Semana Santander

Monday, 10th April 2017, Santander
Last Saturday Exeter was completely grid-locked and it took us more than two hours to drive the four miles down to Topsham. This was due to a combination of unfortunate circumstances - road accidents, engineering works etc. Realising we needed to get out of Exeter in good time for the ferry from Plymouth the following day, we decided, as the bridge over the Exe would still be closed and the city almost certainly at a standstill again, that we would leave with several hours to spare and have breakfast down in Plymouth. Thus, by 10am we were sitting in warm, bright sunshine on the beach at Devil's Point in Plymouth with mugs of coffee and hot pasties. Later we walked up onto the cliffs to discover that from a tiny bay, just opposite, on the Cornish side of Plymouth Sound, Charles Darwin set sail on his momentous voyage on board the Beagle, that resulted in his research into the Origin of species.

Plaque commemorating the departure of the Beagle in 1831, carrying Charles Darwin on a voyage of research resulting in his seminal work on the Origin of species, Plymouth

The bay from which the Beagle set sail in 1831, Plymouth
A slight sea mist kept the sun's heat at bay and around midday the Santander ferry loomed out of the mist as it skirted behind Drake's Island, a tiny, wooded islet just off shore, fomerly used as one of Plymouth naval defences and recently destined to become a chic spa and leisure complex.

Drake's Island in Plymouth Sound

Pont Aven, the Santander ferry arriving at Plymouth

Naval cottages at Devil's Point where my mother lived as a child when my grandfather was stationed there, Plymouth
By the time we had made our way round to the ferry port the Pont Aven was already docked and discharging its cargo of vehicles ready to start loading us for the return trip to Santander before the arrival of the ferry from Roscoff as there is not room for the two ships to be in port simultaneously.The precision with which the team work to ensure a smooth, synchronised and trouble-free turn-around is awesome!

On board we went in search of our cabin. By the time we found it and returned on deck we were already on our way out to sea. The whole operation, including changing the towels and bedding and restocking the restaurants, changing staff and presumably refuelling had taken less than two hours!

The crossing took twenty hours and the ship was fairly crowded. We enjoyed a very pleasant on-board supper with wine and slept long and comfortably in our cabin. This morning we returned upstairs for breakfast and coffee as we sailed across the Bay of Biscay, still totally smooth. As we ate, sitting at the very front of the ship we watched as pod after pod of dolphins played with the ship. They deliberately swam into our path disappearing under the ship as it cut through the waves. It was the most amazing free wild-life show! We assume the movement of the ship through the water perhaps affected smaller fish somehow, which attracted the attention of the dolphins. Nice to imagine though that the dolphins simply enjoyed showing off for us all!

Ian keeps amused during the crossing!
Once we reached Santander and docked we drove off up towards the Faro de Cabo Mayor, some five kilometres from the city centre, to the campsite due to open today. I think we were probably the first visitors of the season. We'd forgotten how spartan Spanish campsites can be. It's clean but cold and bare with no hot water and cold marble floors with concrete walls and no doors. The weather is chilly, in contrast to the hot sunshine we experienced yesterday in Plymouth that has left us pink and lobstery.

Faro de Cabo Mayor, Santander
We have discovered that we remember a lot more Spanish than we thought. Words and phrases keep slotting into place all the time. We cannot stop reading everything we see and discover that generally we can understand it! It makes us feel really good and eager for more.

We set off in seach of a bus stop to take us back into town and have spent the afternoon exploring the centre, wandering along the seafront and admiring the lovely coastline and sandy beaches. We have also climbed up to the lighthouse and walked out to the tip of the Cabo where the cliffs rise from the white surging waves that have carved out deep caves. The sea is azure, the surf white and the rocks a dark, brownish grey. We have also visited the cathedral, a pleasant, well proportioned but rather austere building consisting of a 13th century cathedral with a later one above it. It also has a 15th century cloister.

Cabo Mayor, Santander

Cathedral, Santander
On the seafront we discovered the highly impressive headquarters of the Santander Bank. A beautiful and well proportioned building facing the sea across lovely public gardens. Behind this building we chanced on a rather impressive square of attractive residential flats and offices. A large marquee had been set up in the centre and inside were displayed all the religious floats that will be paraded through the city on Good Friday as has been the custom for many years. Some floats are new creations, others date back to the 1940s and some may be older still. They depict, as only the Spanish can, the misery and sorrow of Christ and the Virgin in the days leading up to the Crucifixion. The statues are life-size, elaborately dressed, or stripped and beaten. They show scenes of flagellation, crucifixion, death and resurrection. About twenty floats wait to be paraded through the city but in the meantime people were able to wander into the marquee to admire them. Personally I found it all rather heavy and oppressive but to the Spanish this is what Easter is all about. Holy week, or Semana Santa, Santander style!

Head Offices of the Santander Bank, Santander

Semana Santa poster, Santander

Semana Santa, floats for the parade, Santander

Semana Santa, floats for the parade, Santander
Back at the campsite this evening we discovered we've left our British multi-socket back in Exeter. No hope of buying one here so we cannot charge phones or computers when we need the socket for hot water or cooking. It's all rather annoying! Too weary to cook we used the campsite cafe for supper. It wasn't good, even by Spanish standards. However, we are impressed at how clean and well cared for the city is. Nobody dreams of dropping litter, everywhere is well cared for and this part of Spain at least, is streets ahead of Britain now in the pride it takes in cleanliness and maintenance. Compared with Spain we are a nation of private affluence and public squalor whereas our first impressions here are that depite unemployment problems everywhere is clean and smart, there is no sign of road congestion with traffic running freely and people seem well dressed. This is though, a first impression and this is northern, green Spain, very different from inland and Mediterranean Spain.

Tuesday, 11th April 2017, Santander
A warm, bright day but with a lovely maritime freshness. Leaving Modestine contentedly enjoying the company of a British campervan and a home made Yurt we walked to the bus stop alighting at the Planetarium attached to the University of Cantabria. How much we would have understood on the transit of Venus or the magnetic fields created by black holes, offered in Spanish, is questionable but we were both disappointed to be told the Planetarium was fully booked all week. Later we saw why. It is Semana Santa and schoolchildren are being taken out for fun and frolics. Surely we'd have understood as much as a class of seven year olds?! We consoled ourselves with good cheap coffee and shared a croissant in the student union cafe before continuing beside the quayside where men were happy fishing and the Santander Parks Department were doing an amazing job pruning shrubs, laying cobbles, cutting grass and laying hydroponic drips to keep the plants well watered throughout the coming months of summer.

Further along the quay we reached the Oceonographic Research Institute, not open to the public, but next to it was the Aquarium and the Museum of the Sea. This proved to be fascinating and an excellent place for us to shelter from the sun. Time flies when communing with sharks and flat fish. The aquarium even has a glass tunnel so the fish can swim all around visitors, even overhead.

The museum covers all aspects of the sea from geology, fishing, shipbuilding, naval battles, conservation, fish canning and more. Eventually we left in search of food and walked along the sandy beach and a wooden boardwalk around the edge of the bay to a beachside cafe where waiters in white shirts and bow ties served tapas, omelettes and bocadillos to the customers. Having no idea of what to ask for or how to do so we went inside and brought out our pointy fingers that have proved so reliable right across Europe. They still seem to work and soon we were sitting at a table on the beach under a sunshade with our bocadillos of Spanish ham and a couple of beers.

Rested and comfortable we continued along the beach up onto the beautiful headland of the Magdelena, the playground of the residents of Santander. On the top is a chateau built by public subscription for the King of Spain at the end of the nineteenth century, but we'd missed the last tour before the afternoon siesta and had little inclination to wait for three hours until the next one. So we continued around the headland to a small, free zoo with seals and penguins. The penguins were sulking in the heat but the seals were more than happy to show off their tricks as they snorted and frolicked in their rocky enclosures. All this is provided and maintained by the local council for the enjoyment of the residents of Santander.

Seal showing off swimming upsidedown, Santander
So agreeable was our walk we decided we could cope with following the coast right around its various headlands and walking back up to the campsite - after all, we had all day. First though, a helado in the clifftop formal gardens along with all the other ice cream enthusiasts of the city. We bought huge cornets overflowing with chocolate ice cream and licked frantically to consume them before they dripped all over us. They were only the second biggest ones we've ever eaten. The largest were in Florence but whereas they cost us 6.50 euros each ten years ago, these cost us 2.30 euros each today. I intend waiting another ten years before attempting another ice cream that big!

Clifftops at Santander with the Isla de Mouro
Eventually we reached Cabo Mayor and turned off just, before the lighthouse, into the campsite. Yesterday we felt rather fed up with it but today the sun was shining and with nobody around we were able to use the only shower with warm water to freshen up ready for an early bus ride down into town in the morning to seek out the market and stock up on vegetables before we move on from here to explore the hinterland of Santander, the little coastal towns and the stunning mountains of the Picos de Europa.

Wednesday, 12th April 2017, Santander
Today has been our last day in Santander and by now we have become familiar with getting up and out to catch the bus from the bottom of the hill. Today we have explored the markets, discovered the bull ring, wandered along the shady side of the main shopping street browsing the cafes and smart food shops and, more importantly for Ian, visiting the library of Marcelino Menendes Pelayo (1856 - 1912). He was from Santander and as a child was brilliant as a mathematician. He turned out to be brilliant at everything else as well except, it would seem, common sense! His family was forever contending with his absent mindedness. On one ocassion a coal fell from the fireplace and set fire to the rug. Oblivious to the danger his only response was to wave away the smoke and hold his book closer to the lamp, annoyed that the smoke made it difficult to see the text he was trying to read! By the age of twenty two he was elected to the chair of Critical History of Spanish Literature becoming possibly the youngest professor in the world! He avidly read everything he found and became director of the national library in Madrid. On his death he left his enormous book collection to the city and today it is regarded as one of the city's most treasured posessions. Certainly we found it impressive and his home, across the courtyard from the library, is open to visitors, placing him in context. He appears as a benign scholar, close to his family and completely obsessed with his book collecting. He did read everything in his library however and during his lifetime was always willing to allow others the benefit of his collection.

House of the scholar Marcelino Menendes Pelayo (1856-1912), Santander

Personal library of Marcelino Menendes Peleyo (1856-1912), Santander
We stopped for lunch in a small, friendly cafe where a couple of small beers and bocadillos filled with potato omelette cost us slightly over 5 euros! Back in England that wouldn't even have paid for the beers!

The Spanish people, at least in Cantabria, are slim, youthful and fit. We have also found them friendly, helpful and very tolerent of our appalling Spanish. Generally too they are considerably shorter than the British. Not for them a diet of cola, chips and burgers! There are pleasant cafes around the city with shady seats outside under parasoles but people don't really seem to eat much at midday. Most have a coffee or beer with tapas, pinchos or bocadillos. It is a time to relax with friends for a couple of hours before returning to work until later in the evening. It seems the main meal is eaten far later than we are used to in Britain. Like so many young people these days young spaniards of both sexes are often rather heavily tatooed.

The main food market was wonderful with stall after stall selling fish, crabs, lobsters, shellfish, and barnacles. We watched in fascination as huge fish were dexterously scaled, gutted and filleted. Prawns and gambas waved their tentacles as they waited to be weighed, popped into bags with a paper bill and carried off home to be plunged into a boiling cauldron for tonight's supper!

Fish market, Santander

Fish market, Santander

Trotters and snouts! Meat market, Santander

Iberian ham, Meat market, Santander
After lunch we climbed up through the streets to the funicular for a free ride up onto the heights above the city. The funicular is self-operating and heavily used by the thousands of residents who live in the modern blocks of flats above the town. Clean and well built they may be but none of these residential areas surrounding the city centre seem to have anything in the way of gardens. Nor do they seem to be served with local shops or services.

Side street in Santander with typical enclosed balconies

Street in Santander

View over the city from the top of the funicular, Santander
Certainly we have found nowhere except in the centre where we can buy foodstuff. Having reached the heights we admired the view out across the bay and returned down on the funicular into the city in search for something for supper and some bread. What few small supermarket type shops we found were all closed fron 1pm until 4 or 5pm! In the end we found a French "Carrefour" which did not follow the Spanish trend. Here we stocked up on essentials and made our way to the bus stop to return to Modestine, cook supper and plan our onward journey tomorrow.