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.

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