Northern Spain, and particularly Cantabria, is often overlooked by sun-seekers. But base yourself in Santander and you can discover beaches, food and wine to rival anywhere in the world
Southern Spain might get all the plaudits but Cantabria pushes the better-known seaside towns all the way. Santander is the capital and, as an active fishing port, has absolutely wonderful seafood, as evidenced by the menu del dia, a cheap three-course lunch that varies depending on the seasonal availablility of food. So one day it could be patatas bravas with pulpo Gallego (fried octopus in garlic), the next, massive stews featuring white beans, pork and the ubiquitous (but delicious) spicy sausage, chorizo.
The best bet is to check the chalkboard menus and try and eat where the locals do - the Barrio Pesquero is a little rougher round the edges than elsewhere but the seafood is out of this world. Local bodegas, too, serve excellent food, with Rioja wine best drunk with goats’ cheese tapas – indescribably delicious. Cantabria really is a foodie’s paradise, and rightly so: the area may endure more rainfall than the parched south, but that also leads to lush vegetation, and where you have lush vegetation you have brilliant vegetables and very healthy and delicious livestock – a trade-off that’s definitely worth it.
Following a small siesta, we headed to Sardinero beach (named after the people who catch the sardines that are a local delicacy), which has fantastic, surfer-friendly waves and a brilliant ice cream shop that has a huge queue from dawn to dusk, so highly-rated is its fare. There are plenty of chances to work off the treat, too, either with a swim in the sea on one of the area’s nine beaches or simply enjoying a stroll through Santander itself, built on a hilly landscape that will certainly help burn those calories. (You wouldn’t want to catch the bus all the time – to say they’re packed is an understatement. Elbows and knees are everywhere and on a hot day the sweat of several hundred beach-goers is almost physical.)
The evenings are warm but with a breeze – just right, in fact, at August’s Santander Music Festival, featuring classical acts, or the Festival Internacional de Santander, a celebration of Spanish and Latino cultures that is held in the car park of the stadium of Real Racing de Santander. There's everything here, from belly dancing to salsa and Caribbean food – a real explosion of colour and culture that is as exciting as it is friendly. We particularly enjoyed hanging out at the Egyptian stalls and snarfing down brilliant Argentinian beef. The second week in August is a good time to visit, too, with an antiquarian book market where you can pick up a copy of virtually anything ever printed in Spanish. History buffs will be happy with the sheer weight of Franco literature it’s possible to buy; comparing and contrasting that era’s schoolbooks with current contemporary ones is a great, if geeky, way to spend an afternoon (lazing on the beach, of course, whilst so doing.)
Within an hour or so of Santander is the medieval village of Santillana Del Mar, also home to the Altamira cave paintings - you can visit the replica of these 80,000-year-old works of art at the newly-constructed Neocueva, as the originals are now closed off to the public for the sake of ensuring their unblemished legacy.
Two hours away are the stunning Picos de Europa mountains, world-famous for their hill-walking possibilities. Potes, a village halfway up the Picos, is a lovely place to stop off and experience cocina montanes – a massive stew that leaves us breathless – and a glass or two of the local liquor, named Orujo, with a big picture of a bear on the label. Go for Crema de Orujo, which knocks the likes of Bailey’s into a cocked hat.
A little further away is Basque city Bilbao, home to a Guggenheim Museum and also rightly proud of its own culinary and cultural history. A day trip is probably not enough to take it all in, but the beauty of Bilbao is that it’s always there. Try the third week in August for the Basque History celebrations – a fiesta to rival anything on earth,
It all sounds exhausting – but it’s worth it. And there’s always time to recover on that semi-hidden beach in the cove you’ve just been tipped off about. It’s great up north.
Where to stay
Santander: Hotel Real
(Avenida Pérez Galdós 28). A luxurious place to stay, close to the Palacio de la Magdelena and two very good beaches. You will pay a premium for a sea view but it's probably worth it.
Santander: Abba Santander (Calderon de la Barca 3). A three-star hotel near both the bus and train stations, which makes it an excellent base for travelling around Cantabria. It's also close to some very good clothes shops and the Barrio Pesquero, notable for its excellent seafood.
Santander: Gran Hotel Victoria (C/ María Luisa Pelayo 38). Situated basically on Sardinero beach, the Gran Hotel boasts great sea views and has a lovely room that is bookable for weddings, banquets and functions.
Santander: Hotel Sardinero (Plaza de Italia 1). The location is what you're looking for here, being right in the middle of the lively Sardinero beach area and very close to several pubs, bars and eateries.
Santander: Silken Coliseum (Plaza Remedios 1). A very central hotel in downtown Santander, near the clothes and shoe shops as well as a very good market that, depending on the day you visit, will have either rather cheap togs or rather lucious local vegetables. The hotel's easy to spot thanks to its distinctive columned facade.
Santillana del Mar: Los Infantes Hotel Santillana del Mar (Avenida L Dorat 1). This hotel, in a very lovely area, has all the charm of a long-standing place to stay. Not luxurious, but clean and affordable.
Picos de Europa: Picos de Europa Mayor (Arenas de Cabrales). A three-star hotel from which to indulge your hiking and walking urges to the fullest. Situated in a calm location with a river very close by.
Bilbao: Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao (Alameda de Mazarredo, 61). This luxurious four-star hotel is opposite the famous Guggenheim museum, which gives it a fantastic boost from the start. It's also handy for the nearby shopping area.
Bilbao: Silken Indautxu Hotel (Plaza Bombero Etxaniz). Situated near the maritime museum, fine arts museum and Calatrava bridge, and within a short walk of all attractions, the Silken Indautxu has been recently renovated to high standards.
Where to eat
El Bodeguero (C/ Miguel De Unamuno 10): a splendid local bodega/winery/bar with a speciality in goats' cheese and apricot jam pintxos - they do a wonderful line in chorizo and octopus tapas, too! Everything you'd hope for from a bodega, from the jamón hanging over the wooden bar to thousands of bottles of Rioja on the shelves and - needless to say - an atmosphere created by appreciative locals.
Heladeria Regma (Paseo Pereda 5; C/ Amós De Escalante 10; Avenida Primero De Mayo 31): brilliant ice cream made locally. Try the turron flavour - fantastic.
Plaza Cañadio, in the centre of downtown Santander, gets very lively after 11pm on Friday and Saturday nights, with each bar, small or large, packed with revellers, dancers and people searching for the best albondigas in town. Bar-hopping here is an absolute pleasure.