Cool Cantabria, Spain's Green Playground

Photo of Old bridge over Miera river in Lierganes town
Old bridge over Miera river in Liérganes

It's not unreasonable to suggest that Cantabria is where Spain is at its most contented. The northern region nestles between the Basque Country and Asturias, both hotbeds of fierce, and occasionally violent, separatist sentiments. Cantabria's rugged mountains and enticing beaches harbour less anger, more a sense of serenity, characterised by the rolling pastures and blithe villages of this picturesque realm.

It's a land of milk and honey, literally so as the producer of a large percentage of Spain's dairy produce, and the delicious organic miel produced by the hives in the Cantabrian countryside. If the local economy relies on the herds lowing happily in the lush green valleys, the tourist influx is mostly drawn by the montes y mar: mountains and sea.

Start at the sea, and the string of secluded Biscay beaches that nestle at the foot of imposing cliffs. Wealthy Madrid families head here for their summer break from the capital. The Cantabrian coast is the antithesis of the brash and crowded resorts of the costas, an idyllic escape where temperatures rarely get oppressive.

Principal City: Santander
Tourist Board: Cantabria Tourism

It would be difficult to find a better base than the beautiful medieval market town of Comillas. It's an unpretentious, well-preserved little place, with its own superb beaches. It also boasts El Capricho, a green and gold ceramic tiled house with an ornate tower, reflecting the playful exuberance of its creator, the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi.

Photo of the trailhead town of Potes, Cantabria
The trailhead town of Potes

The mountains are always looming in Cantabria, just a short drive from the sea. The Picos De Europa, part of the Cordillera Cantabrica, are perfect for hiking, climbing and mountain-biking breaks. Pitch up in the trailhead town of Potes, and you'll find like-minded outdoor types from all over the world. This is the place to stock up on mountain equipment, fill your water-bottles and invest in some excellent ham and Cabrales cheese for the long hikes through some of Spain's most spectacular scenery.

Before you hit the high trails, and enjoy the amazing cable car ride up the mountain side at Fuente Dé, take a detour down the valley from Potes to the atmospheric church of Santa Maria De Lebeña.  It was built in 925, but its main attraction is the relatively new (14th century) sculpture of the breastfeeding Madonna.  She was stolen in 1993, and recovered, eight years later, in an apartment in Alicante. Locals swear that the sculpture came back with a slight suntan from her sojourn down south.

The entry point to the region for many visitors is by sea, at the impressive port of Santander, served by direct ferries across the Bay of Biscay from southern England (Plymouth or Portsmouth to Santander with Brittany Ferries) and Brittany. Santander is as urban as Cantabria gets, but even here the atmosphere is mostly pleasantly provincial.

Visitors, tipped off by their hoteliers, gravitate towards the Barrio Pesquero, where simple fish restaurants serve up the fresh catch, beautifully prepared. Golfers are obliged to make a pilgrimage over the bay to Pedreña, where the late, great Severiano Ballesteros learned his lucrative trade, chipping golf balls through the dunes.  A leisurely afternoon by the sea in Santander will persuade you that Cantabria has every reason to be pleased with itself.