Looking Back: Cantabria
Cantabria: a place I always have morriño for. A place that I romanticize when I’m away, and when I’m there I don’t appreciate it as much as I should. I never felt this way about my hometown of Winston-Salem, who knows why. But when I conjure up images of the Bay of Santander and the green hills on the other side, I nearly put my hands over my heart and sigh. When I picture the sweeping ocean views from the Iglesia de Santa María in Castro-Urdiales, I’m flooded with memories. I get a sense of calm thinking about the vivid greens and blues everywhere.
I first got to know this tucked-away corner of Spain in 2005 when I signed up on a whim to study abroad. I know, who signs up on a whim to spend a semester in a foreign country? Me. As I was studying a double major in psychology and Spanish, I was juggling two different departments and not deeply involved in either one. So I hadn’t even considered how useful a semester abroad could be for my language skills. But when I saw a sign announcing a semester in Spain, I jumped at the chance to spend my last semester there (or… here). Santander was the city we were sent to, a place in the far north I’d never heard of before. It was a harsh, cold, wet winter that welcomed us with gray skies and constant rain. I got the worst sore throat of my life. However, it was one of the most memorable few months I ever had. I swore one day I’d come back!
Fast forward to 2014. I’d just spent a year in Bilbao and decided to give Cantabria another try. I got placed in Castro-Urdiales, another town I’d never heard of in the far eastern corner of the region, just half an hour from Bilbao.
Castro-Urdiales (or Castro, to keep it simple) has been around for a long time. Cave art shows people were there in prehistoric times, and then the Romans showed up in the first century A.D. as they were expanding their empire. So they set up a Roman colony called Portus Amanum, and then the emperor Vespasian officially dubbed it Flaviobriga in 74 A.D. There are some well-preserved ruins you can see in the historic town center. Anyway, a bunch of years and wars later, the town officially became recognized as Castro-Urdiales in 1163 and construction started on the church of Santa María not long after that.
Castro was a fascinating place to spend that next year. Small enough to know people in the streets, but big enough to have space to take long walks. It’s actually the third largest city in Cantabria, but that’s not saying much, as Cantabria is full of small villages and the biggest city has around 200,000 people. There are around 35,000 people officially registered as living there, but there are probably double that amount in reality, and many more in the summer months. It’s an interesting mix of people, many long-time residents alongside relatively wealthy Basques who own second homes there and/or send their kids to private school over in the Basque country. Because of the high number of people who only come for the weekends to their second homes, to me Castro lacks that “neighborly” feeling you tend to get in smaller towns. On the bright side, as it’s a small town, there aren’t many native English speakers so I had no shortage of private class opportunities!
I lived in the historic part of town, right in the middle of everything, on a narrow alley off the main square. It was pretty noisy – if it wasn’t people, it was seagulls. But that added to the excitement. I was still new enough to Spain that I wanted to be right in the middle of the action in the oldest parts of wherever I was living, as it felt more “authentic.” It feels satisfying to live in a visually stimulating area like that, surrounded by old pedestrian streets and historic buildings.
My year in Castro wouldn’t have been the amazing experience it was without all the people I met. My coworkers in the English department at the IES Dr Jose Zapatero Dominguez were fantastic, and my students were pretty great as well. Some friends and I started a local language exchange in a bar where each week we sat down with a group of up to 25 people to chat in English. There had never been anything like it in Castro, so people were pleasantly surprised. Through that group I met people I’m still friends with today, a number of years and babies later! I developed a deeper fondness for Spanish friends during this time.
Things to do in Castro-Urdiales
In Castro, the most popular thing to do is hit the local bars on a Saturday or Sunday before lunch. You can grab a drink and a pintxo or some rabas at Alfredo and take it outside to sit on the steps if it’s a sunny day. Another favorite of mine was ordering patatas bravas with various sauces at La Cierbanata and eating at one of the tables outside overlooking the square. There’s no shortage of bars in town, and in the evenings you can hop from bar to bar trying different pintxos.
To burn the calories you’ll surely acquire during your visit, you can do a hike up to the Ermita del Sagrado Corazón which gives you spectacular views of the whole town. It’s absolutely worth the short trek up. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, you can hike all the way to Pico Cerredo. On that hike you can see some ruins of an ancient castle.
Of course, you can’t visit Castro without taking a walk around the historic monuments. In less than an hour you can see the 13th-century church, a castle, a Roman bridge (kids jump off it in the summer!), and a lighthouse at the end of a long seawall. The views from each of these places are incredible and the air is refreshing.
Fast forward to 2017 when I got the chance to live and work in Santander and I immediately said yes. I packed all my stuff in a tiny red Fiat and drove from Peñaranda de Bracamonte up to Santander. There I lived next to the bay in a lovely apartment with an economics teacher around my age named Virginia.
In Santander, I juggled working online as a community manager from home full-time with working at a nearby high school part-time. Working at IES Nuestra Señora de Los Remedios was another great experience, with fun coworkers and nice students who treated me extremely well. I also worked a couple of hours a week in an English academy. Looking back, I have no idea how I managed to work so much and still have time for fun! But I managed to hit the gym/swimming pool, join a running group, meet people, and go out from time to time. CouchSurfers was the best way I found to meet people with similar interests.
I spent a lot of weekend mornings walking from my apartment all the way to a lighthouse perched on a cliff, around an hour’s walk each way each way with views of the bay and beaches the whole way there. That spot – which is the opening photo of this post – became one of my all-time favorite places in the world when I studied abroad and again when I lived there.
Santander will always be like a second home for me, no matter where I am. Taking the bus down Calle Marqués de la Hermida into the bus station will always make me feel like I’m arriving back home again.
Things to do in Santander
Be outside. Walk along the coast to the Faro (lighthouse). Take a boat over to Somo on the other side of the bay. Eat ice cream from Regma. Visit the Magdalena park and palace (and mini-zoo). Admire the poshly dressed townspeople. Eat freshly caught fish in the Barrio Pesquero. Santander doesn’t have the same ancient history as Castro, and most people go there for the outdoor activities and beaches rather than the city itself. But the views alone are worth the visit!
Back to Castro
I did leave Santander after about a year living there, but not to worry, Cantabria whispered “come back” yet again and I ended up living in Castro again in mid 2018. I worked in the same high school with most of the same teachers, lived with language teacher Raquel, and balanced a bunch of English classes with studying web development. It was a wonderful year, with the added bonus of a big balcony with a calming view of trees and hills. In the bit of free time I had, I volunteered at a dog shelter, took music classes, and played drums in a batucada (Brazilian drum group).
During that year, I got the impression that professional opportunities were lacking in the region. I didn’t think I’d be able to find a job beyond teaching English part time in the evenings. So I started applying for jobs elsewhere, ultimately getting hired in Madrid and moving there during the hottest part of the year!
Would I have done anything differently? As much as I miss Cantabria, I think moving to Madrid was the right choice career-wise. Even though I’m teaching again, I wouldn’t have had the same opportunities. I miss my friends there and the long walks by the coast (which are now long walks by a river!). During the COVID-19 lockdown, with plenty of time to reflect, I realized I’ve been assigning too much importance and meaning to Cantabria. Now with some distance, I’m able to write about my time there in a more objective way. It has been a place of starting fresh in my life, and maybe in the future I’ll be back there again, but I’m learning to appreciate the beautiful memories I have of this place while not holding on so tightly to all the feelings associated with my time there.