Thursday 13th April 2017, St. Vicente de la Barquera, Cantabria
Last night was really chilly and this morning Modestine was soaking wet and the grass saturated. We left Santander behind us and headed along the north coast through small villages and winding lanes. It took a while but avoided the necessity of driving through the centre of the city.

Soon we were passing near Santillana where we stayed some thirty years ago and revisited on our travels about ten years back. Nowadays parking is strictly controlled but perfectly reasonable priced. Leaving Modestine outside the tiny town with its big stone houses and narrow cobbled streets we made our way into the centre, crowded with tourists. It is indeed a picture postcard pretty place. Most eating places were offering similar fare for breakfast or lunch and the main souvenir appeared to be cheese made in the village. We re-explored the area around the picturesque Romanesque church with its lovely carvings and rediscovered the Parador Gil Blas where we dined on our last evening staying in the town, when we were both working and willing to spend the high prices charged for what was certainly a delicious meal. Nowadays we are too skinflint and jaded to appreciate such touches of luxury in our daily lives.

Pretty property at Santillana del Mar

Village centre, Santillana del Mar

Santillana del Mar

Santillana del Mar

Santillana del Mar

Near to Santillana are the Altamira caves which we actually visited back in the days when such wonderful experiences could be enjoyed. Since then of course technology has enabled the recreation of such wonders through the medium of plastic, digitisation and lots of bells and whistles. To be fair, such reproductions are very realistic indeed. So much so that it is possible to forget that what you are offered is not the real thing at all. While this preserves the original for posterity, the copy cannot recreate the amazing sensation of linking the present directly to the past when the Magdalenian hunters of 30,000 years ago painted hunting pictures on the cave walls and blew ochre coloured paint over their hands, silhouetting them on the rocks for ever. A modern copy, no matter how good, cannot create that same sense of awe felt looking at the wall painting and touching out across so many thousand years to link directly to our ancestors! So we chose not to visit the caves today. Instead we went in search of the hotel we stayed in all those years ago, the Hotel Altamira. It is as charming as ever. A huge stone Spanish house of the 17th century with a stone cobbled entrance hall and a large table with flowers in the centre. A heavy wooden staircase led up to the dining room, lounge area and then on to the bedrooms with their heavy, carved wood doors. There were statues, suits of armour and reproductions of paintings of knights, conquistadors, dukes and other local worthies.

Staircase inside the Hotel Altamira, Santillana del Mar

We explained to the lovely manager that we once stayed at the hotel and were peeping in to see whether it was still the same. She was charming and, although the hotel was not yet open, told us we were welcome to find somewhere we liked and she would serve us with coffee. Ian is convinced she was so nice because we were trying to explain this to her in our execrable Spanish. He is probably right. Her English turned out to be a lot better than our Spanish. When we left she told us she wanted to see us back again before another thirty years elapsed.

So far the day had been delightful. Now though it took a bit of a nosedive. People and families are already flooding to the coast for the Easter break and the route into San Vicente was blocked with traffic queuing to cross the long stone bridge into the town. We’d missed the sign for the campsite in Comillas but in view of the traffic queue we decided to turn around and return to Comillas rather than crawl around the streets of San Vicente, unable to park and getting increasingly stressed.

This time we found the campsite we were seeking but it wasn’t really anywhere except for a pleasant beach. So we parked on the roadside just outside of Comillas and walked in along the beach and up into the old town. After exploring the pretty streets and watching the people all out enjoying themselves on the town square, we wandered off in search of some of the wonderful architectural masterpieces in the town. First and foremost is the Pontifical University building where young Spanish men with a calling for the priesthood spend time in training and contemplation.

The building everyone comes to see though is El Capricho, designed by Antonio Gaudi, the Catalan architect. This was one of his early commissions which he did at the age of just thirty. The house is delightful. Built in brick and decorated with countless sunflower tiles, it is quirky, colourful, attractive and innovative. Gaudi also designed the furniture inside, created a sheltered conservatory within the U shape of the house, and constructed a tiled tower, seemingly for no reason other than ornamentation. It’s not unlike some of the works we saw in Austria where Hundertwasser produced even more eccentric architectural designs. Gaudi’s quirk has grace, symmetry, colour and charm. Hundertwasser’s designs are exciting but quite impractical. In Barcelona I was not greatly impressed by Gaudi but today I came to see that he really does produce amazing, wonderful work .

El Caprichio designed by Antonio Gaudi, Comillas

El Caprichio designed by Antonio Gaudi, Comillas

Orangery at El Caprichio designed by Antonio Gaudi, Comillas

Statue of the architect Antonio Gaudi, Comillas

Fireplace in main bedroom, El Caprichio designed by Antonio Gaudi, Comillas

Attic rafters, El Caprichio designed by Antonio Gaudi, Comillas

Roofscape, El Caprichio designed by Antonio Gaudi, Comillas

Tower and sunflower tiles, El Caprichio, also designed by Antonio Gaudi, Comillas

Jill tests the furniture for comfort, El Caprichio designed by Antonio Gaudi, Comillas

Stained glass window depicting birds and plants, El Caprichio designed by Antonio Gaudi, Comillas

Balcony to one of the bedrooms, El Caprichio designed by Antonio Gaudi, Comillas

Leaving Comillas, we walked back beside the sea, out of the town to where we had left Modestine. She then brought us to our present campsite where we have comfort and the luxury of hot water and immaculate showers. Tomorrow we will attempt to beat the crowds arriving in San Vicente by arriving early and finding a parking space before I get caught up with Easter parking.

Saturday 15th April 2017, Potes, Cantabria
This is our second night here. Last night though I was too weary to start blogging by the time we’d sorted supper and settled for the evening. We’ve had a couple of busy, much cooler days, rediscovering the places that delighted us so much on our previous visits to this area. Of course it is Semana Santa here and people are out as families from Santander and all the roads and little mountain towns are blocked solid with cheerful locals who take it all in their stride. The Spanish people really are very pleasant, friendly and patient. They do live a very different lifestyle from us though. Nobody is ever up when we wake of a morning and only stir around 10am! Shops often seem closed until 10 or 11 of a morning, close again at 1pm and re-open around 4.30 until 8pm. There is noise around the campsites until midnight when everything suddenly quietens down until the following morning. We have already discovered we can work around this. We are up, showered and leaving the site of a morning before anyone much is astir. Thus we arrived yesterday in San Vicente to find it silent with plenty of parking opportunities. Leaving Modestine beside the ria we wandered the deserted streets of this charming little town. Just a few cafes were open despite it being 9.30am. We found the hotel we used ten years ago and the cafe where we used to have breakfast. It was the busiest place in town and just as pleasant as in the past. Here we had excellent coffee and toasted buns with jam and butter. The atmosphere was good and the price less than we would pay for the coffee alone in England. We explored the castle and admired the views over the estuary and out to sea. By this time the streets were filling up and families out enjoying themselves. All the cafes were now open, displaying menus for seafood, sardines, lobster and octopus rings.

St. Vicente de la Barquera

St. Vicente de la Barquera

Model in the castle showing the town as it was back in mediaeval times, St. Vicente de la Barquera

View of the town from the battlements, St. Vicente de la Barquera

Leaving St. Vicente we climbed up out of the town and made our way up to the Picos with its bare mountains where birds of prey soared on the thermal currents as they have always done. Gradually we penetrated deeper into the mountains that gradually closed in around us as we gained height. Soon we were winding through the Desfiladero de la Hermida, deep in the gorge where the sun could not reach with sheer walls of rock on both sides. At La Hermida the tourists were squeezed wherever they could, filling the local bars and enjoying chocolate and churros. Apparently so deep is the ravine here that the little one-street vllage does not see sunshine from October until the following April. Snow was still lingering on north facing mountain slopes.

Desfiladero de la Hermida

At Lebeña we stopped to pay a return visit to the beautiful tiny Mozarabic church in its stunning setting sheltered by the towering bare mountains that surround it. Here we walked off across the fields for the sheer pleasure of gazing up at the dry, arid hillsides around us while the sheltered valley was bursting into spring with vines beginning to shoot and an array of spring flowers in the fields.

Mozarabic church at Lebeña, Picos de Europa

Mozarabic church at Lebeña, Picos de Europa

Mozarabic church at Lebeña, Picos de Europa

Lebeña, Picos de Europa

We continued to Potes, a place of fond memories. Here too the streets were packed with local visitors enjoying Easter. The area has changed so much since we first came here but it is still wonderfully pretty, though one no longer encounters horse-drawn carts piled high with sweet smelling grass. Impossible to park in Potes but it was now well after 5pm so we continued to our intended campsite for the night just beyond the town on the road up to Santo Toribio de Liébana.

This morning we were back in Potes bright and early and easily found a parking space before setting off to explore the deserted streets of the town. There seem to be countless ironmongers! I saw at least five in this tiny town set at the confluence of two mountain rivers. Having left England without a vital piece of electrical equipment we have found ourselves unable to recharge our computers and phones or use our electric kettle. In Santander we managed to buy a European multi-socket but discovered our adapter wouldn’t work with it. Scraping together all the Spanish we could we approached the staff in the main ferreteria to explain we wanted a UK adaptor to use with a continental gang socket. We needed three pins for the socket into which two pin appliances could be plugged. They understood us and even checked it held a 13 amp fuse for us! So now we can run our equipment and recharge our computers at the same time as remoska is cooking our supper! It’s all a bit Heath Robinson as we have to convert from UK to continental fitments and back again but we are very proud of ourselves for working out that it should be possible and then buying all the bits in Spanish!

The rest of the morning was spent exploring the stunning little backstreets of Potes with its narrow cobbled streets and big stone houses with plants growing up the walls and huge, solid wood balconies. Below the bridges the two shallow rivers upon which the town is built carry the melt waters of the surrounding mountains through the gorges below the town.

Bridge, Potes

Torre de l’Infanta, Potes

Back streets, Potes

Old mill, Potes

We discovered the free Juan de la Cosa cartographic museum, displaying a special exhibition of Spanish maps from the 15th to the 18th centuries. There was even a Spanish map based on Ptolemy! It was excellent and Ian was in his element! Juan de la Cosa came from Cantabria, he was a cartographer and accompanied Columbus on his voyage to the Americas.

Juan de la Cosa cartographic museum, Potes

Returning to Modestine around 1pm we found her wedged in by hundreds of cars all queuing for someone to leave so they could park. Being longer than a car she took some time to manoeuvre from her tight corner. It was with relief that we left the snarled up streets of the town behind and headed up to the monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana.

Monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana

Here we arrived as the monastery shut for four hours. After lunch in Modestine we left her contemplating the jagged mountaintops and set off for a walk up into the woods above the monastery in search of some of the ruined hermitages. We found a couple but the other two were so well hidden in the woods that we risked twisted ankles or a fall on the loose scree littering the woodland paths. Returning to Modestine we both fell asleep for an hour. On waking we discovered the monastery was opening for the evening and were fortunate enough to slip in with a special group admitted to see the largest piece of the True Cross. The wood has been dated at around 2,000 years old and forms the shaft of a gold reliquary. When Saint Toribio’s day, which is 16th April, falls on a Sunday, a pilgrimage to Liébana is as important as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Rome or Compostella. So we were very privileged to be in the right place at the right time! A few minutes after our visit the room was locked and nobody else was admitted to see the Cross.

Hermitage of Santa Catalina, Liébana

Hermitage of San Miguel, Liébana

View down from the Hermitage of San Miguel, Liébana

Relic of the True Cross, Monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana

Poster, Monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana