Along the streets of Santillana del Mar (June 2019).

For the last couple of years, Santillana del Mar had been at the top of my list of places to visit in Spain (rather Europe, in general). It has been nicknamed “the prettiest village in Spain,” and a quick Google search will prove that to be correct. From its cobblestone streets to its small, but stately collegiate church in the background, Santillana del Mar offers a quaint, intimate charm that draws in thousands of tourists each year (including myself).

It is a common misconception that the village’s name is based on “The Town of Three Lies:” its name is not based on a saint (“Santo”), not flat terrain (“Illana”), and nowhere close to the sea (“Mar”). Rather, this is just a joke made by the locals, as its actual name comes from Santa Juliana (or “Santa Illana”), a fourth-century saint whose remains are reputed to be buried in the town’s collegiate church. For such a small place, it was rather fascinating to learn about its history and origins.

Like with Bilbao and Salamanca, this particular village is also part of the famous Camino de Santiago, a 780+ kilometer pilgrimage throughout Spain, with certain trails even bleeding into southwest France and Portugal. The way is marked by small plaques with a scallop image on it, meant to symbolize miracles that have happened to those who had done the pilgrimage in the past. I’d seen the plaques in previous cities mentioned, and I wasn’t surprised to see them while wandering Santillana in the afternoon.

There are no direct transports to get to Santillana del Mar from Bilbao, as it requires a bus transfer at Torrelavega. It is about a three-hour trip one way, but I didn’t mind the ride over, especially since I really wanted to see the village for myself.

With that, I caught the regional bus over to the Cantabria region, under which Santillana is situated, and I arrived in town around 13:00. I had about two to three hours to explore the village. One place that I wanted to see was the Cave of Altamira, famous for its prehistoric cave art. I knew that it would be a luck of the draw to get in even to see the replica (the actual cave is closed to the public, in order to preserve its 36,000-year work), but I decided to give it a try.

Entrance to the Cave of Altamira.

With that said, I headed first to the cave’s museum, located about two kilometers from the city center. It was a brisk, but quiet walk through the green countryside, and I soon arrived at the site. Unfortunately, the next tickets to go inside would be 90 minutes later and, as I had limited time in Santillana, I ended up forgoing the visit to the caves. It was a shame, but perhaps I will find the time to return some day– I have also heard that the Lascaux Cave in France is pretty spectacular, so perhaps I could make it over there instead!

I returned to the town’s center, where I spent the remainder of my time wandering the cobblestone streets. The entrance to Santillana was interestingly well-delineated, as there is an obvious change from the smooth road for cars to the cobblestones made for pedestrians only– plus, there was a barrier to prevent cars from entering, which made the Old Town center exclusively for visitors on-foot. I enjoyed that, actually, as it made for a more peaceful and intimate feel of the town.

Streets of Santillana.

Santillana del Mar is tiny. To be frank, you do not need more than two hours in town, and that is only if you really took your time walking around. There are literally two streets to walk along, which are peppered with souvenir shops, restaurants, and hotels. At the very end of the streets is the colegiata de Santillana del Mar, which looks fairly unassuming from the outside. I was curious in entering the site, but for some reason, I could not find the entrance! That, or it was closed that afternoon.

Colegiata de Santillana del Mar.

In any case, I made a few loops around town before stopping for an afternoon snack at one of the cafes near the collegiate church. I opted for a bizcocho con leche, which is essentially a drier version of the pound cake with a glass of milk. It might not sound very appealing to foodies out there, but it is a staple of Santillana del Mar, so I decided to give it a try.

Bizcocho con leche.

After another hour of wandering around and admiring the stone buildings of Santillana, I caught my bus around 17:00 to return to Bilbao, with another transfer at Torrelavega along the way.

Start of the two streets in Santillana.
“Amor” art work.
Handmade leather bags (a staple of town).

Overall, it was an all-day trip for a short visit, but ultimately, I was glad to visit the small town. Even if it really does not offer much to do, Santillana del Mar is a pleasant sight to see, and if one can make it for the Cave of Altamira, the experience would be even more worthwhile. Truly, it is “the prettiest village in Spain!”

I will wrap up my adventures in northern Spain in the upcoming post, so look out for it soon. Thanks for reading!


— Rebecca

2 thoughts on “Destination: Santillana del Mar, Spain

  1. Santillana del Mar looks really quaint, and reminds me of some of the ‘Plus Beaux Villages’ in France 🙂 Sounds like it’s worth a detour if you’re in the area!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Santillana del Mar is certainly the Spanish equivalent of “les plus beaux villages de France.” Even if there isn’t a lot to do in town, the architecture is really charming and rustic. Worthwhile in the end!

      Liked by 1 person

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