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.
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.
Santillana del Mar
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.
History of Santillana del Mar
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 a 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.
Quirky museums in Santillana del Mar
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.
Taverns in Santillana del Mar
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.
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Day trips from Santillana del Mar
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.
I find myself standing in a dark chamber watching a documentary about how a young girl stumbled upon one of the world’s most significant archaeological discoveries.
In 1879, the young daughter of a local nobleman Sanz de Sautuola wandered into a remote section of what is now known as the Altamira caves and discovered the world’s oldest paintings, 14,000-year-old drawings that were done by the first humans on earth.
This is one of several intriguing mysteries of green Spain.
We are led into another world, a dim cave, which is a replica of the original Altamira caves.
Bones, tools and implements are set into the earth, an indication of the cave’s occupants.
Holograms of cave dwellers going about their daily routine provide an insight of life at the beginning of time.
We wind our way into the cave to a section with a very low ceiling.
There, I look up, just like the young girl did in 1879 to find etchings of a herd of bison standing, crouching and running.
There is a reverent silence as everyone around me stares at these drawings on the Ceiling of the Polychrome Paintings in absolute wonderment.
The artworks predate even the art of the oriental civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia by almost 10,000 years.
Archaeological remains from the late Palaeolithic era are dotted throughout the Cantabrian landscape, Altamira being the most famous.
This replica of the original Altamira caves at the National Museum of Altamira is a tourist-friendly way of seeing the legacy left by the first human inhabitants of our planet.
The real cave was declared a World Heritage Site in 1985 and was closed to the public in order to preserve it for future generations.
Cantabria’s natural heritage of rolling green hills, gushing rivers, pristine beaches, mountains and valleys conjure images of times when large herds of bison must have charged through the land.
Since the discovery of these unique caves, a number of historic villages and seaside towns have turned into popular holiday destinations.
In 1835, the Duke of Infantado gave up his family estate and the historic cobblestone streets of Santillana del Mar became a municipality.
Now, the ancient buildings hold museums, such as the Museum of Witchcraft and Superstition (Casona de los Tagle) and the Museum of Torture (Museo de la Tortura), bars and restaurants.
If Santillana del Mar is the epitome of medieval cobblestone perfection, then Barcelna Mayor, a village in the Cabuerniga valley, occupies the beginner’s end of the scale.
I find workmen busy hammering away at the rooftops.
A village walk reveals many old buildings in the midst of renovations as property buyers jump on the historical restoration bandwagon.
Barcelna Mayor still has a raw village charm with crumbly old buildings waiting their turn to be restored and a few souvenir shops selling baskets, wooden forks, plaques, fans, walking sticks and local cheese.
One of the main restaurants overlooks a bubbling brook, which I stroll past up to a local farmhouse set to a picturesque mountain backdrop.
At the village of Cabezon de la Sal, I discover the rambling country mansion hotel – El Jardin de Carrejo – which was rented by Nicole Kidman while she filmed the movie The Others.
An enthusiastic proprietor is eager to show off the bed that Nicole slept in.
Expecting a lavish accommodation, I find a room that is simply but elegantly furnished opening out to a large deck with peaceful views of green rolling hills.
Another historic town along the Cantabrian coast is aristocratic Comillas which was built on undulating hills sheltering a secluded harbour.
I walk through the old square admiring the traditional eighteenth-century architecture.
For such a small town, there are some remarkably flamboyant buildings built by fisherman’s son Antonio López y López, founder of shipping company La Trasatlántica.
Having made his fortune in the West Indies, he was bestowed the title of the first Marquis of Comillas.
Among his achievements as Marquis was to install Spain’s first public street lighting at Comillas.
His main home, the Neo-Gothic Palacio de Soberillano, later became the summer residence of the Spanish royal family.
Around the corner, visitors and residents dine in a seafood restaurant set within the tiled storybook palace of “El Capricho”, an architecturally unusual creation designed by the internationally acclaimed architect Antonio Gaudi.
The day I arrive in the region’s current capital of Santander, the seaside town is abuzz with excitement of the visit of the King of Spain.
I stroll along the main boardwalk at El Sardinero, which was once a fashionable bathing resort and summer residence of the Spanish royal family.
Seaside cafes swarm with people and the ocean is dotted with surfers. I choose a busy café and treat myself to a delicious Cantabrian seafood banquet.
Away from the ocean, Cantabrian dishes are a little more exotic, such as mountain stew cooked with pigs’ ribs, snout and feet.
Pigs feet are boiled in salt, packed in flour and egg, before being fried with a tasty sauce.
As I soak in the view, I can’t help but wonder what this landscape will look like in the future and what gem the people of the future might discover among those green rolling hills.
I fall into a reverie staring at the sea while dreaming of cavemen.