Colegiata with its crumbling stone facade and slightly neglected appearance.  There is apparently an old saying that Santillana del Mar is The Town of Three Lies, since it is neither a Saint (Santo), nor flat (llana) and has no sea (Mar) as implied by the town’s name. However, the name actually derives from Santa Juliana (or Santa Illana) whose remains are in the kept in the Colegiata, a Romanesque church and former Benedictine monastery.

From the outside the church is a Romanesque masterpiece, squat but elegant, grey but welcoming, informal but grand, austere but inviting with weathered sandsone walls and sinewy arcades where it is easy to imagine merchants conducting business before worship

We had visited the church on our last visit and as there was an entrance fee we declined the opportunity for a return and walked instead around the back and towards the edge of the town past more grand villas, grand wooden doors and weathered stone statues and when we had reached the very edge of the town we walked back along a road that ran parallel and returned us to the Plaza Mayor and the small town museum which we visited largely on account of the fact that there was free admission.

Finding a shop was the next priority and this was quite difficult.  I was beginning to despair that we wouldn’t find one but eventually we came across a mini-market just outside the town centre and took possession of a bottle of red wine and some San Miguel and with essential supplies secured returned to the room.

An hour or so later as we were preparing to go out for dinner there was suddenly a lot of happy music from somewhere outside and it was clear that it was getting closer.  From our balcony we could see a gathering of people and a fun band of musicians in blow up suits advancing along the street and right underneath our window.  I have no idea what it was all about but the music was nice and the children all seemed to be enjoying the festival atmosphere.

There was now a debate about evening meal and whether or not we should return to the Castilla but we eventually decided to forgive them for their bad manners earlier in the afternoon and we returned for dinner and we were glad that we did because the food was excellent, the service first class and the atmosphere perfect.

As it turned out the room on the front of the Hotel Altimira was rather noisy on account of looking out over the street and the wooden floorboards which creaked every time someone in the hotel turned over in bed but it didn’t matter at all, it was a charming place and we were glad to be there.

Next morning the weather was disappointing again and it reminded me of childhood holidays to Wales or Norfolk – grey skies and anoraks.  Kim upset the breakfast staff over the issue of hot water that wasn’t hot – in Spain there is a general failure to understand how important this is to a proper cup of tea and so after the meal and with a promise of better weather to the west we checked out of the hotel and began our final drive along the Cantabrian coast and back to Asturias airport.

Church Santillana del Mar

 

Northern Spain – Mountain Drive, Burgos to Cantabria

Cantabria Road Hazard

Not long after leaving Burgos and as we travelled north the landscape began to change.  Only gradually at first and then more rapidly as we approached the snow capped Cantabrian Mountains.

The endless brown prairies of Castilla y León started to slowly give way to enclosed green fields of Cantabria and now there were ridges and escarpments each one playing host to a clutch of wind turbines.  There was livestock in the fields as we began to climb, gently at first and then more dramatically into the mountains.

After an hour or so we left the main road and took a minor route into the mountains where the fields became smaller, the grass became greener and the sky seemed a great deal closer as we drove past verges of wild flowers sheltering under the dry stone walls, soaring buzzards and occasional herds of the horses of Cantabria.  We climbed high into the clouds, way above the snow line with strips of ice clinging defiantly to the crevices where the sun doesn’t reach and stopping frequently to enjoy the stunning views stretching away in all directions as we reached the highest point of our drive at one thousand two hundred and sixty metres.

There was a price to pay for these grand views and that was the temperature which dropped so dangerously close to zero that Kim made a change of clothes into something much warmer and more appropriate for the prevailing conditions.

At the very top the grey clouds were crawling like a contagion over the mountain tops and then as quickly as we had started to climb we started to descend through a succession of sweeping theatrical bends where bubbling waterfalls twisted and roared down every narrow gorge and overhead there was a canopy of swaying emerald which parted just now and again to let the sunlight through and allow views of the mountain peaks wearing their lace bonnets of cloud.

The road kept dropping in a dramatic fall, through hairpin bends, alongside vertiginous drops to certain death in the river valley below and adjacent to soaring grey mountains and constant warnings of rock falls and debris in the road and this wasn’t the only danger because, although there was an absence of traffic we frequently found ourselves competing for road space with local farm livestock which thankfully announced their presence with a loud clanging cow bell.

Valle de Cabuérniga Cantabria Spain

Eventually the road began to level out and we followed the route of a river valley, the Valle de Cabuérniga with the River Argoza carving its relentless way through the hills as we made for our first stop of the day, the Cantabrian mountain village of Bárcena Mayor which is a village nestled in the mountains and the only residential community within the beech wood nature reserve of Saja.

It is said to be the oldest town in Cantabria and was declared a historic-artistic site in 1979.  Because of this designation it is now one of the most visited places in Cantabria as tour buses fill the road and the edge of town car park but it was quiet enough today and we walked through the pretty medieval stone streets and houses with wooden balconies and washing lines in a hanging mist which added to the character and the charm of the place.

We left Bárcena Mayor just as the intrusive tour buses started to arrive and spill their passengers into the narrow streets and then carried on to our second village visit at Carmona sitting in an impossibly attractive natural fold in the landscape surrounded by lush green fields and with a stunning backdrop of the Pico de Europa.

Carmona was rather similar to Bárcena Mayor except there was a bit more activity in the tiny cobbled streets with wild flower verges and where sunlight spilled into the dark  corners of the workshops where traditional wood carvers were busy making customary products of cattle yokes, sandals, clogs, canes, and cutlery which, I am told, are distinctive to rural Cantabria and I say that in a slightly cynical way because I got the impression that there isn’t really a great deal of tradition here and that whilst a man was busy whittling wood in an open barn for the benefit of the tourists there was probably a factory somewhere full of drills and lathes where the products for sale were being produced as the villagers were taking advantage of the new roads that brought the visitors to the once isolated communities.

I liked these little stone villages but not that much that I wanted to stay all afternoon and after we had walked through the streets, admired the wooden merchandise and dodged the free roaming dogs we returned to the car and made our way to our final overnight stop at the town of Santillana del Mar.

Carmona Cantabria Spain

 

Northern Spain – Mountain Drive from Oviedo to León

Mountain Drive from Oviedo

Leaving Oviedo was very straight forward as we made our way out of the city and towards the Autovia that would take us almost directly south – only almost directly because first we had to pass through the mountains, or more specifically the Montes de León which are a western section of the Cantabrian mountains that form a natural geographical border between Asturias and Castilla y León.

Even as we started to climb it was effortless motoring on a wide fast road without traffic and we made steady progress towards our destination.  All the time we were climbing, climbing, climbing as though into the sky and into the blue and the grey of the clouds through saw edged, snow capped mountains that just kept on soaring into the sky.  The climb was endless, swift and dramatic as we climbed to over one thousand five-hundred metres and passed heavy goods vehicles with ease as they laboured and snorted along the constant incline.

We passed through long sinuous tunnels and crossed expansive viaducts and bridges and soon we were at two thousand metres and above the snow line and into a national park high into the mountains where road signs warned of chamois deer and the ambient temperature warning in the car dropped to just four degrees centigrade. For a moment or two I wondered if I had strayed off course and unrestrained by the limitations of time if I was somewhere deep in the Swiss Alps?  As we approached the summit, past the emergency parking areas for overheating vehicles I was happy to declare this to be my most memorable motorway journey ever – the Autovia equivalent of the Amalfi drive!

Montes de León Spain

Finally the road levelled out as we reached the summit and we were transported to a most Alpine scene with little red roofed villages, that must spend weeks cut off during the winter, snow clinging stubbornly in the sun-starved crevices and then a mountain lake, the Embalse de los Barrios de Luna, the waters of the moon, as blue as the sky and sparkling in the sunshine as it spread out on either side of the highway as we crossed it on a high level six hundred and fifty metre long suspension bridge – currently the longest in Spain.

A motorway through the mountains such as this is obviously very expensive to build in the first place and then to annually maintain so inevitably we eventually came to a toll booth which charged us €12.80 to pass through but I soon came to terms with this when I realised that €6.40 each for this sort of entertainment was very good value indeed and soon after passing through we stopped at the very top and enjoyed the views back towards Asturias, east and west along the valleys of the National Park and south towards Castilla y León where we passed into soon after resuming our journey.

On the southern side of the mountain range there was a straight, less dramatic road and a more gradual descent towards the high plain of Castilla y León, the spiritual heartland of Christian Spain and as we drove I began to contemplate the prospect of our next city stopover in León.

Leon Spain postcard