Santillana Del Mar
Santillana Del Mar sits at the centre of a lively debate about whether or not it is the most beautiful pueblo in Spain. I refuse to get involved. But I will say it is very pretty. Its narrow, cobbled streets are lined with medieval timbered buildings with overhanging balconies, which have been left to soften gently with age. There is a handsome Romanesque church, the Colegiata de Santa Juliana, and some elegant casonas (grand houses), built by the rural nobility in the 15th Century.
I recommend staying in the Parador de Santillana Gil Blas, which occupies a fine casona in the Plaza Ramón Pelayo, complete with polished wooden floors, dark oak beams and high ceilings. It might not be budget, but it is pretty damn good value.
Sidra (or cider) is kind of a big deal up here in the North. Each region has its own methods for making it, and its own methods for pouring it. In Asturias for example, great coordination is needed, as the glass must be held somewhere below your left hip and the bottle somewhere above your right shoulder. Amateurs will be left dripping and sticky.
In Cantabria the approach makes up in engineering what it may lack in showmanship. The bottle sits in a wooden frame with a rubber tube and a pump. I won’t go into the mechanics but the result is a spurt of cider, which is to be downed instantly. Repeat until you’re out of cider, or you fall over. Bar el Estanco on Calle Río is good a place to give it a whirl.
Picos de Europa
If you were a Spanish sailor in the 17th Century, returning from the Americas, (having successfully dodged the English pirates), your first sight of Europe would be this mountain rage towering out of the Atlantic. Which must have been a welcome sight indeed.
Today it is no less glorious, with its ragged peaks, swathes of dark pine forests, and gentle green valleys, dotted with alpine villages.
If coming from the sea you are in for a real treat. The road follows the river Deva, which carves its way through the mountains. Open farmland, marshy estuaries (and, in our case, torrential rain) disappear suddenly as you plunge into a deep ravine between towers of grey rock which loom over you as you trace the course of the river.
Just as suddenly, you are out the other side in a broad valley, through which the river meanders, alongside sunlit meadows, gently clanging with cow bells.
If you’re into hiking, climbing, horse-riding, canoeing or god-knows-what-else, you’re in the right place. There is no end to the trails, and opportunities to get blisters and/or smash your head in, if that’s how you roll. A good base is Potes, a pretty mountain village with a maze of medieval alleys, and bridges, through which many a walker stomps in search of a hearty lunch.
After our Darjeeling adventure, we were in a more laid-back frame of mind, so opted for the cable car at Fuente De. In this you gracefully ascend 1,823 meters in total comfort (if heights don’t bother you). At the top, if the day is clear, you have staggering views over the Picos.
Fuente De has a Parador, which is not much to look at from the outside but makes up for it on the inside with large, comfy rooms and great views. And price-wise it is a steal.
If you’re looking for lunch, and Potes is too full of Gore Tex and lycra for your taste, head up the road to Mogrovejo. This is an exquisite village perched on a hillside with a 13th century tower and glorious views (incidentally another popular contender in the ‘most beautiful pueblo’ debate). According to a 2008 census, the village had 44 inhabitants, and it doesn’t look like it has grown much since then.
The friendly bar Peña Cortés cheerfully advertises ‘quesos y cosas’ (cheese and things) and does not disappoint. Tuck into a plate of local cheeses. And a view.
Heavy food is the natural companion to mountain living. And dinner out in Cantabria is not for the fainthearted. But it is also a crime to not dive into a cocido when you’re there. This robust, meaty stew can be found all around Spain, and is a popular classic in Madrid. In Cantabria I recommend sharing one between two, unless you plan to climb a mountain.
On a bend in the road, overlooking the river Deva is Meson Los Molinos. Easy to miss, but don’t. Legs of jamon dangle overhead, an open fire crackles, and, if you’re lucky you can nod to a gnarled local leaning on the bar as you enter. In the restaurant a kindly lady will serve you homemade cocido lebaniega, which will warm the heart as well as the stomach.
After that, there’s not much more you can do apart from roll happily home, possibly lingering over a fireside night-cap before passing out.
Which seems like a sensible palce to draw my roadtrip to a close.
The drive from here back to Bilbao is about 3 hours and you get to do the beautiful mountain road in reverse.