"SANTILLANA DEL MAR" Santillana by AsturArcadia

Santillana Travel Guide: 70 reviews and 184 photos

In the early years after King Pelayo’s victory over the Moors at Covadonga in 722, a religious community was encouraged to found an abbey in the fertile, sheltered hollow close to the coast lying a few kilometres to the west of the Besaya estuary. By the mid-ninth century this abbey had become a powerful landowner, and sometime during the following century it received the relics of Santa Juliana, who had been slaughtered by the troops of the emperor Diocleciano in Asia Minor in 308. Hence the name of the village. At some time during the twelfth century the abbey became an ecclesiastical college, and in 1209 Alfonso I granted it a charter which, in terms of trading rights and privileges, placed it on an equal standing with Santander. This rise to power and prosperity was followed by a long period of decay and decadence, with the abbots quite happy to act as absentee landlords and the local nobility becoming more and more interested in obtaining the estate as a ‘señorio’. This was in spite of the fact that the charter, like those granted to several coastal towns in the district, stipulated that Santillana should have no other ‘señor’ – ‘lord’ or ‘master’, that is – than the monarch. Eventually there was a struggle for power between the incumbent abbot and the Duque del Infantado of the Mendoza family, ending in 1445 when Jaime I (who had gained a reputation for treating very informally those charters granted and reconfirmed by previous monarchs), announced that Iñigo López de Mendoza should be instated as the first Marqués de Santillana. And so Santillana became a ‘señorio’, before being transformed into a municipality in 1779.

Santillana escaped many of the abrupt changes in economic fortune which troubled most of the coastal communities in Cantabria and Asturias during the Late Middle Ages. from the thirteenth century the town was the administrative capital of Asturias de Santillana, a large autonomous region which covered most of what is today western Cantabria and a bit of eastern Asturias as well. The resident population remained stable at around a thousand, and the settlement was the focal point for numerous business transactions. The appellation ‘del Mar’ (not recognised, by the way, by the VT place-name finder) dates from the creation of the municipal district, part of which touches the coast.

Thanks to the presence of the wealthy Mendoza family, Santillana became a popular place for the nobility to establish residences. In 1575 a ruling was made that new properties could only be built provided that permission had first been obtained from the incumbent ‘señor’. This early piece of town planning legislation ensured the development of a fine array of mansions lining the main streets. As the nobility involved themselves to an ever greater extent in colonial affairs, the wealth generated by these pioneer ‘indianos’ ensured that unlike in some other nearby towns, these properties did not fall into a state of decay in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; indeed, more were built. And even the loss of Spain’s last colonies and the closure of the collegiate in the 1890s had little effect on the fortunes of Santillana. By then the settlement was already gaining recognition within Spain and abroad as an architectural time warp. The Barreda family, which owned the Palacio de Benemejís near the crossroads at the southern end of the village held lavish house parties with international and influential guest lists.

Once the wheels of tourism were set in motion, little could be done to stop them. If there is one place in northern Spain that most folk have heard of, it is Santillana del Mar. The village features prominently in guide books, tourism publicity, and suchlike. It is also easily accessible – around 30 km west of Santander, and close to all the main transport arteries. My first visit was in October 1985. We were en route from San Vicente de la Barquera to Santander to catch the evening ferry to Plymouth, and had driven via Comillas and Cóbreces – the old coast road, at that time a much narrower, more twisting thoroughfare than the present one, rebuilding having been realised in stages from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. It was mid-morning, a grey, overcast Monday, and fortunately we were able to make our brief exploration before the shops hung out their goatskins and cow-bells and the first tour coaches arrived. And yes, it was quite impressive. But my advice would be to plan your visit for an out of season weekday, or perhaps a Sunday, and early in the morning, too. Otherwise the atmosphere of a large, mainly agricultural community will be drowned out by the sights and sounds of the twenty-first century!

There used to be a free car park (maybe there still is) on the east side of the Puente San Miguel road, which runs south from the busy crossroads at the southern end of the village. One day Sanrtillana may gain a by-pass, but with the Altamira show caves on the hillside immediately to the south of the built-up area, there is really very little space for one. A couple of years ago there was talk of getting FEVE to build a branch from the main line in Puente San Miguel. Now THAT would have made sense! Unfortunately there are no prospects for this in the railway company’s plans up to 2012.

Opposite the aforementioned car and coach park is the Campo de Revolgo, where, in medieval times, jousting and tournaments used to take place. Bordered by ancient oaks, it could almost be an English-style village green, with only the thwack of willow on leather missing. For cricket in Spain, see my notes on Gijón and Somio! Down the lane on the left is the Palacio de los Tagle, built for Sancho García Tagle in the fifteenth century. The ‘escudo’ (coat of arms) on the main façade depicts a knight slaying a dragon, and the accompanying motto reads ‘He who killed the serpent and married the maiden called himself Tagle’. So now we know who St. George was. Serpents (‘culebras’) there were in plenty in the hills of Cantabria, and I suppose there were once plenty of fair maidens, too. The ‘culebra’ gave its name to the ‘culebrón’, the television soap opera, usually made cheaply in some Latin American state, and referred to as such because, like the serpent, its story-lines tie themselves in knots. Nowadays the maidens watch the ‘culebrones’ and, with burgeoning Equal Rights in Spain, I suppose they would be tempted to slay the ‘culebras’ had the latter not died out during the Mini Ice Age of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.

Walking from the car park in the direction of the crossroads, we pass the Regina Coeli convent on the right. This was founded by Capitano Alonso de Velarde in 1593 for the Dominicans, and after the monastery was closed down during the Dissolution of 1835 it was occupied by a ‘closed’ order of Clarisas. In the 1960s part of it was acquired by a priest, Antonio Niceas, who converted it into a museum of popular ecclesiastical art, housing paintings, effigies, altarpieces and suchlike – relics salvaged from Cantabria’s hundreds of decaying rural churches, sanctuaries and hermitages. Adjacent, and screened by high walls, is the present-day Dominican convent of San Ildefonso, founded by Alonso Gómez del Corro, canon of the collegiate, in 1670.

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Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Architecture.
  • Cons:Tourists.
  • In a nutshell:Visit preferably before 09.00!
  • Last visit to Santillana: Dec 1999
  • Intro Updated Apr 12, 2009
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