Santillana del Mar is widely regarded as “the prettiest village in Spain”, a description bestowed upon it by the French author Jean-Paul Sartre in his travel writings.
Today it remains the epitome of a model medieval village with gushing recommendations in guide books and top ratings on Trip Advisor.
So would it make the grade with Tammy?
Jewel in the crown
I arrived with high expectations and wasn’t disappointed by this jewel in the crown of Cantabrian villages which is set amongst verdant countryside.
Spring is the best time to visit when this medieval village oozes charm and history rather than splurging out massive coach loads of tourists during the summer months.
Walk back in time through its cobbled streets lined with palaces and half-timbered houses characterised by their overhanging balconies and canopies.
It’s charming, rustic and authentic, largely because it’s always had a strong regional identity and people cared about its conservation down the decades.
During medieval times Santillana del Mar’s merchants and traders were so wealthy that almost everyone was a noble or ‘hidalgo’ by 1600.
They made their money from wool, dairy products and linen which meant that they could eventually live off the fruits of their labours.
By the 17th Century they were so rich that most people stopped doing any real work, giving the village a sleepy, refined feel that remains even today!
The village was home to many famous nobles including the Marques de Santillana, Inigo Lopez de Menoza, the Spanish equivalent of Sir Philip Sidney, a poet and military man whose house you can still see on the Calle del Canton.
There’s a wealth of historic houses reflecting its noble inhabitants including a couple of fine squares with houses dating from the 15th-17th centuries.
This square is one that boasts many fine buildings which looks a little like a film set before the actors and crew arrive with its perfectly preserved houses and old world ambience.
Except for one thing – this is for real… it feels like a proper medieval village, frozen in time.
Only 20 years ago many inhabitants of Santillana still kept cattle on the ground floors of their homes and sold the milk to locals and visitors.
Today you’re more likely to see these dairy products in the plethora of charming local food shops, each stocked to the roof tops with so many varieties of cheese that it’s hard to know which to pick for a lunchtime treat.
Beaches and rain
Just one small, weird anomaly – Santillana del Mar isn’t on the coast, despite its seaside name.
Bizarrely, the village is about 3 kms from the coast so don’t expect a sandy beach unless you drive up the road to nearby Suances or St Vicente de la Barquera.
There’s just one other downside to this stunning village…
If the weather turns wet (which is often does in northern Spain), you’re likely to find yourself getting a massive soaking from the waters that pour off the overhanging balconies of the medieval palaces and houses.
The latter disgorge their contents from their ‘historic’ drain pipes straight into the centre of the street from a great height, as you’ll see in the picture above.
I was drenched to the skin within 10 minutes of the rain storm starting. I discovered why Green Spain is ‘green’ – it rains a lot!
Any trip to Santillana del Mar wouldn’t be complete without a trip to what is arguably its most beautiful building – the Romanesque Colegiata.
The church houses the remains of St Juliana, a martyr under the Diocletian regime, whose body has lain on this religious site since the 6th Century.
You’ll find her tomb in the central nave not far from the altar, resplendent with a statue that has a strangely modern-looking appearance.
The highlight of the Colegiata is its stunning ivy-covered cloisters, built by the monks who lived in the original monastery which occupied the site in the 11th Century.
As I walked around this charming cloister it was hard not to be drawn to the beautiful detailing on the capitals surrounding the grassy central square.
The Spanish guide book described them as “erotic carvings”, but I’m sure that must be a misprint – surely it meant to say “exotic”!
Inside the church there are many fascinating features, notably the altarpiece which is a Hispano-Flemish 15th Century work with pictorial panels about the martyrdom of Saint Juliana and sculptures of apostles and evangelists.
The main section of the altarpiece which is an outstanding example of Mexican silversmith craftsmanship. I’m constantly amazed that you can find these pieces in the smallest of villages in Spain.
This is the result of the village’s nobles who had connections with traders in the Americas, and were keen to demonstrate their piety and wealth.
This timeless village has an amazing story to tell from its rich nobles with their palaces to its monks and farmers. It’s a journey which is worth following as you step through its streets which have changed little since the golden age of the 15th-17th centuries.
I can strongly recommend Santillana, especially on a warm springtime day with the sun shining on its alleys and cobbled squares.
It’s a strong contender for the crown of Spain’s prettiest historic village.
Tammy’s top tips – Santillana del Mar
Santillana del Mar lies 30 kms east of Santander from which it is an easy 25-30 minute drive. Take the highway from Santander to Torrelavega and exit at Requejada or Puente San Miguel from where the village is well-signposted.
Beat the summer crowds by visiting this popular destination in spring or autumn when it’s quieter and more authentic.
Be aware of Spanish opening times with long lunch breaks. The Colegiata is closed from 13:30 until around 16:00. It’s also shut on Mondays.
Other attractions include the Torture Museum, the Museo Diocesano with its ecclesiastic objects and statuary, and the Santillana Foundation with changing exhibitions and events.
Tourist information can be found on the village website and there’s a tourism office as you walk into the main village from the parking area. This is open in the mornings and late afternoons but not over lunch.
There is plentiful car parking but this can become very congested during the height of summer when crowds flock to Santillana.
There are numerous hotels and restaurants in Santillana including a fine-looking parador, Gil Blas in the village centre.
Overnight parking is available for motor homes and camper vans in the far car park at the back of the village on a pleasantly landscaped site (free overnight).
Combine a morning visit with an afternoon trip to the nearby Altamira Caves which are a 5 -10 minute drive away (open all day daily except on Mondays).
If you love shopping, Santillana has an excellent selection of small gift and food shops – local specialities include leather goods, ceramics, specialist regional cheeses and dairy products.
Don’t miss a trip to the Colegiata at the centre of the village which has some outstanding early Romanesque pieces and architecture. The main entrance is around the side of the church from where you can gain entry into the cloisters.