Santander, Spain

Travelogue Iberia 3: Santander


12 – 14 September 2013

We negotiated our exit from San Sebastian Donostia like seasoned professionals and were soon on the tollroad heading for Santander. I’d downloaded free Learn to Speak Spanish tutorials onto my phone, so we plugged it into the car stereo and the 2 and a bit hour journey passed quickly.

We’d initially wanted to go via Bilbao to see the Guggenheim Museum and Guernica to see the war memorials, but with the horror stories we’d heard about parking, we decided to give it a skip. While I’m sure we would have enjoyed the planned sights, the drive alone was a pleasant one seeing as Cantabria (the province that Santander is in) is one of the greenest and lushest in Spain, with a beautiful coastline along the Bay of Biscay on the one side and a patchwork of green meadows on the other. So, with a rich view – and €12 in tolls later – we arrived in a lovely sunny Santander.

We’d made loose arrangements with the landlady of Patricia’s Place (our rented apartment) to meet at 14h00, but committed to sms through confirmation when we left Guernica. Of course the networks chose to play up and the message didn’t reach her, but fortunately there was a pay phone shop across the road from the apartment and she only took a few minutes to get to us.

Patricia, our hostess, was very friendly and helpful, enthusiastically giving us the tour around our single room apartment like it was an estate!  The apartment was easily twice the size of the Carmen’s Place in San Sebastian, with most of the extra real estate allocated to a proper kitchenette and granite peninsula counter separating the kitchen from the rest, with chair on the kitchen side and barstool on the living room side to balance the split level design.  The bed was still small, but as a bonus we had a row of storage shelves beneath the mattress and another pull out bed right at the bottom – that we decided to use as a sort of daybed couch. No complaints, the apartment was brightly painted and decorated and all the peculiarities somehow add to its charm.

We had apparently been lucky in our choice of arrival time in Santander as parking is free from 14h00 to 16h00 (usually € 1,70 per 2 hour block and the car has to be moved every 2 hours!) but Patricia offered to show us options for longer term and free parking. We headed out the door so that Patricia could drive us around the neighborhood and I almost literally heard angels singing as there it was… a proper free parking bay, right on our doorstep!! Christian hustled to get the car while i did a really literal dance of joy, much to Patricia’s amusement.

With renewed vigour, we dumped the bags and headed off armed with a tourist map that Patricia had provided. The plan being, since it was already 15h00, to start with a walk along the waterfront, circle back and do the sights in the Centro and conclude with a seafood dinner in the Mercado del Este at any one of the number of highly recommended restaurants and bars in the Lonely Planet guide. Day 2 would then take us across town (on a bus since it “is very far”) to the Palace complex and to explore the 3 beaches.

Of course, as usual, we did very little according to plan… but had a great time doing it.

I’d been quite worried about my choice of home base location since our requirement for parking and preference for economy left few options from which to choose, with Patricia’s flat meeting the base requirements at the expense of being neither in Centro (town) nor El Sardinero (beach) as are the 2 main choices for optimal stay on Santander.

But, once again, scales were on our side and what appeared to be quite far from the action turned out to be at the bottom of our road and 2 blocks right (and that must be the start of the good stuff because that’s where the Burger King was!). We had saved literally thousands of Rands booking a block or 2 out of the premium blocks in each city – and once you were out it was all new stuff to see anyway, so I’d do it again if had to be done over.

We cut through the Centro to the Antonio Lopez main drag that ran along the waterfront and 20 minutes later had far outwalked our plan for the day and were more than halfway to the Palace (day 2’s plan) so figured we might as well get all the sightseeing behind us and have a full beach day ahead of us the next day.

The walk was simple and pretty, with wide pavements running along the sea’s edge all the way from the Barrio Pesquera (fishing quarter and seafood restaurants), past the ferry station, alongside the Zona Comercial (shopping area with impressive Santander Banco headquarters building) and all the way to the Playa de le Magdalena, which was a quieter beach facing the bay.

The water on this side is calmer mostly because it is protected from the Cantabrian Sea by the extension of land on which the Palace is built and the view across the water is of Somo, the seaside town on the opposite side of the bay that can be reached quickly and cheaply from the ferry port. It was quite a bit cheaper to stay on the Somo side, parking was more plentiful and it was easy to access from the road from Bilbao so this had been a strong contender for where we’d stay.

Having not dressed for the beach, we carried on with our walking tour and moved into the La Magdalena Royal Palace complex. There was a museum in the Palace itself (that we didn’t go into), but the grounds were free to wander around and there were some exquisite viewing points. We did a stop past the Museo del Hombre y La Mar (Museum of Man and the Sea) and the little zoo to see the Sea Lions and Walruses, which led us out to La Playa del Camelloso named for the big rock in the shallow waters that looks like a camel sitting down.

Completely outdoing even our revised walking tour itinerary, we decided to stop at the Terraza BNS cafe perfectly placed between the two premium beaches, offering views of both. We ordered Cana beers, which are served in red wine glasses, ice cold, but only about half full. We’ve debated whether this is an issue of economy (since half a glasses is already €2,50!), being fancy (like serving double espresso with a tumbler of ice to pour it into) or the Spaniards’ very responsible attitude toward alcohol. Alcohol, like food, seems to be plentiful and often, but in micro quantities – and most often the two together. While struggling to adjust to the portion sizes with firmly entrenched Western “more is more” thinking, we’re completely embracing the frequency of the feedings!

It was now just the timing of meals that was a big conflict. Both being fans of (very) early supper, we left the Terrace just before 6 with the romanticised notion of finding somewhere to have a lovely bacalao (cod) and/or lomo (pork loin) meal overlooking something interesting, sipping on something wonderful and watching the last of the sun go down.

No such luck.

Not even with deciding to walk along Menendez Palayo (beautiful long road with gorgeous houses and some spectacular parallel parkings!) instead of taking the bus… we were still 2 and a half hours early for dinner, which only opened at 21h00.

No mind, we ordered a Rioja (red wine) from Canadio (where we’d intended to eat) and watched the kids playing soccer in the Plaza de Canadio, in the shadow of the beautiful old Iglesia de Santa Lucia. Most of the other restaurants and pubs were only opening their shutters and putting out their tables and chairs, so we should have counted ourselves lucky we even got the wine!

It was at this time that Christian suggested we “join ’em” and embrace the nibblybits lifestyle, which I conceded to do on condition that we didn’t sink to canapés and stuck with heartier options.

Our compromising spirit paid off and we found a gem of a place called La Dolores. For €2,50 each we could get a rioja or a cana AND a pintxos! We figured there must be a catch, but decided to give it a whirl since the place looked nice and the deal was as good as any even if there was no deal.

Turns out there was a deal though and we got our (chilled quarter glass of) Rioja and a choice of any of the pintxos on display. We chose a half club sandwich (cheese, omelette, fish and garnish) and a ham and cheese patatas tortilla (wedge of potato bake) and both were delicious! As is customary, Christian finished when I was half way and when he ordered a top-up Rioja, it was served with a small bowl of potato salad (very creamy, very eggy, but fresh and lovely). The next round was served with a (mandatory) small bowl of chorizo paella (maybe 3/4 of a cup, with 2 cake forks).

And it was hard to tell whether it was timing or beverage choice, but when we switched to beer (to sample the local Mahou), we got cheese croquettes. The barlady (who spoke not a word of English) was starting to enjoy the game as much as we were… which earned us a bonus round of croquettes and another bowl of potato salad. We were honestly sated when we eventually left (again being the only stayers, seeing many rounds of customers turn).


Sightseeing behind us, we upped and outed (post a weird dance with the plastic shower curtain in a tiny 60×60 shower that turned every movement into a curtain magnet) for a day at the beach. I’d been worried that the very grey sky we’d awoken to made our prospects bleak, but by the time we’d made our stovetop cheese toasties, the sun was out. Presumably their early morning rains feed the greenness of the region, leaving the afternoons still for fun in the sun. Perfect really for the nocturnal Spaniards!

Since we were in no hurry, we added a visit to the Barrio Pesquero (the fishing quarter) to our route. Our planning was a bit off since, even though it was close to midday, restaurants were only just starting to wake up. Pity, because there are quite a few restaurants that looked good.

Not a problem though, having mastered the city layout the previous day, we were easily able to revise the plan, opting to cut through the Mercado del Este straight to El Sardinero, grabbing lunch en route. Santander is a compact but charming city, easy to navigate and pleasing on the eye, with a good mix of buildings new and old (despite the old city burning to the ground in a huge fire in 1941) and wide avenues and narrower cobbled streets. It’s easy to walk around and a pleasure to be in.

The Sardinero seafront is gorgeous and elegant, not dissimilar to Biarritz – although on a smaller scale. The beach sand is soft and thick; the waters (the Bay of Biscay) deep blue… but freezing! The view is captivating, with the Palace on the right of the panorama and the old lighthouse on the left. Perfect backdrop for a day on a lounger (€4), reading books and grabbing a lomo bocadilla (baguette with spiced juicy roast pork loin).

Amazing how quickly time can pass even when you’re doing nothing – and the conditions are perfect with clear skies, moderate temperatures, forgiving sun (that doesn’t sting like it does at home) and cool breeze coming off the water. Before we knew it the whole afternoon was frittered away and it was close to 18h00 and time for our evening forage.

We followed our route from the previous day to deposit us in the restaurant quarter, stopping for a sundowner at an atmospheric pub called Cervesaria Cruz Blanca, surveying the map to weigh up the various dinner/pintxos options we marked down that morning. All things considered, we decided that La Dolores was too hard to beat so we headed in that direction.

True to form, we had a few beers and were provided with delightful accompaniments each time: potato salad and paella with the first, tortilla wedges (cheese & ham and chicken mayo) with the second and croquettes with the third. We marvelled at how different this socialising was – very small drinks each time (a cana of beer can’t be more than 100ml, served in little glasses like we get at breakfast buffets at home), little bowl of food with each drinks, no more than one or two drinks then move on, dinner from 21h00. Our South African “boerewors and braaivleis” mindset doesn’t compute 2 guys in a bar with with a thimbleful of beer each, picking at a shared miniature potato salad with a little cakefork!


Adding merit to the theory, we again awoke to light rain, which had turned to grey skies by the time we left our apartment at 11h00 and which were brightening further as we moved out of  Santander and on to Leon. It’s a great formula – after sunny days and extended nights (including recycling trucks working the streets at 03h00!), we’d been sleeping longer and deeper in the early hours of the morning, cooled by rain and its gentle soundtrack.