The minute my eyes rest on the cobblestone streets of Santillana del Mar, I think I’ve been transported into a set of a Grimm’s fairytale. The medieval Spanish village is picture-book perfect.
Storybook Santillana del Mar
Stone buildings house old-fashioned shops that sell hand-made leather handbags, rugs, souvenir brass keys, painted china plates, wooden clogs and fine lace shawls.
Delis are jam-packed with bottles of local liqueurs, canned anchovies, cider, cheese, chocolate, home-made jam and bags of nuts.
Flowers hang from balcony planter-boxes, brightening up the stone with splashes of vermillion and canary yellow.
Old vines twine around creaky iron gates that lead into lush green gardens. Beans lay drying out in the sun, slowly turning a light shade of brown.
Everywhere I look, Santillana del Mar is a feast for the eyes.
The village is six blocks of living museum in Cantabria, 30 kilometres from its capital Santander.
For travellers who love storybook settings, this is the perfect spot.
Most visitors are drawn to the area by the Museo de Altamira, two kilometres from the village, where a replica of the 15,000-year-old Altamira caves is displayed.
The real cave is in a hill near the village and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The cave painting of a charging bison herd, known as the Ceiling of the Polychrome Paintings, predates Egyptian and Mesopotamian art.
Santillana del Mar grew around the Romanesque-style Santa Juliana Collegiate Church. At the church’s heart is a monastery built in 870 AD.
The rest of the church dates back to the 12th century.
Inside are medieval tombs, Romanesque reliefs and a main altarpiece that is masterpiece that is a masterwork of silver.
Pottery discoveries and archaeological remains place the first inhabitants of the area as Romans who lived here during the 1st century.
Although the origin of the village goes back to the 8th century, most of the buildings were built between the 14th and 17th centuries.
Some contain quirky museums such as Casona de los Tagle (Museum of Witchcraft and Superstition) and the Museo de la Tortura (Museum of Inquisition), where the cruellest torture instruments you could imagine are on display.
More than 32,000 people were killed during the Spanish Inquisition. Many were tortured with the garrottes, iron maidens and head crushers exhibited in the museum.
Another museum worth a look is the Regina Coeli Museum, an old Dominican monastery run by the order of Saint Clare with exhibits of the diocese’s religious heritage.
Then there’s the Museum of Contemporary Art in the Merino Tower.
The building was built when the village was a centre for merino wool trade.
The row of old houses, or casonas, along Canton Street were owned by rural nobility between the 15th and 17th centuries.
Amongst them is the gothic 15th-century Casa de Leonor de la Vega where the mother of Santillana del Mar’s first marquis once lived.
Friendly taverns and restaurants that serve up a menu of hearty local fare are dotted throughout the village. And there’s no better way to experience local life than to munch on crusty bread, fabada (a hearty bean stew mixed with vegetables, chunks of meat and blood sausage) or roast suckling lamb in a local tavern.
Even my hotel is part of the village’s history. Parador de Santillana del Mar was once the summer home of the Barreda-Bracho family, where nobles, artists and intellectuals gathered.
I wander through ancient stone arches, past a suit of armour, to the top of the staircase. The timber door to my room is old and heavy.
My room has a single bed, a wardrobe and not much space for anything else. But the best room in the house is the Emperador room which has hosted visiting dignitaries like General de Gaulle and the Emperors of Japan.
Some rooms have French doors which lead onto a balcony overlooking the town square.
As I stand on the balcony looking over the village, I can picture the Barreda-Brachos standing above the village in their stately home.
Christina Pfeiffer was a guest of the Spanish Tourist Board
KLM flies to Madrid via Kuala Lumpur and Amsterdam with connecting flights to Bilbao and Santander. There are flights to Santander from major European capital cities.
Parador de Santillana Gil Blas, Plaza Ramon Pelayo, 11, 39330, Santillana de Mar, Cantabria, tel: +34915166666.
Admission to Museo de Altamira costs €2.40, guided tours are free. Admission to Santa Juliana Collegiate Church and museum costs €3.
Santillana is not far from Bilbao and San Sebastian. Here are more things to do in Bilbao and things to do in San Sebastian.
See the Spanish Tourism Board for more ideas on what to see in the region.