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Digital Subscriptions > Lonely Planet Traveller (UK) > July 2019 > Cantabria


In Spain’s gloriously green province, might mountains loom behind sweeping surf beaches, fishing villages conceal art treasures ancient and modern, and the little-visited cit of Santander looks out to sea – and ahead to the future



Discover Santander, the untouristed Spanish city on the cusp of a new beginning

BESIDE SANTANDER’S STONE GOTHIC cathedral, its stonework mottled grey and lichen-yellow, the leaves of a willow graze the ground, swaying gently in the breeze. It’s a cool, overcast morning on this wide plaza, and an elderly lady wearing a silk scarf is frowning at her French bulldog; he has lain down suddenly and determinedly, a picture of studied indifference. A man in boat shoes and chinos clips past towards a café, where women in kaftans and oversized sunglasses sip at beaded glasses of wine.

The scene is interrupted by the arrival of a young couple laden with backpacks and walking poles. They puzzle over a creased map and set off again. The north-coast city of Santander is a waypoint on the Northern Way of Camino de Santiago pilgrim trails; locals must encounter this breed of visitor often, for no one on this pretty square gives the incongruous pair a second glance.

You only need to lift your eyes a touch to see that prettiness and Santander aren’t synonymous after all. The city’s handsome central streets are surrounded by midcentury low-rises, piling up against each other on the hill. It’s a blemish that dates back to 1941, when Santander was ravaged by a great ire that burned for two days. The disaster would mark the wealthy tradingport city for ever: the Spanish Civil War had ended two years earlier, and coffers that might have restored the city to its old glory were all but empty. ‘This had been a beautiful Renaissance town,’ says Eugenia Faces, who guides visitors around the city’s sights. ‘Instead of BC and AD, here we say “before the fire” and “after the fire”.’

The fire had an undeniable effect on Santander’s character. The city’s bourgeois past and present is palpable but so, too, is a grittier, more resilient edge. It’s detectable in its hotchpotch of tiny, unceremonious tapas joints and dive bars, its corners of overlapping street art, and the faded red and yellow lags hanging from grimy 1960s balconies. Freed from the burden of its own beauty, the city exudes a reckless authenticity. It’s both conservative and chaotic, and unapologetically Spanish.

You can see signs of the regeneration that the city missed out on eight decades ago. Jutting out over the waterfront is Centro Botín, built in 2017 and resembling a gleaming alien spaceship. Designed by Renzo Piano, of Pompidou Centre fame, this strikingly Modernist arts centre stands out from its environment – a definite tendency in Santander. Floor-to-ceiling windows make the most of the ocean view; wide, whitecolumned stilts match the circumference of trees in the surrounding park plaza; and the pearlescent tiles that cover it’s surface bring oyster shells to mind – a nod to the city’s fishing heritage. The centre offers arts programming, exhibition space, and a roof terrace overlooking the city to one side and the wide harbour to the other, backed by a crane-illed shipyard and ferry port.

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July 2019 Issue of Lonely Planet