The outrageously picturesque village of SANTILLANA DEL MAR is the first major tourist destination west along the Cantabrian coast from Santander. No less an authority than Jean-Paul Sartre, in Nausea, hailed Santillana as “le plus joli village d’Espagne”. The crowds that flock here in summer have unquestionably diminished its appeal, but on a quiet day it remains as beautiful as ever. Its cobbled lanes abound in gorgeous sandstone churches and mansions with flowery overhanging balconies, while the farms and fields that climb the adjacent hillsides give it a lovely rural atmosphere. Strolling is a delight, even if most of its ochre-coloured buildings now hold restaurants, hotels or souvenir shops.
Despite consisting of little more than two pedestrianized streets and a couple of plazas, Santillana feels more like a sizeable medieval town that never grew beyond its original core than a village. Its unusual name derives from a bastardization of “Santa Juliana”, whose remains were brought here 1200 years ago after she was put to death by her husband for refusing to renounce her virginity. Referring to its literal translation, the locals jokily call it the “town of the three lies” – as it’s neither very holy (santi) nor particularly flat (llana), and despite the del Mar actually stands a few kilometres back from the sea.
Many of the fifteenth- to eighteenth-century mansions clustered close to the Plaza Mayor still belong to the original families, but their noble owners have rarely visited in the last couple of centuries. Among the finest is the Casa de los Hombrones, on c/Cantón, named after the two moustached figures that flank its grandly sculpted escutcheon.Read More
The Caves of Altamira
The Caves of Altamira
The Caves of Altamira, which burrow into the hillside 2km west of Santillana, consist of an extraordinary series of caverns, adorned by prehistoric human inhabitants around fourteen thousand years ago with paintings of bulls, bison, boars and other animals. Etched in red and black with confident and impressionistic strokes, and sealed by a roof collapse a thousand years later, the murals were in near-perfect condition when rediscovered in the 1870s, their colours striking and vigorous; as Picasso put it, “After Altamira, everything is decadence”. During the 1950s and 1960s, however, they seriously deteriorated due to the moisture released in the breath of visitors, and the caves are now closed to prevent further damage.
Alongside the site, the fascinating Museo de Altamira centres on a “Neocave”, a large and very convincing replica of a portion of the caverns that gives a spine-tingling sense of how the paintings look in situ. Comprehensive displays in the adjoining galleries trace human history all the way back to Africa, with three-dimensional replicas and authentic finds from Altamira and other Spanish sites, and plentiful captions in English. No one knows exactly why the Paleolithic art at Altamira was created, but according to archeologists it was not primarily related to hunting, in that the specific animals depicted were not eaten any more than other species.
Genuine prehistoric caves can still be visited just outside the attractive village of PUENTE VIESGO, set in a river gorge amid magnificent forested escarpments on the N623 to Burgos, 15km southeast of Santillana or 24km southwest of Santander. Guided tours (in Spanish only) depart from an informative visitor centre located 1.5km up a winding mountain road from the village bus stop (served by SA Continental buses from the main station in Santander). Two of the four caves, 700 metres apart, are open to the public, Las Monedas and the slightly better El Castillo, but places are limited, and in summer it’s best to book at least 24 hours in advance. The caves are magnificent, with weirdly shaped stalactites and stalagmites, and bizarre organ-like lithophones, natural features used by Paleolithic peoples to produce primitive music, while the astonishing paintings, depicting animals from mammoths to dogs, are clear precursors to the later developments at Altamira. Should you be unable to find a place on a tour, the visitor centre has an excellent digital exhibit enabling 360-degree views and interactive “tours”.