10 October 2010

A Weekend Trip to the Bay of Biscay

For the past few days, I have been passing my time on the northern coast of Spain. A friend and I flew up here on Friday morning and are scheduled to depart back to Madrid on Monday morning. Santander is the name of the city that I am in. It is a city of about 180,000 inhabitants and a large student population. For Spaniards, this is an out of the way, medium sized city that has beautiful beaches and great seafood. Santander is known as a popular vacation spot for people from Madrid because of its relaxed atmosphere, beautiful scenery, and amazing culinary options. While the city is fun and the people are nice, I can definitely see why Santander is known as a weekend getaway and not a place to call home. The weather is constantly changing and usually for the worse. One minute it is raining, the next minute the wind is blowing with gale force intensity, and the next minute it is 70 degrees and sunny. The food and the scenery definitely are amazing, but that is about all that Santander has to offer. There are not a lot of things to do here, which is fine for a weekend excursion but not for everyday living.

My friend and I arrived at about 9am on Friday morning. The flight itself was only thirty five minutes long, but the overall travel time ended up being about two hours. From the airport, the clerks checked our boarding passes and then sent us down the ramp to what we thought was going to be a plane. But, instead, we were herded onto a bus that took us to an airplane randomly positioned on the tarmac some distance away from our gate. Outside of the plane were two pilots, four flight attendants, and several maintenance men. No one was really doing anything, no one was moving, and while this struck me as odd, I paid no real mind. Normally, the pilot and crew operate from the INSIDE of the plane, but I'm in Spain, maybe they do it differently here. The bus parked, and the driver exited, leaving the forty or so people inside to sweat it out in an airtight death box on wheels. After about 15 minutes of standing on this bus with no knowledge of what was going on, I watched as the bus driver got back on the bus, made some announcement in mumbled Spanish of which I understood not a single word, and then drove us to another plane somewhere else on the tarmac. Now at the correct aircraft, we boarded the plane hoping all the while that the pilot's knowledge of aviation was more advanced than the bus driver's sense of direction.

The flight was bumpy, and while it was only thirty five minutes long, I'm pretty sure that I almost died twelve times. My coveted window seat overlooked the right wing of the plane, which for the duration of the flight appeared to be bouncing up and down so violently that I am convinced it was actively trying to snap itself off of the fuselage so that we could go plummeting back to the Iberian Peninsula at terminal velocity. When we finally landed, the pilot steered the plane toward the earth like a drunken high schooler and then slammed the wheels to the ground like he was in the middle of a domestic dispute with the runway. Upon exiting the plane, my friend noticed a big sign that said "BUS," and since we needed to catch the bus, we were thoroughly convinced that this was the place at which we should stand to wait. Wrong. Instead, the bus zoomed past us at about 40 miles an hour and stopped about one hundred yards away at the actual bus stop. Turns out, we were standing at the entrance to the bus lane which is the spot at which the busses veer to the right in order to stop at the real bus stop just down the way. Eventually, we were able to catch the bus and make it into town, but not before making complete fools of ourselves in the process. I mean, the sign said "BUS" in all caps. Who wouldn't have thought to stand there? (In retrospect, we probably should have noticed that there was no one else waiting for the bus with us. But, we just thought we were somehow the only ones who were taking the bus into town. Stupid Americans.)

Once settled in our hostel, my friend and I were able to explore a bit, and I must say, the beaches here are incredibly beautiful. While they are not populated with scantily clad coeds or frisbee throwing jocks this time of year, the scenery is still amazing. The water is so pure, and the coast line, in some places, is completely unmolested by human engineering. The waves smash against the rock facings spewing plumes of white foam that decorate the air at almost synchronized intervals. The sand is thick and compact, the beaches narrow and long. Small food vendors, selling mostly ice cream and drinks, can be seen in various locations along the adjacent road. A few restaurants sit just off of the beachfront, providing fresh, delectable seafood and a view thats worth more than anything on your plate. The summer home of King Alfonso XIII, the king of Spain at the turn of the 20th century, sits on a peninsula to the south of the most popular stretch of beach. On the peninsula, surrounding the royal summer getaway is an incredibly picturesque park filled with dense woods and engulfed by a mesmerizing view of the ocean. The entrance of the peninsula is home to sea lions, seals, and penguins who are more than willing to oblige your want for photo opportunities.

Merluza Refrito con Gambas
In the center of town, there are a few government buildings that are impressive, but the city itself does not offer much more. There are some nice restaurants and a few good tapas bars, but that is the extent of notable amenities. I am used to Madrid, the city with more bars and restaurants (per capita) than any other city on the planet. In Madrid, you can walk down one street and pass thirty or more restaurants and bars in less than two minutes. Madrid boasts dozens of movie theatres, parks, museums and neighborhoods that make it a seemingly never ending landscape of activity awaiting your exploration. In Santander, the pickings are a bit more slim; however, following the advice of a local, we did end up at a delicious seafood restaurant on Saturday afternoon. Not only did the fish melt in my mouth, but the garnish of peppers sprinkled with chopped walnuts and drizzled with olive oil and sweet vinegar rendered me speechless. The atmosphere in the small, dingy establishment was that of a local spot, a hangout for those in town who know where to go when they want to eat well. Unlike many other restaurants in the area, this place was not overrun by tourists and foreigners, and my friend and I were the only people in the place who were not speaking Spanish. The food was incredible and most definitely authentic, and Saturday afternoon was a success because of lunch alone. (An important travel tip is to look for the places where locals are swarming because if the locals like it, its real.)

Today, our last day in Santander, it has been rainy, and we have been confined to our hostel except for lunch. Tonight, we hope to head out to a local establishment, grab some good food and make some friends. We fly out tomorrow, back to Madrid to enjoy the remaining two days of our long weekend. I cannot say that Santander will be my favorite place that I will visit in Spain, but it will definitely have its place in the archives. With good food, breathtaking views, and only a thirty five minute flight from Madrid, I am willing to call this weekend a success.

Click here to see the rest of the photos that I took during my trip to Santander.


  1. I really enjoyed reading that. I feel like I was there, and as if Anthony Bourdain was taking me on the journey. Dig it!

  2. I'm so glad you posted pictures of some of the tapas you've been eating! Is merluza refrito the fish you were referring to? Whatever it is, it looks yummy!


  3. The description of your flight made me laugh so hard! I had to read it aloud to Nicole, the roomie. :)
    You are a fantastic writer (were you an English major, too?!) I can't wait to keep up with your adventures, and feel free to check out my blog as well. I'm not able to post on a daily basis because my computer up 'n died when I arrived, but a laptop from the States is on its way.
    Keep 'um coming! Hasta luego!