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Santander: a beautiful port in northern Spain
Santander is a port and owes its life to the sea. It has a northern bay and a southern bay divided by a thin peninsula. The southern bay is home to downtown, the port, and the popular ferry coming from Plymouth, England. The northern bay is more touristy along the shore, and more residential inland. Beaches stretch both to the north and south of town and if you don't want to share the sand with bikini-clad Spanish women (or speedo-wearing Spanish guys) you can always walk for a bit and find an isolated cove to claim as your own. Be careful of the riptides, though. Inexperienced swimmers should stick to the main beaches in the two bays.
The water is pretty chilly but there's steady surf that attracts surfers from all over Spain. It's also quite clean considering that it's so near a major port. If you're not up to braving the water (which would be no challenge to the Alaska Polar Bear Club) you can sit in one of the many seaside cafes and sip some wine while watching the boats go by.
When asked what to do around town, every local told us to walk to the lighthouse at Cabo Mayor. It's less than an hour's easy stroll to the north of the northern bay. The rocky coastline is picturesque with strange geological formations, little beaches nestled between towering rocks, and windswept promontories with wide views of the sea and shoreline. The lighthouse is home to an art gallery dedicated to, you guessed it, lighthouses in art, plus a massive and somewhat obsessive collection of lighthouses on lighters, ashtrays, matchboxes, book covers, etc. Someone spent way too much time rummaging through junk shops for lighthouse ephemera!
Of course, the town offers the usual Spanish sights such as a medieval cathedral, a nice art museum, an archaeological museum, and a variety of bars and cafes. You won't get the nightlife here that you would in Madrid or Barcelona, but you'll get it a lot cheaper. A night out with five pinchos (appetizers), two rum and cokes, and a glass of wine came out to €19.50 ($24). The pinchos were delicious and large enough that they served as our dinner.
Local hotels are used to hooking visitors up with tour groups that can take you around the sights of Cantabria. You might want to get in touch with one of the many hiking groups too. Spanish trails aren't always well marked, and with the unpredictable weather and high altitudes of some of the mountains, it's best to go with a group.