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

One 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.

Hikes near Madrid: a new guidebook shows you the way (in English!)

Every year, thousands of English speakers visit Madrid on holiday or to teach English. Most never explore the many hikes near Madrid, and that’s a shame. The Sierra de Guadarrama offers some challenging and varied routes, and the lowland areas of the Comunidad de Madrid offer pleasant rambles. One of the best spots is La Pedriza, which can be a tough slog and easy to get lost in.

One of the reasons these hikes go unexplored by visiting Anglos is that there wasn’t an English-language book dedicated to them. That’s changed with the publication of Take a Hike: The Best 50 Routes in the Community of Madrid. The book is the result of two years of research and walking by expat hikers Beau Macksoud and Cynthia Blair Kane, who also founded Madrid’s only English-language hiking group, Hiking in the Community of Madrid.

I’ve been on several hikes with this book and I can say that it’s accurate and clearly written. Unlike the book I used to hike near Faringdon, Oxfordshire, the maps in Take A Hike are professionally done and easy to follow. They look like they were adapted from Spanish government topo maps. I’ve never understood why some hiking guides think they can get away with sketch maps. In Oxfordshire it’s annoying; in Sierra de Guadarrama it would be downright dangerous.

Take a Hike offers a variety of hiking experiences for all skill levels. It also touches on the history and culture of the area you’re walking through, mentions any local festivals, and even gives you a quick Spanish lesson with a list of hiking and sightseeing-related vocabulary in the margins.

So if you’re headed to Madrid, pick up a copy of this, put the tapas and vino to one side for a day, and go Take a Hike!

[Photo courtesy Ediciones La Librería]

Hiking in a natural park near Madrid

While Green Spain, the rainy north of the country, is Spain’s popular place for hiking, there are lots of good hikes near the capital Madrid. The Comunidad de Madrid encompasses not only the city, but also several large parks, rivers, and mountains crisscrossed by numerous trails.

Yesterday I headed to one of the most beautiful spots in the region, El Parque Natural de Peñalara, an hour’s bus ride from Moncloa, one of the major bus stations in Madrid. I went with the group Hiking in the Community of Madrid, run by two American expats who have the only English-language hiking group in Spain’s capital. They’ve also written an English language hiking guide to the Community of Madrid that I’ll be reviewing once the publisher sends me a review copy.

The group leads weekly hikes from Madrid except in summer (when many people leave) and the depths of winter. It’s very popular and international. On this trip there were hikers from Spain, the USA, Canada, England, Wales, Colombia, Venezuela, the Philippines, Switzerland, and two tourists from Hong Kong who are spending a week in Spain. They told us that hiking is hugely popular in Hong Kong and their hiking group has 6,000 members! The Madrid group has “only” 1,600 fans for their Facebook page, so they have some catching up to do.

%Gallery-125381%The bus left us at Puerto de los Cotos and immediately we felt the difference from Madrid. At 1,795 meters (5,889 ft.) the air is cooler and much fresher, and we spotted patches of snow on some of the surrounding peaks. From there our trail led us downhill 8.7 miles to town of Rascafría, a drop of about 600 meters (1,968 ft.).

The path took us through thick woodland and over a fast-flowing mountain stream. This caused a bit of trouble because the path went right up to one of the widest parts, impassable except for a pole vaulter, and innocently continued on the other side as if there was no obstacle. Everyone spread out to look for a way across. I hopped a series of rocks, grabbed a tree, and swung over to the opposite bank. Other people found better or worse ways to get across. Luckily there was only one set of wet feet.

Shortly after this we came upon a pond overgrown with plants and scum. We heard it long before we saw it because it was alive with frogs croaking merrily away. I managed to get a shot of one of the little guys. See if you can find him in the photo gallery. Another hiker caught a lizard.

From there we continued on through pine forest to the Monasterio de Santa María de El Paular, founded in 1390. The grounds are worth a half an hour of wandering to see the quiet cloisters and fine stonework. There’s also a black Madonna in a chapel by the gate. Some of the monastery is closed to visitors because monks still live there, while another part has been turned into a Sheraton hotel!

From there it was a short riverside stroll to Rascafría and the traditional post-hike beer in a lovely outdoor cafe. These hikes cost 12 euros per person and include lunch, snacks, and the first round after the hike. Bus fare isn’t included and came out to nine euros. All in all, a cheap and fun way to explore some of the Spanish countryside and meet Spaniards and internationals.

Alternatively, this hike is easy to follow on your own. Once you get to Cotos, however, it’s wise to stop by the information center within sight of the bus stop and pick up a map. They have some interesting displays that are worth seeing if you can read Spanish. Did you know lichen can live up to 200 years?