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Spanish secrets

Tapas by another name, a torture museum, more than 70 beaches and most of the rain in Spain. Renata Rubnikowicz discovers Cantabria

Whether you arrive by ferry or fly in, the first impression of Santander is nothing more than a stolid Spanish seaport. And even the most loyal locals will admit that the weather can often be rainy. But there's lots of fun to be had in the city and the lush, green region of Cantabria.

Santander is something of a Spanish secret, little visited by other European holidaymakers. It has been a port since Roman times, and its cathedral dates back to the 11th century, yet much of the city centre was rebuilt, and the cathedral restored, following a devastating fire in 1941.

Its popularity with tourists dates from the mid-19th century, when the then queen of Spain, Elizabeth, visited the town for seaweed baths to soothe her psoriasis. The grand Hotel Real, built in 1917 to house the holidaying King Alfonso XIII and his court, continues the tradition with an ultra-modern thalassotherapy centre.

In the city itself, you don't need a car, and, in any case, once you've found a parking space you should hang on to it. Walking west from the ferry port, you soon come to the wooded and slightly wild Magdalena peninsula, home to a polo ground and Santander's summer university, which welcomes students from all over the world between June and October every year. The Playa de Bikinis, which borders it, was named by local fishermen in the Sixties after the large number of sunbathing female students.

South-facing Santander has eight beaches, all of smooth yellow sand and sparklingly clean. However, swimming in the Atlantic is bracing even in summer. Further along, another promontory is topped by a lighthouse, and it's worth the easy climb up to get a view of the bay and the town below.

The fishermen are long gone from El Sardinero beach and their houses have been replaced by smart villas; Santander is the most expensive provincial capital in Spain. Back past the ferry terminal is the dockside area of Barrio Pesquero, where fishermen live today, and where they barbecue fish outside the bars on summer evenings.

Tapas are called pinchos in this part of Spain, and their creation has been brought to a high art. One of the premier artists is chef Joseba Guijarro, of Casa Lita on the seafront, whose creations use local Iberico pork, Tresviso blue cheese, and anchovies, "the world's best", he says, caught off the Cantabrian coast in April and May.

In the streets behind the Paseo de Pereda, you'll find plenty of other masters of pinchos. Or you could try any of the Michelin-starred smart restaurants in the area of Puerto Chico, near the Maritime Museum.

On days not spent exploring the 70 or so beaches along the Cantabrian coast, it's worth checking out the Altamira Museum, just half-an-hour's drive from Santander. Since more than 300,000 people visit the prehistoric site every year, the original caves have been closed to preserve their wall paintings, but an exact replica has been built alongside the museum.

Not far away, but not on the sea as its name confusingly suggests, Santillana del Mar is a 16th-century village which seems to consist solely of palaces, apart from its two monasteries. For moody teens, not interested in medieval history, there's a torture museum, with real skeletons hanging in iron cages.

Fans of Modernist style will want to drop in to Comillas, whose narrow old streets conceal the Gaud!-designed El Capricho, which now incongrously contains a Japanese restaurant.

Lovers of the outdoors will be drawn to the Picos de Europa, the snow-topped mountains that divide Cantabria from Asturias and the rest of Spain. There's some fine walking and eating in the mountains, not to mention adrenaline sports such as whitewater rafting.

This year Potes - a hillside town with beautiful 18th-century houses with wooden balconies - celebrates a holy year, something which comes around every five to seven years. Pilgrims aim for the 15th-century church, but to the delight of everyone else there is a programme of a thousand concerts and other cultural events planned throughout the year.

More information: Ryanair operates daily flights between London Stansted and Santander. From October 4, 2006, Ryanair will operate a service from Liverpool to Santander, Brittany Ferries' return fare from Plymouth, for an unlimited stay during the summer holidays, costs from pound;618 for a car and two adults including a Club Class reclining seat both ways. Cabins from an additional pound;45.50 per person each way. Brittany Ferries is also offering a 10 per cent discount this summer on 32 of the self-catering casas in its Spanish Collection brochure. For Pounds 219 per person, a family of two adults and two children can sail to Santander in August, with a four-berth cabin each way, and stay a week in a four-double-bedroom casa in Soto Iruz, a riverside village in the Toranzo valley about 20 miles from Santander. Details and booking: 08705 360 360,

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