Monday, 29 December 2008

Cantabria - Day 2, Beaches & Mountains

Of course it wasn’t like that at all and when we woke in the morning and went downstairs the genial host was there to greet us and direct us towards our breakfast table. We were the only guests though and we had no explanation for the ghostly footsteps. We felt curiously in the way so we hastily finished breakfast and left the San Telmo for a drive along the coast.

Before we left the owner provided us with a map of Cantabria and made some recommendations about where to visit. He also gave us a weather forecast and suggested that if we were to stay dry then we should be heading west. Northern Spain has a temperate rather than a continental climate and with weather delivered directly from the Atlantic Ocean it has over one hundred days of rain a year and December is one of the wettest months. We agreed that his advice was almost certainly worth following and we did exactly as he suggested.

Although the forecast was poor the weather by contrast was very good and there was a clear blue sky with just a few wispy clouds and from the hotel car park it was possible to see the sea only a few hundred metres away. We drove out of the village on a road that climbed quickly and at the top we were overawed by a sight that we were not prepared for. At a distance of about fifty kilometres we could see the two thousand five hundred metre high peaks of the Picos de Europa which were snow capped and glistening white in the mid morning sun. There had been recent heavy snowfall in the mountains behind the narrow coastal strip of the Cantabria coastline and this morning it looked absolutely spectacular. This I simply did not expect and I began to think about all the things about Spain that I don’t know about, which would fill several volumes of an encyclopaedia.

We headed towards the coast road and enjoyed the dramatic contrast of the Atlantic Ocean to our left and the lush green meadows of the hills to the right with the snow-capped mountains in the near distance. We were heading for the town of Comillas but stopped several times to admire the power of the sea as great waves rolled in and battered the shore line. I had always thought of Spain as a Mediterranean country but closer inspection of the map shows that a third of the Country’s coastline is along the much more dramatic Atlantic Ocean.

In the summer Comillas is a busy seaside town but it is a lot quieter in December and there was plenty of room in the car park to park the car. We walked across the pristine blue flag beach washed scrupulously clean by the strong tides and then towards the little harbour with a handful of little fishing boats sheltering behind the strong granite walls. The tide was coming in quickly and as we watched the harbour began to fill with water the little boats sprang into life as the sea lifted them off of the mud. There was a little café next to the harbour so we stopped for refreshments and planned a route to continue west.

Before we left we drove into the old town where there were some fascinating buildings including an Antonio Gaudi mansion called El Capricho complete with a signature tile clad tower. There was a market in town today so we went to have a look but strangely it seemed to consist of stalls manned by gypsies and North Africans so we didn’t stay too long.

Before we could continue west we had to drive south away from the coast and towards the mountains and the national parks of Cantabria. It is an interesting fact that these mountains are the habitat of the Cantabrian Brown Bear, which is a relative of the European Brown Bear that used to be common all over the continent. Luckily they are timid creatures and shy away from human contact and needless to say we didn’t see one today. This was probably quite fortunate because these bears can reach weights of over two hundred kilograms and and it is best not to startle them because this can be quite dangerous. This reminded me of my visit to Yellowstone Park in the USA where there a lot of wild bears and the park’s advice on what to do was clear enough but only really useful if you have got nerves of steel.

If you stumble across one first you need to back away (This will probably be a bit undignified because due to involuntary bowel movements, you are sure to have filled your pants!)
and talk to the bear in a calm voice (Unfortunately there is no additional advice on the sort of things bears like to have a conversation about, I suggest Sugar Puffs or anything to do with honey)
Keep backing away and whatever you do not run (this is very good advice because these beasts can reach speeds of thirty five miles an hour and is sure to outrun you)
and try in any way to make yourself seem less threatening (being in a state of extreme terror with a backbone turned to crème caramel this shouldn’t be too difficult)
In the unfortunate event that the bear does charge, and you are not equipped with a sidearm, promptly drop to the ground stomach-first and cover your head and ears with your arms. In this situation fighting back will almost certainly intensify and prolong the attack. This is obvious really because humans are seriously ill equipped to fight bears and it would be foolish to even attempt it. Seriously I expect that this playing dead routine might be a bit difficult to carry through and realistically you are probably going to end up as the three bear’s supper!

When we reached the motorway we headed promptly west again and in a very short time we were in the fishing town of San Vincente De La Barquera, which was busier than Comillas and had a hint of vibrancy. The sky was blue and the sun was shining and despite my horrible cold this made me feel a whole lot better. There was an interesting castle and an old town that stretched from the headland to the church of Santa María de los Ángeles and which enjoyed magnificent views over a busy river estuary to the mountains beyond. And there was a good view of the Maza Bridge, with its twenty-eight arches, which was built on the orders of the Spanish Catholic Monarchs in the sixteenth century.

Even though most of the local people were dining indoors, for visitors from a few latitudes further north it was warm enough to sit out on the pavement and have some sea food dishes and a bottle of local white wine and we enjoyed paella and a generous portion of fresh sardines and sat in the sunshine and watched the boats in the harbour as the tide continued to rush in and make them dance about on the water.

Before we left San Vincente we drove down to the sea front where the waves were crashing in over the harbour walls with an intense force and we admired the power of the sea. This place was rather like Cornwall or South Wales with a lively Atlantic Ocean, a working fishing port and an intense blue sea fringed by verdant green fields. We were reluctant to leave but there were still thinks to see and we hadn’t visited the town of Santillana Del Mar yet, which is supposed to be one of the prettiest in Spain.

We drove east and as we did so the weather deteriorated and upon arrival in Santillana the sun had completely disappeared behind a curtain of grey sky. We parked the car and walked into the town and it turned out to be a real treasure. It was an unspoilt medieval town with a famous old church, cobbled piazzas and historic old buildings at every twist and turn in the streets. We visited the church, which wasn’t especially good value for money, and then we explored the town looking for dining opportunities for later on.

It was getting cool so we left the town and returned to Ubiarco but before we returned to the Posada San Telmo we drove past to see if there might be alternative restaurants in the other direction. We came across the beach of Santa Justa and even though it was getting dark we drove down and walked down to the sea. The tide was fully in and the boistrous waves were crashing over the shoreline and we were surprised to see the vulnerable Chapel of Santa Justa built directly into the rocks and taking the full force of the surf. Actually, it turns out that it has been there for four hundred years so presumably it is quite sturdy and quite able to stand up to the winter battering from the sea. We took a look at the nearby town of Suances but we saw nothing to take us back so we drove back to Ubiarco and after a rest we went back to Santillana for our evening meal.

The little town was really quite lively on account of this being the start of the nativity season and there was a firework display and a street party for the children, which made the place temporarily busy. We looked around and chose the lively Restaurant ‘Castilla’ for our evening meal and we enjoyed a substantial menu del dia and a couple of glasses of wine to finish the day. When we left, an hour or so later, it was cold but the sky was clear and we hoped for another unexpectedly good day tomorrow.

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