Returning after 20 years to her old party grounds, Christy Esmahan, our guest expert, finds not much has changed in Santander. Especially the wine.
By Christy Esmahan
“You’re in for a real treat,” I promised my husband as we approached Santander. It was one of the first cities on the northern coast of Spain that I had visited back in the mid 1980’s when I was a grad student living in Spain. My roommate, Blanca, had invited me to spend the Christmas holidays with her family, and they had generously taken me to see all the touristy sights. Now, it was my turn to be hostess in this fun city. We drove in from Bilbao, where our plane had landed, and headed west on the sleek, modern highway.
“It’s nothing but bridges and tunnels,” my husband commented as signs once again indicated that we should turn on our headlights.
“You should be glad,” I laughed, “this trip used to take almost three hours by the winding coastal road, now it’s only 45 minutes.”
Santander did not disappoint. First we toured La Magdalena, a modern palace (only 100 years old) where the Spanish royalty used to come to spend their summers. It was acquired by the Menendez Pelayo International University in the 1930’s and now classes are held in this gorgeous historical monument. Many American Universities have exchange programs with Santander, and thus many lucky undergraduates get a chance to study in this palace.
Afterwards, we walked through the El Sardinero, a neighborhood famous for its big, beautiful mansions, and where the area’s affluent still live in luxurious apartments. Then we caught a bus and headed toward the Casco Viejo, the old downtown area, which can be found in every Spanish city. This one is particularly striking as it was re-built after a fire destroyed much of it in 1941. There are wide boulevards and tons of interesting shops to visit.
We stopped in a sidrería to have a glass of hard apple cider; it’s one of my very favorite drinks and the Spanish make it better than anyone else in the world. A strong musty odor greeted us as we entered the establishment. The floor was cement, sloped downward toward a drain in the center. Everything was paneled in dark wood, and my husband went to check out the small suit of armor which stood in one corner, a vestige from a distant past.
Ordering our drinks, we admired as the waiter poured them, holding the bottle at least two feet above the wide-brimmed tumbler in order to allow the golden liquid to smack into the glass bottom and become aerated. He poured only about an inch of cider and then set the bottle down for us. I shocked my husband by taking a quick gulp of my drink and then tossing the dregs onto the floor. He looked around and saw others doing the same. Tissue paper napkins and toothpicks also lay in small heaps around customer’s feet as they ate their tapas and laughed with friends.
“I’ll never get used to how messy all the bars are,” he said. I remembered thinking the same thing when I first got to Spain, but it’s funny, you can get used to a lot of things and even stop thinking about them. Especially when you know the entire place will be thoroughly cleaned that night, with the industrious workers sweeping and mopping not only their establishment, but the outside sidewalk as well.
After a fine meal, we walked down the wide de Pereda Avenue, stopping to admire the Banco de Santander building. This is the headquarters for one of Spain, and Europe’s, largest banks.
Soon, it was time for the beach. Santander is situated on a southward facing bay, on a tiny peninsula, and is surrounded by thirteen beaches, all with fine sand. We headed to one of the less trafficked ones in the bay, where they’ve done a fantastic job of building boardwalks and paths for people to walk and bike along, while preserving natural areas.
There was still more to see in Santander: the cathedral, high on a hill and around which the city of Santander was first built, the Plaza Porticada where we’d have a drink at an outdoor café, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the famous Maritime Museum. There were still tons of steep and winding avenues to explore, and little parks to discover. Mañana. Tonight, we just strolled hand in hand, enjoying our romantic evening as the ocean’s waves crashed unfailingly into the seawall next to us.
For more travels in the area, try ‘No Car Needed – Bilbao to Vitoria’.
Christy Esmahan grew up in Cincinnati. She attended Miami University, then went to León for her graduate degree. Afterwards she resided in Bilbao for a further 6 years. She now lives in Houston, Texas with her husband and four children. Her blog can be found at http://christyesmahan.com/