Comillas (Cantabria), Spain August 2021

Comillas is a small town on the coast which has been hailed as one of the most beautiful towns in Cantabria. We decided to stop there for a couple of days.

The town is split into two quite distinct parts being, (a) the old town and (b) the port & beaches (and the area immediately overlooking the beaches). I decided to start with the port and leave the old town for the next day (but, if you wanted to, the place is small enough to do both in the one day).

We were parked at one end of the large golden sandy beach of Playa de Comillas and within twenty minutes or so I had walked the length of this beach to the small fishing port at the other end. There are a few cafe bars on the beach but they were all plastic chairs and tables and very busy and so I sought out a small quiet more traditional bar at the back of the port with picture postcard views out to sea and back over the harbour and beach. I don’t know the name of the bar but it was a great place to take a cold beer and watch the world do it’s thing.

After a beer I set off to find a suitable restaurant for the evening (that was easy – there are two or three with outside seating alongside the harbour) and then I continued up behind the town to a very imposing building on La Cardosa Hill which I subsequently learned is the Old Pontificial University of Comillas. This university was commissioned by the first Marques De Comillas (more about him later) with a view to training and educating young priests from poor families.

I didn’t dwell at the university but made my way back down to a couple of other interesting features which overlook the beaches and which I had seen on my way up the La Cardosa. The first of these features was the Gothic looking San Cristobal Cemetery which is built on the ruins of an old 15th century church. I don’t make a habit of wandering around cemeteries but some are worth a visit and this one certainly is. It’s a small but quite spectacular cemetery, almost entirely enclosed within the ruined walls of the old church and accessed through large, forbidding wrought iron gates. There’s a huge marble statue of what I think is supposed to be a Guardian Angel perched on one corner of the ruin but it looks really eerie and could pass as an Angel of Death. Not sure I would want to be in that cemetery on my own at night.

The second of the sites on the grassy hills overlooking the beach is the Monument to the Marques de Commilas. The Marques was born Antonio Lopez y Lopez in 1817 in Comillas. He was of humble origin with limited prospects and at the age of 14 he emigrated to Cuba. When he returned some years later it was as one of the richest men in all of Spain. It is thought he made his fortune in the slave trade but, whatever, he used some of that fortune to support King Alfonso XII’s ventures in Cuba and in return was appointed Marques de Comillas.

That first night, I took Vanya and the dogs back along the beach to the Restaurante Cantabrico and we sat on their terrace overlooking the harbour and beach and enjoyed a long meal of spider crab and scallops and a couple of bottles of Albarino.

Sorry, I was talking about Antonio Lopez y Lopez. The newly appointed Marques immediately set about creating a legacy in his birthplace. He commissioned numerous significant building projects by some of Europe’s finest architects and builders including but not limited to the aforementioned University, the Sobralleno Palace (together with it’s imposing Chapel-Musem) and a particularly impressive summerhouse, now known as the Capricho da Gaudi (because it was designed by Anton Gaudi who later worked Barcelona’s cathedral, the Sagrada Familia).

On our second day, late in the afternoon, we set off into the old town of Comillas to track down some of the projects which the Marques had commissioned. We’d left it too late and and arrived at the Capricho da Gaudi just as it was closing to visitors. They wouldn’t even let us walk the gardens. To be fair, I believe the building is now an upmarket restaurant and they were probably making ready for their evening covers. No matter, we took a couple of photos through the fence.

Neither Vanya nor I were prepared for the old town and were pleasantly surprised. It is a wonderful mix of new and old; narrow cobbled streets and squares combined with cafes, souvenir shops and, most unusual, a surprising number of ladies clothes shops. Some of the merchandise we saw was fantastic. We had a good walk around (with Vanya showing particular interest in a dress shop on the Plaza de la Constitucion) and then settled ourselves down on the Plaza del Corro (by the church) for beer and doughnuts.

I was pleased we stopped at Comillas. Back to France now.

Santillana del Mar (Cantabria), Spain August 2021

Today was about our going to the beautiful and very unusual village (or is it a town now) of Santillana del Mar in Cantabria. What is unusual about the place? Well for a start, the whole village is a registered national monument. That is unusual. Of course, that also means lots of tourists (especially during the holiday month of August) and with the nearby Altamira Caves also attracting tourists (this area is the most visited tourist destination across the whole of Cantabria) we decided to have a good wander but move on after lunch. Mine was an absolutely delicious Chorizo in Cider.

It is a very attractive village and quite unlike any other that we have seen (so far) in northern Spain. Jean Paul Sartre that well known travel writer and part time literary existentialist described Santillana del Mar as the most beautiful village in Spain. I’m joking about Sartre being a travel writer but not about the other bits.

The village (or old town) is largely pedestrianised (with only the locals being allowed to drive in the centre). It probably hasn’t changed much in the last 200 years and is, in effect, a ‘living museum’. Many of the town houses have large chocolate coloured wrought iron balconies on at least two floors and these are invariably brimming with flowers. Those houses which don’t have balconies use window boxes and these too are overflowing with flowers. The whole place is a riot of colour.

The Calle de San Domingo leads to the town’s main square (the Plaza Mayor de Ramon y Pelayo) where there is a stunning little 12th century church complete with cloisters. This is the collegiate church of Saint Juliana (Colegiata de Santa Juliana) and her remains are held in the church. There is a small entry fee but it provides access to both the inside of the church and the magnificent cloisters and it is worth every cent.

During my visit, one whole side of the cloisters had been given over to a magnificent diorama reflecting events leading from Christ’s journey into Jerusalem, through his arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection.

Like I said, too many tourists for us to want to stay around and we decided over lunch to move on to the coast towards lovely Comillas. A few more photos to reflect on…

San Vicente de la Barquera (Cantabria), Spain July 2021

Impending bad weather on the coast prompted us to move inland again, this time to a small town (a village, really) in the Picos de Europa called Riano. Unbelievable that the better weather should actually be up in the mountains at 1131 metres but, these are not normal times.

The drive to Riano first took us eastwards into the Cantabria Region. Almost immediately after leaving Asturias we came across the very impressive 28 arch bridge, La Puente de la Maza, which spans the Rubin and Pombo estuaries. It’s sheer scale ensures you cannot miss it. In light drizzle which was inevitably going to get heavier once we had parked up, we followed a busy road (this town is a favourite amongst Spaniards and it is a weekend) into what once was an old fisherman’s refuge and has now become the small town of San Vicente de la Barquera.

In common with just about everywhere on the north coast of Spain, San Vicente offers a picturesque old town and wonderful beaches (it even has a small castle, La Murilla, the King’s Castle which was built to defend against Norman and Viking invasions) but, for me, the single most important feature in this place is at top of the narrow staircase leading into the old town, the church of Santa Maria de los Angeles.

Originally built in the 13th and 14th centuries but developed further over the ensuing 200 years, the church’s exterior is not that different to many other churches in the Region but inside…I’ll let the photos do the talking:-

The inside of the church took my breath away -it’s three naves with their high pointed vaults, the detailed altar piece, the solid oak floor, even the tomb of the 16th century Inquisitor, Antonio del Corro. I could have stayed for ages but Riano beckoned

One final picture that the weather was never going to allow me to capture. The following picture is currently on display in the town by the local tourist board. So that is what San Vicente de la Barquera looks like when it is not pouring with rain.