Santillana del Mar, Cantabria, Spain

Santillana del Mar is a unique medieval Spain town of stone-paved streets. It is a designated heritage site, and has been one of Cantabria’s best-known cultural and tourist centres for decades.

Since the Middle Ages, Santillana del Mar has been one of the region’s most important towns. It was the capital of the old ‘Asturias de Santillana’, a merindad – medieval jurisdiction – comprising the territory of present-day Cantabria. The human imprint here is far earlier, however, and goes back thousands of years: the world-famous Altamira caves are just two kilometres from the centre of the village.

The town dusters around various well-defined cores. The Plaza de las Arenas square, presided over by the Palacio de Velarde; the Plaza de la Colegiata; the Plaza de Ramon Pelayo, formerly the market square and watched over by the Merino and Don Borja towers and the town hall; and the environs of the Regina Coeli and San Ildefonso convents. Santillana is endowed with an outstanding architectural heritage. Of the religious buildings, the centre-piece is the Colegiata de Santa Juliana, around which the medieval town grew. The first monastery was founded here in the eighth to ninth century and housed the relics of St Juliana -the root of the name ‘Santillana’.  Around the twelfth century, the monastery became a collegiate church (colegiata), and from then on the town’s most powerful families vied to enlarge and develop it. Most of the church is fully fledged Romanesque, with Renaissance and Baroque additions.

Among the lay architecture, the standouts are the torres (towers) of Don Borja and Merino or Velarde, both being fifteenth-century; and then the Peredo-Barreda palace, the Villa palace and the Bustamante palace, all built in the eighteenth century. Some of these old manor houses are now home to arts institutions like the Diocesan Museum, the museum dedicated to the sculptor Jesus Otero, the Fundacion Santillana, an arts centre sponsored by Caja Cantabria, and the Casas del Aguilay la Parra, which are nosv exhibition centres. The town’s powerful attraction isn’t just its landmark buildings, though. It’s the place as a whole, with all its more modest buildings-all of them are period architecture. Santillana’s wonderful townscape takes you back to times gone by.

Besides the architecture, there is a wealth of things to see and do at the town’s many temporary exhibitions and arts-centre activities, all the year round. There is also a wide range of available accommodation and hotels for all tastes; establishments tend to be small or medium, and are very often housed in old buildings that contain centuries of history within their walls.

Guided walk

If you leave your car in one of the parking lots signposted on the way into the town, a good place to start your tour of Santillana is the road­crossing opposite the Regina Coeli convent of cloistered Poor Clare nuns: the building is sixteenth-century and houses a very interesting Diocesan Museum.

Enter the town by the Calle Santo Domingo. On your left you will immediately see the Peredo-Barreda palace (now home to the Caja Cantabria arts centre), and the Casa de los Villa manor house to your right. A little further on, the street forks. To the left, Calle Juan Infante, flanked by small houses bedecked with flowers, opens out into the Plaza Mayor, one of the town’s most characteristic corners. Here are the Casa del Aguila and Casa de la Parra manor houses, in front of which stands a statue of the Altamira bison. Opposite, the Parador Gil Bias hotel occupies an old house that used to belong to the Barreda family. A short distance away is the town hall, with its wide balcony of wrought iron and its decorated arcade. Nearby, as if presiding over the square, is the Torre de Don Borja, now the seat of the Fundacion Santillana, and the Torre del Merino, a ‘house fort’ where the merino mayor of Asturias de Santillana – the highest local authority in medieval times – had his residence. Leaving the square at its left end we carry on along a narrow alley that runs perpendicularly into the junction of Carrera and Canton streets. In the Calle Carrera, to the right, there rises the fifteenth­century Torre de Velarde. To the right, heading towards the Colegiata church along the Calle Canton, you’ll pass the eighteenth-century Valdivieso palace, now a hotel. On both sides of this street, which is one of the busiest in town, there are a great many typical dwellings, including the house of Leonor de la Vega, a late fifteenth-century noblewoman whose son became the famous Marquis of Santillana. Next to Leonor’s house stands the Casa de los Hombrones (‘the big men’), named after the heavy stone coat of arms of the Villa family. The street from here on takes the name Calle de! Rio, and goes down to a picturesque water trough, to the right of which are the late seventeenth-century manor houses of the Cossio and Quevedo families, with the Casa de los Abades opposite; the space is closed off by the beautiful Romanesque Colegiata de Santa Juliana (collegiate church). A visit to the church and its cloister is a highpoint of this walk. Finally, after the Colegiata you will find the Plaza de las Arenas, the most notable building being Velarde palace.

A visit to Santillana del Mar should start or finish with the Altamira Museum, next to the original Altamira cave. Just two kilometres away from the town centre, Altamira is one of the finest European examples of Upper Palaeolithic art.

Finally, Santillana boasts a small but prestigious zoo with a very wide range of wildlife. Its standout section is its ‘quaternary park’ of species that were widespread in Cantabria in the times of the Altamira settlers: bears, horses, bison, reindeer, wolves, capercaillie, lynx, and more.