Santillana del Mar is reputed to be one of the prettiest medieval towns in northern Spain and as such is the most visited place in Spain’s Cantabria region. The name literally translates to ’holy flat by the sea’ in English. Santillana del Mar is often known as ‘The Town of Three Lies’ since it is neither holy (Santa), nor flat (Llana), nor is it by the sea (Mar). The town is actually about 20km inland.
With all the hype of the prettiest most visited village I did wonder if I was going to be disappointed, well I wasn’t. The entire town is a registered national monument whose impressive medieval architecture is beautifully preserved with stunning flower-adorned balconies and is some of the most important still standing in Spain.
First things first – where do you park your motorhome?
Santillana del Mar is a small village and the centre is car free (except for residents) so all the car parks are dotted around the outskirts. There is a large central car park (43.389137 -4.106379) near the tourist office and a smaller one on the opposite side of the road which you could park a 6/7meter motorhome in. Be aware though there is a flat parking charge of €10 for a motorhome regardless of if you stop 1 hour or 24 hours.
There is a smaller, quieter car park (43.38656 -4.107644) where you can pay €6 (although the price may vary as there was a lot of crossing out on the sign) which is for 24-hour parking, so it is possible to stop overnight.
The option we took though is to park a little bit further out of town in a dedicated free, yes I did say free, Motorhome area (43.386287 -4.101033). It is quite amazing that the most visited village in the area has a free stopover area which is only a 15-minute walk into the centre of the village. When we stayed in September there were about 20 Motorhomes /campervans overnighting with more parked there during the day to visit for a few hours. If you have a dog there is a quiet little lane just off the carpark for a quick morning walk.
Highlights of the village
Santillana del Mar isn’t a big place, it only has a population of about 4000 people and you could easily walk around the village in an hour. Make sure you wear sensible footwear, the cobbles are definitely not made for stilettos. Instead of rushing round I would suggest taking your time and dipping in and out the little shops, especially those selling lovely cheese, cured meats and liqueurs before settling down for a bit of people watching at one of the bars.
It is worth while making your first stop at the tourist information centre just by the main carpark and picking up a map. On the back of the map there is information about the key buildings with an English translation.
The village is full of churches, medieval towers and palaces. The highlight is probably La Colegiata de Santa Juliana, an impressive church with accompanying cloisters that gave the village its name. The structure was built to house the remains of the town’s patron saint, Santa Juliana who was martyred for her faith. The original church dates from the 9th Century, but the major structure you see today dates from the 12th Century. It was a place where peasants would come together to pray. These rural roots are still clearly visible – there are metal grids in the ground where the worshippers can clean their shoe soles from the mud and the dirt of fieldwork. It costs €3 to visit the cloisters.
Another building of note is the Palacio De Peredo Barreda. This palace is the most elegant in town and was built in 1700 by Francisco Miguel de Peredo. It is surrounded by a great Park and in 2000 was renovated to be an exhibition centre.
There are numerous restaurants, most with courtyards often hidden behind large medieval wooden doors each offering their menu of the day for around €15 to €20. This is usually a three course meal with bread and wine or water. I know wine or water, as if that is a choice! We had the menú de la noche at La Huerta del Indiano which was €17 and even had a vegetarian option. We ate outside in a lovely sheltered courtyard with candles and outdoor chandeliers. We actually didn’t have a choice about where we ate as we had Finn our dog with us and we were only allowed in the open courtyard, not even under the covered section of the courtyard. Luckily for us it was a nice warm evening.
As tourism is now the main income for the area there is of course the plethora of souvenir shops selling everything from jewellery, clothing and the food specialities of the area.
Cantabria is known for Quesada Pasiega which is similar to a cheesecake but made with ricotta cheese which we did sample. As well as some local sausage and cheese.
When is the best time to visit?
We arrived on a Sunday morning in September and it was fairly busy during the day and evening, although I am sure it was nothing compared to peak season. We did also have a wander in on Monday morning as we wanted to buy a couple of things. It was much quieter as you would expect and most shops were closed so a great time for a stroll around the streets. Everything started coming to life about 10:30/11am.
Other places to visit in the area
- Museo de Altamira The Altamira Caves are situated only 2km from Santillana del Mar. A hunter discovered the caves in 1879 and they are now a UNESCO cultural heritage site.
The caves are no longer open to the public but the museum is worth a visit.
- Santillana del Mar Zoo has over 2000 animals and 300 species of trees and flowers set in 60,000sqm. There’s also a Stone Age park taking visitors back to the time when the local Altamira cave paintings were made.
- In town, there is also a Museo de la Tortura (the Museum of the Inquisition), containing their instruments of torture, for those with a strong stomach.