I love a good legend… a tale with the right dose of mystery and magic coupled with that elusive thing called truth. The origin of Santander, a city on Spain’s northern Atlantic coast, begins with such an account. When the Romans beheaded two of their soldiers on the banks of the Cidacos River around 300AD, no one could have predicted the outcome of this grisly event. The ill-fated brothers, Emeterius and Celedonius, were martyred for their Christian faith and unknowingly became part of local lore. Tossed into the river, their heads bobbed and floated all the way to the Cantabrian coast.
Local monks fished the severed, pickled cabezas from the salty waters and subsequently enshrined them for eternity in the local abbey. Thus, the city was named for the unlucky headless martyr, St. Emeterius. Over the centuries the name has changed a bit, and Saint Emter eventually became known as Santander… Sorry Celedonius, your name just didn’t have the right ring to it.
Thankfully, my arrival in this seaside city in Northern Spain wasn’t nearly as gruesome. The four hour drive north from Madrid to Santander is spectacularly scenic. To the west, the fabled Picos de Europa Mountains scrape the sky, and to the east the Peña Cabarga Nature Reserve beckons with its own prominent pinnacles. Passing through the limestone strewn peaks by car, I imagined myself out in the mountains on foot; alone, free— invigorated by crisp air, icy streams and wild open space. Rocky and green, the mountains are reminiscent of southwest Ireland, albeit on a larger scale.
Santander, a city of about 180,000 people, occupies a finger-like peninsula pointing into the Atlantic. I discovered many things in Santander and there is no way I can list them all here. And well, some are frankly unfit for public consumption. I can however share a few of my favorite places and destinations.
Santander: First Impressions
Upon arrival, the first thing I did was seek out a bite to eat. Undeterred by the steep, hilly streets, I sucked in the fresh sea air and made my way to the other side of the peninsula. Santander, like the Basque Country to the east, is where the pincho, reigns supreme. Generally speaking, this little snack is a piece of bread topped with any number of delicious toppings and served “pinchado“, or spiked with a toothpick. Santander is home to many reputable pincho bars but Casa Lita, on Paseo Pereda, serves the most delectable morsels around. On my first visit, I found a hive of activity around the pinchos displayed in glass cases atop the wooden bar.
Locals gestured and joked with authoritative barmen, who shouted orders with gusto. The din of the diners- couples in the corner, extended families, friends out for drink, a priest and two nuns, was tempered by warm smiles and tantalizing aromas. After squeezing in, I excitedly chose a few of the 300 or so options… My favorite? The pate, ham and applesauce pincho: smokey, salty, sweet and creamy…a close second? Bacalao (cod), stewed in a small ceramic crock with onions and tomatoes, topped with a fried quail egg. Delicate yet hearty.
What sets these pinchos apart? For one, they aren’t the typical meat/cheese/bread combinations you find at most establishments. Casa Lita’s Chef Joseba Guijarro’s inspired flavor pairings and commitment to fresh quality ingredients have earned him a Michelin Star. His pinchos opened my eyes—and taste buds—to a whole new realm of flavors. And experiencing this award winning food won’t break the bank either. One pincho: 2.50€, one vino 1.60€. A couple of those and you’ve got dinner for under 10€.
Cantabria’s seafood and cheeses are world renowned, and excellent pinchos are abundant throughout Santander, but Casa Lita is simply in a league of its own.
Sandy beaches are easy to find in Santander. Sardinero is a beautiful stretch of coastline at the tip of the peninsula. Complete with a promenade, restaurants and ice cream stands, it’s a delightful place to visit on a Sunday afternoon. Around the corner, nestled beneath the splendor of the Palacio de Magdalena is the Playa de Peligros, a small sheltered beach that’s perfect for a dip. But my local sources informed me that if I wanted to spend a salty day in the sun, I should head across the bay to the seaside village of Somo.
The ferry bumped up against the dock with a rubbery thud as the driver brought the boat to a stop. His face surveyed the dock as he concentrated on keeping the boat steady. How many times had he crossed the bay that day, that week, that year? I wondered if he enjoyed the work. Amid a chorus of squawking seabirds, the captain reversed the vessel and spun it around so that the bow was pointed towards the distant mountaintops on the far side of the bay. The top deck offered 360° views and I took in the sun and sea while watching sailing students learn their craft on the left side. To the right, the Portsmouth-Santander ferry dominated the docks. After 25 minutes of fresh air, I was on the opposite side. The village itself reminded me of my childhood in the beach towns of Southern California. Hell, they even have a surf shop… and yes, they do have waves… nice waves. A consistent beach break goes right and left, making Somo ideal for beginners and experts alike. I’ll say no more though, as I don’t want to piss off the locals.
Come to the beach, but don’t surf! Instead go and have some caracoles (sauteed snails)and a caña (small beer) at the aptly named Surf Cafe Somo. If snails aren’t your thing, go for the more conventional pincho de tortilla, a potato and egg omelette that is Spain’s national dish.. I prefer snails myself… I get a strange satisfaction from digging the flavorful critters out and slurping them down. It’s even better while sitting on the patio, watching the waves roll in. Removed but within view of the hustle of Santander’s city center, Somo is a place where you can catch your breath, slow down the pace and savor life in northern Spain.
The Head and Heart
I came to Santander on a whim, to be honest. It seemed like a nice enough place on paper, but I could easily have chosen any number of other locations to explore. The possibilities that are available to us at any given moment are endless. Somehow prior to being in Santander I had forgotten this simple truth. My head was filled with past regrets and future worries that left little room for possibility. For so long, it felt as though my heart and head were running in opposite directions. Now, they seem to be side by side…or at least going down the same path. Although I’m certainly not a saint, somewhere between those mountains and that Atlantic water, I too lost my head. Instead of overthinking and second-guessing, I found my heart in a river of spontaneity and possibility. For this, I will always be grateful to the people I met and the experiences I had in Santander.
Other Santander Sites Worth Mentioning:
Paying money to view the homes of the wealthy doesn’t seem logical to me , but if palaces are your thing, the Palacio de Magdalena may be worth a visit. To be fair, this 20th Century palace is no longer the summer home for the royal family. It now belongs to the city of Santander and only costs about 3€Situated at the tip of the peninsula, it offers beautiful vistas of the bay as well a large collection of fine art and is the most visited attraction in the city. Personally, I’d rather eat pinchos.
For pinchos beyond Casa Lita, there is no end to where you can find them. Cañadio, in Plaza Cañadio is a favorite, especially on Wednesday when pinchos are half price. La Casa del Indiano in El Mercado del Este offers a similar deal on Thursdays, and nearby Meson Ramplais has a nice selection, served in a casual environment. I also recently discovered Bodega Fuente Dé, which I can only describe as a classic Cantabrian experience. If you want a table, reserve early. If not, hit the bar and have a red wine and the house tapa, Queso Picon, a creamy, blue cheese that is produced and cave-aged in the nearby mountains.