Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Quiet Charms of Santander

'Reassuringly urban', was my husband's response to the city where I chose to celebrate my birthday.  I wanted to stay in a more authentic Spanish city than the usual magnets for foreign tourists and I guessed I'd have a better chance to put my language studies into practice.

I'd spent my 50th birthday in  Australia, and my 60th in China. I was working abroad both times, and money wasn't really a consideration, but ten years on it was.

When I came back I was  invited to write a 300 page review of my stay, in return  for a $20 discount on my next holiday booked with CheapO air.  There was no pressure to write a 'positive' review but  in fact there wasn't much to complain of.

Here it is, with added photos, as they weren't required for the review:

The Quiet Charms of Santander

Santander, on Spain’s ‘Costa Verde’, is not a place that flaunts its charms. Be warned, you’ll need to speak and understand some Spanish; you won't find bars offering an all-day 'full English’ . Sit in one of the many  bodegas, enjoy a tasty pincho with a glass of wine or ‘chocolate y churros’ and watch  the people pass  by. A surprising number  are elderly couples, hand in hand.

Collect a map from one of the rival tourist offices near the covered Mercado de L'Este,  one of the few places  where they do speak English .
While you discover the variety and interest of a modest Spanish city on foot, be sure to take a tip from the locals and carry an umbrella.

On sunny days, take one of the cheap and frequent buses to the beaches at Magdalena or El Sardinero  for a walk along the beaches.

There's a highly enjoyable collection of paintings and mixed-media installations at the free Museum of Modern Art,

and a well- preserved bullring at the Plaza de Toros. 

Ferries from Portsmouth dock at Portocchio, and you can stroll along the marina to the Maritime Museum and the area around the Palace Theatre.

Squares and statues give a sense of the city's  history.
On Sundays visit the extensive (and cheap) flea market,  in the tunnel near the bus station that's  packed with traffic for the rest of the week.

Next year (2015) Santander will host an international yacht race competition. If you're lucky enough to be there in October you can catch a performance of  'Los Miserables' (sic) 

 The Ayumiento, (town hall) Correos (main post office) and  Cathedral have an understated charm that seems to sum up the mood of the city. Despite all the expensive shops with 'liquidacion' signs in the window, the citizens have a quietly stoical air about them.
If you fail to spot the pavement plaques indicating directions to the ancient Camino of Santiago, you won't miss the splendid triumphal archway of the Santander bank head office facing the sea,  surmounted by a  Spanish flag (at the top of this post).
 The best things about Santander?
  • cheap, reliable buses
  • clean streets
  • a peaceful ambience
  • 3-course menus del dia at 9-10 euros includes bread and half a bottle of wine per person
  • Lots of pedestrian crossings with illuminated displays and a countdown to show when to walk or how long to wait.
  • the airport is only a fifteen minute ride away from the main bus station.
  • With only one plane an hour on the day we left, it must be one of the world's calmest.

And the downside? 
  • the weather
  •  Not a single cinema , although the tourist office man said one was 'under construction'. 
  • A dearth of public swimming pools. The only one that wasn't for private members demand you ring in advance to book and they charge 8 Euros for an adult swim.
  • The demographic weighted towards the elderly, so it can seem a bit staid.
  • No nightlife after about 10pm, when the tapas bars close.
  • Nothing that I'd call a park.   
For such a flat place, there were very few bikes, although I spotted a Boris-style parking dock along the marina. So it was a pleasant change not to be plagued  by wheels whizzing along pavements or alongside traffic. There was a path marked out for them along the maritime walkway.

We stayed at Estudios Aranzazu, in a side alley off one of the main streets, basic but clean,  and flew Ryanair from Stansted.  'Ugh!' was the normal reaction when I told people, but the flights, one hour and forty minutes were comfortable and  cost only £170 return for the two of us, including reserved seats on the aircraft. The coach fare from Victoria to Stansted was £18 each, return.  We took only cabin bags, and paid less than 3 euros each for a bus to the centre. A taxi to  Estudios Aranzazu cost 4 euros but we walked to the bus station coming back -about 15-20 minutes. The accommodation cost less than £300 for two people.

I spent  relaxing week reading and walking an  getting to know a different city, at a bargain price . It made me really appreciate London's cultural amenities -although the weather here's  even worse!

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