Santillana del Mar, a beautiful journey back in time

Sara Rodriguez Romo | Live the World

May 29, 2024

This is Santillana del Mar, a gem on the Cantabrian shore. Very close to Santander, it has been recognized as one of the most beautiful towns of Spain. Locals say that the name of their hometown has three lies: because it is nor saint, nor plain, nor by the sea. As a matter of fact, the name derives from the local saint, Saint Julianne, a Greek saint whose relics are said to be kept at the local Collegiate (and at Brussels, and at Naples!). Santillana del Mar is worldly famous for the Altamira Cave, UNESCO Patrimony Heritage, where some of the most beautiful Palaeolithic bisons were found. Very importantly in Medieval and Modern Ages, you can still find plenty of magnificent palaces and houses from this time, built in a mountain style. 

Plus, Santillana del Mar is surrounded by beautiful, evergreen Cantabrian nature, close to the sea, with lots of hiking routes that will allow you to understand why humans have stayed in this land for thousands of years. So… are you ready to discover Santillana del Mar, a beautiful journey back in time?

© iStock / Juan Carlos fotografia

A bit of history

Santillana del Mar has been inhabited for thousands of years. Close to the Cantabrian Sea and the Besaya river, with spacious caves to take shelter, this place was ideal. One of these caves turned out to be our particular Cave of Wonders. When the Altamira Cave was discovered, in 1879, the Palaeolithic art altogether came to light and was a huge surprise. Scientists simply did not know that people could draw so well so long ago! There were hundreds of designs on the cave’s walls, drawn in rich colours, superbly preserved. This is, no doubt, the first of humankind’s art, and it was very skillful! However, in order to keep these paintings for the posterity, the cave has been carefully closed and reproduced to the tiniest detail at the National Museum of Altamira.

© iStock / acongar

After these pre-historic men and women came the Cantabrians, a very strong tribe that Romans struggled to conquer (it took them 200 years). Near Santillana del Mar, they built a mighty fortress discovered only in 2014, extremely strategical close to the sea, on a high point: el Cincho

Romans never fully dominated the area, with the Cantabrians being very wild. As a matter of fact, the famous Spanish Reconquest started on the north of the Cantabrian Mountain Range, a land that the Moors could not submit. This is why the North became the recipient of holy relics that were in danger on the rest of the Peninsula. 

© iStock / IHervas

The most famous example is Saint James’ sepulchre and the creation of the Camino de Santiago. Once it was discovered, there were many more. At Santillana del Mar, they have Saint Julianne, a martyr that was beheaded on the 4th century at current Turkey. The local tradition assures she ended up here, but this claim was also from other places like Brussels or Naples. So really, who knows! Either way, it must have been someone important, and so it was believed, because a monastery was built in order to guard these relics. Due to its popularity, it had to be extended on the 12th century, and the villa that grew around it took the name of the saint. Thus Santillana del Mar was born. The Northern Way passed right through it, and you can see its influence on the church, with a typical Romanesque style. 

© iStock / Rudolf Ernst

In 1425, Santo Toribio’s abbot gifted the place with a piece of the Lignum Crucis. We already explained that Santo Toribio’s monastery is, after Rome and Jerusalem, one of the most sacred places for Christianity. There you can find the biggest chunk of the cross where Jesus died. So big that the abbot could spare a little bit to give to this monastery. This way, the pilgrims could worship both Saint Julianne and the Lignum Crucis. I cannot help to think that, if you gather all the alleged lignum crucis, you will build a huge cross! The one in the Collegiate was lodged inside a beautiful silver, Gothic cross.

By the way, when you exit the Collegiate, right in front of its façade, you can see the ancient washing and watering place, very old remains from Medieval Age. Of course, from this time you can visit much more magnificent monuments. As I said before, the monastery became so popular, that Santillana del Mar became a mighty town. The king himself had a delegate - merino - here, and nowadays you can still see his tower: the Merino tower, Gothic style. There is another one that you cannot miss, the Don Borja tower, built for military purposes. Santillana del Mar even became the capital of Asturias in the 13th century, and a very important marquisate over the centuries. 

If you are more into Renaissance style, you can have a look at the Velarde palace and the De la Parra House. But when the money from the Americas started to flow, a true artistic revolution began in Santillana del Mar, led by religious orders. From this time, you can visit the Regina Coeli convent and its Diocesan Museum, a beautiful building in Herrerian Renaissance style, as well as the San Ildefonso Baroque convent. 

© iStock / daboost

There was money for everybody, as you can see by the huge amount of palaces and big houses built in these years, most in Mountain style: Villa, Bustamante, Tagle, Casa de los Hombrones, but also the City Hall or Barreda-Bracho Palace, turned into a beautiful national inn that you should enjoy if you decide to stay in town, because it is truly a unique hotel.

© / unknown author

To finish your cultural tour, and if you are into macabre, you cannot miss the Torture Museum. If you are a bit sensitive, only a bit, do not walk in. Here you will see dozens of instruments that caused unspeakable pain to the victims. Two examples: the Iron Maiden, a sarcophagus filled with spikes strategically placed so they would cause a very slow death, or the iron throne, like the one of Game of Thrones, but completely full of spikes. A raw display of human cruelty… so let us pass to gentler issues.

© Wikimedia Commons / MiguelAlanCS

Hiking around Santillana del Mar

Nothing appeases more our souls than a beautiful landscape. With that, Santillana del Mar has plenty. Despite not being exactly by the sea, it does own a beach: the gorgeous Santa Justa beach. From here you can spot the ancient Santa Justa chapel, sculpted at the heart of a spectacular anticlinal fold (you have to look very closely at the picture to find it), plus the remains of a military fortress. 

© iStock / AlbertoLoyo

If you are into hiking, you have come to the right place: there are many routes around the area, all well signalised and a bit steep in general, but once you reach the top, the view is always worth it! As a matter of fact, Santillana del Mar is one of the main stops of the Northern Way, a way that includes picturesque villages like Castro Urdiales, places with a lot of soul and beauty. 

© iStock / Rudolf Ernst

How to get here and where to stay

You can get to Santillana del Mar by car, it is less than 30 kilometres away from Santander. However, if you do not feel like renting, you can always hop on this tour and get a great explanation of every step of your visit. Santillana del Mar is a great place, whether you travel light or travel and work, because it is near many of the touristic attractions of the area, including Comillas and San Vicente de la Barquera. Being at Santillana del Mar, I would advise you to stay at one of its typical “casonas” or big houses. This one has a great location, only 50m away from the Collegiate!

© iStock / Jose Miguel Sanchez

And this is all, I hope I have filled every item on your checklist and have convinced you to visit the gorgeous Santillana del Mar, a beautiful journey back in time!

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