Santander, Spain by Rich Carriero

My first view of Spain came as the small RyanAir jet pierced the blanket of clouds floating over the Bay of Biscay. White wisps fluttered past the window and then below was a series of low green hills. I had never associated the color green with Spain. In my mind I always expected Spain to be a collage of red, yellow and white, but Santander, the small seaside town below was a vibrant green. The plane skimmed over the ground, losing altitude and I saw my first Spanish buildings. They were plane white houses with characteristice Spanish red tile roofs. The plane landed on Santander airports sole runway, taxied toward the terminal building and came to a stop. Everyone gathered their belongings and shuffled down the stairs and across the tarmac into the terminal building. The Spanish customs agent, a no nonsense man in a white shirt examined my passport, stamped it and let me into the country. I went to an ATM and withdrew 50 euros, the first time I would use the new European currency. I had been out of the country before to Canada, England and France but Spain was the first country I had ever visted where I didn’t know the language. I was soon to find, however that every American knows more Spanish than they think and my ability to communicate grew throughout the 3 weeks that I was in Spain.

After taking a bus from the airport to the bus depot in downtown Santander I inquired as to where I could find my hotel. I was staying in a place called El Astillero, which I assumed was a part of Santander but I soon found out was actually a few miles away. I boarded another bus which wound its way inland, into the hills surrounding Santander. From what I could see from the bus window, Spain looked nothing like any place I had ever seen before. With the ring of green hills surrounding town, the many dilapidated apartment buildings nestled closely along the bustling boulevards, the crowds of people in tiny cars, on scooters and bicycles, Santander reminded me of pictures of South America that I had seen. I could only understand a small fraction of what the signs or billboards were advertising. The roadsigns were a bright blue. The people were a mix of all different colors. Some Spanish people looked much as you would expect with the dark weathered complexion of a people that come from hot and sunny climates. Other people were pale and looked the same as people from France or Spain. They were all very stylish in their hair and clothes.

I was able to intuit from my fellow passengers where I was supposed to get off the bus. Standing on the sidewalk in El Astillero, a few kind old ladies indicated that they had never heard of my hotel but pointed out the general direction the street that it was on. I shouldered my heavy pack and went to find my accomodations. After looking around, I couldn’t find the street but a man who spoke a fraction of english pointed out where I was to go on a crude map which he drew on a sheet of looseleaf. With map in hand I made my way to the hotel along narrow windy streets. El Astillero was built on the side of steep hills surrounding bustling shipyards. An estuary flowed inland from the port of Santander to El Astillero, which appropriately means shipyards. The small satellite town is dedicated to handling the heavy flow of imports and exports from Santander. I located the hotel, which occupied a few floors in a ten story building which stood overlooking a park and the shipyards. The proprietor of the hotel was middle aged well dress Spanish woman. I stood in her living room as she calculated my bill and ran my credit card. She spoke no english but I understood when she scolded her young son for running around the house in his sneakers and I couldn’t suppress a small laugh. She looked at me quizically and asked me in Spanish if I understood her. I said “Si, no zapatos.” She laughed and said, “Si, si zapatos nada!” I knew at that moment that I would get along fine in Spain.

After the long journey and exhausting journey from London to Santander and then to El Astillero, it was a blessed relief to be in a room of my own. I took a long, hot shower and then a quick nap. After I woke I decided to take my first excursion into town. The proprieter gave me a map and pointed out prinipal areas of interest. A small yellow train called the Fev rain into town every 15 minutes and cost only 1 euro. The ride was very scenic. The outskirts of El Astillero were a unique blend of industry and nature. The color green was everywhere, in the hills and the trees but there were also large factories, shipyards and scrap yards. In a short time the Fev came to its terminal, which is across the street from the Santader bus depot, a place I had already been. The depot is at the base of high hill overlooking downtown Santander. A staircase winds its way up this hill to a park at the top so I decided to climb up and have a look. There were teenagers hanging out at the top of the hill laughing, listening to music and smoking cigarettes. The city fans out to the north with the buildings growing taller and more splendid as they approach the sea. The buildings to the south are dilapidated but in a different way than American buildings. The cracks, spanish moss and ivy that crept up their sides, small wooden balconies with peeling whitewash and clothes lines loaded with laundry are all charming and beautiful. In larger cities there are department stores and supermarkets but in smaller cities like Santander each of life’s necessities is sold in its own small, privately owned shops. A maroon sign with yellow lettering that says Tobacos indicates a tobacco shop, a place where you can also buy envelopes and stamps. A green cross marks the location of a pharmacy. Bakeries sell extremely inexpensive and exquisite fresh bread, while cheese shops sell a variety of cheeses and cured meats for a pittance. One can go from shop to shop buying fresh ingredients for a picnic for no more than a few euros. All of this I saw below me in downtown Santander.

The wide boulevard below led to the sea; I decided to walk down the hill and to the waterfront. The walk to the water was less than a mile. The air grew cooler, which was pleasant because the day was hot and hazy. At the end of the road, which is called Calle Castilla, I came to the Bay of Santander, a long shore of docks and seafood restaurants. I followed the curve of the bayshore northeast as it wound toward the Peninsula de Magdalena, a thin fingerlike projection of land that separates the Bay of Santander from the Bay of Biscay. Along the shore I marveled at the large mansions which commanded an excellent of the sea. On the far side of the penisula is El Sardinero, the name that the locals give for the wide sandy beach that is Santander’s principle attraction. It was late in the day so I decided to visit the beach first thing the next morning and I set off toward what appeared to be the fashionable district where the majority of Santander’s bars and clubs could be found. As the sun set I walked along the waterfront promenade which was filled with people enjoying the seabreeze. There were lots of bars and bistros where people sat around enjoying drinks, dinner and conversation. The sound of Spanish was everywhere; it was at this point that I realized that while Santander is a large and beautiful city, it is not a tourist attraction. The people who go to Santander’s beaches, bars and restaurants are almost entirely spaniards. During my stay I found this to be an incredibly refreshing facet of the town.

After a meandering walk I found what I was looking for-a large courtyard with steps on everyside that was filled with people. The courtyard, Plaza de Canadio, was shared by a number of bars and wineshops. People stood around or sat on the steps talking, drinking wine and smoking cigarettes. It was a young crowd and from what I could see a very stylish one which rivalled any crowd in a bar or club that I have ever seen in New York. I grabbed a drink and set on the steps enjoying a cigarette and listening to the chorus of voices which filled the courtyard. I didn’t stay long as I was tired and wanted to get up early the next morning to go to the beach so I caught a bus back to El Astillero and went promptly to bed.

The next day I got up around 9 and packed a bag with clothes and a towel for the beach. I made my way downstairs and stopped in a small shop where I picked up a small loaf of bread, fresh chorizo and a hunk edam cheese. I packed this with a bottle of water and some figs for brunch on the beach. After getting off the Fev in Santander I was soon relaxing on a towel in the sunshine. I sat and read, ate my lunch, wrote in my journal and basked in the hot June sun. The water was cool with a rough surf, which reminded me of beaches that I have been to in Long Island and New Jersey. The coast of Cantabria, the region on the north coast of Spain, is studded with cliffs that drop abruptly to the sea. A strong breeze and rough surf are characteristic of the Bay of Biscay, which is a notoriously stormy body of water.

After I left El Sardinero I decided to check out the Peninsula de Magdalena. The peninsula is long and narrow, heavily wooded and rocky. I walked through the woods and clambered over rocks until I came upon a large palace. I soon discovered that the palace, a 19th century masterpiece with a superb view of the sea. The palace was a summer home, built for King Alfonso XIII. After walking around the palace I walked out the tip of peninsula to enjoy the stiff seabreeze that blew inland. The peninsula ended in a high promontory with waves breaking on the rocks below. The rocky shore and sea reminded me very much of beaches in New England. Having walked several miles that day already, I decided to head back to the hotel and get a good sleep before my journey the next day to San Sebastian.

Many Northern Europeans are moving to the warmer parts of Southern Europe like Spain and Portugal Nicks Removals to Spain can help you make that move.

Cantabria is a lesser known part of Spain. With the warm Mediterranean beaches of the South and the stylish and exciting cities of Barcelona, Madrid and San Sebastian, most tourists overlook a town like Santander. I only discovered this hidden gem because of the fact that its air and seaport make it an ideal place to travel from England or France. I wholeheartedly recommend Santader to anyone travelling in northern Spain for its beaches, fresh seafood and night life. The journey to or from Madrid and San Sebastian is relatively short and inexpensive by bus. If you are ever in the region, be sure to stop in and sea a town that blends the best of Spain.

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