Hiking in Spain: Santoña’s rugged coastline and Napoleonic forts

Santoña, hiking in SpainOne of the great things about hiking in Europe is that many trails pass places of historic interest. Whether you’re hiking along Hadrian’s Wall or to a medieval castle, you can learn about the past while living in the moment amidst beautiful scenery.

Spain offers a lot of these hikes. One is an 11km (7 mile) loop trail near Santoña in Cantabria, northern Spain.

My hiking group and I set out early on Sunday morning after Carnival. Costumed drunks were still staggering home as the sun rose. One guy dressed as prisoner lay passed out in a doorway. At a police checkpoint three men dressed as priests were being arrested for drunken driving. I would have felt morally superior for exercising while all this debauchery was going in, but a bad hangover kept me from passing judgement. Except against the drunk drivers, that just ain’t cool.

Santoña is a port in a bay of the same name. It was an important military post during Napoleon’s occupation of Spain and the seafront is dominated by a large fort. Built in a horseshoe pattern, dozens of cannons once covered the entrance to the bay. The peninsula that forms the western boundary of the bay is studded with several Napoleonic-era forts and artillery batteries and the combined firepower of all these defenses must have made the place all but impregnable to a sea attack. Some of these forts existed before Napoleon’s invasion, of course, and many were modified in later years, making a trip around them a good lesson in the history of military architecture.

Also on the seafront is a monument to a different era of naval history. A soaring monolith flanked by statues with religious themes stands as a memory to local boy Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco. He was one of General Franco’s must trusted men during the dictatorship and was slated to succeed him. Admiral Blanco was assassinated by ETA in 1973. Franco died less than two years later and with those two hardliners gone, the path to liberalization and democracy was open, although far from smooth.

Ignoring the steady drizzle and clammy temperature, we set out to hike around El Buciero, the mountain that shelters the Bay of Santoña. Much of it is reserved as a natural park. Thick woodland is broken only by outcroppings of rock and the occasional farm.

%Gallery-147993%The loop trail took us around the mountain and along some beautiful coastline. A beach to the west was mostly taken up by a large prison. Putting the prisoners within sight of a beach seems like cruel and unusual punishment to me, not to mention a waste of a good beach! Heading around the peninsula we got some fine views of the sea and passed a small lighthouse.

The most impressive sight was the sea cliffs. Along much of the northern coast of the peninsula the land dropped off sheer, plunging a hundred feet or more into emerald water that crashed and foamed against jagged rocks. Even with overcast skies it was captivating. I’m planning on returning on a sunny day to see it again.

The hike ended, as hikes in Spain generally do, at a local bar where we had a few pintxos (the northern version of tapas) and some wine. I skipped the wine even though my head was feeling better.

The hike is low intermediate level although if it’s raining there are a couple of slippery spots where you need to watch yourself. Santoña can be reached via regular bus service from Santander and Bilbao.

Two day hikes in the mountains of Cantabria, Spain

Cantabria
As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’ve moved from Madrid to Santander, in Cantabria in northern Spain. This region is part of what’s often called Green Spain, made up of the four northern regions of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and the Basque Country. I’m loving life by the sea and I’ve been busy exploring Cantabria’s countryside, which offers some of the best hikes in Spain. Green and mountainous, northern Spain is unlike most people’s popular conception of the country.

I discovered a local hiking group via a Couchsurfing friend. We go every other Sunday and the group also acts as an intercambio, or language exchange, which are very popular all over Spain. It’s a good way to practice your Spanish, French, German, English, Italian, or Portuguese. There’s also an Irish guy who insists on speaking to me in Gaelic because of my name. If he keeps it up I’m going to start speaking to him in Amharic.

My first hike with them was through the Reserva del Saja, a reserve in the cordillera Cantábrica. This is one a popular destination for hikers from Santander and is only about 40 minutes by car. The hike starts at Bárcena Mayor, a cluster of stone houses nestled in the woods by a mountain stream.

%Gallery-140381%From there we hiked along a dirt track through woods bright with fall colors. An amateur mycologist kept heading into the woods in search of mushrooms and soon had a sackful. Like in other parts of the world, some mushrooms in Spain are toxic and you shouldn’t pick mushrooms unless you know what you’re doing. He showed us one particularly nasty variety that will give you permanent liver damage if you eat it. After a long walk we humped over a steep ridge and on the other side saw a large pool fed by a couple of waterfalls. This made a peaceful stop for lunch.

When hiking with Spaniards, be prepared for their later eating hours. Our lunch stop was at about 2PM and some people commented that we were stopping too early. Another culture shock came when I brought out my practical wilderness lunch of a sandwich, chocolate bar, fruit, and water. Many of my hiking companions busted out elaborately prepared meals, fine cheese, even bottles of wine. The Spanish know how to live well, and don’t see why they should stop doing so simply because they’re miles from the nearest paved road.

My second hike through the cordillera Cantábrica was from the town of Ampuero, about half an hour’s drive from Santander. This is in the Ason-Aguera region. Our goal was to climb Mount Yelso, also also known as Mojon Alto, to see a prehistoric menhir, or standing stone. This mysterious ancient stone stands in a prominent location from which you can see the surrounding countryside as far as the sea.

Of course getting there was half the fun. The fall colors are wonderful in Cantabria at this time of year. We tramped through a forest past a mysterious cave entrance and a sinkhole hinting at another cave. This is one of the best regions for caving in Europe and in future posts I’ll be sharing my experiences under Cantabria. Some of these caves have prehistoric paintings dating back 10,000 years or more. Others go down more than a kilometer and if you want to see the whole thing you have to pitch camp and sleep underground. Cavers from other parts of Europe have been known to move here just so they can be closer to the amazing caving opportunities.

At times the forest opened up and we passed green fields where cows, horses, sheep, and goats grazed. We enjoyed sweeping views of the mountains all around and the play of light and shadow over the landscape as the shadows of the clouds passed overhead. The weather can be unpredictable in this part of the world so Cantabrians are in the habit of enjoying the outdoors any time the weather is favorable.

The hike ended, and all hikes should, with a trip to a local tavern before the short drive home.

If you’re passing through Santander, feel free to look me up (just Google me) and with enough prior notice I’d be happy to introduce you to the group and see that you have a fun hike in the mountains of Cantabria.

Hiking in Cantabria, Spain: my first day out

Cantabria, Spain, Green SpainAs I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m no longer living in Madrid and have moved to Santander, a port in Cantabria on Spain’s northern coast. Cantabria is part of Green Spain, the area that includes the regions of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and El País Vasco.

This strip of land situated between high mountains and the sea gets plenty of rain and doesn’t look at all like the common perception of hot, dry, sunny Spain. Santander is only five hours’ drive from Madrid but feels like a different country.

The main things that attracted me to this region are the outdoor activities: the sea, hiking, and caving. It has a much lower cost of living than overpriced Madrid, which is good news for travelers as well as part-time residents such as myself. It’s also more social than a big city. Thanks to the friendly folks at Couchsurfing, I already have a couple of offers for hikes and a spelunking group I can join.

Yesterday was my first day in my new home. The friend who helped me move was still around, so after a glance at the map we headed out to the Parque Natural Collados del Asón, about 30 minutes inland and deep in the mountains. This park covers 4,020 hectares (9,934 acres) of the Cordillera Cantábrica and some of the most beautiful mountains in Spain.

The drive took us up winding mountain roads past sheer cliffs and forested hillsides. Nestled in the valleys were a few stone farmhouses and herds of cows. Tall peaks, some well over 1,000 meters (3,281 ft.), towered around us. This is one of the best regions for caves in all of Europe and I could see the entrances to several as we drove past. Some were dark holes high up on cliffs, while others lay at the bottoms of sinkholes by the side of the road. Many are open to the public and some even have Paleolithic cave art of prehistoric men hunting extinct animals 15,000 years ago.

%Gallery-134360%The village of Asón is on the edge of the park and surrounded by tall peaks. While this was the least remote part of the park, it felt truly rural. The village is only a couple of dozen buildings and the few residents we saw stared at us with open curiosity. We parked the car and chose one of the shorter hikes, an 8 km walk to a waterfall.

The path gradually climbed through thick forest and over a couple of streams. We passed only two small groups of hikers in the three hours we were out there and saw nobody else. We did have company, though, in the form of herds of cows and the biggest slugs I’ve ever seen. Check out the gallery for a photo of one of these monsters.

At the river Asón we had to hop from rock to rock using a stick to steady us. Once while doing this same stunt in Missouri my foot slipped and I fell headfirst into the water. The bottom half of me landed on a flat stone so I was only wet from the chest up. Luckily I didn’t embarrass myself this time and my camera survived to take shots of the waterfall just upstream.

As you can see from the photos, it was a stunning cascade hurtling over a sheer cliff. Vultures wheeled about overhead, riding the air currents and hoping one of us would conveniently die. The whole scene was so alien to what I’ve experienced in Madrid in the past few years–lush forest, cheer cliffs of gray rock, a mild temperature, and no people.

My friend looked around and remarked, “I think you’ve landed in the right spot.”

Yes, I think I have.

Several long-distance trails crisscross this park and I’ll be sure to explore more of them in coming months. I may not be back for some time, though, because living anywhere in Green Spain you’re really spoiled for choice. All of the mountains have trails and caves, and little villages have restaurants serving up local specialties. I’m also planning trips under Cantabria and will be writing up my reintroduction to spelunking in future posts.

Five things I’ll miss about Madrid (and four things I won’t)

MadridAfter six years of living part-time in Madrid, my family and I are moving to Santander, a port in northern Spain. Leaving a European capital of three million people for a regional city of less than 200,000 is going to be a big change.

Santander is in Cantabria, part of the rainy northern part of the country commonly called Green Spain. Stay turned for articles about this often overlooked region and its amazing mountains and coastline. I’m especially looking forward to having a beach a short walk from my house. I’ve never lived by the sea before. . .New York City doesn’t count!

Anytime I move, there’s always mixed feelings. I’m a bit tired of Madrid, but there are many advantages to living there. Besides my friends, here are five things I’ll miss:

Culture
With three major art museums, dozens of smaller ones, several Renaissance churches, and countless art galleries, Madrid is an art-lover’s dream. Film lovers will want to check out the Cine Doré, an elegant old movie theater showing art films and old classics for only 2.50 euros ($3.50). It’s a cheap and entertaining night out.

Nightlife
Madrid is one of the best places in the world for nightlife. When friend and fellow author Claudia Gray came to visit, she was blown away by the number and variety of bars, nightclubs, and late-night restaurants, and she’s lived in NYC, New Orleans, and Chicago. I can’t go out on a juerga (pub crawl) without finding at least one new place I want to visit again. Malasaña and Lavapiés are my two favorite barrios.

My mother-in-law’s cooking
I lucked out in the mother-in-law department. She’s never nosy, never bossy, and she’s an awesome cook. Foodies say that home cooking is always the best, and I have to agree. I’ll miss those Sunday lunches!

Hiking in the Sierra de Guadarrama
While the hiking in the Cantabrian Mountains with their green valleys, rugged peaks, and countless caves is going to be better than anything I’ve had in Madrid, I’ll miss hiking with the folks at Hiking in the Community of Madrid. This organization was founded by two expats who have written a guidebook to the Guadarrama mountains near Madrid and other special spots. Their mixed Spanish/expat group outings are a great way for visitors to try something different and meet some locals.

Bar Bukowski
There are places that become your own. Sadly, the economic crisis has closed most of Madrid my favorites down. My favorite literary cafe, favorite bagel shop, favorite arthouse cinema, and favorite video store all shut in the past year. This makes it easier for me to leave. Yet I will miss Bar Bukowski, with their friendly staff, their readings every Wednesday and Sunday, their micropress of poetry and short story chapbooks, and their overly generous mixed drinks. There is only one Bar Bukowski, and it ain’t in Santander.

%Gallery-132872%Not everything is rosy in the Spanish capital, however, and there are at least five things I won’t miss at all.

Pijos
The nouveau riche of any country are annoying, and Madrid has a whole lot of them. They’re the pijos and pijas, and they are ruining this country with their overspending, overbuilding, and risky speculation. Living in an ancient and rich culture, all these overly dressed idiots can talk about is perfume, handbags, manbags, and cars. And of course how much they spent on them. Growing up in the U.S. I developed a healthy disrespect for the aristocracy, but after several years in Europe I’ll take a clueless, cultured blueblood over a grasping, superficial pijo any day.

My apartment
Because of the pijos, housing prices in Madrid have skyrocketed in the past few years. Despite being a two-income family with only one child, we can only afford a two-bedroom apartment. It’s in a decent barrio, but it’s a cramped, bunkerish little place. We’ll be able to afford a much larger place in Santander. If we sold our Madrid apartment and moved to my part-time home of Columbia, Missouri, we could buy an antebellum brick house with more space than we need!

The dog shit minefield
Dogs have become trendy here in recent years, but cleaning up after them certainly hasn’t. Walking in Madrid requires constant vigilance to avoid the regular droppings scattered across the sidewalk.

Urban living
There are a lot of pluses to living in a big city, and a hell of a lot of minuses. I want open space. I like living in a place I can walk out of. I don’t want my son thinking trees grow from holes in the sidewalk. Santander is much closer to nature, with mountains and the sea in constant view. That’s how we’re meant to live.

Have you been to northern Spain? If you have any recommendations I’d love to hear about them in the comments section!

[Photo courtesy Greenwich Photography via flickr]