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Cantabria: Spain's rugged northern coast
Spain is a hugely popular tourist destination, but people tend to go along the same old, same old trail. Either they pop into Madrid for a couple of days to see the art before hitting the southern cities of Seville and Grenada, or they skip culture entirely and go straight to the Costa del Sol to soak up some rays. While both of these options have a lot going for them, they ignore the pleasures of Spain's usually overlooked northern provinces.
One of the most commonly missed is Cantabria, a small province located on the northern coast of Spain between the Basque country to the east and Asturias to the west. Cantabria is part of "Green Spain", where the Gulf Stream provides a mild climate with more rainfall than the rest of the country. Here you'll find prairie, forest, rivers, and mountains. It seems like a different country than the wide open spaces of central Spain, or the Spaghetti Western feel of southern Spain. For the traveler wanting to see more than the usual attractions, Cantabria offers a lot.
Cantabria has both coastline and mountains. The rugged limestone Cantabrian Mountains are honeycombed with caves. Many were home to the region's first inhabitants, who left their artwork on the walls. The most beautiful examples are in Altamira, which will soon reopen to visitors. A total of ten Cantabrian painted caves have been designated together as a World Heritage Site. Each one is unique. Altamira is like an art gallery full of fine paintings, while it would be easy to miss the paintings in the Cueva de las Monedas, where you're distracted by the giant columns and colorful curtains of rippled stone that draw attention away from the little drawings and engravings of animals in a small side chamber. At Cueva de Covalanas, the painters obviously had an eye for color. Horses and deer have been painted on a bright red on a natural white background, and still look fresh more than 15,000 years later.
If you're more into pretty rock formations than art in your caves, check out the 1.7 km (1.1 mile) long Soplao Cave, with its giant stalactites and stalagmites and other weird formations. It's just one of dozens of caves you can visit. Experienced cavers can get permission to enter plenty more.
Cantabria offers a lot for hikers and climbers. The rugged peaks can soar well above 2,500 meters and the highest have snow year round. Contrast that with deep, lush valleys cut by swift-flowing streams, thick forests, and gentle valleys dotted with villages, and you have terrain to suit all tastes. The coastline is popular with sailors and windsurfers. If you're willing to brave the chilly northern waters, there's even surfing and swimming.
Of course, being on the coastline means there's plenty of good seafood. Try rabas (fried squid), mejillones (mussels), and nécoras (a type of crab). Actually pretty much anything on the seafood menu will be fresh, tasty, and way cheaper than what you'd pay in Madrid. Landlubbers with a hearty appetite will like the cocido montañés, a stew with kidney beans, cabbage, chorizo, blood sausage, and bacon. As an aid to digestion, a big meal will generally be followed by a small glass of orujo, an eye-watering brew made from the skin and pulp of the grape.
Cantabria's principal city and regional capital is Santander. It's only a four-and-a-half hour train ride from Madrid on the national railway Renfe. Plenty of flights connect Santander to Spain's principal cities, and Ryanair connects Santander to London's Stansted and other major European airports. If you're considering a trip to Spain, you might want to try something different and head north instead of south. You won't meet the man from La Mancha, but you'll have a different experience.
Photo courtesy Nicolás Pérez via Wikimedia Commons.