Sunday 23 April 2017

Cantabria: Sea, sand and Santander

JOHN MASTERSON

The great Seve Ballesteros, one of my heroes, used to have the same view as I was enjoying from outside my Santander hotel. Except he was across the bay in Pedrena.



And he probably didn't realise how good it feels to sit in the early evening sunshine and have two glasses of wine and two coffees for the princely sum of €6.50.

Ryanair did its job well, arrived early and blasted the trumpets. From the air Cantabria looks like Ireland with proper mountains. To my delight, about 30 minutes after landing I was settled in my room with a view of the port. Yes, 30.

First, an afternoon walk along the port into the old part of the city. There are the charming statues, Los Raqueros, depicting the children who used to dive for coins thrown from ships. I had a look around the Santa Iglesia Cathedral, which is really one church built on top of another, and enjoyed the varied architecture and busy square with its street entertainers.

While Santander is an ancient city, most of the buildings are less than a hundred years old because of two massive calamities. In 1893, there was the famous explosion when a ship loaded with dynamite went up and over 500 people died. Then, in 1941, a massive fire destroyed whole streets. Today, there is a cosmopolitan feel, with prestige-label shops beside character-filled tapas bars. Bodega Cigalena is a third-generation eatery that is a must. There are bottles everywhere, some probably from the day it opened.

Santander is on the sea, and the bay with sandy beaches and surfers is justifiably in the Most Beautiful Bays in the World club. Tourism began here in the mid-19th Century, when the Spanish royal family began spending summers here. The magnificent Palacio de la Magdelena, on a hill at the edge of town, was a gift from Santander to King Alphonso XIII in 1908. Today it's a university campus with a view to die for.

Further around the bay, there is a statue marking the gruesome spot near the lighthouse where during the civil war both sides allegedly dumped people -- possibly still alive at the time -- over the cliff.

Back to town for a top-class meal in Lasal. Anchovies, which I loved, followed by octopus, washed down by Ribera del Duero, a tasty red. Yes, I was loving Cantabria

Next day, I was persuaded to overcome my fear of heights and head for the Fuentes De cable car, where a mile-long wire whisked me up to 2000 metres. This Liebano district of mountainous valleys is spectacularly beautiful. In just an hour, one can travel from a sunshine beach walk to hike on snow-capped mountains. I watched the Griffin vultures flying below, took in the view and drank an Orujo liqueur to steady my nerves. This liquor is distilled from grape skins and pips and tastes like poteen. It works. I kept my eyes open on the way down.

Having dealt with heights, I was talked into caving. Mere hours after flying through the air, I was heading underground and thinking of Chilean miners, and wondering who would be waiting for me at the top when I had lost three stone 69 days later. I stiffened my resolve and soon was in an unimaginable wonderland of stalagmites and stalactites. The El Soplao Cave is justifiably known as one of the greatest caves in the world. It was not on my to-do list to face two of my fears in the one day. Both were worth it.

Cantabria is full of churches and monasteries. The Monasterio de Santa Toribio is one of the oldest, and most famous, as it houses what is believed to be the largest relic of the True Cross of Christ. The gold-plated cross containing the wood is about two feet high. It is said to have been brought back from the Holy Land by St Toribio in the 5th Century, and who am I to argue? I was lucky enough to be shown it up close by a friendly monk who had all the right keys.

Lunch was in nearby Potes. I sampled the local Cocido Lebaniego, a stew with veal, sausage and chickpeas washed down by a local red, served by the jug. I developed my habit of drinking Curtado, which is something like a double espresso with some milk so there is enough for it to feel like a small cup of coffee and not a thimble full. The fishing village of St Vincent de la Barquera may be familiar to Irish people who have done the Camino de Santiago. As you drive in over the bridge, there is a custom that if you hold your breath you will be married within a year. St Vincent is famous for the annual Folia, a religious festival just after Easter when the whole community takes to the sea in overfilled boats to be blessed.

I also loved Santillana del Mar, a medieval town with cobbled streets and tourist shops where I bought some pottery. The world-famous caves of Altamira, adorned with paintings by early man, are only two kilometres away. They are closed to the public to preserve them but the inch- perfect replica should not be missed.

Camillos is a must-visit town dominated by the spectacular Pontifical University built by shipping magnate, Antonio Lopez, and donated to the Church. It is now beautifully restored, with fine marble floors and intricately carved ceilings showing the animals of the ark.

Down in the town is the luxurious Palacios de Sobrellano, also built by the family, and its accompanying chapel vault. The Lopez descendants are alive and well and are still entitled to be laid to rest here.

Beside it is a fabulous home built by Gaudi in 1883, one of the very few outside Catalonia. Fun throughout, with motifs of nature on the tiles and in the windows, Gaudi himself is seated in the garden keeping an eye on things.

To complete days of excellent food, my final dinner had to be in the Michelin-starred El Serbal. Bread with five olive oils was followed by anchovies on cheese, styled to look like snails crossing the plate. Rice with cuttlefish in inky sauce was magnificent.

Oh, I could go on and on, but it was time to go home and get into training for my next visit.

GETTING THERE

Ryanair flies direct from Dublin to Santander. www.ryanair.com

To find out more about Cantabria visit www.turismo decantabria.com, www.cantur.com and www.turismo comillas.com.

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