Think of Spain and places to visit there and the first region that will come to mind will hardly be Cantabria. One may think about Madrid, the famous Andalucia, Costa Brava, the up and coming Valencia, and the newly discovered (and beautiful) Basque Country.
But Cantabria, really? Most people outside of Spain hardly know where it is. And it is a real shame. One of the smallest regions of Spain, right on the Bay of Biscay and part of Green Spain – that is, the greenest region of the country thanks to the regular rain and oceanic climate – Cantabria has a lot to offer to its visitors.
I have been there twice, already, each time with a different itinerary, and I am completely in love with it. I find that Cantabria, despite having open up to (mostly local) tourism, has retained its original character – and that makes it all the more charming to me.
It is about time that people from all over the world start visiting, and when they will, they’ll find a region rich in history and culture, with beautiful cities, where the landscape is breathtaking, the archaeological sites unique, and the food and wine delicious.
Indeed, there are many reasons why I love Cantabria, and why every other traveler will. Here’s a just five of them.
Five Reasons Why I Love Cantabria
The cities are gorgeous
Santander, the capital of Cantabria, is a beautiful, elegant city right by the sea, with some lovely golden beaches. So pretty it is, that it was the place where the Spanish aristocracy would go spend the summer months in the early 20th century. The centre of the city was destroyed by a fire in 1941, so most of it had to be rebuilt.
Nevertheless, the city is a very pleasant place to visit. A bit outside of the city, Palacio de la Magdalena is one of the top sights. It was built between 1908 and 1912 and gifted by the city to the royal family (on the one condition that they’d spend their summers there) with the aim of attracting more aristocrats (who’d follow the royal family). Pretty much a form of tourism marketing!
The palace overlooks the ocean, and the view from there is splendid. It can be visited on a guided tour, though in the summer months it hosts the courses and the students of the Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo.
For as nice as Santander is, to me Santillana del Mar is the most beautiful small city in Cantabria. Known as the “town of the three lies” as it is neither saint (santa), flat (llana) or by the sea (del mar), Santillana del Mar actually owes its name to Santa Juliana (or Santa Llana).
The most important building in Santillana is the Colegiata Romanesque Church, where the remains of Santa Juliana are kept. Other than that, the city is a maze of lovely medieval lanes, packed with shops, lovely cafés and small but interesting museums.
Santillana is also the perfect starting point to visit Altamira.
There are some unique archaeological sites
The Cave of Altamira is perhaps the most famous site of Cantabria, and the main reason people visit the region. The cave, discovered by pure chance in 1879 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been completely closed to visitors in 2002 in order to preserve the microclimate that has protected its paintings.
Nowadays, only 5 persons are allowed to visit every Friday, and for no longer than 30 minutes: the lucky visitors are picked through a ruffle among the visitors of Altamira Museum. This includes a perfect replica of the cave, which has some of the most incredible examples of prehistoric art, with paintings that depict hunting scenes and represent bisons, horses and deers. There’s a good reason the Cave of Altamira is considered to be the Sistine Chapel of Paleolithic Art.
It’s packed with historic homes and beautiful palaces
Scattered around Cantabria there are some beautiful palaces built in different historical periods. Palacio de Sobrellano is unique in its gender, and a real gem. Built in 1888 by architect Martorell, it is a neo-gothic palace that used to belong to the Marqués de Comillas.
Yet, it is the palaces belonging to the Indianos which I found the most interesting.
In the late 19th century and in the early 20th century, many men (and women) of Cantabria left in search of fortune. Most went to nowadays Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, Chile and other countries of Latin America, and made a fortune while there – often working in the ingenios, sugar cane plantations where African slaves were regularly used.
Those who went back to Cantabria (and who were called indianos – because they had been in the “West India”) usually made a show of their fortune by building beautiful mansions, and making generous donations to the local communities in the form of schools and clinics.
Some of these palaces can be visited, as they have been turned into interesting museums that provide insights into the way of life of the time, as well as into the history of the Indianos.
One of them is the Marqués de Villa of Valdecilla. The property is simply stunning: 3 gorgeous buildings, a beautiful garden, they are perfect for an afternoon visit. At the moment, tours are only offered in Spanish so most visitors are locals. I speak Spanish and could fully enjoy it – but even those who don’t can at least get a rough idea of the place and its value.
It is where El Capricho de Gaudì is located
Comillas, a small village of Cantabria, is home to El Capricho, one of Gaudì’s masterpieces. They say one either loves or hates Gaudì. Certainly a genious in his own ways, I have to say I am not a huge fan of his hyper-eclectic style. Nevertheless, visiting El Capricho is a must when in Cantabria.
El Capricho was built between 1883 and 1885 with the purpose of being the summer residence of Màximo Dìaz De Quijano. Though he had said he wanted a small but comfortable home, Gaudì had something different in mind and came up with a building that had the obvious intention of capturing the attention of visitors. It is an incredibly unusual – very colorful, with a tower that looks much like a minaret, and entirely built to capture the sunlight.
Guided tours of El Capricho are offered every day in a variety of languages.
Rivers of wine flow through it
One of the things I love the most about Cantabria is the presence of many vineyards and wineries. Perhaps that’s because vineyards remind me of Sardinia. Wine production is a long established tradition of Cantabria, and going on one (or more) wine tasting tours is a must when in the region. I did three, just to make sure I fully understood how good Cantabrian wines are.
The first vineyard I visited was Bodega Vidular, owned by two friendly brothers who have taken wine tourism to a whole new level. The Bodega is completely immersed in the countryside, and visitors are invited to try samples from the various stages of the production of wine. But there’s more: a beautiful rustic hotel, with 5 lovely, cozy rooms, offers accommodation to those who feel the urge to escape the city and breathe the clean air of Cantabrian mountains for a while.
Bodega Señorío del Pas has fully embraced the concept of organic, vegan wine. Everything that is used in the production of wine is 100% natural, with outstanding results.
Last but not least, Bodega Miradorio de Ruiloba has impressive vineyards overlooking at the same time the sea and the mountains. I got to visit during one of the last days of the harvest, and the atmosphere was festive and friendly.
Where to stay and eat in Cantabria
Located in the Cantabrian countryside Palacio de la Peña is the perfect place to treat oneself. It is expensive, but worth it. The owner is a charming architect who enjoys sharing stories on how he came about the concept of the hotel, which is a fully renovated 16th century palace. There’s a wonderful restaurant on site.
Abba Palacio de Soñanes in Villacarriedo is a splendid Baroque style palace with beautifully decorated rooms and a fabulous on site restaurant.
Palacio de Guevara, in Treceño, is a lovely hotel located in a small yet charming village. The rooms are cozy, the personnel incredibly friendly and helpful, and there’s a good restaurant on the premises.
Bodega El Riojano is a fantastic and very popular restaurant in Santander where it is possible to try some of the best local cuisine. Service is spot on and the environment sophisticated but friendly.
Palacio de Mijares is a beautiful restaurant fully immersed in the countryside, and the perfect location for important occasions. The food is delicious.
Have you ever been to Cantabria? What did you like the most about it?
Legal Disclaimer: This article is written in partnership with Spain Tourism Board and the local tourism board of Cantabria, and in cooperation with The Travel Mob, for the #InGreenSpain campaign. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.