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The truth behind Santillana del Mar

by Silke Elzner

They say that Santillana del Mar tells three lies in its name. First of all, there is no Saint here. Then, the countryside is not flat – (Spanish: “llana”). Lastly, the village is not located by the sea. Yet, once you visit you can quickly forgive this place for being not quite upright with you.

Santillana del Mar – the name of this village rolls over my tongue like the sweet promise of rain after a long, dry Spanish summer. I don’t care about the connotations the Spanish may have with this name, for us it sounds like a worthy spontaneous stop along the route. It is lunchtime, and we need to feed the kids.

Little do we know that we would find in Santillana one of the prettiest villages in Spain. In fact, it is a hotspot for local tourists, but little known to international visitors. Just five minutes in and we are smitten with the picturesque streets – a random lucky find, an unexpected treat.

A Wall FountainSantillana del Mar: The Lying Village

Lunch can be a great source of anxiety in our family, with one picky eater ruining the experience for us all. But Santillana manages what no other stop on our road trip manages before: We are treated not like guests but like royals. At Restaurante Villa de Santillana we are given a rustic menu of mountain dishes that are so honest and true to their locale, they make up for all the lies in the village’s name.

It doesn’t happen often that I will dream about a dish many months later. Yet, the bean stew with different kinds of smoked and cured meats and fresh herbs, served table-side from a big dish, has me craving for more till this very day. The children fare equally well and love the carefully prepared dishes that are so much more than the usual kids’ menu offering.

Cantabrian Stew DishFinding truth in the cobblestone streets

On a much higher note and with the taste of authentic flavours still lingering on our tongues, we decide to venture deeper into the village.

Santillana del Mar is a village of palaces, churches, and mansions. This is not just a community with an agricultural background. There is a proud history hidden behind the big gates and past arched courtyard entrances. Yes, there is tourism here, but it is melting into the overall setting of crushed stone facades and cobblestone streets.

There are bars and restaurants with quiet courtyards and shady umbrellas. Little shops behind medieval stones selling exquisite Cantabrian souvenirs and regional specialities. We browse some of the shops in Santillana del Mar and see a range of local cheeses. Sweet cakes and dried deer meat. A feast for the eyes.

Rough walls of crushed stones in Santillana del MarThe historic centre of Santillana is completely traffic-free. It is a pleasure to just walk down the pretty streets without the fumes and the noise of cars. The lack of modern contraptions takes us back to simpler times, when the village was a peasant’s world, and neighbours would know each others’ entire family history.

Time gets a different quality here. We stop to admire the colourful flowers that set off nicely against the crude stone walls. We listen to the gentle trickle of water in the village fountains. Hear the laughter of children as they cool down, splashing each other with water from the old-fashioned livestock watering hole.

Mansion in the villageThe Openness of Sunbaked Squares

Santillana del Mar isn’t a big village. In fact, it takes just around ten minutes to walk from one end to the other.

What awaits us at the end is an open treeless square. It fronts the church that gave this village its name: the Church of the Colegiata Santillana. It’s an imposing structure with a beautiful romanesque portal and small round arched windows.

This is the beating heart of the community, the 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.

Typical view in SantillanaThe square in front is wide and open. Nothing blocks our views, not even patches of weed or grass. Nothing can hide here, everything has to play with open cards.

In the end, we cannot find any lies in Santillana, no dishonesty, no deception. In fact, it is one of the stations of the Way of St. James, that believers follow on their quest for truth. So what you see is what you get: A pretty village with a rustic atmosphere that invites you to explore times gone by.

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The front of the Collegiate Church of Santillana del MarRustic Wall in Santillana del MarTypical village streetQuiet village StreetsOld house in SantillanaWeathered statue in front of the churchSunbaked squareSide of the collegiate church