April 11, 2021:
After 3 days exploring the Basque Country, it was time to visit my 17th and final autonomous community in Spain: Cantabria.
Cantabria is a small region on the north coast of Spain located just to the west of the Basque Country and east of Asturias. It´s largest and most famous city is Santander. However, with just one day, my friend Natalia and I decided to visit some smaller towns on the western side of the region.
We drove in from Bilbao. Due to the movement restrictions, we technically were not allowed to cross regional boundaries. To beat any potential roadblocks, we left early in the morning (around 8am). When we reached the border of Cantabria, it was open and unmanned. We pulled off the side of the road and I took a picture with the flag of Spain symbolizing having visited all the regions of Spain.
The highway continued down the stunning mountainous coastline.
1 hour past the border, in the north center of Cantabria is the Cave of Altamira, just 2 kilometers out of town. The Cave of Altamira is one of the world´s greatest displays of prehistoric cave paintings. The oldest paintings are about 36,000 years old but the best paintings – of enormous red bison- are from 16,000-14,000 years ago. 13,000 years ago, a huge rockslide sealed the cave, thus protecting the artwork.
The cave was left undisturbed until it was rediscovered in 1879. The cave eventually became a huge tourist attraction. The collective oils and moisture released by thousands of visitors was starting to take its toll on the paintings. Therefore, in 1977, the cave was closed to the public. In 2001, an exact replica of the cave was constructed. That replica cave is now visited by millions each year. The actual cave is still off limits, but once a week, 6 lucky people are allowed to take a guided tour of the real cave.
While originally skeptical of the replica cave, it was absolutely amazing and very realistic. The cave paintings looked real, but the cave had perfect lighting, better accessibility, and room for informative plaques. The replica was worth the visit.
If you want to check out the entrance to the real cave, it is just 200 meters from the visitor center.
Natalia and I drove 2 kilometers down into the town of Santillana del Mar. The town is known as the town of three lies because it is neither holy (sant) flat (llana) nor by the sea (del mar). Despite that, it is one of the prettiest medieval towns in all of Spain. The medieval core is perfectly preserved and well-kept. The town appears to be an upscale countryside getaway with its large number of trendy bed and breakfasts and upscale restaurants.
There are a few small attractions in town included a medieval torture museum, but the highlight is just walking around.
Our next stop for the day was the town of Comillas, located just 15 minutes west of Santillana del Mar. Comillas is a surprisingly wealthy town thanks to Antonio Lopez, the first Marqués de Comilla, who made a fortune in tobacco in Cuba during the mid 1800´s and returned to invest in his hometown. The result is a beautiful Modernist town.
We ate lunch in the center at a popular seafood restaurant. There we dined on whitefish, scallops, and local cider. This was one of the best meals I have had in Spain.
We then walked over to the Capricho de Gaudi, a house designed by none other than Antoni Gaudi. Gaudi has only 3 projects located outside of Catalonia; the others are located in Leon and Astorga. The house was built for a wealthy client who died a year before completion of the home.
The architecture is uniquely Gaudi. The motifs used, such as the arched, mudejar elements, and use of wood can be seen in many of his more famous projects that he built later in his career in Barcelona.
It was time to head back to Bilbao to catch our flight home. We stopped very briefly to stroll around the town of Castro Urdiales.
Then we drove across the border into the Basque Country. This time, our border crossing was manned by the police. When I saw the police, I immediately turned around and got on the highway. Unfortunately, there was another roadblock on the highway which was causing a traffic jam. There was no turning back now.
The police seemed to be stopping every 5th car. Luckily, our car was not stopped. We cheered as we successfully entered the Basque Country and drove to the airport.
Cantabria is beautiful! Northern Spain is my favorite part of the country and Cantabria is as good as anywhere in the region. The landscapes are stunning, the food is delicious, and the towns are charming. It is hard to ask for anything more.
If I had more time, I would try to visit Santander and more of the Picos de Europa. In 3 days, you can probably see the main sights of the region. A grand tour of everything could probably be done in 5.