As you move towards Santander you cross into Cantabria. Things will be very different from now on. You are entering a largely rural, agricultural area. The countryside is green with hills and valleys, small coves, pretty towns, and picturesque harbours.
There is a new motorway which goes from the frontier right the way to Oviedo, but there is no need to take that. This is an area that cries out for a slow erratic meander.
Back in the sixties I wandered all around this area on foot. I stayed with families who housed me, and often fed me in return for me reading stories from books about the lives of the saints, and over the years I have been back many times to this friendly and simple part of Spain.
Just west of Bilbao the little town of Castro-Urdiales sits by a small sheltered bay, with some old houses, but very little to show that the town was first built by the Romans.
Further west is the inlet at Barcena; ideal for the sailing enthusiast. Further still you come to the bay of Santander. The town is new, clean, open, pleasant, friendly, and not too busy. The harbour shelters a port at which the Plymouth ferry docks most of the year. But the interesting towns lie even further west.
One of the most interesting and picturesque is Santillana. It is an old town, and was obviously a place with pretensions back in the middle ages. The houses are quaintly bent, the stone is warm and attractive. The upper floors have their walls rendered and painted white. The windows are of dark stained wood, and so are the balconies, making for a very attractive street-scape. The entire town is a national monument and living museum of a medieval 9th century village.
One other attraction is the family escutcheons which are set into so many walls. Here, everybody seems to have been an hidalgo. The word stands for someone with a pedigree. The word is an amalgamation of the words ‘hijo de algo’, son of someone (of importance).
There are charming restaurants, a quiet town square surrounded by sixteenth century houses, each with its wooden balconies, and massive stone walls. Beyond is the gently undulating countryside of small fields and grazing cows. But the main attraction is under the fields: the caves of Altamira, which you can no longer visit. However, you can visit the museum, which has a representation of the caves. So you can see copies of the famous cave drawings of bison.
12,000 years ago the area was inhabited by Stone Age man, and the caves are covered in black and red drawings of bison. Unfortunately a build up of white mould, the result of people breathing in the caves, led to the deterioration of the paintings in the fifties and sixties, and the caves were re-sealed.
Further along the coast is the town of Comillas with its large university building on the hill. This is now lying disused, and seemingly abandoned. It is, like so many official buildings in Spain, large, solid, and forbidding, more like a prison with a flashy frontage.
Further west are salty marshes where the trees have died, leaving white stumps sticking up from the shallow water behind great dunes of sand.
If you turn inland you are immediately engulfed by the steep rocky defiles of the Picos de Europa. They are snow covered in winter. Another twist and a turn and you are in a mountainous maze with only a tiny patch of sky visible above. There are no houses here. There is no room to build. Then you turn another double bend, and there, right by the side of the road, its back against a massive cliff, is a three storey house. What crazy person lives here with the road beside his window, the rock crowding his back, and the river roaring just below the road?
Another bend, another twist, another rough sentinel standing ominously on a hairpin bend, and the road opens out. The valley must be 150 yards wide. There is obviously plenty of room for a village, and the street is lined with houses. What do these people do? There isn’t even room to graze a goat in these mountains. There is certainly nowhere to grow anything.
We are right on the border between the two provinces of Cantabria and Asturias. Asturias is one of the most rural of Spain’s provinces, with only a couple of large towns up on the northern coast; Oviedo, the provincial capital, and its port of Gijon. The rest of the province is deeply rural.
The gorge is narrow, with rock lurching up on all sides. You wind around and around until you reach the village of La Hermida, which is a few kilometres along the gorge, and gets no sunlight from November to April. There is no land to cultivate, and no industry except for the occasional hotel and bar, but the village is a respectable size, and seems to be thriving.
Once thru the village you are immediately back in the defile of precipitous rocks. But as you approach the town of Potes the valley widens considerably, and the town sits in the middle of a mini-plain which is set right in the centre of the Picos.
Potes is a charming, alpine-style town which is the centre for walking and climbing trips in the Picos. It dates back to before the middle ages, and there are several old wooden houses and many twisty narrow streets only large enough to take a loaded donkey. There is a bent and crumbly eleventh century church, and a large medieval tower.
The town sits astride a deep gorge, with the river tumbling along the bottom. There is even a medieval bridge across the river, and just beyond the huddle of houses the alpine fields with sheep and cows. It is a charming country idyll, and a homely town.
The bars sell a raw-tasting cider, something akin to farmhouse scrumpy from Somerset. Even I found it a bit hard to take and I am used to scrumpy. It’s very much like the home made scrumpies you can get, many of which are sold too young and hence are rather raw, and so they give your stomach a hard time.
Outside some of the bars you will find a strange contraption fixed to the wall. The idea is that you buy a bottle of this cider, take it outside and fit it into the pump; push the plunger, and some of the contents are sucked out of the bottle and squirted into a glass that you have set in the holder at the bottom.
This area is mainly national park country. Here’s an extract from a local guide book:
“Parque del Macizo de Peñacabarga, which includes within its borders the Cábarceno karst, a spectacular reddish geological formation, encompasses a nature park with partially free roaming animals. The Parque Natural de Oyambre is a scenic park amid marshes and meadows with the Picos de Europa mountains as a backdrop. This is the place where the most diverse ecosystems co-exist. The Parque Natural Saja-Besaya sits between the basins of these two rivers and preserves considerable forests of beech and oak trees, where animal species threatened with extinction such as the brown bear and golden eagle can still be found. The Reserva Natural de las Marismas de Santona y Noja is a nature reserve around one of the most valuable estuaries ecologically in northern Spain. There are regularly more than 80 species of birds in the marshes .The Parque Nacional de los Picos de Europa, a national park containing the highest peaks in the Cantabrian mountains, has elevations exceeding 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) and landscapes of long narrow canyons and deep valleys.”
This would be ideal country to buy somewhere that you could live in yourself and rent out to tourists. There is skiing in the winter months, mountain climbing all year, and it is ideal for walking holidays from early spring till late autumn, with a summer season based around the coast. It must be the only part of Spain which is not over-subscribed with places to let.
I’d forgotten how much I like this area. I must go back this autumn.