Santillana del Mar

by Don Harris | January 2004

When you drive along the coast of the Cantabrian Sea in northernmost Spain, perhaps from Asturias going toward Bilbao and the Guggenheim Museum, you will be delighted to come across this wonderful village. It is astonishingly well preserved and highly evocative of medieval times. Some families still have their prized livestock sheltered on the ground floor of their houses.

The town grew up around a monastery, sheltering the relics of San Juliana, who was martyred in Asia Minor. Throughout the Middle Ages the monastery was famous as a place of pilgrimage and was particularly favored by the prominent families of Castile. You may visit the 12th century church, which is still the village parish.

In the 15th century, when it became powerful as a collegiate church, fine mansions of massive rough stone with wrought iron balconies or wooden galleries (solanas) surrounded it. From these homes many great people in the Castilian line were to spring. One of those homes has been expanded into a gracious National Parador where you will undoubtedly want to spend a peaceful night or two.

As a side trip you might like to visit the Caves of Altamira, among the most significant in the world for their prehistoric wall paintings. 

Today there is nothing pretentious in what is once again a small community inhabited largely by farmers who return with their animals at nightfall. The delicious tuna, bonito, and anchovies that the locals eat from the neighboring Cantabrian Sea are treasured by gourmets the world around.

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