Santander – A Short History
Santander is an elegant city in the north of Spain and is the third major stop along the Camino del Norte. Capital of the autonomous region of Cantabria, Santander is located on a wide bay overlooking the Cantabrian Sea backed by the Cantabrian Mountains.
The area around the Bay of Santander has been inhabited since Palaeolithic times. During the Roman invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, Cantabria was one of the last regions to fall to the Romans and hence there is not as much Roman influence in this area as in other areas of Spain. However, it is believed that Santander was the Roman colony of Portus Victoriae.
It was not until the 11th Century when the town really began to grow as it developed around San Emeterio abbey and it is from this Saint that Santander takes its name.
The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Santander
Throughout its history, Santander has had its ups and downs. The Camino del Norte or Camino de la Costa which passes through Santander also went through periods of popularity.
During the Moorish invasion of the Iberian Peninsula, the Camino del Norte route became popular as it was a safer route to Santiago for pilgrims than the Camino Frances. However, during the Reconquista, Santander played an important role in naval battles and thus the Camino del Norte became less popular for pilgrims due to the dangers presented by this fighting.
When the Black Plague hit Europe at the end of the 16th Century, Santander was decimated by the plague and sunk into a period of decline. The Camino de Santiago also went through a period of decline during this period. By the 18th Century things had begun to pick up again in Santander as the port once again gained importance, this time in regards to trade with the New World. The importance of Santander at this time was affirmed by it officially becoming a city in 1755.
In 1893 Santander experienced the first of its major disasters in its history to date. The Cabo Machichaco steamship whilst docked at the wharf caught fire and then due to the contents on board suffered a dynamite explosion. The explosion killed around 500 people, destroyed houses that were close to the dock and even damaged the Cathedral.
By the late 19th Century Santander had become a popular tourist destination as it was a favourite of King Alfonso XIII. This resulted in the city growing and also contributed greatly to the architectural delights of the city. At this time the Town Council wished to thank the Royal family for coming to Santander and so gifted them the Palace of La Magdalena as a summer residence.
In 1941 Santander suffered the second major disaster in its history to date. A great fire swept through the city for two days resulting in thousands losing their homes. Thankfully only one life was lost during this fire, that of a firefighter from Madrid who was killed in the line of duty.
The Medieval town centre of the city was destroyed during this fire and the Cathedral was also badly damaged and didn’t reopen until 1953. Santander today is a bustling tourist destination for the Spanish and is starting to grow in popularity for other Europeans. It also makes a wonderful place to stop on the Camino del Norte with many attractions to entice you to stay longer.
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Things to do in Santander
Santander has a plethora of attractions for you to visit or places for you to relax. Whether you are visiting for one day as you walk the Camino del Norte or you are staying for a few days at the beginning or end of your Camino walk, Santander will not disappoint. Here is just a sample of some of the delights of this vibrant city –
Built Heritage and Architecture
The most emblematic building in Santander and to which the popularity of tourism to the city is attributed is The Palace of La Magdalena. Built originally for King Alfonso XIII and his wife Victoria as their summer residence the Palace is now the summer residence of the International University Menéndez Pelayo. Located on the La Magdalena Peninsula the Palace and surrounding gardens were declared a Cultural Heritage site in 1982.
One of the oldest buildings in Santander is the Cathedral, Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. Built on the grounds of the Abbey of San Emeter much of the Cathedral was destroyed in the fire of 1941 but thanks to careful restoration and rebuilding the Cathedral re-opened in 1953. This Gothic-style cathedral, which looks more like a fortress, holds the tomb of Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo, a local scholar. When visiting the Cathedral, be sure to also visit the crypt of “el Cristo” under the main chapel, where traces of the Roman era were discovered.
Parks and Beaches
Santander has many parks and beaches for you to relax in after walking along the Camino del Norte. La Magdalena Park hosts the Palace and over looks the beach of the same name. This park has some spectacular views both out to sea and over the Bay of Santander. On the western side of the La Magdalena Peninsula is the most famous beach of Santander, El Sardinero. A popular beach resort since the 19th Century this beach is divided in two by the Piquio Gardens. These gardens were created in 1925 and provide a spectacular viewing point of the Palace as well as the beaches.
Another park that must be visited is the Pereda Gardens. Built on land reclaimed from the sea this garden is located beside the Cathedral and across the road from the Plaza Porticada. A wonderfully compact park area, it is a pleasure to wander around and admire the many different tree species planted here.
Santander is a hub of cultural activity throughout the year. With a number of art, history and maritime museums to visit as well as festivals celebrating saints and cultural events of music and dance there is something for everyone in Santander. The summer months are the best time to catch a festival or event in Santander so if you are walking the Camino del Norte over the summer why not plan to be there for one of these festivals.
Virgen del Mar (Our Lady of the Sea), celebrates the patron saint of Santander. Held on Whit Monday it includes an open-air meal that is attended by thousands.
On June 24th the feast day of St John is celebrated with a huge bonfire on the Second Beach of El Sardinero. On the 16th of July the feast of El Carmen, the protector of fishermen and sailors, is celebrated with a large procession, outdoor performances and a fireworks display. In mid-July, a quirky festival is the Wave Baths which sees the style of the 19th Century recreated with bathing huts, beach activities and even actors dressed in the style of the early 19th Century. This is all in the run-up to the Semana Grande, a week-long festival during which St James’ day is celebrated.
On the 30th of August, La Semanuca celebrates the two patron saints of the city San Emeterio and San Celedonio.
If performing arts is more up your street then why not plan your Camion del Norte to be in Santander over the month of August. Every year at this time the Santander International Festival is held with performances of dance, music, and theatre held in historical buildings. This is truly a unique opportunity to enjoy a world class performance in an unconventional setting.
If the idea of relaxing on the beach is not for you or you simply would prefer to explore the Cantabrian Mountains. Then you have the choice of some fabulous natural parks to explore near Santander. As these natural areas are outside of the city of Santander it might be worth hiring a car for the day so that you can visit one or two of these parks.
For a spectacular view over the Bay of Santander then you must go to the Peña Cabarga. You will be able to spot this mountain top easily from Santander as there is a large tower monument to the navy and emigrants on the top.
Within the tower, there is a dark chamber where you can see a panoramic view of the Santander and the surrounding area. This is one of only a few in the world that was built as a tourist attraction.
After experiencing this wonderful viewing point why not head back down from the mountains and out to the coast to the Oyambre Nature Reserve. This nature park is only approximately 40/50 minutes west from Santander depending on which route you take by car. The park combines the beauty of a coastal landscape of cliffs and beaches with wide meadows, small valleys and forests.
Whilst visiting this area be sure to also visit the Altamira Caves which are just outside the village of Santillana del Mar, a stopover on the third section of the Camino del Norte. The Altamira Caves have been declared a World Heritage site and contain some of the most important cave paintings of Paleolithic times.
If you are a fan of wildlife parks then you are in luck as just outside Santander is Cabárceno Nature Park . This park is built in an old mining area of the Cantabrian Mountains. It is also the largest park of its kind in Europe. Here you will get to see exotic animals in a unique landscape.
Gastronomy – Food and Drink in Santander
Spanish food is very much representative of the local produce of a given area in Spain. In the city of Santander it is not surprising then due to its proximity to the coast that sea food has a big influence. Meat though also features in many dishes due to the tradition of rearing livestock in the mountain regions behind Santander. The city of Santander is awash with restaurants where you can sample local dishes but it is recommended that you make a reservation as even during the week many restaurants will be busy.
One seafood dish in particular to try in Santander is Rabas. Known in other areas as ‘calamares’ in Santander the squid rings are prepared differently. They are battered and cooked with lemon juice. When visiting the Cabo Mayor Lighthouse why not sit back, relax, enjoy the view at the cafe bar and order up a “una de rabas” (a plate of rabas) washed down with a vermouth or glass of white wine.
If seafood isnt’ to your liking then you will also have plenty of meat options on any menu. The ox steaks and heifer’s entrecotes (Porterhouse Steak) will certainly please any meat lover. For a more traditional meat dish try the Cocido montañés, a rich and hearty bean stew. Having been made in the Cantabrian Mountains since the 17th century, this hearty meal is now usually served as a starter course but can also be a main course at lunch time.
A visit to anywhere in Spain would not be complete with going for tapas, or as the call it in northern Spain Pinchos. In the city of Santander they have their very own take on tapas. Tortillas are stuffed with a wide variety of ingredients such astuna, prawns, ham and cheese, mushrooms or even Bolognese sauce and then coated with a very thin French omelette. Although this style of tapas can be got in other cities in Spain, Cantabrian people swear it was born here.
For those with a sweet tooth you will not be disappointed. Two dishes that are signature delicacies of Cantabria are Sobaos Pasiegos or Quesada Pasiega. Sobas pasiegos is a sponge cake made of sugar, butter, flour, eggs, a pinch of salt, lemon zest, and a spoon of rum or anise liquor. Quesada pasiega is a creamy cheesecake made from milk, sugar, butter, wheat flour, egg, and flavored with lemon zest and cinnamon. It can be served hot or cold and is a traditional home made dish.
With so many activities and wonderful food to try in Santander … I think you will agree that it is worth staying a few extra days. If you are going back home after this trip why not make your holiday extra special by taking a luxury cruise to Plymouth! What better way to leave Santander than by sea, watching the Bay of Santander disappear over the horizon.
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Originally published on 27th October 2015