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Coasting in Cantabria

Bingham is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who travels often to Spain

They call it green Spain. Billows of fine rain, gentle as talcum powder puffed from a god’s mouth, drift in off the Bay of Biscay to color the mountains and hills emerald. I might never have discovered the wonders of this northern coast of Spain had I not gone to visit my teenage daughter, who was on a foreign exchange program. The family she was staying with lives in Santander, an elegant port city with the steep hills of San Francisco, rugged pine-clad headlands, pristine beaches and a lively cafe society.

In recent decades, Spain has been extolled for its baking beaches in the south, but ocean bathing in Santander was fashionable long before tans were. In the last century, ladies twirled parasols as they strolled along promenades enjoying the brisk ocean air, while private bathing cabins--essentially tents on wheels--were trundled down to the ocean to ensure the privacy of the beach-goer inside. The bathing cabin of Spanish Queen Maria-Cristina even had Moorish turrets, and was powered by a steam engine.

Now that a fragile pallor is once again considered chic, I welcomed the thought of brisk ocean air, grand promenades and Belle-Epoque hotels. So last summer, I flew into Madrid, rented a car at the airport and scooted easily up Spain’s central plains to the mystical cathedral city of Burgos, where I left the modern superhighway for a well-paved secondary road (N623) that climbs up over a high mountain pass. At the apex, a row of primeval stone columns, flanked by yellow and white wildflowers, stand sentinel to the hauntingly beautiful province of Cantabria.

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Throughout my stay in this province, I kept stumbling upon such treasures of the past with the same spurt of delighted surprise one might feel if your garden shovel uncovered a Roman coin beneath a daffodil bulb. The road twisted down past waterfalls, over rushing streams and through a series of small golden villages built out of the local sandstone.

The stone portals over the houses are 5 feet wide and a yard thick. Horreos, rustic granaries built on massive stone stilts with carved wood overhangs, sprout from almost every backyard like mushrooms. Cornavera, so small it wasn’t even on my map, is the prettiest village of all, situated in a dramatic gorge, surrounded by mile-high cliffs with arches as dramatic as Utah’s. A bit farther on, the road rolled over a region of downs, blanketed with blooming purple heather and speckled with what I would soon discover is the ubiquitous black-and-white Cantabrian dairy cow.

Once down on the northern coastal plain, a superhighway swept me right into the center of Santander, a stylish city with good public transportation, organized parking and a superb setting high on a peninsula overlooking the Bay of Biscay. My hotel, the Real, originally built for the nobility that accompanied the fin de siecle Spanish royal family, looks out toward Magdalena Palace, given to King Alfonso XIII by the residents of Santander, who were anxious for his royal patronage.

My room had a wrought-iron balcony and blue-striped armchairs pulled up next to the windows, from where I watched the slide of rain across the bay. Calm descended on me. I sank into the thick crisp linens on my bed and fell asleep.

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The next day, the air was swept clean, the sky was a brisk blue. Out on the bay, a sleek yawl, its spinnaker sail up, zoomed by. Becca and a friend burst into the hotel with enough energy to cause them to romp like puppies.

In fact, she and thousands of other students are able to range all over Santander, taking buses down wide avenues, walking through parks, sitting in cafes, swimming at the beaches and staying out as late as they want. In Spain everyone stays out late, so I knew my daughter was safe, running free in a way not possible in a large American city.

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Since it was July, Santander was in high season, with polo matches, rock concerts, art exhibitions and a series of bullfights. Most of the tourists are Spanish, fleeing baking inland plains. In the Hotel Real lobby, blue brocade couches were filled with chattering Spaniards, women in skirted suits and lots of gold, men in dark blue suits and highly polished shoes. A young matador, as handsome as a movie star, breezed through, surrounded by a retinue of men, also handsome and virtually every one with a great head of black or silver hair. (Two days later, my daughter watched the young matador in the bullring; afterward he was mobbed by teenage girls.)

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After Becca rushed off to a Spanish class, I strolled past turreted mansions with wrought-iron gates. After half a mile, all downhill, I reached the public beaches of the Sardinero district, as clean as any I have ever seen in a city, and as radiant as the cocker spaniel leaping after a sea gull. I sat down at a bay-side cafe and ordered ensalada rusa, which mixes potatoes, cucumbers, two kinds of olives, sweet onions, sliced eggs and beets.

Almost every meal I ate in Cantabria was superb. In the warehouse district at the port, restaurants have huge outside grills for cooking paella and fish, while inside, groups of costumed university students sing for their supper. In the beach-side Sardinero neighborhood, where most of the hotels are, the food is more sophisticated, from thick vichysoisse, to a succulent hake fish with a broth-based sauce, delicate mussels and tiny tender shrimp. Pork chops are so fresh and subtle, that, next to them, the hot fried potatoes had a nutty, earthy flavor. White beans served still simmering in a delicious sauce have a peppery sausage on the side. For breakfast at my hotel, I ate cheese as smooth as butter swept onto a flaky croissant, accompanied by Spanish melon as sweet as it gets. In every restaurant, even when I was alone, I was never harassed or ignored. I sat over my coffee as long as I wanted.

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By day, I explored the city by public bus and on foot. On one pedestrian promenade hippies sold hemp necklaces and played squealing bagpipes, native to this region that was originally populated by Celts. The twisted stone peaks of the coastal mountains, the Cordillera Catabrica, acted as a barricade that protected this region from Moorish invasion and preserved its cultural influences from northern Europe.

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If I were here in August, I could have spent my days attending concerts of the International Festival of Music and Dance. Instead, I visited the seaside zoo and the splendid garens of Magdalena Palace, wandered through the Fine Arts and Archeological museums, swam in the crystal waters of the bay and contemplated playing the golf courses on which Seve Ballesteros was nurtured. And I visited the cathedral, where an ancient, dark and musty saint’s crypt was adorned with a carved open-mouthed figure on a pillar, the medieval embodiment of Edvard Munch’s famous scream painting. I was grateful for the blaze of marigolds in the square outside.

Once, on the spur of the moment, I hopped on one of the bright red and white ferryboats that crisscross the bay. This particular one sailed up one of the numerous rivers that drain into the sea. Within half an hour, the river narrowed until there was only a few feet of water on either side of the boat. We floated through green fields, spotted with those black and white bovines.

That evening, I ensconced myself in a cafe with a chilled glass of sherry and settled back to watch the paseo, the nightly walkabout of Spaniards. Over a hundred years ago, Mark Twain wrote: “I do envy these Europeans the comfort they take. When the work of the day is done, they forget it.” Blissfully unaware of their own composure, gorgeous tall women glided past, as imperious as ocean liners, their huge sweeps of hair dyed bronze, children dashing here and there in their wake.

Teenagers thronged a park bench, smoking and laughing, then moving off as a restless herd to another park bench, then finally bolting across the road to play paddle ball on the beach. Three elderly women strutted past, arm in arm, sporting walking sticks and well-turned ankles. A full moon shone out on the bay, casting strings of luminescence. From my hotel room that night, I watched fireworks explode.

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From the comforts of Santander, there were endless choices for marvelous day trips. Only a few hours to the east, Bilbao has its new Frank Gehry designed art museum, whose titanium skin soaks up the sunlight rather than reflecting it. Half an hour to the south of Santander is the perfectly preserved Renaissance village of Santillana del Mar, where herds of cows are brought in at dusk, plodding past stone mansions with ornately carved coats of arms. Lest the dark side be too forgotten in these idyllic settings, a Museum of Torture evokes the black days of the Spanish Inquisition, where infidels were forced to confess their anti-church beliefs, then often put to death. Racks, spikes and devilish contraptions made me squirm, but thrilled Becca more than any horror movie.

Up in the hills behind Santillana are the perfectly drawn animals in the prehistoric Altamira Caves. If you haven’t written months ahead of time to reserve a tour, there are other more accessible caves in the area: Cueva del Castillo or Cueva de Tito Bustillov. Even better, visit the hill town of Cervatos, whose 12th century church has shamelessly erotic carvings.

One day we took an hourlong drive to the very pretty resort town of Comillas. It has Gothic palaces built by turn-of-the-century millionaires, cobblestone streets and a renowned restaurant, El Capricho, housed in a tiled folly built by famed Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi.

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Behind Comillas, I drove up into the hills. On either side of the ridge, the land falls steeply away, studded with eucalyptus and pine and a patchwork of bright green fields. The view was grand, down to the jagged coast, but it was the inland view that took my breath away. Just 15 miles from here soared the startling snow-covered peaks of the Picos de Europa, thought by many to be among the most beautiful ranges in the world.

The next day, I could not resist the lure of the Picos de Europa any longer. I drove up into the peaks through La Hermida Gorge, which the Spanish writer Benito Perez describes as an “esophagus, because when you pass it you feel devoured by the Earth.” Two-thousand-foot cliffs hang over the highway. A glimpse up a side canyon to much higher crags made me dizzy. Herds of goats nibbled grass down at the rushing Deva River. A horse clomped by drawing a two-wheeled wagon; a dog grinned happily from atop a green mound of hay. These are fairy-tale mountains.

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The gorge eventually spat my car out into the Liebana Valley. Here, for the first time, I saw European families from countries other than Spain. Later in the day, I followed a roaring stream back down to the coast, passing through San Vicente de la Barquera at low tide, when vivid fishing boats lie stranded like beached whales. A few nights later, in yet another medieval fishing village, I spent the night in a renovated palace, the Palacio de Vallados Hotel, just over the provincial border in Lastres, Asturias. The view out my window was toward a wild coastline that equals Big Sur.

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Tourists may flock to the Costa del Sol by the millions, but I’m going back to Cantabria, where the natural beauty and history combined can lead to awe.

For example, a few days later, in a high mountain pass on our way out of Cantabria back to Madrid, Becca and I entered a valley where the smell of wildflowers made us lean out the windows like drunks. There, perched on a ridge surrounded by green peaks, we found a simple chapel built in the 9th century and tended by a widow. It was made of crude stone, its walls over 3 feet thick and only big enough for, at most, 20 worshipers. Yet somehow its solitary placement, its age, and its perfect Romanesque symmetry affected my 15-year-old far more than any gilded cathedral. “Awesome,” said my girl, and fell to her knees.

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GUIDEBOOK

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Spain Above the Plain

Getting there: US Airways flies direct to Madrid from LAX (no plane change), and Continental, American and TWA offer connecting service. From Madrid, connect to Santander on Iberia or Aviaco airlines. Restricted round-trip fares to Santander start at $1,133. To Madrid, a current sale fare is only $492 round trip, but tickets must be purchased by Tuesday; after that, the cost rises to $1,048.

There is also train and bus service from Madrid to Santander (reserve trains through RENFE, the national rail system, telephone 011-34- 913-289-020). By car, the 200-mile drive to Santander takes about five hours. Most major car rental agencies are in Madrid; my Hertz compact car cost less than $600 for three weeks.

Where to stay: In Santander, the Hotel Real (Paseo Perez Galdos 28; tel. 011-34-942-27-25-50, fax 011-34-942-27-45-73, has rooms with views of the Bay of Biscay. Doubles start at about $165. One notch down is the Hotel Hoyuela, across from the casino and beaches (Avenida de los Hoteles 7; tel. 011-34-942-28-26-28; fax 011-34-942-28-00-40). High season rates are about $190, double. Two mid-range choices: Hotel Sardinero (Plaza de Italia 1; tel. 011-34-942-27-11-00, fax 011-34-942-27-16-98) has double rooms for about $80 in summer; the Hotel Rhin (Avenida Reina Victoria, 153; tel. 011-34-942-27-43-00, fax 011-34-27-86-53) charges about $150 per double in July and August, about $80 during off season.

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In Santillana del Mar, the Hotel Altamira (Calle Canton 1; Santillana del Mar 39330; tel. 011-34-942-81-80-25, fax 011-34-942-84-01-36), is housed in a 17th century building.

Where to eat: In Santander, La Gaviota Barrio Pesquero (local tel. 22-11-32) has excellent seafood; dinner for two about $25 with wine. In El Sardinero, La Cania (tel. 27-04-91), offers regional cuisine; dinner for two about $30.

For more information: Tourist Office of Spain, 8383 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90211; tel. (213) 658-7188, fax (213) 658-1061.


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