Cantabria, Santander

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Cantabria, Santander

  In Spain’s gloriously green province, might mountains loom behind sweeping surf beaches, fishing villages conceal arttreasures ancient and modern, and the little visited cit of Santander looks out to sea and ahead to the future.
  Discover Santander, the untouristed Spanish city on the cusp of a new beginning.
Beside santander’s stone gothic cathedral, its stonework mottled grey and lichen yellow, the leaves of a willow graze the ground, swaying gently in the breeze.  It’s a cool, overcast morning on this wide plaza, and an elderly lady wearing a silk  scarf is frowning at her French bulldog; he has lain down suddenly and determinedly, a picture of studied indifference. A man in boat shoes and chinos clips past towards a café, where women in kaftans and oversized sunglasses sip at beaded glasses of wine.
  The scene is interrupted by the arrival of  a young couple laden with backpacks and walking poles. They puzzle over a creased map and set off again. The north coast city of Santander is a waypoint on the Northern Way of Camino de Santiago pilgrim trails locals must encounter this breed of visitor often, for no one on this pretty square gives  the incongruous pair a second glance.
  You only need to lift your eyes a touch to see that prettiness and Santander aren’t synonymous after all. The city’s handsome central streets are surrounded by midcentury low rises, piling up against each other on the hill. It’s a blemish that dates back to 1941, when Santander was ravaged by a great fire that burned for two days.
  The disaster would mark the wealthy tradingport city for ever: the Spanish Civil War had  ended two years earlier, and coffers that  might have restored the city to its old glory were all but empty. ‘This had been a beautiful Renaissance town,’ says Eugenia Faces, who guides visitors around the city’s sights. Instead of BC and AD, here we say before the fire and after the fire.
  The fire had an undeniable effect on, Santander’s character. The city’s bourgeois past and present is palpable but so, too, is a grittier, more resilient edge. It’s detectable in its hotchpotch of tiny, unceremonious tapas joints and dive bars, its corners of overlapping street art, and the faded red and yellow flags hanging from grimy 1960s balconies. Freed from the burden of its own beauty, the city exudes a reckless authenticity. It’s both conservative and  chaotic, and unapologetically Spanish.
  You can see signs of the regeneration that the city missed out on eight decades ago. Jutting out over the waterfront is Centro Botin, built in 2017 and resembling a gleaming alien spaceship. Designed by Renzo Piano, of Pompidou Centre fame, this strikingly Modernist arts centre stands out from its environment a definite tendency in Santander. Floor to ceilingwindows make the most of the ocean view; wide, whitecolumned stilts match the circumference of  trees in the surrounding park plaza and the pearlescent tiles that coverit’s surface bring oyster shells to mind a nod to the city’s fishing heritage.
  The centre offers arts programming, exhibition space, and a roof  terrace overlooking the city to one side and  the wide harbourto the other, backed by a crane filled shipyard and ferry port.
  On the ground level of Centro Botín is the restaurant El Muelle, headed up by chef Francisco Helguera. As he sits in the lightfilledd dining room, on elbow propped on the back of a chair, many ofthe lunchtime diners approach him for a double cheeked greeting; clearly, the place attracts regulars. ‘Santanderis very close to the Basque Country, which in gastronomy is the top of  the top,’    Francisco says,reverentially. ‘And  we have been in their shade, until now.’He  learned his craft in Michelin starred restaurants around Spain his focus is now firmly on cantabria, with international variations. Plates arrive at the table: raciones such as patatas bravas, crisp and light, drizzled with spicy kimchi sauce and tenderIbérico pork gyoza that arrive with a rich, dark hoisin sauce. ‘As a region, we Cantabrians have traditionally looked inwards,’ says Francisco. ‘But in the past decade we’ve started to look beyond our  shores forinspiration.’ He leans back, gesturing at the food and then at the handsome, spacious room around us, as if  to illustrate his point. ‘We want to do something exciting, something special.’
  This city may refain a cloak of relative obscurity, but not forlong, you feel: it’s on a mission to evolve and there’s precious little holding it back.
Soak up thousands of years of Cantabrian history in the towns and villages west of Santander.
  In santillana del mar, the rough  façades of stone houses bear huge, weathered coats of arms fleurs de lis,griffins and reliefs of knights,some of their hands and feet crumbled away long ago.sidrerias (cider houses) and craft shops dot the lanes,whose cobbles shine after centuries of footfall dark stained wooden balconies hang overhead.
  Despite its film set looks,santillana is very much a living town,its homes handed from generation to generation,neighbours natter to each other from adjacent balconies,their window boxes overflowing with crimson flowers on a square beside santillana's grand romanesque church,a group of workers chuckle together inside an artisan furniture shop,the conversation punctuated by bouts of nasal whining from  the wood working machinery.
  The road that leads here from santander runs through scrubland interspersed with grimy, rusting factories.curiously,this stretch of northern cantabria harbours some of the region's most bijou and historic sights.most of the stone and brick houses in santillana are centuries old medieval,yet youthful compared with nearby altamira cave,which draws streams of visitors to see its astonishing palaeolithic art,some reckoned to be 36,000 years old.

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  Fifteen miles to the west,the town of comillas offers more recent art.antoni gaudi built el capricho here between 1883 and 1885 on of the only gaudi buildings outside barcelona.it was never finished.
  The outer walls of the villa are covered in sculpted rows of sunflower tiles painted and glazed by hand, they glint in the light. ‘The whole house is an architectural sunflower every room is designed in relation to the sun, to make the most of what sunshine we get. It captures the green,rainy north. It’s a manifesto for Cantabria.’ The villa is laced with Gaudí’s trademark quirky details, from a Persianstyle minaret to the spiral staircase and plant filled green house.raising its sash windows sets off tubular bells a nod to the wealthy Cuban music lover for whom the house was built.
  Cantabaria's final north coast town before its border with Asturias is San Vicente de la barquera.an old fisherman's refuge,it retains a hint of its medieval past: a Gothic church and a castle peek out among functional elements of the townscape.on its main avenue, seafood restaurants jostle for attention with bright, handpainted tile signs. As lunchtime approaches, the tables outside restaurant el bodegon fill with diners. The smell of the sea mingles with warm dough and garlic, and waiters ricochet between tables, clinking glasses. The seafood in San Vicente is considered some of spain's best ingredients are scooped fresh from the cool Atlantic waters and served, as at El Bodegon,unpretentiously, with oil, lemon and herbs.
  Works hand for a living it's a busy fishing port, and looks forward not back. The day is drawing in and, on a beach overlooking the estuary, a woman performs sweeping yogic sun salutations, as a nearby dog bounces playfully on its paws in the surf. The water bobs with fishing vessels,masts squea king anchor lines tugging. From this side of the inlet, San Vicente’s handsome towers perch proudly above the town, backed by the mighty pale crags of the Picos de Europa.