I’ve never quite seen a medieval village like this. Last weekend I saw a movie, ‘The Huntsman – Winter’s War’, and there was a scene where the main character, flanked by two dwarves, entered a medieval pub. After being served three drafts in wooden mugs from a standing barrel of some malt beverage, they proceeded to start a bar fight. The brawl was eventually stopped by a woman with a crossbow. I could imagine all those things happening in Santillana Del Mar (except maybe the crossbow), a village in the north of Spain that is known as the ‘town of three lies’, since contrary to what the name indicates, is not saintly, not flat, and not near the sea.
I couldn’t find much history about this village…best I can tell it just went along unchanged for centuries, until tourists realized it had a really old-time medieval look, and then came the injection of ‘tackiness’. I’ve seen worse when it comes to the prevalence of tourist-trap shops (e.g. Pisa), and maybe because I was there off-season it didn’t really register with me as being overdone. The fact that we just left San Sebastain, and saw how they became flaccid during their non-tourist months, it was refreshing to see this village still maintain its appeal…and it became the clear highlight of our Spanish road trip.
We arrived in the early evening, which allowed us to take in some great nighttime scenery. The main square kept flashing different colored lights – rose, blue, green, and yellow – which led to some nice picture opportunities.
Our hotel was outstanding, with the medieval theme ubiquitous in the lobby, rooms and lounge area.
The highlight of the village was definitely the food. We found two amazing restaurants. We ate at a place called El Castillo twice, as it was one of only five restaurants open in town. The cheese and vegetable plates were delectable, and I wish I could take credit for the wine selection, but it was the house white and it matched the cheese perfectly. I found myself taking a bite, holding it in my mouth, and washing it down with a splash of Rueda…exquisite. I don’t know what they cooked their mushrooms in, but they tasted almost like beef…much appreciated from a former steak lover turned vegetarian. We had our evening meal at Gran Duque, which was a lovely neighborhood restaurant, and they treated us like family. After dinner we found the only nightlife…a bar called ‘Lullaby’ that was packed full of locals…this is still one more pub than we found in Olite! The most surprising food item I found here was a hot dog stand…nothing too medieval about that! We ended up later at a local cafe, and tried the cider that the region is known for…not so good.
Our walk-about the next morning revealed more medieval sights, and we were welcomed by a small crowd of tourists. I love walking through the arch entrances of a medieval town…as if you’re stepping through a portal into the past.
This really is a tiny village, as you can probably walk the entire main area in around an hour. We started at Plaza Mayor, which was where we took some night photos previously. The square was different in the daylight, but equivalently beautiful.
Next we went to the other primary attraction, the Collegiate Church. It was closed for inside tours, but the outside was grand.
As you take a stroll down Calle de Juan Infante and Calle de Santo Domingo, you wade through the tourists on a magnificent, cobble-stoned path past a variety of shops and buildings beaming with medieval architecture.
Judging by the crowds even in February, it seems as if the secret is out on Santillana Del Mar. Yes, this can be a touristy place, but tourism is how the town makes its money so I can look past it. Even with its popularity, the village still seems authentically medieval. Bottom line, this is a must-see spot for anyone traveling through the north of Spain. Though many do this as a day trip from Bilbao (home to the Guggenheim), I would recommend spending a night so you can experience the romance of walking the medieval streets in the late evening.