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Stunning beauty of Green Spain

The El Soplao in the Sierra del Escudo.
The El Soplao in the Sierra del Escudo.

AH,SPAIN ! Flamenco, furnace heat, siestas, fiestas, tapas, vino tinto – and prawns without the cocktail.

Er, not so fast. Wine yes, tapas, prawns, yes. And fiestas too – no matter where you go in Spain there’s a party, because the Spanish are the inveterate caners of Europe. But not so much of the flamenco or the furnace heat in Cantabria. For this is Green Spain, where the skies often mean mischief, the landscape rolls gently down to the Bay of Biscay, and the countryside is as verdant as the plains of Kildare.

Biscay isn’t as tranquil as the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean; after all, you have to be pretty special to have a regular spot on the Shipping Forecast. When I was there the Portsmouth-Santander ferry was delayed, out in the bay, for 18 hours. Many breakfasts, the local paper told us, turned up somewhat unexpectedly.

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But Cantabria is irrepressibly Spanish: it has its famous sportsman (the sadly-departed Seve Ballesteros), its own wine, although cider is a local speciality too; its Iberian cuisine ranges from rural stews to Michelin-starred fancy stuff; and the bullfighting reports still appear on the arts pages, not the sports section.

The main town is Santander – has been since Roman times. Portus Victoriae Iuliobrigensium, they called it. The Spanish name may derive from St Andrew, or perhaps from two Roman martyrs, St Emeterio and St Caledonio. It’s all in the cathedral guide book, apparently.

Santander and finance go hand in hand – you’ll already have noted there’s an eponymous bank. The town’s excellent situation on a highly navigable (and stunningly picturesque) bay laid the foundation of its fortunes. Trading began early doors, involving the usual suspects: the Vikings, Portuguese, Dutch, British, even the odd Hennessy in search of spirits. But the local clergy and citizenry – now rich on all this trading – slowly became aware that most of these traders from the north were (with the exception of our old friends the Hennessys), not to put too fine a point on it, infidels. Or at the very least Protestants – and they drew little distinction between the two. So the good burghers of Santander built a huge jack-the-lad cathedral, the Catedral de Santa Maria de la Asunción, to remind the Faithless ones that Santander was not only prosperous, but a fine upstanding ultramontane community as well.

The town of Santander thus grew up – as well as a bay, it now had a port and a cathedral; accordingly it became a stop on the Camino de Compostelo de Santiago. With all that going for it, plus a climate that could be described as equitable, Santander became a favourite with the Spanish royal family. The Palacio de la Magdalena, Santander’s celebrity building, now dominates the city.

Today much of Santander’s character remains unchanged. It’s still a port and ferry terminal, but its Belle Époque buildings bestow an air of lightness and sophistication. The streets are lined with restaurants, cafes and tapas bars where you’ll be made welcome as any local – and a traveller can ask no more than that. All restaurants have a menu of the day for around €9-€10. From what I understand, this is the law – one of the best laws I’ve heard about.

Eating in is astoundingly cheap too. I went for the messages to the local supermarket and here’s what I bought: four slices of four slices of cured ham, some smoked salmon, mayonnaise, a tin of olives, bottle of wine (large), sparkling water (large), a bottle opener (you can’t take one on a plane with you any more), a pack of rolls, and two oranges. I was going to make my signature dish of ham and salmon resting on a bed of rolls and drizzled with a jus of mayonnaise, with olives on the side. It cost me €15.20.

I packed the lot into my bag and departed in a westerly direction. With more than 60 beaches along the immediate coastline, a picnic site seemed highly likely. I can particularly recommend the tiny strand at Santillan.

You could opt to tour the Cantabrian seaside via the Feve coastal train. This narrow gauge rail service threads its way from Bilbao through Santander and Oviedo to León. It skirts cliff tops, plunges through tunnels, and rushes alongside beaches. No need to book – hop off and on whenever you like. Well, when the train has stopped.

Or you could opt for the Transcantábrico, with luxury dining and sleeping on board. As they say, it’s your right to choo choos (a small joke, which doesn’t translate well into Spanish, let me tell you).

The pilgrims, of course, can’t use the train. They have to stick to the Camino de Santiago de Compostelo which passes through ancient villages like San Vincent de la Barquero. This was once home to the local Inquisitor (yeah, nobody expected him, that’s right); history spills out of Spain’s attic here. They’ve always taken their Christianity seriously in San Vincent: in 1275 fishing boats gathered here to sail south to help in the reconquest of Spain.

Further down the coast is Comillas, and if you want to see some Gaudi architecture at first hand without all the crowds of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, head for El Capricho de Gaudi. It’s all there in this astonishing house – sash windows that ring bells when they open, a bird playing a piano, a bee playing a guitar. What was this guy on?

But it was time to journey inland, and indeed back in time, to visit some of Spain’s really, really old masters – painted between 11,000 and 20,000 years old.  Altamira’s Upper Paleolithic drawings are utterly stunning.

Sadly, you can’t see them.

The Altamira cave had to be closed up as exposure was damaging the paintings irrevocably. But the Altamira Museum has an exact replica where you can stand back and gape at how early Spanish people amused themselves. Evidently by painting lots of bison.

Funnily enough, you do forget you’re not in the real cave – this isn’t some underground bouncy castle-type affair. It is extraordinarily well done – I’m not sure what material the facsimile is made of, and I’m not sure it’ll last 20,000 years, but it works. If you only visit one bogus cave this year, go for Altamira

Not far away is a real cave, El Soplao in the Sierra del Escudo, an utter marvel of geological happenstance. This mesmerising subterranean world of lakes, winding underground passages and lofty chambers is one of the world’s finest and most accessible collections of stalagmites and stalactites, eccentrics that defy gravity, and draperies, or sheets or translucent banners of mineral hanging from the ceiling.

Spectacular walkways allow access to the caves where seeping water and minerals have interacted since the Mesozoic Age to produce chambers of silent beauty. Powerful, brilliant lighting reveals huge caverns and shimmering white terraces in all their undisturbed splendor. You’re never far from the sea or the mountains in Cantabria; in between valleys are interspersed with farmland and forests.  The area is teeming with wildlife including the Canabrian brown bear, wolves, deer and chamois. The latter are relatively common, and would have at one time been a large part of the diet of shepherds. And the beauty of them was – you had a handy cloth to do the washing up with.

I was by now heading up a mountain valley towards the Picos de Europa, a mountain range in the south of Cantabria whose highest peak is 2,648 metres – or about three Croagh Patricks stacked on top of each other. My immediate destination was the Fuente Dé cable car, which rises some 780 metres in three minutes to reach the Fuente Dé mirador, or viewing point, at some 1850 metres.

Now, I’m not normally a great one for cable cars – I’ll go up in one for skiing, or if there is no other way to access my hotel, as occurred once in Switzerland. Or if I happen to have urgent business on Dursey Island (a circumstance which, so far, hasn’t happened). But largely speaking I steer clear of them. However I was told that the view from the top of the Fuente Dé cable car was only magnificent, so I braved the somewhat steep journey.

Once at the top cable car station there’s plenty of scope for hiking. So I set off on a modest incline, and after a while sat down on a rock, opened my backpack, and spread out my feast of jamon, salmon, olive oil, tomatoes, rolls, opened my bottle of wine (the whole lot only cost me €15.20), lay back in the spring sunshine and watched the vultures wheeling slowly on the thermals.

Where to stay

The Hotel Real. Paseo Pérez Galdós

28, Santander, 00-34- 942-272-550,

High on a hill above the five star Palacio de la Magdalena, the Real opened in 1917. Santander’s top hotel, it provides terrific shelter for the night. Double rooms from €115.

Hotel Vincci Puertochico. Calle Castelar, Santander, 00-34-942-225-200,

Overlooking the bay, this comfortable hotel is within easy walking distance of the city centre. Worth every one of its four stars. Doubles from €85

Hotel Ávila, Teleférico de Fuente Dé, 00-34-942-730-999,

Situated near the top cable car station, the word ‘spectacular’ barely does this hostelry justice. Double rooms €75.75

Palacio de Guevara, La Plaza 2, Treceño, 00-34-942-703-330

A rural, boutique hotel, within easy distance of Santander, the Picos de Europa, and Cantabria’s caving extravaganza. Double rooms from €65

Where to eat

Bar el Diluvio. General Mola 14, Santander, 00-34-218-563

The bars in Cantabria all serve pinchos (the Cantabrian version of tapas); generally these are around a euro, with a glass of wine the same. In el Diluvio I went for a double octopus sandwich with paprika. Now, technically speaking a double octopus should be a hexadecipus, but I felt this might lose something in translation, so let it pass.

Restaurant El Serbal. Calle de Andrés del Río 7, Santander 942 222 515,

Santander’s top table, serving Michelin-starred food. Not quite sure why people who mend your tyres should be such lauded cuisine experts, but there you are. Oven-baked mullet is the signature dish.

Bodega Cigaleña. Daoiz y Verlande 19, 00-34-942-213-062.

The normal rule for food is: Cheap, Fast, Good – choose any two. Here they’ve managed all three – at lunchtime anyway. In the evening it’s a more leisurely affair, and you need time as the wine list is biblical in length. A perfect place for louche behaviour.

All along the coast are chiriginguitos, or beach shacks selling barbecued seafood. Try the rabas, crisply fried calamari. Not sure what the plural of calamari is – calamis perhaps?

Similarly, in all the mountain villages restaurants will sell mountain stew, or ocida montañas – chorizo, cabbage, large white beans, black pudding, gamon. They bring you the soup first then the stew. The only trouble about these sort of dishes is that you’re hungry again 24 hours later

MAL ROGERS was a guest of the Cantabrian Tourist Board.

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