If you are ever in Spain, I highly recommend that you take a couple of days away from visiting the famous southern cities and head north into the lush, beautiful region of Cantabria. The capital of this coastal region, Santander, is a lively city full of natural and architectural beauty. This magnificent, exotic place is where I am currently studying abroad for the semester. While I have lived here for over a month now, I have not even come close to experiencing all that the city has to offer. However, I have seen more than enough to recommend a full day’s worth of wonderful activities that would give a taste of local culture to an incoming tourist.
If you are visiting Santander for only one day, I hope you have you have your best walking shoes on because seeing everything that I am about to suggest will require quite a bit of walking. There is an “elevator” that can take you up and down the main steep hill, but it’s tricky to find.
The first place that you absolutely must see is El Sardinero, the famous beach of Santander. Any time I have doubts about whether I made the right choice in coming here for the semester, one long look at the beautiful coastline is all it takes to reassure myself. The beach here has majestic castles on top of jagged cliffs and tall snow-capped mountains in the distance, making the view from the long stretches of clean sand absolutely breathtaking. In the warmer months, these beaches attract hordes of tourists that pour in from all parts of Spain. I recommend that you start your picturesque tour from the Lighthouse on Cabo Mayor and walk back towards town along the edge of the cliffs. Enjoy the unbelievable view once you round the point of the rugged Mataleńas golf course and the city skyline stretches before you. Follow the coastline past the many beachside parks to the Palacio Magdalena, a grand castle once inhabited by Spanish royalty, mounted on its own peninsula.
At this point, since you are likely hungry from your long walk and beginning to run out of memory space on your camera from taking so many pictures of the surreal view, I suggest that you continue walking along the water to the city center for some lunch. The Santander city center is a maze of one-way streets and narrow alleys in which you can find all sorts of historical landmarks, fresh fruit markets, and unique cafes. There are many bayside restaurants to pick from that likely all serve similar bocadillos (little Spanish sandwiches) and café con leche. A little further down the way is an ice cream shop called Regma that, on a nice day, will have a line down the sidewalk but that is definitely worth the wait. I can only recommend the jaspeada moka (marbled mocha) flavor because I tried it once and will never be able to pull myself away to try anything else because it was so delicious. While enjoying your ice cream, stroll along the harbor and admire the ritzy architecture but don’t expect to do too much shopping if it is between 2 and 4 PM. Before coming to Spain, I had always thought that the idea of a siesta (afternoon nap) sounded fantastic but didn’t expect that most of the businesses in town would shut down as well. After spending time in New York, the City that Never Sleeps, it seemed quite strange to live in a place where the entire city sleeps for a couple hours every afternoon.
Since this is an ideal day in the city, of course there is a fútbol game scheduled for this evening. Head midtown to the Santander Racing stadium next for a truly cultural experience – the entrance cost is only ten Euros. I attended my first Spanish fútbol (or soccer, as we Americans would call it) game in February and the atmosphere definitely lived up to my expectations. It seemed like the entire city showed up to cheer on their local team and the level of excitement in the stadium was exhilarating. I laughed as the North and South seating sections yelled across the field at each other in unison and I attempted to join in when everyone sang the team’s anthem. Several times an entire section of fans stood up facing away from the field, put their arms around each other’s backs, and jumped up and down while chanting something I couldn’t understand. Needless to say, the audience can be nearly as entertaining as the actual game.
Finally, you must head back to the city center for some authentic tapas (or pinchos as they are referred to in the Cantabrian region). Find your way to Restaurante Cantabria, a tapas place that has won several awards for its array of tasty choices. It is impossible to miss it because of the enormous amounts of dried meat hanging from the ceiling! Try a few pinchos but save some room; just down the street is a café called Arrabal 11 that gives customers a free plate of delicious parmesan cheese pieces that make everything else you order essentially superfluous. Top your meal off with some genuine churros con chocolate from one of the many chocolaterías downtown. This is not ordinary hot chocolate; it tastes rather like several entire dark Hershey bars melted into your mug. Depending on your energy level at this point, your day in Santander can either be complete or only just beginning. The most popular street, Rio de la Pila, is rather quiet during the day but comes alive for its peak hours of 1-6 AM when it is packed from wall to wall with noisy Spaniards and adventurous exchange students.
It is impossible to summarize the Santander experience in a single day because, in one short month, I have met fascinating people from a dozen different countries, attended a small church service held entirely in Spanish, joined the university volleyball team, seen cave paintings from thousands of years ago, and learned how to survive on my own in a foreign country. I do, however, hope that my description of an ideal day here gives you some insight into the eye-opening experience that is living abroad and makes you want to come see what it’s like for yourself.
~ Christie Elford '15
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