On The Route Of The North Camino – Santillana del Mar & Comillas

We stayed an extra day at Bilbao. Michelle had wanted to get her hair done and we had found a hairdressers around the corner from the free aire at Larrabasterra. €35 for a wash, cut, colour and blow dry….. result! About half the price of a similar visit back in the UK.

Wayne and Felixa had headed off to a private aire between Suesa and Somo, as they were in need of plugging into electric to recharge their leisure batteries, so a day later we headed off to meet them.

Our route along the Cantabrian coast of Northern Spain

Continuing our tour along the north coast of Spain, which is also the north Camino de Santiago route, took us out of the Basque Country into Cantabria and the Ribamontán al Mar region. The A8 motorway runs along the whole north coast of Spain from San Sebastian to A Coruna. Past Bilbao it is free of tolls so it is quicker to jump on to that between destinations.

After we arrived we went for a walk around the area. Just behind the aire at Suesa is a monastery, so that made a good starting point.

The rural setting of Suesa Monastery

The monastery has been recently renovated and offers accommodation for holiday rental, but the only part open to public visitors is the small chapel. Inside the chapel is like a scene from the Sound of Music with the front section glassed off where the nuns sit, with guitars leaning against the wall to be played while they sing.

The chapel at Somo Monastery

From here we walked about 1.5 miles downhill to Somo. Somo is a beach resort which lies on the east side of Santander bay and you can see the city across the water. You can actually catch a water taxi from Somo across to the city.

Brightly painted artist’s house and studio in Somo

It is obviously a popular spot with the Spanish in summer with no shortage of hotels, bars and restaurants. It is easy to tell why as the beach is amazing with pure white sand which stretches for miles.

The view from Somo across Santander bay

After a couple of days on charge and getting the motorhome services completed, we were off again to the medieval town of Santillana del Mar where we parked up on the free aire about 0.5km outside the town. No motorhome services here which is why we pre-prepared at the aire in Suesa.

Santillana del Mar

Santillana del Mar, despite its name is not beside the sea. It derives its name from Santa Juliana, the name of the church, which has been shortened over the years. It is a beautifully preserved medieval village dating back to the 14th century. The centre is traffic free with car access only being allowed to actual residents of the village, so it is easy to walk along the cobbled streets.

As you stroll through the cobbled streets you can spot the old village lavendería, with its oak beam pillars supporting the roof. Although no longer used the clear water still flows through here.

The ancient lavendería

It sits on the street just in front of the Santa Juliana Collegiate Church and across the other side of the square stands a 14th century military tower.

Santa Juliana Collegiate Church
Military tower

Santillana del Mar is on the northern Camino de Santiago and there are many places for pilgrims to spend the night. We spotted some pilgrims walking through the streets complete with backpacks, wooden staffs and the clam shell, symbol of the Camino, hanging from their belongings.

Pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago north route

The old stone buildings with decorative wooden balconies lined with flowers and air plants are very pretty.

However the town is very much on the tourist trail with the accompanying multitude of shops selling souvenirs and local produce. As the aire was free we decided to give one of the shops our custom buying 4 jars of premium anchovies. Cantabrian anchovies are regarded as the finest in the world.

The main square and Parador hotel

Although cider in this region originates from the neighbouring province of Asturias, we had seen many Siderías popping up along our route, so this seemed like a perfect place to pop into an authentic sidería for some cider and anchovies tapas for lunch.

Asturian cider was served up by the barman in the traditional way, poured into a glass from a height to aerate it, the bottle held high with one arm and the glass held low and at an angle with the other. A good aim is needed for this!

cider pouring

For those not as adept at this skill, each table had a cider pump. Place a bottle of cider in the frame and put your glass in the angled holder, then pump the cider from the bottle into the glass. Genius. They also had these on the outside wall in a taller version giving better aeration of the cider. This cider is strong stuff and even after only a small glass we could feel its effects!

Table top cider pump
Outside the Sidería with wall mounted cider pumps

From Santillana del Mar, we moved on to another aire at Cobrecés. This is a small rural village set in peaceful countryside where the only sound was that of neighbouring cowbells. Although small, Cobrecés is a religious centre on the north Camino and has 2 churches and a monastery where the monks still practice Gregorian chant music every night at 9pm.

Cobrecés Monastery

We planned a trip the following day by bus to the nearby town of Comillas. Although it is a small seaside town it contains many monuments and historical buildings. Perched high on a hill as you approach the town is the Comillas Pontifical University, used for the training and education of priests until the training was moved to Madrid in 1969.

Comillas Pontifical University

When you exit the bus in the centre of town, the imposing Palacio de Sobrellano sits in parkland just behind. Built as a palace for the Marquess of Comillas which was a hereditary peerage in noble Spain.

Palacio de Sobrellano

The main reason for going to Comillas was to visit El Capricho. This was one of the first commissions for the young Antonio Gaudi. It was built between 1883-85 and is one of only 3 buildings in the world designed by him outside of Catalonia. Tragically the client who commissioned the house as a summer residence died before its completion and never got to see it in all its glory.

El Capricho is a U-shaped house which wraps itself around a huge greenhouse filled with exotic plants. The brickwork is decorated with sunflower motif tiles and has a tall tower with open balcony at the entrance styled on a Moorish minaret.

Detail of the tower

Although the rooms inside are bare, apart from a loft room which contains some of the original furniture, the entrance fee was worth it to see the architectural design and the intricate carved wooden ceilings. It gives an insight into the wealth of the region towards the end of the 19th century.

There is a bronze statue of Antonio Gaudi sitting on a wall in the garden which looks up at the tower admiring his own work.

Looking up with Gaudi!
What Gaudi saw

From El Capricho, we wandered around the old town with its narrow streets and alleyways, now lined with restaurants and eateries. A sign on the pavement marks the town out as being on the north Camino de Santiago.

We then walked back towards an interesting cemetery we had spotted on our way into town. Perched high on a steep hill it is located inside the old parish church and is overlooked by an imposing angel statue, placed there by the Marquess of Comillas to watch over his son, who died at a young age.

There were terrific views from here over the sea, old town and university on the hill.

View towards the sea from the cemetery

We could have spent longer in Comillas but had to catch the bus back to Cobrecés and being a Saturday, they were running on a reduced schedule.

On the way back to the bus stop we saw a strange sight of a white goose walking down the pavement. The goose then sped up and started walking in between a man and woman. It appears it was their pet goose out for its afternoon paseo!

Goose step!

The region of Cantabria has a certain old world charm to it and is well worth a visit along this part of the northern Spain coast.

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We are Alan and Michelle - Going Nomad. A 52 year old couple from Northern Ireland who have simplified their lives and have hit the road in their motorhome. We are sharing our travels in the hope to inspire others to find their own travel adventure.