Exploring Santander and the Costa Verde - no flying required

by Sally.Dowling

Fancy joining the no-fly zone? Take the ferry to Santander and arrive rested and relaxed, ready to explore the stunning Cantabrian coastline.

A city break in Santander, surfing along the northern coast, beautiful sandy beaches that go on forever and a backdrop of imposing mountains  – all without the hassle of catching a plane - what more could you ask.

Although very popular with Spaniards, the Costa Verde (Green Coast) is not so well known by British holidays makers. But this year with all the problems of flying, the fast and efficient Brittany Ferry service from Portsmouth to Santander beckoned me. We travelled out on the Pont Aven, a ferry that is almost a cruise ship. No hanging about at airports this trip, we pitched up at Portsmouth and were on board in less that half an hour, cabin key in hand. Our outside cabin was just fine, clean and comfortable wih a paticularly good shower in the en suite bathroom. As well as comfortable seating areas, inside and out, there was also live entertainment and a small cinema on board. Highlight for us was the a’la carte menu in the main dining room. A fabulous hors d’oeuvres buffet laden with seafood, meats, cheese and salads, a main course served at the table and then a dessert buffet to die for. Which gateaux to choose? Oh OK then maybe a bit of each!

After being gently rocked to sleep throughout the surprisingly calm Bay of Biscay, we woke up refreshed and went on deck to watch the approach into Santander. The ship docks right in the centre of town making it a great place for a short break without a car. But we had booked a family run B&B across the bay in the purpose built resort of Somo. The original village has been developed into a holiday town catering for windsurfers, kite surfers and families who enjoy miles of soft sandy beach. There is long sand bar reaching across the bay almost to the city, perfect for windswept walks or a secluded sunbathe amongst the sand dunes.  We stayed at Posada Mies de Villa, a beautifully restored old farmhouse run by  Antonio and his English wife Dorothy, plus son and daughter. Antonio collects things, and the house is packed full of his collections, keys, tools, spoons – you name it. Dorothy gets to do the dusting, the house is immaculate, and also makes jams which are served at breakfast. Beautiful flavours such as fig, mixed berries, cherry and plum, all served at tables on the terrace overlooking the pretty garden.

From Somo you can easily get to Santander on a ferry that runs regularly throughout the day, check the time of the last one back to save a hefty taxi fare. Or you can drive around the motorway in about half an hour. The city is compact and easy to navigate. The shopping is fun, all the major stores are grouped together but the huge daily market offers all the regional specialties including a huge array of seafood, cured meats, and locally produced cheeses and dairy produce. Make sure you try quesada, sweet little cheesecakes, and sobaos, regional sponge cakes. The Spanish favourite of churros dipped in hot chocolate can be found in every bar and coffee shop and make a delicious breakfast. For some unforgettable tapas we called into the Bodega Cigaleña, 19 Calle de Daoíz y Velarde. This tapas bar and restaurant doubles up as a wine museum and every available space is stacked with bottles of wine, up the walls, across the ceiling and in every nook and cranny.

You can also explore further East to Santona – the anchovy capital of the area. We passed on anchovies but did enjoy freshly caught sardines as part of the ‘menu del dia’ at Casa Emilia situated at the end of the smart promenade. For 13 Euros each we tucked into marmita a local fish stew, half a dozen freshly caught sardines and the Spanish crème caramel  'flan'.

Exploring in the other direction, west of Santander, there are yet more stunning beaches at Suances and a collection of delightful coves and bays stretching along the coast. Stop at Tagle beach for a stroll along the cliff path, then onto neighbouring Ubiarco and the Santa Justa beach. You can walk along a well-maintained path to peer into the tiny chapel of Santa Justa that is built into the heart of the cliff face.

Dipping inland for a few miles brings you to Santillana del Mar, a medieval town with cobbled streets. The town has a good walking route that takes you past all the major sites, most of which are bedecked with baskets of flowers.  Pick up a map from the tourist information office and  you will be able to read up on the history of the town and buildings as you stroll around. Santilliana has always been an important town in Cantabria and is now a designated heritage site.

Further along the coast is Cóbreces, you will soon spot the magnificent Cistercian Abbey of Santa Maria, built in 1908, as it dominates the skyline. The local beach is called Lunaña, a perfect bay with a good car park and well laid out picnic areas. Here you can enjoy a home cooked meal at the family run Hotel Sanmar, which is right on the beach. The menu of the day included wonderful homemade paella as a starter! We struggled to do justice to a main course and dessert after that.

Pressing on you will come to the stylish resort of Comillas. An active fishing port and favoured holiday destination for the Spanish Royal Family. The town has its fair share of historical buildings including the Sobrellano Palace and the Caprichio de Gaudi, a summerhouse designed by the great man himself in 1883.

Finally we come to San Vincente la Barquera, a seafaring and fishing town at the mouth of the San Vicente estuary. More lovely beaches and an interesting town to stroll around. A visit to the 15th century monastery of El Santuario de la Barquera and El Convento de San Luis is recommended for a peaceful afternoon.  

Our visit could have been much longer, there is still so much to see, there is always a next time...

Top Tip: Brush up on your Spanish or make sure you take a dictionary as very little English is spoken in this part of Spain.

Getting there: Brittany Ferries have a fast overnight ferry service from Portsmouth and Plymouth. www.Brittany-Ferries.co.uk.

If you don't want to take your car then check out the local narrow gauge railway FEVE that runs along the coast. www.feve.es. A journey that is on my list 'to do' one day.