Cantabria lies between the mountains and sea which bear its name. It’s the easternmost part of Celtic Spain, and is bordered by the Basque country to the east. The region has just under 600,000 inhabitants. Some 180,000 of those live in Cantabria’s largest city, Santander, renowned as one of the most beautiful coastal cities in Spain having largely been spared the tourism and development of the Southern coasts.
As with all of “green Spain,” the climate is mild, though a bit wet, with temperatures ranging from about 23 C. in summer to 13 C. in winter. It’s a nature-lover’s paradise, with lush green countryside, rivers of salmon and trout, varied coastal landscapes and good hiking. In the mountains, which include the eastern part of the Picos de Europa national park, some peaks are snow-capped year round.
The Cantabrian region is home to a great number of important Paleolithic archeological sites. The most famous are the caves of Altamira, dating from about 16,000 to 9,000 BC. The paintings here were the first prehistoric cave paintings to be discovered in modern history, in 1880, and revolutionized human understanding of our ancient past. Though they are highly restricted to the public, an exact replica has been constructed for visitors to the museum near the town of Santillana del Mar.
Cantabria passed through Roman rule starting in the first century BC, and after the fall of the Roman empire locals kept the Visigoth rulers confined to the south of the province. The Moorish conquest of the peninsula reached the region in 714, and Cantabrians joined with Asturians in their resistance to the invasion after the capital, Amaya, fell to the Muslims.
For a period of time, the west was progressively absorbed into Asturias and the east into Castile. In the 13th century, the monarchs would grant privileges to the Brotherhood of the Four Cities, a maritime union of Santander, Laredo, Castro Urdiales and San Vicente de la Barquera, whose success in fishing, sea-exploring and trade to the New World would lift the prominence of the region. The area became officially known as Cantabria in the 18th century.
There was less separatism and generally less political violence in Cantabria in the 19th century due to the low level of industrialization and the consequent absence of an industrial working class. During the beginning of the 20th century, the region gained a reputation as a stylish seaside resort, as Santander became the summer home for the royals, Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenia.
From late July to late August, Santander invites the whole world for a visit during the Festival Internacional de Santander, now in its 60th year. The music festival features world-renowned groups performing classical music, opera, flamenco, ballet and theater in large and small venues alike. It’s considered a top-tier festival, attracting performers from Beijing to Buenos Aires.
Though the music festival in Santander is probably the biggest festival in the region, other towns have local festivals as well. Laredo, in late August, has a “flower battle.” Proud residents parade lavish flower-covered floats through the streets, followed by a good-natured pelting of one’s neighbors with petals. In Los Corrales de Buelna, the ancient Cantabrian wars (in the First century BC) are celebrated with costumed multitudes dressed as either Romans or Barbarians and reconstructions of ancient villages and markets. Santander also celebrates its Roman history at the end of August, with a celebration of its two patron saints, Emeterius and Celedonius, who were martyred by the Roman occupiers in the year 300.
As anywhere in Spain, food is a big part of the Cantabrian traditions. Seafood is plentiful and fresh along the coast, but stews, like cocido montañés, with meat, cabbage and white beans, are also a Cantabrian classic. Dairy is a big industry and cheeses are a great local product as well. The region is not known much for wine, but more for orujo, a fiery grape-derived liqueur, typical of the whole north. It’s often taken at the end of a big meal as a digestif.
Moving to Cantabria
Only about 4% to 5% of the Cantabrian population are immigrants, much lower than the Spanish average. So, if you want a deeply Spanish experience, with little to fall back on in terms of an expat crowd, this is a good place to dive right in.
Due to the lack of a large expat community, a good level of Spanish is recommended for anyone trying to settle into Cantabria. Cantabria isn’t used to a lot of foreign visitors, so there won’t be a lot of English speakers at rental agencies for example, to help you with your transition.
Living in Cantabria
The cost of living here is quite a bit less than in major cities like Madrid. Expect to pay about €200-€300 a month for a room, while €500-€700 a month can get you a two-bedroom apartment
Getting around by public transportation is easy enough within the city; there is a bus system and a ride costs less than one euro. Buses do connect towns in the region but a car is recommendable if you anticipate wanting to travel around a lot.
The only airport in the region is in Santander, and many people fly into Bilbao or Asturias instead. The northern road system is quite good, and the trip from other airports is fairly simple. RENFE also connects Santander to major cities by rail, along with other, regional FEVE trains.
In terms of lifestyle, Cantabria is great for nature-lovers. The Picos de Europa national park in the Cantabrian Mountains is a national gem. Cantabria features a varied landscape from rolling green pasture to caves, gorges and lakes, where you can enjoy hiking, fishing and wildlife spotting. The Saja National Hunting Reserve is Spain’s largest, with wild boar, woodcock, hare and several varieties of deer.
Golf is also a pastime here, though courses aren’t as numerous as along the sunny southern coasts. After all, Cantabria gave the world the late champion Seve Ballesteros, whose home course was Real Golf de Pedreña, just across the bay from Santander.
Working in Cantabria
Speaking Spanish is essential to a working life in Cantabria, unless you work in a language instruction or a position in which you will be functioning principally in English.
Work, in general, will be harder to find in this region of Spain. Of course, English teaching jobs are available, mainly based in Santander and Torrelavega, an urban center near Santander. Give yourself plenty of time for doing research, making contacts and sending CVs. Au pairing is also an option, but usually pays quite poorly, as it does through most of Spain. You will usually only be given pocket money (less than €100 a week) in addition to your room and board. Don’t expect to have much saved after a stint as an au pair.
Top Five Sights
1) The city of Santander
2) International Festival of Santander for world class music from late July to Late August
3) Comillas, a classic Cantabrian fishing village
4) The Altamira caves museum and nearby town of Santillana del Mar
5) Beautiful little beach towns such as Isla or Noja.