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Europe: Spain

Coasting in Cantabria

Heading north to emerald hills, pristine beaches --and the past

April 26, 1998|LUCRETIA BINGHAM | Bingham is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who travels often to Spain

SANTANDER, 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.

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.)

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.

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